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Addressing the mirrorocracy: Allyson Kapin on supporting women-led startups

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What’s keeping women out of technology? It’s an issue that dogs the industry. Between 1985 and 2015, the number of women earning computer science degrees plummeted from 37% to 16%. And just 26% of professional computing jobs are held by women.

To tackle this problem Allyson Kapin, a tech entrepreneur, is going straight for the money. She’s getting more women into tech by helping them get funded. Last year, her nonprofit Women Who Tech starting holding Women Startup Challenges, pitch competitions that showcase and help fund women-led startups in the U.S. and Europe. The goal: get women in leadership positions in startups and VC firms, providing a path and model for other women to do the same.

Kapin’s group recently held its fifth challenge in London in May. So far, it’s raised more than $1 million in cash and prizes to support women-led startups and attracted more than 1,700 women-led startup applicants. Some 40% of finalists have been women of color and the alumni have closed seven-figure rounds and been accepted into some of the most competitive accelerators.

The Women Startup Challenge is a very specific approach to the dearth of women in tech. How did you come up with the idea?
Nearly a decade ago, we started Women Who Tech, a nonprofit organization to bring together talented and renowned women breaking new ground in technology to transform the world and inspire change. We produced several Women Who Tech TeleSummits packed with some of the most thought-provoking discussions led by women crushing it in the startup world.

After our last TeleSummit, we asked ourselves why many of these extraordinary women with brilliant ideas weren’t getting funded. A whopping 90% of investor money worldwide goes to startups founded by men. And only 10% goes to women-led ventures. That number has barely budged in a decade.

To help address this enormous problem, we launched the Women Startup Challenge. We know that there are many women startups that have the right ideas, whose products can solve problems, and can change the world. But to scale and be successful, these startups need funding, advice, and guidance.

The gender gap in tech funding is actually widening, as you’ve pointed out. Why does tech lag other industries, such as finance and media, in closing the gap?
Brogrammer culture is real, so is the mirrorocracy. And these harmful cycles are widening the gender gap every day. A large percentage of the investor community is men and they tend to fund people who look like them and think like them. Just the other day a startup founder told me she’s had investors tell her that they would fund her venture if she “grew a beard” or hired a male founder. We need to keep breaking down the doors of the Boy’s Club until we level the playing field.

What happens at the startup challenges?
Women-led tech startups, ranging from fintech to fashion tech to education tech to VR and AI, apply. A panel of judges comprised of prominent investors and serial entrepreneurs review all of the applications and score them. The top ten scoring startups are invited to pitch their innovative ventures in-person at the Women Startup Challenge.

Each finalist has 4 minutes to pitch and 4 minutes of Q&A with the in-person judging panel. The winner receives $50,000, as a cash grant sponsored by the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund among other startup-friendly prizes.

Can you spotlight some of the most interesting startups?
We have had phenomenal startups apply to the Startup Challenge, and the process of narrowing it down to just a few of the most interesting startups is a challenge. Most of the startups who apply are for-profit, but interestingly enough, we’ve had two nonprofits win the Challenge: SIRUM and Simprints. SIRUM is redistributing unused medicine for people who couldn’t afford it otherwise, and Simprints developed a biometric fingerprint scanner that will provide an identity for the 1.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have any form of identification.

What’s your grand goal in holding these events? You’re one event in a sea of billions of dollars of funding, after all.
Honestly, our goal is simple: we are helping to fund, showcase, connect, and mentor women-led startups. This isn’t just about money. Yes, we want women-led startups to get funded, no question, but we also believe that the mentoring piece is critical. We want to work with women entrepreneurs to learn to hone their pitches, talk with investors, and create a sustainable model. We work with Donna Griffit, a pitch coach, to develop and improve the startup’s pitches before the Startup Challenge. And after the Challenge, we connect the startups with investors in a mentoring session to give them an unbiased platform to work through any challenges they’re facing. And as we meet new investors, we make introductions to the startups. Investors rely on warm leads.

What practical advice do you give to investors?
It’s simple: invest in women. Women tech founders face an uphill battle getting in front of VCs and raising money. This is true worldwide. It’s bad for women and it’s equally bad for the tech industry, because the exclusion of women at the table – their talent and leadership – inhibits innovation and growth. How can you not invest in women? VC-backed women-led tech firms bring in 12% higher revenue than tech companies owned by men, with an astronomical 35% higher ROI. When they get support, women leaders in tech not only do well, they excel.

Award-winning writer and author of To Catch a Cat

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