Women-Led Startups Compete With ‘Bro-grammers’ for Funding

Gender stereotypes die hard as females make tech gains

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When Yahoo tapped Google veteran Marissa Mayer as CEO last week, it marked another triumph for women in tech. But what does the success of Mayer, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and other female digital execs mean to a startup scene that’s mostly been dominated by males? An appraisal of New York City incubator programs suggests the number of inspired tech-minded women is growing, though they are still dealing with gender-based stereotypes and "boys clubs."

Sophia Chou is president of Loudly, a new text-and-call phone app that just finished a 12-week accelerator program called Woman Innovate Mobile (WIM). Every morning, Chou and Loudly co-founder Foy Savas leave a tiny apartment they share in Bay Ridge Brooklyn and head into Manhattan, often to meet with venture capitalists and other potential investors. They moved from Boston last winter to participate in WIM and rub elbows with movers-and-shakers in New York’s growing tech scene.

While Chou’s forecast for Loudly is clearly optimistic, she wonders whether her company gets the same fair shake as “bro-grammer” startups when meeting with VCs.

"There's a very cynical part of me that believes there are many VC firms and investors that want to see the typical cookie-cutter [collection] of four bro-grammers that made this awesome little startup,” she said. “And then they see me, and they say, ‘Do you do code?'”

Her male business partner, Savas, added, “We applied to other incubator programs before this one, and we had the experience being interviewed by one of them where he gawked repeatedly and asked, 'She programs?' I was kind of in disbelief. Even in the low levels of getting into an accelerator program, you have gender problems."

For getting accepted into the WIM incubator, the Loudly entrepreneurs received $18,000 to get their business off the ground. Of course, that’s not a lot of money for NYC dwellers to get by on.

"We live in the smallest space possible," Chou said. "We’re working on our laptops, programming away, and we have to coordinate to scoot past one another. It’s like, ‘OK, you go.’ And then, ‘OK, now you go.’"

So Chou and Savas have been knocking on investor doors while trying to capture seed funding in the near term. When they meet with the money guys, chances are, well, they are guys.

“There are days when I think about how we are struggling to get funding,” Chou said. “And I don't think, obviously, all startups are struggling to get funding. So I [wonder] if it would be easier if Foy had a male co-founder. There are days when I think that. But then I say, 'Screw that.'"

WIM was founded this year for women like Chou who want to overcome the challenges of launching a tech company. Anu Nadkarnr is another alum of the new program and co-founder of App Guppy, a platform-based startup that’s designed to let users quickly create and distribute apps. Nadkarnr suggested that her team’s experience—they are two women and one man from careers in medicine, marketing and law—is helping overshadow whatever they lack in bro-grammer appeal.

On June 10, they demonstrated their product at the monthly New York Tech Meetup in front of a sizable crowd at New York University. While recently speaking with Adweek, Nadkarnr largely eschewed talk about whether gender would play a role in App Guppy’s search for funding. Though in concerns to the other startups demonstrating product at the meetup, she said, “We were the only one that was female-founded.”

Kate McGee Reyes is a co-founder of Skillcrush, a digital education startup aimed at females who are interested in tech but, as she put it, “are terrified by it at the same time.” Last week, her team began the Brooklyn Beta SummerCamp incubator program with high hopes for product development and aspirations of connecting with VCs.

“I think the big difference between women and men is attitude,” McGee Reyes said. “Men tend to go after it with, ‘We are going to be the best and raise a million dollars. It’s no big deal.’ And women come after it a little more meekly. ‘I think I have a really great product. I think I can raise some money.’ But it’s ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ instead of ‘I know.’ That difference in confidence can really make a difference when you are trying to fund.”

Art Chang, CEO of Tipping Point Partners, an investment company that aids startups, gives a fairly rosy outlook for women in tech. The industry veteran said more female participants slowly but surely inhabit this landscape.

“I’ve seen a much healthier proportion of women doing this when compared to the first dot-com boom,” he said. “But it’s true that there’s still a disproportionately small number of women in the startup community.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.