Women on Top

The Risks and Rewards of Being a Woman In Austin's High Tech World

Few women would mistake the high tech industry, circa 2000, for the business world of 20 years ago. For one thing, there are women everywhere: leading companies, serving as spokespeople, and working on the front lines of established businesses. For another, more women than ever are graduating with MBAs and high tech degrees; in 1997, women earned 39% of all graduate business and management degrees, a marked improvement from previous years. According to a survey released earlier this month, some 12.5% of Fortune 500 companies -- the 500 biggest companies in the nation -- have female executives. Yet a few pervasive myths -- that most women-owned tech companies are "soft" and service-oriented, that women lack the confidence to sell themselves to potential funders and clients, that they aren't "tough" enough to succeed in the cutthroat New Economy -- survive.

Carol Thompson, founder of the Austin business marketing firm The Thompson Group and an entrepreneur for more than 25 years, can recite every stereotype in the book. In the early Eighties, back when Thompson was one of fewer than a dozen female computer store owners in the city, she says many of her male customers wouldn't buy a computer from a woman: "They figured women wouldn't understand it, it was too technical, and they tend to think women are more right-brained than left-brained."

Things have changed since then, but not too much. Venture capitalists, only about 1.4% of whom are women, still invest most generously in male-owned companies; in 1999, less than 5% of venture capital invested in high tech businesses went to companies owned by women. (That figure held steady at just over 5% in the first half of 2000, according to the research firm Venture One.) Although the numbers are slowly climbing, only about 20% of undergraduate engineering majors are women. And among the general population, women still make 72 cents for every dollar earned by men, an obstacle that has remained more or less intractable for decades.

But those statistics don't tell the entire story. While women continued to lag far behind in venture capital dollars, the number of women-owned businesses surged ahead throughout the 1990s, to 9.1 million in 1999 -- up 103% from 13 years earlier. Women are starting businesses, in fact, at twice the rate of men. Sales by women-owned firms are growing at an even faster rate, surging by 132% to more than $3.6 trillion between 1992 and 1999. In Texas -- ranked second among the 50 states in its total number of women-owned businesses -- women own more than half a million companies, which employ more than a million people and generate about $130 million in sales each year, according to the Texas Women's Chamber of Commerce. And in high technology fields, like IT and telecommunications, the perception -- if not the reality -- is that the barriers to entry are low, the potential rewards high, and the good-ol'-boy networks that govern other fields of business virtually nonexistent.

So why are women still lagging behind in the high tech business world? One problem is that the egalitarian mythos that surrounds the high tech industry is largely just that -- a myth. According to Michele Pettes, executive director of the Texas Center for Women's Business Enterprise (www.txcwbe.org), women who start high tech businesses face the same tall obstacles in raising funds as women who go into other male-dominated arenas, such as construction. "There are a lot of old misconceptions out there about women and women's roles and our place in society," Pettes says. "I hear story after story about women who present their business plans and are told by men, 'Why don't you run that by your husband and tell us what he thinks?' Can you imagine?"

Another problem, Thompson points out, is that women often overexplain their proposals. "Women use twice as many words to say something as men. They have to be taught and coached to be succinct," Thompson says. Since most women aren't coached to make presentations to investors -- and because so many venture capitalists are men -- the pressure, and the intimidation factor, can be formidable. "If you're going to go in front of a bunch of venture capitalists and you look across the table and see a handful of white middle-aged men staring at you, you might feel a bit of pressure," Pettes says. "It's one thing when you're presenting to your peers, and another when you're talking with people who are totally different than you."

Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT (www.worldwit.org), a growing e-mail listserv for women in high tech industries around the country, says it's no wonder that women, even highly educated women, have trouble getting their own companies off the ground: "A lot of women haven't been groomed to be CEOs; they don't have the networks men have through their colleges and VC [venture capital] networks," Ryan says. "Reading through the lines in the business press, you get the impression that it's this guy and this guy and this guy who grew up 40 miles away from each other and went to the same schools. And you think, how about giving somebody else a chance?"

Share and Share Alike

One way that women are giving each other a chance to succeed is through mentoring groups and networking organizations, which give women an opportunity to talk and share their experiences without having to battle for attention with men. WorldWIT is one such organization, albeit virtual; with around 1,800 subscribers, including some 220 in Austin, the e-mail network is a resource for women to share job opportunities, find consultants, and discuss local business events. "People tell me that if they post a question on the list they get half a dozen great responses within half an hour," Ryan says. "And it's not just general, it's really personal ... There's a real feeling of community."

Look for a women's business owners' group in the "real" world and you're likely to stumble upon the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (www.fwe.org), a prominent seven-year-old Silicon Valley-based organization that provides education, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs whose companies are just getting on their feet. Diana Reid, a San Francisco resident who serves as the president of FWE's Bay Area chapter, says that although women still have a tough time winning the trust of venture capitalists and bankers, groups like FWE have given them new opportunities through programs like the Springboard venture capital forum, which gives women a chance to present their business plans to angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporate investors. Last year, 26 women -- handpicked by FWE -- pitched their plans to more than 300 investors; of those, 22 have been funded, raising over $210 million. "Usually in these situations, maybe five out of 25 get funded," says Reid, who came to Austin recently to gauge the support for an FWE chapter here. "Twenty-two of 26 is huge -- off the chart."

Besides the periodic Springboard events, FWE hosts twice-monthly luncheons for its members to meet informally with an angel investor or venture capitalist, and quarterly seminars -- called the "eSeries" -- where women listen to guest speakers, share their ideas and experiences, and offer each other advice. Although the FWE counts plenty of men among its supporters, it draws the line at letting them into its events. "It's not that we think women aren't on the same level" as men, Reid says, "it's just that a lot of women don't want to have to ask dumb questions in front of men. This gives them that extra level of support."

Although Austin doesn't have its own FWE chapter yet, there are plenty of other opportunities, formal and informal, for women entrepreneurs to coach each other and share their stories. At least two of those can thank Carol Thompson, directly and indirectly, for their existence: the Austin Young Women's Alliance (www.youngwomensalliance.org) and the Austin chapter of Women In Technology International, or WITI (www.witi.com).

The Young Women's Alliance, which Thompson started in her living room in 1993, is an informal group that meets once a month to talk about job opportunities and share experiences; in just seven years, the group has grown from around 20 to more than 250 members. And WITI, a mentoring group that links young businesswomen with more "senior" professionals, meets in Austin every other month.

Of the problems she's seen women encounter in starting their own businesses, Thompson says, few are more formidable than making the right first impression. "People are looking at you and deciding in the first 10 to 15 seconds whether to take you seriously, and you've got to be tough," Thompson says. "One problem is, if you're really attractive, how do you get taken seriously [by male venture capitalists]?" Since she started mentoring younger women seven years ago, Thompson says she's seen a dramatic shift in the women's attitudes toward male clients and investors, and in their ability to cope in high-pressure situations. "The [women] who are out there now are getting a lot less 'soft.' Ten years from now it might be totally different -- the women might be tough and the guys might be soft."

None of the women entrepreneurs profiled here could easily be accused of being "soft." All have struggled against formidable odds; some have found success, while others have shut their doors or are still battling for funding and recognition. Despite the differences in their visions and experiences, all six of these women had one thing in common: They refused to let being a woman "get in the way" of their goals, no matter how tall the hurdles in front of them. end story

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