Tag Archives: startup

Innovation is the future

13 Jan

Yesterday I attended an event hosted by The Tomorrow Plan. I had never heard of the group but was invited by some YPC-types so I figured it would be good networking (and a chance to check out the recently renovated World Food Prize headquarters). The topic was ”what it means to live in a regional city” with speakerBill Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, Calif. who now works with Smart Growth America.

The hour-long presentation turned out to be very interesting and served as an affirmation of what my employer, StartupCity (as well as the entire tech community in Des Moines) is doing.

“The jobs that will drive your community into the future are not routine, ordinary jobs,” Fulton said. “The way you are going to compete is by encouraging people to bring creativity and innovation to everything they do everyday. The people who drive the new economy are not people who want to spend their weekends driving a lawnmower.” Hallelujah!

Fulton’s speech was focused on how changing demographics will affect city planning. Suburban sprawl is likely to become a thing of the past, he said, as Baby Boomers retire and seek walkable communities and as Millennials continue to favor urban dwelling over cookie-cutter lifestyles. Quality of place and sense of community will continue to be important to the next generation of workers. If a city is to survive and thrive in the next century, it must address those desires, not just in housing options but also in the types of jobs available.

Fulton’s discussion had me beaming with pride for the Des Moines tech community (StartupIowa, the businesses that make up Silicon Sixth AvenueSilicon Prairie NewsTechnology Association of Iowa, and so many more). We are creating exactly what Fulton has prescribed for the future growth—a sense of place.

While everyone I meet in the local startup scene is fiercely competitive (that’s one key element of the entrepreneurial spirit, after all), they are also incredibly encouraging of each other. Everyone is quick to offer advice, connect people, share resources, and promote each other. They are protective of this community that is being built—unwilling to let anyone plant a treacherous seed that could fracture the solidarity.

I strongly believe that the continued effort to create a solid tech startup scene in Des Moines will serve to make the city stronger and the kind of city that Fulton believes will grow in the future.

Unfortunately, the audience at the event yesterday was heavily weighted toward the public sector. To succeed in its mission, The Tomorrow Plan must involve the private sector as well. Clearly, we know how to make things happen!

To learn more about The Tomorrow Plan, attend its first public meeting on Jan. 31 from 6-7:30 pm at the Eastside Senior Center. Conveniently, the event starts immediately after the city’s first Startup Fair.

Am I sexist?

9 Dec

I’d feel more comfortable having a woman as a mentor than a man. Is that sexist? At least one man in my office thought so when we got on the topic of why there aren’t more women in tech startups.

The debate started when I read about a new Des Moines startup called Hoops & Garters in Juice. The online bridal registry was started by two women, which I thought was pretty awesome given the scarcity of women-led tech startups both locally and nationally. In fact, only 3% of tech firms are founded by women even though we make up more than half the population. Why such a disparity?

My co-worker believes women and men are fundamentally different (I agree) and perhaps women are more risk-averse or aren’t willing to give up family time to start a business. That doesn’t explain, however, why women own 28% (and growing) of all businesses in this country. Clearly there is something about technology that doesn’t appeal to women in the same way other entrepreneurship opportunities do.

I think this disconnect starts for women when they are very young. I don’t believe girls are encouraged in the areas of math and science in the way boys are. Research backs me up. There is a deep-rooted stereotype that boys are better than girls at math and science and, although false, that belief negatively affects girls’ performance in these subjects. A lack of female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions only reinforces young girls’ lack of self-confidence.

My personal experience backs up these findings. I will never forget failing a timed multiplication test in the 7th grade. Rather than offering suggestions such as tutoring and re-testing, my male teacher informed me I could not take pre-Algebra the next year. He also told the entire class how many students passed and failed the test. His effort to praise the pre-Algebra kids ended up completely deflating my self-esteem. My single mother, who also didn’t excel at math as a child, compounded the problem by trying to make me feel better by telling me I didn’t really need math to succeed in life.

In recent years, educators have admitted there is a gender gap in math and science, and they are working to make improvements. Programs like Microsoft’s DigiGirlz also help get girls excited about STEM careers, but it will take time for their effects to be seen in the workforce.

During my workplace argument on this topic, I suggested women might be less likely to start a tech business because they don’t have as many role models as men, nor as many mentors of the same sex available to them. The sexist part, it seems, is that I believe women may be more comfortable (whether consciously or not) with female mentors. The four men participating in this discussion said if they made the same argument about men wanting to work with other men, I’d be up in arms. Perhaps. But I think there is a valid reason why persons of a historically oppressed class (women and minorities) may feel less intimidated around other members of that same group. We share an experience that others simply cannot understand. It is easier to let our guard down with each other because there is a foundation of trust that is established simply because of our common social circumstances.

When there aren’t other women in a field, I naturally feel less welcomed and more guarded (in the same way I would expect a man might feel like an outsider in a female-dominated occupation, such as nursing). For the first time in my life, I now work in a male-dominated office (there are 11 men here and only 3 women) and a male-dominated field. And it’s damn intimidating. So I am not at all surprised by the lack of women at networking events I attend.

I may not be surprised, but I am disappointed. When men or women are underrepresented in any field, it suffers. Your industry cannot address the needs of all if it is not being run by all. The tech startup world is simply not as innovative as it could (and should) be because women aren’t contributing enough to the process. And that’s a damn shame.

So, I ask you. Am I sexist? Actually, what I really want to hear are your thoughts on why my new industry is where it is. Why aren’t there more women starting technology businesses? And how do we change that?

Geekpreneurs: Can you tell your story or is it time to get help?

7 Nov

In the last year, I’ve been introduced to a lot of amazing startups and I’ve discovered two distinct types of tech entrepreneurs. The first is the Non-Geek Visionary, who has an amazing idea but doesn’t have the technical skills to make it happen. The second is the Geekpreneur, who not only has the idea but also has the ability to build it.

What I’ve noticed about these groups is that the latter often has a hard time recognizing weaknesses and bringing others on board to handle those areas. It makes sense. Their product is truly their baby—they spent countless hours taking it from dream to reality—and handing even a piece of it off to someone else can be scary.

Geekpreneurs frequently drop the ball when it comes to marketing. An encyclopedic knowledge can make it difficult to devise a clear, concise, and clever way to communicate the product to others. “I understand what I’m doing, why don’t you?” Building something amazing is meaningless, however, if no one knows about it, understands it, or cares about it.

Creating a great “elevator pitch” isn’t difficult, but it requires stepping outside of yourself to think objectively about your product. Unfortunately, that’s not something most of us can do. The most successful business people are masters at delegation and Geekpreneurs (as well as Non-Geek Visionaries who struggle with marketing) would be well served to ask for help when it comes to writing a bio, one sheet, web verbiage, and other marketing materials.

(Shameless plug: I love using my journalism background to help entrepreneurs tell their stories. If you need help, contact me.)