Businesswomen will continue to be underrepresented in tech-related industries if they are judged against male values, according to Silicon Valley veteran Julie Demsey, General Manager of SBE Australia.
Demsey spoke to Dynamic Business about the skills women bring to the tech sector, the difference between Australia’s start-up culture and America’s, and the launch of SBE Australia’s latest initiative, E3: Empower, Evolve, Escalate – an eight-week educational workshop for early-stage, female-led tech companies.
Applications for Sydney E3 are open until 5pm, Sunday 18 June. The program runs from Monday, 24 July to Monday, 11 September.
DB: What service does SBE Australia provide women?
Demsey: SBE Australia is the sister organisation of Springboard Enterprises and It was started five years ago. Our purpose is to support female tech founders grow scalable, sustainable businesses via participation in the Springboard Enterprises Accelerator, which launched 17 years ago. With strong ties to the US, part of what we offer is community and connections to help alumnae grow their businesses internationally. Companies that have completed the accelerator have collectively raised over $178 million.
Based on the success of this program, we are launching the E3 program in Australia, with Sydney first up. It’s designed to support early-stage companies with a good product, a strong female founder and a global market but which might not be quite far enough along to have commercially launched.
DB: Are females under-represented in the tech? If so, why?
Demsey: They are underrepresented. In fact, women’s representation in tech-related industries as well as STEM programs is declining. Despite the focus on “getting more women into STEM”, we seem to have forgotten to ask a key question, which is “what problem are we trying to solve?”
In my view, women bring many skills to the table in business, including – and this is well-researched and documented – intuitive problem-solving skills. While most women inherently have these skills, they are rarely valued for them.
A program that teaches a woman to code won’t necessarily tell her that she can also make a completely different, yet critical contribution to a successful tech business. If you aren’t solving a big, important problem, technology won’t matter. While women are often the ones who identify and resolve big problems – meaningful problems – they are told, “you must learn to code or you can’t be an entrepreneur”. We know that many of our most successful global companies were started by men who did not know how to code, yet were simply solving a big (and sometimes little) problem.
DB: What would increase female representation?
Demsey: I would argue we need to make STEM about purpose and context, and then women will want to be involved. Teach STEM skills and position them as tools for solving problems but value women for their insights, ability to operate lean companies, trustworthiness, people management skills and customer focus. These are the very qualities that make the difference between a company doing well, and excelling.
Until we acknowledge that we are judging women based on male values, rather than female or even true business values, they will continue to have to run faster to prove themselves, and frankly I think they are getting tired of that game.
DB: How does the US start-up scene compare to the one here?
Demsey: I’ve found the start-up community here to be really welcoming. Of course, the community here is younger, but it seems to be growing quickly. There’s a cultural difference too: I find entrepreneurs here are focused on growing sustainable businesses, rather than being preoccupied with becoming the next Unicorn. I think it is a trap to aspire to be a unicorn… you can make the wrong decisions for your business if that is what you are focusing on.