Feature Story

Female tech startup founders

by Anne Field

Female tech startup founders

There is a group of women founders launching a variety of tech startups— here's a look at three of them.

It's no secret that the world of tech is led largely by men. The percentage of U.S. startups with at least one female founder was just 17% in 2017, according to Crunchbase, a number that has stayed pretty much the same for five years.

But diversity has been in the spotlight recently. And while the number is small, there is a group of women founders launching a variety of tech startups. With that in mind, here's a look at three of them.

Company research—so you're ready for any meeting

An electrical engineer by training, Amy Chang launched her startup Accompany in 2013 after running Google Analytics for more than seven years. Before each meeting with multiple executives, she'd study up on all the key people. "But I had 10 of these meetings a day," she says. "I just couldn't find enough information in the time I had." Then, one day she went to a scheduled meeting, only to learn the company had just gone through a significant reorganization, a matter she had completely missed. The business ended up becoming a client, but Chang learned a lesson: She needed a way to make sure that never happened again.

Chang decided to build a suitable technology platform herself. Working with good friend Matthias Ruhl, she founded the Los Altos, Calif.-based startup to create a proprietary data platform that could scour profiles of millions of individuals and companies. (Specifically, as of now, more than 270 million people and 20 million companies, according to Chang). "The goal is to deliver a rich, objective profile on the Mike Johnson you're meeting with tomorrow and filter out information on the 16,482 Mike Johnsons you don't know," she says.

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More than that, the technology can create maps that lay out the relationships and influencers within an organization, as well as identify and connect users with high-potential targets. (Think "find female executives in Chicago who have expressed an interest in socially-conscious investing"). Also, there are real-time news and briefings about people and companies in a user's network. And the technology can analyze patterns to pinpoint the most important contacts and provide more newsworthy information on those individuals.

Perhaps most crucial is what the technology can do the night before your all-important meeting: Since it connects to your email, it emails you an executive briefing with social media posts, news, financials and other insights about attendees and their companies.

At the same time, according to Chang, she's also become an advocate for gender parity in tech. Over 50% of both leadership and the overall team of about 40 employees is female. Last year, the company became an early member of nonprofit Parity.org. And Chang recently joined the #FoundersForChange movement. "I'm committed to growing and cultivating a diverse team," she says.

In May, Cisco announced it had completed the acquisition of Accompany for $270 million in cash and assumed equity awards, naming Chang senior vice president in charge of Cisco's Collaboration Business Unit. 

Holograms that lead to sales

Ashley Crowder co-founded VNTANA in 2012 and promptly pivoted the business model.

It all started about seven years ago, while Crowder, an engineer, was working for BP and spending her weekends helping DJs stream their shows. The thought occurred to her: Couldn't they make more money if they could livestream more events? So she launched VNTANA, her Los Angeles-based business, aimed at allowing music lovers unable to attend concerts the chance to watch lifelike holograms perform without physically being at the event.

See also: Here's why Cisco bets on innovative startups

When she talked to brands sponsoring the concerts, Crowder learned they loved the technology because it engaged customers so deeply. With that in mind, she and co-founder Ben Conway changed the focus—creating mixed reality experiences in stadiums and retail outlets that could get consumers involved, while also tracking and collecting data to increase sales leads. Now, the company has hardware for projecting interactive holograms and software, though customers can use equipment built by anyone.

The idea is that consumers are able to interact with, say, athletes or products, without having to sport goggles or other wearable devices. And while they're doing so, the technology captures lots of information about users' preferences. For example, Lexus used hologram technology to let brand enthusiasts at Lexus Clubs in stadiums experience the vehicle firsthand. At the same time, the VNTANA platform synced data to the car company's CRM system for use by dealers. The effort more than doubled qualified leads, according to Crowley.

Recently, the startup added an AI integration capability connecting consumers with a chatbot that acts as the hologram's brain. Thus, a customer at a department store can approach a hologram and ask whether an item of clothing is in stock. The platform can then search the store and ecommerce site for the desired product. "You can connect offline to online shopping," says Crowley.

While she hasn't encountered blatant bias, according to Crowley, she's had some eye-opening experiences. She points to meetings where potential investors have pointedly directed technical questions to her co-founder. "I jump in and explain I have a Master's degree in engineering and I'm happy to explain it," she says.

Dragging restaurant hiring into the Internet Age

Alice Cheng spent 13 years rising up the ranks at IBM, starting in a temporary position in the mailroom as an undergraduate and ending up leading global digital media innovations. But she also had some good friends in the restaurant industry who often shared both their staffing woes and how hard it was to navigate their own career path. Job hunting in the sector was very much still about who you knew, paper resumes and job board listings. "In an industry where people are the main attraction, the tools to support them were seriously lacking," says Cheng.

It only seemed natural for her to apply her tech smarts to the problem and, in 2012, she founded Culinary Agents in New York City. Though the initial focus was on chefs, as she did more research, "I began to see more clearly what the company could be not just for cooks, but for everyone in the industry," she says.

To that end, the platform she ultimately developed is a networking and job matching site for all levels of talent and types of businesses in the hospitality industry. For cooks and others, it's a way to represent themselves and seek out jobs, mentors and connections; for restaurants, hotels and the like, it's for finding, tracking and building a talent pool for candidates in everything from pastry baking to office work. Smaller enterprises can also use the platform's job distribution, applicant tracking and management functions to run their back-end operations.

The platform also covers markets in not just the U.S., but also in the U.K., France and Germany.

For Cheng, the biggest challenges she's faced haven't pertained to gender, but to the overall demands of launching a business. "I think that every aspect of starting and running a company is difficult," she says.

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