In an effort to continue to drive the diversity conversation forward, and to better serve the needs of the Chicago entrepreneurial community, Techstars hosted a dynamic Women Entrepreneur Panel in March. The turnout was substantial with many students from the Booth community showing their support. Established in 2007, Techstars founded by David Cohen, Brad Feld, David Brown and Jared Polis, is a mentorship-driven startup accelerator that holds 13-week programs for startups in various cities across the country. The Chicago based office located in 1871, holds workshops and panels that are open to the public. The Women Entrepreneur Panel featured Techstar alums Sharon Schneider (MoxieJean), Desiree Vargas Wrigley (GiveForward), Lina Pakrosnyte (UrbanLeash) and Stella Garber (FeeFighters) and Jimmy Odom (WeDeliver), along with Techstars mentor and Senior Associate at MATH Ventures, Samara Mejia.
During the panel, the Techstars alums also shared advice on how to get into the super competitive accelerator that has been considered one of the top accelerator programs in the world. With a fewer then 1% acceptance rate, Techstars has received thousands of applications over the years, but has only accepted around 526 companies since its inception. The program selects ten companies each summer to participate in the three-month program in which they build connections and accelerate their business. The program culminates in Demo Day at the end of the program with the companies showcasing their progress to more than 500 angel and venture investors from around the country.
Techstars alum, Jimmy Odom, whose company WeDeliver recently got acquired by Grubhub for an undisclosed amount, spoke on the panel about diversity in entrepreneurship and how crucial it is for women to get involved in the conversation. Odom said “Women and minorities and significantly underrepresented in Silicon Valley and as Chicago grows as a startup scene, it is important that accelerators like TechStars push for diversity.”
The women on the panel took questions from the audience that ranged from; how did they balance their startups with their personal obligations to how did they navigate the politics or obstacles in a male dominated industry. Conversation got emotional as one audience member shared with the panel that she was getting harassed in her male-dominated work environment and wanted tools to help her branch off to her own business.
Tech startups aren’t the only sector seeing a lack of diversity. The average percentage of women working in the tech industry is 30%, based on diversity reports published by 11 of the world’s largest tech companies in 2015. In comparison, women make up 59 percent of the US labor force and almost 51 percent of the US population, according to the US Census Bureau. One of the main points stressed on the panel was that more women should venture into the booming tech industry and learn to code, develop applications, and take on challenging tech projects that could give them exposure at work. As Sharon Schneider founder of MoxieJean mentioned during the panel, “Women have an opportunity to make a big impact on the tech sector, both as entrepreneurs and within larger [tech] companies, but startups are a great place to break the rules and crush stereotypes.”