Career Woman

3 Discoveries for success every female tech entrepreneur should know


Entrepreneurs face an uphill battle every single day. They’re challenged with developing a quality product, identifying the right partners and building a business from the ground up, all while attempting to secure funding and convince the market of their company’s value. For female entrepreneurs, and especially those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields, the challenges increase tenfold.

The gender gap in technology is staggering – according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, while women held 47 percent of all jobs in the U.S. in 2017, they filled just 24 percent of STEM jobs. Couple that with the fact that, according to PitchBook, female-founded companies raised only $10.5 billion in venture capital last year, out of the nearly $90 billion total raised funds, and it’s clear female STEM entrepreneurs have a tough road ahead.

In my role as director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation, which supports mobile technology for social good, I’ve had the opportunity to work with an incredible group of women who are turning their tech skills and passion for social impact into tools that change lives and improve outcomes in the global community. Through our annual competition, Wireless Innovation Project® Competition (WIP), we fund promising start-ups and non-profits that build socially-minded technology. While our competition doesn’t specifically seek to fund female-led projects, we have found that many of our successful applicants are women who are using tech to change the world, from building connected medical devices that improve population health, to creating platforms that give people in developing countries the opportunity to grow small businesses.

Each of these women knows firsthand how challenging it is to start your own venture. Based on my work with them and in the industry at large, here are three key pieces of advice or discoveries every female entrepreneur in technology should look for.

Discover your mentor

While building your own company or non-profit is never easy, it’s next to impossible without support from someone who has been through the process before. I always advise that women seek out a trusted mentor who can help to guide their work.

For WIP winner Nithya Ramanathan, CEO and co-founder of Nexleaf Analytics, a non-profit that develops sensor technologies to improve lives in low-income countries, that mentor was her graduate school advisor. Nithya’s advisor set the tone for her work initially, advising her to embrace failure and to be open to iteration. Her advisor also connected Nithya with Nexleaf’s CTO Martin Lukac, who was also a graduate student at the time. Today, she remains an important resource for the Nexleaf team.

For others, a mentor is someone who inspires you. Shivani Siroya, WIP winner and founder and CEO of Tala, a mobile technology and data science company that works to bring financial access to underserved people around the world, says her mother is one of her most important influences. Shivani’s mother, who is a doctor, helped her understand the differences in resources that exist from place to place, and how that impacts opportunity and choice. That understanding fueled Shivani’s interest in making the financial system more inclusive for people with limited resources.

Discover your partners

No one can do it alone. That’s why it’s critical to find the right partners to help make your venture a success, whether it’s a co-founder, a business partner or an engineer. In many cases, partners will help you fill skills gaps on your team, or act as resources for support every step of the way.

Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel, both engineers with a passion for social impact through healthcare, partnered to create Neopenda, an affordable, wearable newborn vital signs monitor that helps prevent infant deaths in the developing world. With Sona’s background in chemical engineering and international development, and Teresa’s in biomedical engineering and design, the pair were able to find the right mix of skills to develop their product and bring it to market. As Sona and Teresa were building Neopenda, they were never afraid to ask for help – whether from each other, their mentors or their extended network – which helped them find the resources and information they needed to make Neopenda a success.

Discover your funding

Securing funding is one of the most important – and most difficult – parts of getting your venture off the ground. In addition to venture capital, grantmaking programs and competitions are a great way to secure funding. Competitions like WIP are also great learning experiences – we’ve found that WIP winners and finalists are inspired by each other’s projects. Through the program, the winners also gain opportunities for networking, and often push each other to further develop their ideas. Additionally, grantmaking competitions are a great springboard for more funding – WIP winners have gone on to receive an additional $9.5 million in funding from other sources, following their participation in the competition.

Above all, my advice to women in the field is to pursue a project you’re truly passionate about. When you’re driven to make a difference through your work, the right mentors, partners and sources of funding will follow.

About June Sugiyama

June Sugiyama has been the Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last 17 years. Previously, she served in several roles at Vodafone’s predecessors, AirTouch and Pacific Telesis International. She most recently led the Foundation’s transition toward impact through technology related programs. She also developed the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology solutions to address critical social issues around the world. June served on the board of Northern California Grantmakers and participates in the Arts Loan Fund and the Emergency Loan Fund of the organization. She also serves on the advisory board of the Foundation Center in San Francisco, and served on the advisory committee of the Vodafone Group Foundation and United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership, the board of the National Japanese American Historical Society, the Business Arts Council in San Francisco and Nobiru-kai, a Japanese newcomers association. June received her teaching credential and liberal studies degree at San Francisco State University, masters and specialist credential at University of San Francisco, and has teaching experience with schools throughout the Bay Area, especially in the Japanese Bilingual Programs. See June’s recent posts and activity on her LinkedIn

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