Change is coming for female tech entrepreneurs, says start-up commissioner

5 Mar 2015

Dublin's start-up commissioner Niamh Bushnell

The reason we are hearing so much about sexism in Silicon Valley right now is because a major process of change is already under way, Dublin’s start-up commissioner Niamh Bushnell believes.

At the moment there are more negative headlines coming out of Silicon Valley about women there being undervalued than positive ones about female leadership of start-ups and multinationals.

A lot of this can be blamed on the enduring bro-culture in tech firms as well as current high profile cases involving harassment.

Beyond that, however, the reality is technology entrepreneurship is still a very male-dominated space and the numbers aren’t encouraging. Women-led businesses probably only receive between 5 and 10 percent of all the venture capital that’s allocated to startups in their very earliest in their growth phases, according to Fiona Murray, a researcher of business innovation at MIT.

Speaking with ahead of International Women’s Day this Sunday (8 March), Dublin’s Start-up Commissioner Niamh Bushnell said that the reason we are hearing so much more about this now is because a major process of change is already underway.

She will be speaking at an event tomorrow at Trinity College attended by 200 of Ireland’s leading business women as part of of Network Ireland’s annual International Women’s Day Celebrations.

What is stopping you?

On the question of why there are still so few female founders of start-ups. Bushnell says it is a perplexing subject.

“I don’t know what’s stopping us, but there are a lot less women doing technology things and that’s a big factor. I didn’t know this before I came back from New York, but I heard in past few months that in the UK every single student has to learn coding skills from seven to 16 through primary and middle school.

“If the walls of difficulty and fear and all of that was taken away from the image of tech and computer science it would prompt a massive surge of female entrepreneurs.”

She said Ireland has many good examples of multinational tech leadership in terms of leaders at companies like Microsoft, Vodafone, LinkedIn, Facebook, Airbnb and many more. She added that there are great female entrepreneurs in start-ups like Restored Hearing, Love & Robots, Pharmapod and Frockadvisor.

“There are lots of great role models but we need more founders to enter the fray.

“Tech is inevitably a part of scaling a successful business, whether it is a big part of the backbone of a business. To be able to talk tech, think tech and be technical there is a massive enabler for anybody.”

But sometimes logic needs to be replaced by bravery. “Women are very practically minded and when we feel we can’t put our arms around something we don’t go towards it.

“I think as a gender we tend to want to keep our feet on solid ground, do our homework and know what’s ahead of us more so than men do.”

Think big, make big bets, ask for more

She continued: “When looking for funding in New York, I had a mentor in MIT and she was going through my deck and said my projections not wow enough. She said that if I wanted investors to get exited I needed to put serious multiples under these numbers. Her response was ‘Niamh, be like a man and just pull it out of your ass.’ The idea being you don’t have to know how to stand behind the numbers, just have big numbers and fill in the gaps as you go along

“That kind of says it all. We’re missing bravado. We are very deliberate and honest but what is honesty when you are talking about projections. What people want is to know is you have a big vision, a big hunger and you are willing to work your butt off to make it happen.

“What I was trying to show was a deliberateness and conscientiousness – any numbers will show you that with the right patterns and assumptions underneath them, but the numbers themselves if they are smaller they just speak of smaller ambition. There’s fewer women asking for the money so that’s why there are so few getting the money.

“But I think the bravery to go out and do stuff is there but we like to do things step by step, we are much more measurable and much more believable and we just don’t like taking risks the way men like taking risks and it’s a cultural thing, a stereotype thing.”

Stop thinking technology is difficult

While it is clear attitude is one way to fix the problem, Bushnell says it also begins with women overcoming the perception of technology as hard and difficult.

“The truth is that if you work hard enough at anything you will become good at it. Our approach to how we message certain skills is very important and I think that has to change and we need to be a lot more inclusive and welcome that Malcolm Gladwell point in 10,000 Hours– everything is hard work, everything is practice, everything is persistence and we have just as much of that as any man if not more.”

If anything Bushnell is clear on it is that the current situation will fade in time.

“I presented this to the Expert Committee on Jobs and said that while we don’t have a lot of female role models right this minute in Ireland for entrepreneurship we will have them soon because we have a whole raft of women coming up who will be those role models in three to five years time.

“Look at the guys in Restored Hearing, Love & Robots, Pharmapod, Frockadvisor and there are loads more. I sat on the Competitive Start Fund evaluation committee in January. We got 30 females come in the door and we picked 15 of them who secured equity and played a major role in the pitch.

“We are just at the start of a new wave of role models. The dialogue around this need to change, we need to make these topics accessible, we need to expect women and girls to stand up to the plate and be loud and boisterous.”

But it’s not just attitude. It’s education and information. “We need to put a lot more information out there about how to be an entrepreneur, take those first steps and engage or be a first hire in a new company.

“When it comes to women in particular, the reason you are reading a lot about this stuff in Silicon Valley is because we are in a time of change. There is a lot of friction. Friction is good because it prepares us for the changes that are afoot.

“Change is coming and all of those articles and all of the brouhaha is part of the change agent that leads us to the next stage, which is more women entrepreneurs taking big risks, more women talking bigger.”

We need more megalomaniacs

Bushnell said she was at an accelerator day in London recently and one of the accelerator staff announced that what they were looking for were megalomaniacs who want to build big companies.

“And what I would say is we want more megalomaniac women who want to build big companies and we want to make role models out of those women and we want a lot of other people to follow in their footsteps. And if we can get to there we will be in a good place and all of this friction we are hearing about is all stuff from the process.”

But overall, Bushnell says women need to move past this notion that technology is difficult.

“The message is technology is something everybody should have as a fundamental part of their education, it takes hard work, focus and discipline, like knowing how to do finances or recognising a good deal from a bad deal.

“We need to be literate when it comes to technology, whether a tennis player, gardener or a doctor, technology gives you the fundamentals.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Inspire 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-19 June in Dublin, connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity. Buy your early bird tickets now

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years