Austin, Texas was hopping this week for SXSW (South by Southwest), the annual film, music and tech conference that draws attendees from around the world. Geek Girl Rising was there, on the ground, soaking up live music, eating shrimp and grits, and “soft” launching our upcoming book, Geek Girl Rising, which comes out on May 23. It was exhilarating to read from our book for the first time in front of an enthusiastic crowd! One audience member told us that he got teary-eyed when we heard about the many amazing opportunities available for women and girls in the technology world today and how excited he was to introduce his two young daughters to the host of strong female role models featured in our book. The day before our talk, Shelley Zalis and The Girls’ Lounge hosted a Geek Girl Rising panel in which Shelley, entrepreneurs Maci Peterson, Jill Richmond and Sarah Kunst joined angel investor Adam Quinton to discuss the funding crunch for female startup founders and how more women can help by becoming angel investors. Thanks you for the opportunity to share our book and our mission! You can pre-order Geek Girl Rising today.
One of our favorite parts of researching Geek Girl Rising has been the chance to look under the hood at some of the most interesting businesses and meet the geniuses behind them. On a chilly morning in November 2015, we ventured to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and into the workshop of scientist and MIT-trained roboticist Jessica Banks, founder and CEO of RockPaperRobot. Jessica’s company designs and engineers “kinetic” furniture and home accessories that incorporate movement through the principles of physics. Pieces like the “float table,” made out of “magnetized” cubes that levitate, tease the brain with its shape and functionality.
Jessica says her brainstorms come from everywhere – especially living and working in New York City. But it was a dramatic change in her eyesight as a teenager that made her look at the world differently. She told us she suffered a two week period of blindness as a high school junior and when her sight returned, she developed acute peripheral vision, as well as a form of convergence dyslexia that made it hard to focus on reading. It led her to spend more time on her math and science schoolwork.
“I gravitated more and more to the physics and the math books because they were easier to read since I could look at patterns. It was harder to read a block of history or prose, because if I looked up, I didn’t know where I was. But if I got distracted and looked up when I [was] reading something from a math or science book, there was space, italics, numbers and letters,” she recalled.
Her unique vision led her to study physics at the University of Michigan with the goal of one day going into space. But it was a chance viewing of the 1997 documentary, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” which profiles the remarkable careers of a lion tamer, a topiarist, an expert in hairless rats and MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks that led her to apply to MIT where she eventually earned a PhD and even worked in Brooks’s lab.
“At MIT, as part of our robotics training, I learned how to do a lot of machining, and it became my favorite thing. When I learned how to machine metal, it was like, ‘Wow, you can take this thing that I thought before was impenetrable…and I realized that I could transform this thing and I was like, “I can make or break anything in the world.’ It was, basically, like I learned how to use my hands again or for the first time,” she told us as we marveled at the robotic chandelier and the “Brag” table, shaped like a diamond, that appeared to balance on its point.
RockPaperRobot’s latest project is the Ollie chair, a “shapeshifting” chair that folds up to save space inspired in part by tiny NYC living spaces. Jessica and her team recently launched a campaign on Kickstarter to fund the production.
As both an artist and entrepreneur, the woman who once also worked as a comedy writer for Al Franken and whose career followed an admittedly “curvy path,” divides her time between dreaming up new projects and the nuts and bolts of running the business. Doing what she loves keeps her going as well as the knowledge that she is owning her future.
“You don’t have to know exactly what you want to be when you grow up. You can create that thing. This didn’t exist as a job, right?” she said with a smile. “I think it’s important to say this didn’t just happen to us, especially for a woman, but to say we made this thing happen and we can make bigger things happen, because of what we do.”
Yes we can!
For Caryn Seidman Becker, CEO of CLEAR, the biometric technology company that strives to make security seamless in an age of extreme caution, hard work and constantly asking hard questions is how she succeeded in some of the most male-dominated professions: finance, aviation and technology.
“Life is a puzzle. It is a maze and you have to want to be persistent…and have absolute passion for what you are doing,” the New York City based executive told Geek Girl Rising’s Heather Cabot when we sat down with her in her office.
“[A] ‘no’ isn’t a ‘no.’ It is an opportunity to learn and grow,” the mother of three said. We met in late January, the day before CLEAR’s kiosks would go on-line at LaGuardia Airport, bringing the total availability of its service to 21 airports and nearly 1 million subscribers. In her professional life, she has often gravitated to a road less traveled for women. She co-founded the billion dollar asset management fund Arience Capital, which invested in Apple and Priceline as turnarounds. The work fed her constant desire to find a “diamond in the rough. ” When she bought CLEAR out of bankruptcy in 2010, it was similar challenge.
“[I’m] always trying to think ahead [about] where the road is going in five to ten years and that means you are not playing for what’s now but for what will be,” she told us.
More in our sit-down interview!
Silicon Valley collides with Tinseltown in the story of Maureen Fan, the trailblazing CEO of one of the few virtual reality animation studios. This is a woman who loves storytelling as much as she loves technology and spent her twenties trying to find a way to finally combine it all while pursuing her dream job: making animated films. After a successful run at Zynga, Fan launched Baobab Studios in July 2015.
She is truly a Geek Girl Rising who defies labels as both a “techie” and a “creative.” We got the inside scoop on how she launched on the eve of the premiere of “Asteroids!,” her latest VR project at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Thanks Maureen for sharing your story with us. More on Forbes…
Reading Susan Fowler’s allegations of appalling sexual harassment and an unresponsive human resources department inside Uber this week gave us goose bumps. Not only did it echo disturbing anecdotes we gathered from interviewing hundreds of women across the tech ecosystem about the toxic “bro” culture still tolerated in many corners of the tech industry (and documented in research such as the “Elephant in the Valley” report which found that 60% of SV women surveyed have experienced sexual harassment), but we had actually witnessed a discussion of sexism inside the Uber’s engineering ranks that seemed to foreshadow Fowler’s eye-opener.
It was December 11, 2015 and co-author Samantha Walravens was tagging along with software engineer Tracy Chou who was invited by the company’s #LadyENG and #LaddieEng groups to speak about inclusion and closing the gender gap at a lunchtime event. Chou, who went on to co-found Project Include with Ellen Pao among others, was at the time still working at Pinterest and had received national attention for her crowdsourced data that revealed the tiny numbers of women working in the technical ranks of Silicon Valley darlings. As we write in Chapter 1 of our book, one of the women in the meeting put Tracy on the spot and asked what Uber could do to improve its image so it can recruit more women? Tracy asked if she meant the brand or “Is there stuff that needs to be addressed internally?” and went on to say that Uber couldn’t fix its reputation if it didn’t address concerns on the inside first. This meeting took place about a month after Fowler had joined Uber.
Now more than two years later, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick (who told GQ that “Boober” is how he refers to the effect he and his company have on his desirability to women) is promising a swift investigation into the company culture. We are inspired by Fowler’s courage to stand up and speak out and are reminded once again that the power of grass roots activism and social media can never be underestimated. Within minutes of posting her story, Fowler’s blog post was shared incessantly across Facebook and Twitter, sparking outcry.
In our reporting for the book, we cull together the amazing stories of brave women across the tech world — developers, founders, investors, educators and advocates — who have united to change the culture of tech and to create new opportunities for women and people of all backgrounds. Some of those trailblazers include Tracy Chou; Rebecca Miller-Webster and her Write/Speak/Code conference that helps female software developers hone their writing and public speaking skills; Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist, a platform to help companies recruit board-ready female directors; Natalia Oberti Noguera, whose Pipeline Angels boot camp for women angel investors is creating an new stream of capital for female founders; Kathryn Finney, founder of digitalundivided and the new BIG Accelerator in Atlanta that helps black and Latina entrepreneurs launch their startups; Kathryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos, co-founders of The Muse, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care.com, Yunha Kim co-founder of Locket and Simple Habit, who are proving that women-led businesses can deliver big-time; Dr. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and Dr. Lenore Blum, distinguished professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, who have led important efforts to boost the number of women majoring in computer science. And SO many more! What we found is that correcting gender imbalance is a nuanced and complicated problem. There is no magic bullet. But efforts to increase diversity on boards and in the C-suite, to funnel more venture investment to female founders, to crush stereotypes of who works in tech by increasing the visibility of female technologists and corporate leaders and to inspire a new generation of girls who see themselves as tomorrow’s builders and innovators are underway.
This is not a time to feel defeated. “Geek Girls” will continue to rise up. The Uber scandal reinforces the important and tireless work of the “sisterhood shaking up tech.” And they will #persist.
From self-driving wheelchairs to digital personalized help for addicts to predictive data analysis for doctors to virtual travel agents, the fourth annual Women Startup Challenge showcased women venturing into emerging areas of technology. The competition, hosted by Google in New York City, offered a $50,000 prize courtesy of the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund. The night drew more than 200 spectators, including investors, founders and techies, who watched the ten dynamic finalists pitch their cutting edge companies.
“We’ve received many hundreds of submissions from female entrepreneurs whose product ideas are often brilliant and disruptive, and a few that could even be the ‘next big thing.’ We’re just scratching the surface of the pent-up talent, as you see from the caliber of today’s winners,” said Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, the organization that runs the Challenge.
Didimo of Clayton, California took home the grand prize. It’s a tool that transforms the image from a single photo into a 3D virtual character that can speak, move and represent a user in a 3D world. Runners up were Spirit AI and Addicaid, both located in New York. Each will receive $10,000 in legal services from Paul Hastings LLP. Kudos!
Like many of you, the team behind Geek Girl Rising spent the day after the presidential inauguration marching with millions of women waving irreverent and powerful placards, donning pink hats, and rising up to say we are here, we are for tolerance, kindness and yes, we are feminists with a capital “F.” It was a defining moment both for us personally but in particular in the life of this project. To see daughters, moms, grandmothers, aunts, and girlfriends (and their male allies) take to the streets in such overwhelming numbers, it felt like the Geek Girl movement we spent so much time researching had literally leaped off the page. This was the sisterhood we discovered bubbling up all around us when we ventured to Houston to experience the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest gathering of tech women in the world; when we covered angel investor Joanne Wilson’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Festival in New York City; when we immersed ourselves in the Women’s Startup Lab in Menlo Park, California; when we spent an evening in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University where we met the college students mentoring the next generation of engineers; when we journeyed to Chattanooga, TN to meet the JumpFund and its members funding woman-led tech startups across the Southeast; when we met the amazing teen girls who competed in the #BUILTBYGIRLS challenge in San Francisco and on and on. They are all about lifting each other up and have a deep sense of responsibility to help each other. That’s what we saw typified in the faces of the marchers everywhere we went.
I (Heather) marched with my synagogue (a group of nearly 100) along with some of my very best friends in Manhattan. Arriving in Grand Central Station gave us goosebumps as we stepped off the train and into a sea of pink wool hats. It was something else.
Sam spent her Saturday with her friend Karenna at the march in San Francisco. Her mom and sister-in-law did their part in Denver.
Our fearless literary agent, Lisa Leshne, boarded a bus from NYC in the wee hours of Saturday and headed for the nation’s capital with a #GIRLGANG from all over the city.
And Nadine Gilden, our talented web designer and social media guru, also spent the day with the 400,000 of us who marched in the Big Apple. It was a day of activism and unity. We can’t wait to see what the sisterhood does next to advance the cause of women’s rights.
We’ve made our final fact checking calls. Pored over pages and pages of proofs. Turned in the final edits. And now it’s go time for Geek Girl Rising. It’s been two years since we actually sat down and wrote up the book proposal (essentially the architecture of the book); edited and re-edited it; sat on pins and needles as we received disappointing rejections and then our hearts soared when we received multiple offers; accepted our book deal from a top NYC publisher – St. Martin’s Press; embarked on the journey of filling in all of the details laid out in our book proposal outline; tracked and trailed Geek Girls all over the country and the world from San Francisco to Boston to PIttsburgh to Atlanta to Los Angeles to London and on and on; sat for hours on end in the library and at the kitchen counter on nights and weekends pulling all of those hundreds of interview transcripts together into an entertaining narrative; edited and re-edited; and now, here we are.
We could not be more excited about the months ahead. Publication date is May 23, 2017. The experience of holding a finished advance review copy in our hands, seeing the font the publisher chose along with the layout and the beautiful cover was a feeling like none other.
We have been blown away by the early response. We have immense gratitude for the super women who contributed such beautiful praise. Thank you Arianna Huffington and Joanna Coles! We’ve been honored to speak at Tech Inclusion, Women of New York and a private reading in the Hearst Tower. Up next, our book talk at SXSW on Monday, March 13th. The fun is just beginning and we are so excited for the journey ahead. Please let us know if you would like us to visit your company or hometown bookstore.
Thank you for all of your support. Onward and upward, Geek Girls.
What does it really take to turn an idea into an actual business? At the 2016 Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco, Geek Girl Rising Co-Author, Samantha Walravens gathered some essential insights from Silicon Valley CEO’s (and Geek Girls we interviewed for the book!). They shared candid advice about what it’s really like to raise money in the early stages, find the right investors and connect with a network of supporters.
Check it out!
September 13, 2016
Over the course of reporting and writing our book, sisterhood emerged as an undeniable theme. As we traveled the country and the globe from 2014 to the present, we observed the powerful ways in which women are collaborating and encouraging each other in startup accelerators, inside tech companies, in co-working spaces, on email lists and private Facebook groups, on college campuses and at male-dominated tech trade shows and conferences. Shelley Zalis, founder of The Girls’ Lounge and one of the women featured in Geek Girl Rising believes fiercely in the power of girlfriends. As we shared on Forbes, here are her six tips for forging lasting and authentic relationships in business.
August 30, 2016
Female founders and other under-represented entrepreneurs are banking on a new vehicle to raise money from U.S. investors. It’s called crowd investing and it allows just about anyone to make an investment in a startup without having to meet the wealth and income requirements set by the SEC for traditional private investors. How can it help early stage ventures started by women, people of color and of the LGBTQ community? Check out our story about one of the first crowd investing platforms, Republic and RaceYa, one of the first companies that successfully exceeded its fundraising goals via crowd investing in the fall of 2016. RaceYa raised $88,000 from 173 investors to help build its customizable radio-controlled race cars that teach kids about science, technology, engineering and math. Way to go!
December 2, 2015
The prospect of getting in on the ground floor of the next “unicorn” may seem enticing to anyone, especially women with sophisticated technical skills in hot demand today. Start-ups are now the primary source of net job creation in the US, according to 2015 Start-Up Index report by the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation. But the high stakes world of working inside an early stage venture requires nerves of steel since most start-ups fizzle out. That’s why Mary Holstege, Principal Engineer at MarkLogic, an enterprise database company, says women in tech should try to “control their destiny” by evaluating a start-up opportunity the same way hard-nosed venture capitalists assess a deal.
Holstege, who holds a PhD from Stanford in computer science and has worked at all kinds of start-ups from the proverbial two folks in a garage to “splashy and crashy” IPO’s, shared her advice with hundreds of women this fall in Houston at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest gathering of female technologists in the world, where tech firms were on the hunt for new talent among the 12,000 attendees. As an angel investor myself, I thought her advice was spot on as she shared the types of questions investors use to assess a business that could help prospective employee make a more thoughtful and informed decision on an offer.
1. Can The Founders Execute?
Ask yourself, do you understand how this business makes money? If you don’t, ask the founders how the business generates revenue. For example, Holstege says, “users” do not mean “paying customers.” You should understand the difference and what it means to YOUR bottom line. And listen to your gut instincts about the founders. Do you like them? Do you believe in what they are doing? Do some research on them. Ask around. Do they have expertise in the space? If not, who are their advisers or other hires that will help them reach success?
2. How Much Runway Do They Have?
This is a delicate question to ask directly but doing some homework on the financial resources of the company is a smart thing to do if you want a paycheck for long. Look up the business up on CrunchBase to see how much they have raised so far, when and from whom. A potential investor wants to know how much “runway” the company has right now or how much cash they have on hand and also the monthly “burn rate:” how much money are “burning through” on salaries, customer acquisition, marketing and PR, etc? These are things that will all affect you as a new employee. And a key question to ask: When are they raising financing again?
Geek Girl Rising recently spoke with Maren Kate Donovan, the founder of Zirtual, a business forced to lay off all 450 employees in August 2015 when they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll. Donovan recently shared with the 2X Conference at the NYC tech incubator Grand Central Tech last month that by the time she realized the finances were in trouble, it was too late. She told the crowd of more than 200 female founders that if she had to do it all over again, she would have hired a CFO much earlier on instead of handling the books herself. Hers is a cautionary tale for both founders and prospective employees. More on our candid interview in a future blog post to come…
3. Financial Risk and Reward?
When investors size up a deal, they look at a variety of metrics to calculate the potential return and you should, too. Holstege says prospective hires should ask, how much of the pay will be based on current earnings? Will you receive stock options? How many shares are outstanding? What was the valuation when those initial shares were issued? “Do the math,” she entreated the crowd. You probably won’t be paid much in the beginning. Will the investment pay off later in your career? There may be upside even if the venture fails. Ruthe Farmer, Chief Strategy and Growth Officer for the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) says having start-up experience on a resume, even being part of a failed start-up can be very helpful for young women, especially those who would like to be entrepreneurs later in life and plan on raising capital.
4. Is It A Culture Fit for You?
Finally, Holstege told the packed convention hall, look around and really consider, “Is this the right environment for you?” Make no mistake, working at start-up is all in. “A small company can’t afford anyone who isn’t contributing,” she said, “You will be doing great things. You will be doing everything.” Bottom line: Make sure it’s a place to you want to invest your valuable time and energy.