Why we need more women founders at the table

4 Jul 2016

Nuritas founder and CSO Nora Khaldi at Inspirefest 2016. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

To leave a legacy is to leave the world a better place than you found it. At Inspirefest 2016, many of those on stage revealed that to be their core aim, writes John Kennedy

At Siliconrepublic.com we pride ourselves on Inspirefest being a tech conference with a difference. One that celebrates difference. A celebration of diversity and all things science, technology, engineering, art and maths.

One of the points reiterated over the course of the three-day festival was that the majority of panels featured a higher quota of women speakers than men. The panel discussion I chaired on the media landscape with Recode associate editor Kara Swisher and News Corp’s strategy chief Raju Narisetti was the probably the only exception.

But the difference between Inspirefest and all the other tech conferences that are popping up was actually more subtle but in other ways more profound: the presence of a desire for positive change, not ego.

‘Thankfully, the women are coming. Women are starting businesses at 1.5 times the pace of men. Women stand to inherit 75pc of the largest wealth transfer in world history and finally will make 80pc of purchasing decisions’

We’re used to the all-male panels, we are used to the usual white guys with interesting shoes recounting how they got where they are today and how they made all the millions as the audience salivates and wonders how they can do it too. But that’s not inspiration, that’s just posturing.

But are we used to people, especially women founders, creators, coders, venture capitalists and leaders, not only addressing the obvious gender imbalance throughout STEM and STEAM, but simply and in a dignified way offering solutions to make things better for the world?

Inspirefest 2016 was full of great moments, whether it was Brenda and John Romero’s engaging treatise on the future of games, Mary Carty revealing the Outbox accelerator coming to Dublin, being inspired by writer and activist Sinéad Burke or seeing StarVest’s Jeanne Sullivan donning a Wonder Woman cape in the name of the experienced economy.

Another stand-out moment was when the CEO of Enterprise Ireland, Julie Sinnamon, revealed that the number of Irish start-ups supported by her agency with women in leadership positions tripled from 7pc in 2011 to 22pc in 2015.

But as I watched Jamila Abass from Kenya talk about how her M-Farm mobile app can help Africa’s farmers with price transparency and more, and Ireland’s own Nora Khaldi from Nuritas talk about how peptides in food could be unlocked to fight diseases, the distinction between this and other tech conferences was obvious.

These are people fighting for a better world.

They are applying their love of science and technology to make this a better and safer planet. And that’s a refreshing change from the dull “how I got here” sagas.

Be the change you want to see in the world


Jamila Abass, from Kenya, founder of M-Farm, which is using mobile technology to change and improve the livelihoods of farmers in Africa. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

As Khaldi was winding down her speech, there was a poignant moment that summed up the truth that women are still underrepresented in STEM, especially at the boardroom table.

Some are cancelling themselves out of potentially rewarding careers because they don’t see or aren’t being shown the role models, and others are just on the blind side of an industry that still fails to see and appreciate its own tragic imperfections.

“It’s great to see a room full of women,” Khaldi breathed as she stepped back from explaining the science of what Nuritas was all about. “I’m a coder, a pure mathematician… I’ve worked in a lot of areas where there are very few women.”

Khaldi recounted how she once met a woman CEO of a large corporation and the only remark the woman had to make was that she was wearing the same shoes. “I was so shocked I didn’t know how to answer. The objective of 50-50 men and women, I want to keep that going.

“People ask me was it tough? Is it worth it? Yes it is. Go for it!”

This sentiment echoed a talk the previous day by Poornima Vijayashanker, founder of Femgineer and Mint.com, who addressed the subject of being the “token woman” at tech conferences.

Vijayashanker said that even if she was the token woman, she took the opportunity anyway because she knew that every time she talked, it inspired another woman to start up.

“Please speak up. Even small moments of speaking up at a meeting can make an impact and a difference.”

She added: “I don’t want to live in a world where the female voice is stagnant. Do it for the foremothers, for the freedoms you enjoy today. Be the token and be proud of it.”

The urgency behind Vijayashanker’s sentiment was made clear by Vicky Saunders of Sheeo, who pointed out the reality that the financial world is in the hands of a system that is in reality a casino filled with privileged white men who like to gamble.

Saunders pointed out that the financial system in its current state is bad for the economy.

She said that, despite the evidence to suggest that women-led companies outperform their peers – a study last year by Boston-based Quantopian revealed that women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 drive three times the returns as S&P 500 enterprises run predominantly by men, – the overall global economy is in the wrong hands.

Saunders pointed to the speculation economy – which is 50 times greater than the creation economy – that led to the crash of the global market in 2008.

“It cost $13 trillion in three weeks to bail out the banks – that is equal to 600 years without poverty on the planet.

“Part of the challenge is that the speculation economy is currently focused on chasing unicorns, despite the fact that 90pc of the global economy is made up of SMBs that are starved of capital because capital is aggregated to a small number of hands that want to fund unicorns.”

Saunders spoke of her work in enabling 1,000 women to submit $1,000 each towards funding promising women-led start-ups that have the power to grow. She wants to help fund 1,000 start-ups in 100 cities by 2020.

“Thankfully, the women are coming. Women are starting businesses at 1.5 times the pace of men. Women stand to inherit 75pc of the largest wealth transfer in world history and finally will make 80pc of purchasing decisions.

“Women weren’t at the table for version 1.0 of the world, but we need to be there for 2.0,” Saunders said.

The bias is conscious

Prior to the Investors panel last Friday, I had informal chats with two of the panellists, Claudia Iannazo from Pereg Ventures and Sharon Vosmek from Astia. Both women pointed out that not only is last year’s figure of 6pc of venture capital partners being female with a corresponding investment rate in businesses led by female founders still standing, the numbers are actually falling.

Not only that, but in the US, the amount of investment in businesses led by black women is frighteningly low – less than 15 businesses led by black women in the US have ever raised more than $1m apiece, according to Adam Quinton, a venture capitalist with Lucas Point Ventures.

As we reported on the Investors panel last Friday, the consensus was that the so-called unconscious bias in the venture capital and overall tech leadership landscape is in fact “conscious”.

And yet, as eminent Silicon Valley journalist Kara Swisher pointed out, few male leaders in the Valley are willing to face up to the reality they may indeed be sexist.

Quinton pointed to the Elephant In The Valley study that showed 60pc of women working in the epicentre of tech have at some point experienced sexual harassment.

As Saunders pointed out, yes, the women are coming, and they are going to change the landscape of business and STEM in positive and creative ways, but it is the nature of their arrival that will be remarkable and revolutionary.

Yes there is division. They have every reason to be angry, frustrated and disappointed that the so-called meritocracy that the tech industry prides itself on is nothing more than a conceit, and a dangerous one at that.

But, instead of anger, I saw dignity. Instead of frustration, I saw hope. And instead of stories about the corporate jet or the thrill-seeking weekends snowboarding at Aspen, I saw brilliant people offer practical solutions to build a better world.

And that is the difference we need to see in the world.

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