Now Playing

June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media; Photography by Grant Delin

Ladies Who Launch

by Julie Satow | Manhattan magazine | December 27, 2011

Brooke Moreland sits by the window, in the farthest corner of a sprawling open office on Broadway in the Flatiron District. Dressed in pajama bottoms and surrounded by cartons of Indian food, she is one of a handful of women at her table, surrounded by a sea of men with laptops.

The office, General Assembly, is a technology campus that houses dozens of Internet startups, providing them with educational programming, social networking and desks. And while she’s one of the few women in the room, Moreland—who cofounded Fashism.com, a website that allows users to upload photos of themselves in various fashion getups to solicit feedback about which looks work for them—is far from alone in her position. “There is such a strong community of women founders in New York that, while I’m in the minority, I don’t feel isolated,” says the 30-year-old entrepreneur, who employs several females, including two software engineers.

New York has seen its tech scene balloon in recent years, and with it the number of women launching companies has risen. While it is impossible to know exact figures, women-run startups are more prevalent here than what’s clear at first glance. “I believe there are more female entrepreneurs that start out of New York than any other city in the world,” says Toby Daniels, the founder and executive director of Social Media Week, which runs conferences in 21 cities across the globe. “The industries that women are attracted to, and where they already hold senior positions—fashion, media, food, publishing, advertising—are all based here in New York. So they have a built-in support infrastructure.”

When Carrie Hammer became bored at her job in advertising sales, she decided on a whim to attend NY Tech Meetup, a group of nearly 20,000 that holds monthly meetings where entrepreneurs present their companies to other high-tech professionals. “After that first time, I was completely hooked,” she says. “When I decided to make a career shift, I knew the only place I could go was within the technology startup community.” Three months ago she launched CarrieHammer.com, a website that provides women with affordable made-to-measure dresses.

Alexis Tryon founded her site, Artsicle, after being rebuffed when she tried to buy a painting from a New York gallery. “There I was, with a checkbook and a $2,000 budget, and they totally blew me off,” says the 25-year-old. The art history major quit her job at American Express and started an online gallery that rents art to young collectors for $25 a month.

Not every female-founded business is rooted in typically feminine industries. Cheryl Yeoh studied engineering at Cornell, and last year she founded CityPockets, which manages deal vouchers and allows customers to sell unused coupons in a marketplace. “I am a black belt in martial arts. I like to drink scotch. I go skydiving. So I never really saw myself as a woman or a minority,” the Malaysian-born entrepreneur says. “I just went out there and did my thing, and it didn’t even cross my mind.”

But while many, like Yeoh, say that being female has never been much of an issue, others admit it is still an uphill battle for women in the male-dominated field.

“I can’t count the number of investors who have told me they can’t judge my market, or said, ‘Let me ask my wife,’ or basically don’t want to invest because it isn’t something they can brag about at the bar,” says Kathryn Minshew, a co-founder and CEO of the Daily Muse, a website that provides career advice for women. “There is an archetype that exists of the young male entrepreneur who is selling the dream. And even if the guy is exaggerating, there is admiration for the guts of a character like that. Women aren’t part of that myth.”

Rachel Sklar, a writer and consultant who last year launched Change the Ratio, a blog and a message board for women in the technology industry, agrees: “When the population is 50 percent male and 50 percent female, but the ratio for who gets funded, who is celebrated and who is on speaker rosters is north of 80 percent male and 20 percent female, then you start to say something is out of whack.”

Sklar and others have bemoaned the fact that women are less visible than men in the technology scene, but it may be more than just a numbers game. “I am always searching for great women speakers, but I have found that women are much harder to find, it is much harder to convince them to speak at an event, and they are also more likely to cancel,” says June Cohen, the executive producer of TED Media, who helps organize the TED Conferences. There are several reasons for this hesitancy. For one, Cohen explains, “women tend to value being present for their staff more than they value being out in the world talking about what they do. So we will often have women decline or cancel because it is a busy time in the office or there is a management issue they need to deal with.”

Audiences can also be highly critical of women speakers. “In observing comments on TEDTalks—both live and online—I have definitely observed a difference in how audiences react to men and women,” Sklar says. “As a woman, you cannot just get onstage without paying attention to what you look like, for example. It will be noticed and commented on, good or bad. For a man, you have be a real outlier to have your wardrobe become a topic of conversation.”

Of the NY Tech Meetups, says Jessica Lawrence, the group’s managing director, “Out of the nine or 10 companies that present each month, it is really difficult for me to convince even one woman to get up on the stage. Guys will contact me well before their product is ready, very anxious to present, but women always tell me that their product isn’t ready yet, that they still need to perfect it.”

Some women are hoping to change this pattern. Veronika Sonsev, the CEO and founder of inSparq.com, which does marketing and analytics for e-commerce businesses, started Women in Wireless to provide such support. The group’s membership has surged to 3,000 from just 700 about a year ago, and in the spring it plans to launch a three-month accelerator program that will provide mentors, education and office space to a select group of female entrepreneurs.

But some women say that putting so much focus on the lack of females in the industry is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Reading all the message boards and articles has made me more self-conscious of being a woman,” Yeoh notes. “Now I worry that if I ask a guy out for a drink to discuss my business, he may construe it as a date, whereas before that wouldn’t have crossed my mind.” Still, many assert that while the topic may be uncomfortable, it is too important to ignore. “There are quite a lot of women in technology in important, creative leadership roles, but they seem to be underrepresented in the media and at events,” TED’s Cohen says. “We just don’t hear the stories of successful women in technology startups, and we need to change this.”