On Women, Startups and (possibly) CLT

There’s something missing in the Charlotte Startup culture. If you listen to the guys talk, they’re happy give you a list of what’s missing: lack of openness, no center, lack of communication, and any number of other issues. I’d like to suggest their missing something specific, or more precisely, someone specific.

I’ve been actively on the side-lines of startups, and their (limited) culture, here in Charlotte for a while. I attended co-working sessions with CLTJelly, visited locations and have helped counsel any number of people who are starting or running businesses for over two years now.

Currently I am actively involved in Start Charlotte, what the organizers hope will turn into a space and community for startup incubation. While I may not have the technical skills of a developer, or the business set of a venture capitalist, I think I have a fairly decent view of what’s happening here.

Do you know what I see at meetings, podcasts, coworking meetings and startup events?

Men. Lots of men. Mostly white.

At Startup Weekend here in Charlotte this past May, I walked into the main room Friday night after wrapping up with my last client of the day. There was one other woman there. ONE.

I then tweeted, “Ladies, where are you? I know you have brilliant ideas. Why are you not here?”

Now, I proceeded to pitch my project, after MUCH prodding, so much prodding that someone else, in fact, offered to pitch for me. I didn’t want to pitch for any number of reasons… I wasn’t sure my idea was “good enough”, I was nervous as hell, and to be honest, there is something terrifying standing in front of a room of mostly technically skilled men and saying, “hey, I’m a massage therapist and I have this idea” because inside I was reliving every time I’ve spoke up and got mocked by others for being a smarty-pants or talking outside my -assumed- knowledge base.

And, in my head, I was telling myself, “but you’re the only girl.”

And after listening to a few dudes with a couple beers in them pitch, I sucked it up and reminded my inner voice that I was a woman, not a “girl” and the only way I’m going to get what I want is to speak up, goddammit, so I better do so.

I’m glad I did too. I not only got the most votes on Friday, but our team won on Sunday night for the project.

Now, I don’t suspect for a moment that the reason I was because I was a woman. It wasn’t. It was a good idea, one we’ll move to market on in the near-ish future. I’m currently working with the team I worked with at Startup Weekend, as time allows from our paying jobs.

What I do suspect is that many women are staying in traditional roles and not chasing down their dreams.

Why? We’re afraid, we’re the only female in the room, the boys will laugh at us, and our idea is probably no good. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. I know, it’s what I told myself for months before I had the nerve to talk to friends about it, and I practically had to be shoved into pitching the idea to a room full of people, despite solid research into the market and knowledge of the project I wanted accomplished.

Maybe that’s not it. Maybe we’re happy in our jobs, or are too busy with the kids or have a million other excuses… Can’t leave the kids with your husband for a few hours while you work out your business plan?

Or is it something else? Are women in general not interested in startups? Is it because it’s so risky? I know woman who take risks for work all the time… Is there something else going on that we don’t know about?

OR are there lots of women who are in startups or want to be and just aren’t being seen because they’re tucked away with all the other women, letting the men go on about their business (as women are wont to do) while we just do our thing over here and don’t bother them… cause we’d hate to show them up, get in their way or (heaven forbid) have them get in our way?

Is it a failure of understanding of what a startup is? Women start businesses all the time…

Is this some sort of Charlotte specific deficit? Is it because this is a very small, burgeoning startup culture in this city that we just haven’t seen the women turn out yet? Or is it because women are more likely to start businesses based on care taking rather than code making? Do this issues show up in other areas?

I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are, and I’m going to keep thinking about this… and keeping an eye out for the ladies to show up to more events and see who’s participating.

What do you think?