Posted by Kat Faley on October 14, 2014
This past weekend marked the first-ever—and certainly not the last— Women’s Edition of Startup Weekend D.C. The event, born out of collaboration between Startup Weekend D.C., Booz Allen Hamilton and 1776, aimed to counterbalance the underrepresentation of women in technology and entrepreneurship. The result was an electrifying, 54-hour experiential learning opportunity for nearly 100 participants—90 percent women and of diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds—to launch a new venture and pitch it. As part of the weekend’s program, Booz Allen sponsored an impressive panel to provide insights on what it takes to scale a venture at every stage, including addressing issues of diversity and inclusion. Below are some key takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs—men and women alike—from the weekend.
It’s about talent, not tech skills. A common concern for women looking to break into tech is that they don’t have the technical chops to make it. Allyson Burns, senior vice president at the Case Foundation and Revolution LLC, has said the reality is that today, every company has to be a technology company to scale, but it’s not only about the tech. Companies need a collaborative team of designers, product managers, marketers, financial analysts, in addition to developers and more, to make that happen. At the end of the day, companies—especially startups, as CityScan CEO David Guttman attests—are looking for talent; rather than just tech skills. Hustle and the right attitude are with you from day one, whereas skills can be learned as needed down the line.
Find opportunity in strategic partnerships. Startups looking to scale need to make themselves look bigger than they really are, Guttman advises—and the right partner can help with that. Ann Marie Isleib, regional vice president at Salesforce, observes that larger companies such as Booz Allen and Salesforce drive innovation in their businesses by partnering with entrepreneurs and startups that deliver cutting-edge solutions to unmet market needs. These types of alliances can be launching pads for new ventures to bring on their first customers—a critical turning point in the business. Angela Zutavern, vice president at Booz Allen, recommends that startups be creative about finding ways to partner with larger companies, and focus on delivering value where they need it most, Guttman adds.
Leverage the wider innovation ecosystem. Apart from established businesses, there are numerous other players around the globe that offer opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. Burns notes that for ventures with social impact and social good missions, crowdsourcing is opening up capital in new and exciting ways. Zutavern adds that one advantage of being in Washington, D.C., is that government agencies are embracing innovation and looking for ways to inject new ideas and creativity into their organizations—with that ambition comes potential opportunities for funding and collaboration.
Set a positive example. Women often ask what they can do to turn the tide on the gender imbalance in entrepreneurship and technology. Susan Tynan, founder and CEO of Framebridge Inc., says: get in the field, stay in the field and just do it. She shared that when she was thinking about launching her startup, at a certain point she had to tune out concerned, yet discouraging, advice from the outside. People did not take her seriously until she quit her job to pursue the new venture full time. Similarly, Guttman advises that if investors are asking you what your plan B is, the only answer is that there is no plan B: You will do what it takes to make your venture succeed.
Diversity is a key driver of innovation. We hear it again and again, and it’s true: Your network is a critical, sometimes underutilized, resource to leverage from startup to corporation. Being intentional about meeting new people outside the daily grind—through events like Startup Weekend D.C.—opens up new ideas and inspiration, as well as potential business leads and a talent pool of the best. Innovation, Isleib contends, ultimately comes from smart people with a range of backgrounds working to figure out a better customer experience. That is why flipping the gender and diversity imbalance in technology and entrepreneurship is so important—those customer voices deserve a seat at the table.
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Kat Faley is a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, the local sponsor of the Women’s Edition of Startup Weekend D.C. She previously led technology partnerships and innovation at the American Enterprise’s Critical Threats Project.