Feature Story

Women in tech: Grit and innovation pay off

by Mary Ann Azevedo

women in tech grit and innovation

The number of women startup founders is growing exponentially.

When it comes to the number of female founders of startups, it appears that quality trumps quantity.

The number of startups with a female founder more than quadrupled from 117 in 2009 to 555 in 2014, according to data compiled by CrunchBase. In 2009, 9.5 percent of startups had at least one woman founder, but by 2014 that rate had almost doubled to 18 percent, the same data found.  

While that growth is positive, the number of female founders remains relatively low. But what they lack in number, they make up for in innovation and grit.

The Network talked with three female founders about what drove them to start their own company and what it’s taken to be successful.

Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay

Atwood grew up the child of divorced parents, describing the experience as “horrific” and “as bad as bad could get” with her mom and dad arguing constantly over money.

Atwood herself married at age 19 and found herself going through her own divorce after her daughter was born. She and her ex-husband swore the experience would be amicable but inevitably found themselves arguing about who would pay for expenses such as medical, dance lessons and things like gymnastics.

See also: Startups embrace the Internet of Things

“It became this constant back and forth,” Atwood recalls, “with one of us asking the other, ‘Where’s my check?’”

A weary Atwood started to research the problem but was unable to find a solution. She did discover that 55 million parents live apart in the U.S. alone, exchanging over $200 billion a year in child support. Globally, those numbers jumped to 450 million parents and $900 million exchanged every year. The conundrum spelled opportunity to Atwood, whose breaking point was when her daughter needed emergency brain surgery.

She began to explore how to use technology to eliminate financial conflicts between divorced parents.

“What consistently came up was that the person paying had no problem paying, but just wanted to know that the money was going directly to their child,” Atwood said.

While filling out an expense report at work one day, Atwood had an epiphany.

“We can submit receipts and get reimbursed at work so why can’t we do the same for child support?” she wondered.

See also: For women in tech, anything is possible

Atwood quit her high-powered job at a major tech company, conducted more market research and taught herself how to code. She came up with a system where parents could register, set up all recurring payments, attach receipts and mark items as paid or received. She named the company SupportPay.

“With a certified record and payment history, our system protects a parent who made a payment but didn’t have proof,” she said. “It also ensures the money is going where the other parent claims it is.”

The number of startups with a female founder more than quadrupled from 117 in 2009 to 555 in 2014, according to data compiled by CrunchBase. In 2009, 9.5 percent of startups had at least one woman founder, but by 2014 that rate had almost doubled to 18 percent, the same data found.  Atwood liquidated all her assets and found herself one week shy of needing to apply for food stamps before she separately raised money from two major Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Tim Draper and Marc Benioff. To date, she has raised over $3 million in seed funding and is in the process of raising another $5 million. More than 38,000 parents are using the SupportPay platform, which currently manages about $26 million in child support every month. The Santa Clara-based startup’s revenue has climbed over 200 percent over the past nine months.

Atwood’s biggest challenge, she says, was getting capital.

“How do we get more women (startup) founders? A lot of that has to do with access to capital,” she said.

Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, co-founders of Roominate

Roominate co-founders Brooks and Chen were friends in graduate school at Stanford, both studying engineering.

The pair noticed they were two of the few women in their classes and tried to understand why.

They realized they had both found inspiration in things they played with as young girls, and began researching just how kids these days were playing.

“We found that most of the toys targeted toward girls didn’t include spatial skills,” Brooks says.

See also: Why a startup culture will drive India's digital disruption

So they created a toy that was already familiar, such as a dollhouse, that could be built with a modular system and Santa Clara-based Roominate was born.

A Kickstarter campaign launched in 2012 hit its $25,000 goal on its fifth day. In the end, the two friends raised about $86,000.

Things were a whirlwind after that. The pair’s award-winning building sets aimed at girls were being sold by major retailers such as Walmart and on Amazon.

Then, in 2014, Brooks and Chen were invited to appear on the popular show Shark Tank and ended up receiving a $250,000 investment from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner. In total, they raised about $2 million.

Things moved quickly from there and late last year, they were acquired by Wisconsin-based PlayMonster.

Sales have grown at least 300 percent a year since inception, according to Brooks.

The Stanford grads were just 23 when they founded the company, and 27 when they sold it. While it was initially a challenge to be taken seriously, the young women persisted.

“We can do exponentially more with the resources, connections and budget gained in this acquisition,” Brooks said. “We’re excited about all the new products.”

Sabari Raja, co-founder of Nepris

In 2013, Texan Sabari Raja and friend Binu Thayamkery co-founded Nepris, a startup aimed at engaging more students – especially girls – in STEM.

While working in the education division of Texas Instruments, Raja realized there was a gap between industry and schools.

“I began to examine what is the role of industry in helping to bridge this gap and increase exposure to students,” she said. “It seemed we had a platform for everything such as Match.com and Facebook but no single scalable platform connecting industry and education with the purpose of bringing relevance to students.”

Since its inception, Nepris has won 13 awards and raised about $1.5 million dollars with prominent impact investors like the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and New Schools Seed Fund. 

Today, there are nearly 25,000 teachers and over 8,000 professionals on the Nepris platform. The business has partnerships with companies such as AT&T, Samsung and GM. Revenue grew threefold in 2015.

“We’re not just connecting companies to one classroom or teacher,” says Raja. “Companies are offering virtual tours of their spaces and proactively offering sessions now.”

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