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Seeking Female Founders In The Tech Startup Scene

The founders of startup accelerator Women Innovate Mobile (clockwise from top right: Deborah Jackson, Kelly Hoey and Veronika Sonsev) aim to boost the profile of tech companies founded by women. (Courtesy Women Innovate Mobile)

More often than not, when we hear about hot tech companies, all the founders are male (see: Google, Facebook, Twitter and Zynga). But in an effort to change that profile, a new funding source is targeting companies founded by women.

Kelly Hoey thinks a lot of investors may be missing some good business opportunities because they aren't coming from someone who looks like the next Mark Zuckerberg.

"You're looking for a white guy in a hoodie, and that next visionary is ... going to be wearing a skirt and a great pair of shoes," she says. "They're going to look different."

Hoey is one of the three women behind Women Innovate Mobile, a startup accelerator. The group invests small sums of money in startups, gives them an office for three months, and helps them refine their business plan. Hoey says it's like a greenhouse for startups.

"They get mentoring, they are given access to the networks of resources — that may be funding, that may be expertise," she says.

Accelerators are not a new idea. Among the most well-known is Y Combinator, based in Silicon Valley, which has nurtured new stars like Dropbox and Reddit. But only 4 percent of Y Combinator's grants went to startups with a female founder.

Missing In The Mobile Market

Veronika Sonsev, another of the founders of Women Innovate Mobile, says Silicon Valley may be missing some great opportunities, especially in the mobile space, where the perspective on, say, how to design a phone might be a little different coming from a woman.

"They use phones to plan every aspect of their life, to manage their kids' schedules," she says. "Given the nature of how women use telephones and all of the things that they do in their household, I can only imagine some of the ideas that they may come up with."

The question is, of course, why aren't women already out there turning their ideas into companies? The answer is complex, says Sharon Vosmek, the CEO of a nonprofit called Astia that helps women develop their business ideas. Vosmek says a lot of research indicates that women lack confidence. When a woman gets a C in calculus, for instance, she may figure she's bad at math, but that's not necessarily so for a guy.

"A young man with the same grade will perceive that he's a math whiz," Vosmek says. "He'll use it in the furtherance of his career, to negotiate a higher salary and actually to have higher aspirations."

And starting your own company often requires a big dose of confidence, Vosmek says.

'A Great Problem For You To Solve'

Bill Reichert, a partner in Garage Technology Ventures, says another reason is that a lot of the female entrepreneurs he sees don't have the computer science background.

"We tend to invest in companies that have very strong core technical teams, and ... that population is disproportionately male," Reichert says.

But starting an Internet company isn't as technically difficult as it used to be. A female founder can bring an idea or marketing experience.

Women Innovate Mobile's Sonsev, a former executive at AOL who now has her own startup, says women have to stop being shy about their ideas. Sonsev says women can turn their daily challenges into business opportunity that a man might not see, whether it's seeing their child's calendar online, or finding relevant health information.

"How many times have you been in a situation [where] you're like, 'You know, if only someone would start a company to solve that problem, I would be a customer.' Well, that's a great problem for you to solve," she says. "Why don't you start that company and help find other customers who are similar?"

Women Innovate Mobile is taking its first round of applications through Feb. 1. Sonsev notes that the group has already gotten inquiries from women as far away as Ireland and India.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When we hear about hot tech companies, more often than not, all the founders are male: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga. Well, a new organization is trying to change that profile by funding companies created by women.

NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Kelly Hoey thinks a lot of investors may be missing some good business opportunities because they aren't coming from someone who looks like the next Mark Zuckerberg.

KELLY HOEY: You're looking for a white guy in a hoodie, and that next visionary is, you know, going to be wearing a skirt and a great pair of shoes. I don't know but they're going to look different.

SYDELL: Hoey is one of the three women behind Women Innovate Mobile. It's what's called an accelerator. It invests small sums of money in startups, gives them an office for three months, and helps refine their business plan. Hoey says it's like a greenhouse for startups.

HOEY: And they get mentoring. They are given access to the networks of resources. So, that may be funding, that may be expertise.

SYDELL: Accelerators are not a new idea. Among the most well-known is Y Combinator, based in Silicon Valley. Its nurtured new stars like Dropbox and Reddit. But only four percent of Y Combinator's grants - that's four percent - went to startups with a woman founder.

Veronika Sonsev is one of Women Innovate Mobile's founders. She says Silicon Valley may be missing some great opportunities, especially in the mobile space, where the perspective on, say, how to design a phone might be a little different coming from a woman.

VERONIKA SONSEV: They use phones to plan every aspect of their life, to manage their kids' schedules. And so, you know, I think given the nature of how women use telephones and all of the things that they do in their household, I can only imagine some of the ideas that they may come up with.

SYDELL: Of course, the question is why aren't women already out there turning their ideas into companies? Sharon Vosmek says the answer to that question is complex. Vosmek is the CEO of Astia, a nonprofit that helps women develop their business ideas. She says a lot of research indicates that women lack confidence. When a woman gets a C in calculus, she figures: I'm bad at math. But a guy?

SHARON VOSMEK: A young man with the same grade will perceive that he's a math whiz. He'll use it in the furtherance of his career to negotiate a higher salary and actually to have higher aspirations.

SYDELL: And Vosmek says starting your own company often requires a big dose of confidence.

And another reason, says Bill Reichert, a partner in Garage Technology Ventures, is that a lot of women entrepreneurs he sees don't have the computer science background.

BILL REICHERT: We tend to invest in companies that have very strong core technical teams, and so that population is disproportionately male.

SYDELL: But starting an Internet company isn't as technically difficult as it used to be. A woman founder can bring an idea or marketing experience.

Veronika Sonsev, a former executive at AOL who now has her own startup, says women have to stop being shy about their ideas. Sonsev says women can turn their daily challenges - whether it be seeing their child's calendar online or finding relevant health information - into business opportunities that a man might not see.

SONSEV: Now, how many times have you been in a situation and you're like, you know, if only someone would start a company to solve that problem, I would be a customer. Well, that's a great problem for you to solve, right? Why don't you start that company and help find other customers who are similar?

SYDELL: Women Innovate Mobile is taking its first round of applications through February 1st. Sonsev points out that they've already gotten inquiries from women as far away as Ireland and India.

Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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