Technology has long promised to level the various playing fields it encompasses, and if this were to hold true then one can imagine a collective cheer coming from every working woman in the nation. Though things aren’t as neat and tidy in the real world it still seems as though opportunities and rewards for women in the field of technology and computer sciences are growing.
One of the only apparent barriers to entry for women in technology might be simple awareness. A manifestation of this is that technology companies generally market to men first – releasing “feminine” versions of a product only later.
An Ultra Light Startups Event at NYU
In trying to gain a better view of the landscape we decided to begin with a startup tech community built around a monthly pitch competition at Ultra Light Startups, (a.k.a. ‘ULS’) the largest and most active startup-investor pitch community on the East Coast, with current locations in New York and Boston, with a new post in Silicon Valley. Ultra Light was founded by Graham Lawlor who was also kind enough to sit down with us after the event.
Ultra Light events are held once a month and their panel of experts boasts top industry people from all the leading companies. How it works is this: software startups that meet the requirements apply to pitch as long as they have their website or mobile app in at least a testing or working state (this phase of development is often called a “beta” version of the website or app). These companies submit for the roughly 8 to 12 slots to be chosen each month and then those slots are given a chance to pitch in front of a live audience directly to the guest panel made up of highly successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Think Shark Tank without the goofy shtick and canned background music.
Ultra Light was created around the idea of bootstrapping, which is entrepreneurial speak for growing your company without (or with very little) investor money. The idea is to utilize creativity and efficiency to be as self-sustaining as possible, allowing the entrepreneur more control and more to negotiate with when the time for investment truly comes. Many of the companies pitching are often at the point where they are seeking investors for the first time or after the “friends and family phase” which means generally companies that are self-funded up to $50,000 or $100,000. Sometimes this money is referred to as “seed money” which is generally higher risk but with more enticing upsides. Venture Capitalists, or “VC’s” as they are called, are usually corporate funds that invest in return for partial equity and anyone who attends an Ultra Light event hopes that his or her company or product attracts an eager VC. Sounds easy right? Well, it’s not.
The Event at Microsoft
Competition is fierce for these monthly slots and though the application process is stream-lined and designed to get more people involved, it also means the amount of applicants can spike and Graham is left with some difficult decisions. However Graham is known for being an inspiring community leader who will always try to get the best companies a slot even if he has to add one or two extra.
And if you get accepted then the real fun begins. You must follow the pitch format which I have listed here from the ULS website:
- The startup founder gives a 2 minute pitch
- Each pitch is followed by 3 minutes of Q&A. Questions will come primarily from the panel but also may come from the audience.
- Finally, each startup will receive 3 minutes of advice from the panel. During this section, the startup founder is only listening, not responding.
Each pitch is only two minutes – something to consider when pitching anything in life, whether it be for an idea, a project or for yourself in an interview – keep it short, make a point and practice, practice, practice!
At Ultra Light your pitch must cover the following information:
- Basics: Your name and title, your company’s name
- Business Summary: Product/service description and revenue model
- Revenue model: How do you make money
- Management Team
- Target Market: Target audience/customer
- Sales/Marketing Strategy
- Competitive Analysis
One of the many things I liked about the Ultra Light events I attended were that they were always packed with enthusiastic people who were all friendly and accessible. Graham has worked hard to balance that professionalism with his core philosophy of bringing people together in a casual setting to discuss innovative ideas. And in keeping true to its roots as a bootstrapping startup itself, the event also orders enough free pizza for all of its hundreds of attendees; perhaps a tongue-in-cheek homage to the up-all-night coders and programmers who help to build these sites.
Finally the pitches are given and after the Q&A the audience votes via Survey Monkey – while a live feed captures the votes and instantly awards a winner at the end. It’s a fun way to do business if you ask me.
The winner of the pitch contest gets an assorted bag of helpful services that alone many would covet as a prize, but the real victory comes in bringing your company to the attention of the experts or any attending investors. Numerous pitches at Ultra Light have landed their founders funding, support, and sensational advice which all can turn your little startup into a major player if you can then turn around and produce as promised.
These days there are many events across the country that are popping up in all sorts of shapes and sizes and in every major city – even in some smaller metropolitan and rural areas. Which leads us to the first great aspect of working in technology: you can do it from anywhere. So yes, technology has somewhat leveled the geographical playing field and its associated companies can now be located anywhere, and even maybe more important that mentality extends to the workplace in many of these companies as you see people working together in teams from all around the country, and moms working from home while not missing a beat.
The Ultra Light events are always well-attended often selling out, but no data is kept on attendees so any hope for a gender ratio is not possible. However a visual headcount estimate I took it appears that the event is approximately 15 to 30 percent female. I found out later in my discussion with Graham that what’s truly special about the women that do attend is that many have won the pitch contest. A great example is Megan Burton of CoinX (a platform for buying digital currency) who finished with the largest margin of victory ever – garnering nearly 85 percent of the vote which is more than 30 percent more than the second best margin. So advantage number two about technology is that it really is all about your work. If you have a great company or product, anyone can compete.
I sat down with Graham recently at his Soho office loft he communally shares with other up and coming startups, and I asked him a few questions:
You have events in Boston, New York and now Silicon Valley, were there reasons why you started in these locations?
Well some of it was because this is where I was obviously, on the East Coast in New York, and then it was for these cities initial leadership in the field as the hubs of technology, that also helped make the decision easier. It’s always easier to start where the people are but we are now seeing expansion rapidly as people realize we can have an Ultra Light just about anywhere. The important thing for me is getting good people to run it, for instance in Boston, I have a long time colleague Cris DeLuca who handles everything in that chapter and he is so outstanding and so many people like him, it really allows me to expand and grow.
Do you see women having any obvious advantages or disadvantages when aspiring to work in the tech and startup field?
As far as disadvantages I see none at all to my knowledge. The one terrific thing about technology is that it truly is a meritocracy. Good people, good products, good thinking, it all eventually rises to the top.
What are the higher paying positions in the field that attract the most talent?
Definitely engineering and designers. In tech everything is always changing so jobs can be hot for a few years and then a new cycle appears. For instance UX designers in particular are in high demand now. And I should add salespeople are always in demand – good salespeople can really help grow a company and are not always easy to find.
(Note: UX designers create the optimal experience for the user on websites, apps and basically any interface with a screen – their job is to think so when you go to a site you don’t have to!)
Are there any women that have contributed a lot to the tech world and who do you think more people should know about?
Oh sure and I won’t be able to name even a fraction here. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but there are some obvious ones like Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman of HP, Laurel Touby who started mediabistro.com and is a frequent panelist at Ultra Light. Also I should mention the ladies who run Gilt Group, even though they have an entire team with them they are the face of that company which has been quite successful.
Lastly Graham can you give us some advice for anyone out there interested in changing jobs so they can work in the tech and startup field? How about if they do not have a computer science degree or are at later stages in their careers? Any advice?
I always say bring a value to the company and they will at least listen. Don’t show up saying you want a job or you can “help out” in any general way. Startups stay lean for a reason and they only want someone who can fix an existing problem. So do your research, and if you have a specialty apply it to their most pressing issues and see if you can propose a solution. Offering to do Pro Bono work up front to prove yourself is a great way to open a discussion rather than simply looking to see what you can gain. In the end you must provide value. The good news is that tech startups can be a bit more accessible than traditional corporations so if you really want it, keep at it.
Good advice Graham. Not just for tech jobs but for anything you want to do in your career.
If you wish to attend an Ultra Light event either as an audience member of as a pitch contestant go to www.ultralightstartups.com and fill in their submission form.