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Chicago's techie women are sticking together

  • Coco Meers, Founder/CEO of PrettyQuick
Coco Meers, Founder/CEO of PrettyQuick (Photo by Jessica Zerby /…)
November 11, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

Creating a successful startup is an impressive feat for anyone, man or woman.

Coco Meers, who created beauty appointment booking site, is living proof. While she is proud to be a female founder, she doesn't want to be acclaimed solely for her gender.

"I want to be recognized by the community as a founder of a great business first and foremost," said Meers, 31, a Top 3 finalist for coolest startup in Chicago. "It's not about, 'Oh my God, it's a female founder.' Those founders need to be judged on the same basis as any other founder would be, need to be addressed as any other founder would be, which is with respect and candid discussion about their business."

Chicago's thriving tech scene has made strides toward gender equality with more women taking the leap, starting companies and creating supportive networks. Yet women in the male-dominated industry have suffered setbacks, adding another hurdle to the list of challenges that entrepreneurs encounter.

Still, many have found Chicago a welcoming place for their ventures into the tech world.

In its first year, 28 percent of the nearly

225 businesses at Chicago startup community 1871 had a female on their founding team, said Melissa Lederer, chief marketing officer for the Merchandise Mart startup space. In her estimation, that number is "pretty good."

"We have, in my opinion, an incredible group of female entrepreneurs at 1871 who have really worked hard to gain credibility, build businesses and talk to capital investment firms and got capital," Lederer said.

"I think we're doing OK here, but I think we can do a lot better," said Kevin Willer, formerly CEO of Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and currently partner at Chicago Ventures, a venture capital firm.

"The challenge we have in Chicago: We just need to build successful companies here," he said.

"Chicago's tech community is very embracing of everybody who wants to be a part of that," Willer said.

Still, women are underrepresented nationally when it comes to the science, technology, engineering and math fields, according to a U.S. Census report released in September. Women accounted for 26 percent of the 7.2 million workers in those jobs in 2011. The representation of women has increased over the years, but that growth has slowed and women are in the minority, particularly in engineering and computer jobs. For example, the share of women in computer occupations went from 15 percent in 1970 to a high of 34 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2011, the report said.

When it comes to the state of women in the tech field, there have been bumps in the road.

At a Technori Pitch event in Chicago in September, two men referred to female presenters as "hot girls in yoga pants." The chief technology officer for Business Insider lost his job after sending out sexist tweets. And an app presented at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco focused on photos of people staring at breasts.

Three years ago Melissa Pierce went to an open hack night wanting to know how to fix a problem on her WordPress site. A man chuckled and said there was "no room for noobs with boobs."

"It didn't take me very long to get angry and organize something," Pierce said. She formed a group called Chicago Women Developers. About 10 women showed up to the first meetup and it has since blown up.

"There are 900 women in Chicago working in tech or really interested to work in tech and feel they need a safe space; and that tells you something about the tech climate," Pierce, 37, said.

She has noticed more people, including men, calling out on social media what they see as unacceptable, such as the Crain's Tech 50 list that came out in September. It included only nine women, including Pierce and Meers. The list also singled out Pierce as a parent and included a "wise men" category, to which some people tweeted their disapproval.

Meanwhile, activists continue to help break down barriers and encourage more women to enter the tech field with local organizations and initiatives, hacking events that target females and national campaigns such as Change the Ratio aimed at increasing the visibility and representation of women in tech and new media.

In addition to Chicago Women Developers, a number of groups create support networks that aim to inspire and foster a community for women in tech, including Ms. Tech; the informal group "Ladies Who Lunch," which meets weekly at 1871; and the quarterly "Women Who Launch," when female entrepreneurs meet with city officials to support women-owned digital startups.

"I think our generation of women is going to make a huge splash in tech, in business and in entrepreneurship in Chicago," said Amanda Yang, 27, data analyst and founder of Clear the Path, an e-commerce site that sells athletic apparel for female cyclists that can be worn at work after commuting. "I feel like the reason that we are going to succeed is because we're not being catty to each other. … We're just really all coming together and building something cool, which is a bunch of ladies trying to make their business dreams happen."

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