AT&T Talks Tech with Women Entrepreneurs at 1776

As technology increasingly drives and disrupts our global economy, women should be well positioned to play a significant role in the revolution. Women now earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as nearly half of all doctorate-level degrees. Companies with women on their boards outperform comparably sized companies with all-male boards by 26 percent.  And women-led private technology companies are more capital efficient, achieve 35-percent higher return on investment, and when venture backed, bring in 12-percent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.

In spite of this, women start only three percent of technology companies, receive just 13 percent of venture funding, and are all-but absent on boards and management teams of high-growth technology companies. That’s why I was thrilled when AT&T reached out to us to ask if two of their most senior executives—Global Marketing Officer Cathy Coughlin and Senior EVP of Home Solutions Lori Lee—could meet with our female founders at 1776, a startup incubation platform.

We brought together dozens of startup founders for a closed-door session on the reality of being a woman in the technology industry. It wasn’t hard: Nearly 40 percent of 1776 members are women! At our roundtable, Cathy and Lori offered their perspectives on women in technology, in the executive suite, and in the world of high-growth companies. The conversation quickly grew animated as every woman identified with common challenges, and five key themes emerged:

Show up for Others

The first (and most important) point on which everyone agreed was that we should be showing up for each other as women—both literally and figuratively.  Reach out to the women around you, offer support, and look for ways to help them succeed.  Far too often we display “high-school behavior” instead of helping each other get ahead.  Women make up over 50 percent of the population, so imagine what could happen if we start actively looking for ways to lift each other up.

Being the “Only”

Everyone at the table knew how it felt to be the “only woman in the room.”  In technology and in executive settings women rarely find themselves in the company of other women—and that presents real challenges: in being perceived with credibility, in speaking up and being heard, and in being able to drive decision-making while staying authentically female (hello, we don’t have to pound our fists on the table to make our points!).  The more we can understand how it feels to be “the only,” the more we can look for effective strategies for success. The upside of being the only woman in the room?  No line at the ladies’ room!

Authenticity first; confidence second

Many of the startup founders mentioned that men often seem naturally confident in themselves. By contrast, women often doubt themselves, hold back, or defer to others. Both Cathy and Lori shared stories of highly successful women they’ve met who have tackled this issue.  Wisely, they advised that the key is to find your voice and who you are as a person (and a woman) and then to be that person authentically, rather than simply trying to muster up a load of confidence.  If you can be authentic, confidence will follow naturally.

Make sure someone is holding your ankles

To get ahead in any career, you have to take risks—even more so in technology entrepreneurship.  But when you jump, make sure someone is holding your ankles.  Do your homework, develop a plan, and have a support system of people on whom you can rely and who can catch you if you need it.  Be it a spouse, family, or even just girlfriends, surround yourself with people who can help you if you start to freefall.

Ask the hard questions

As lunch neared its close, conversation turned to how we can change the boardroom dynamic for future generations.  What can we do now to make sure that the idea of having only one woman in the C-suite is laughable five years from now?  Founders unanimously agreed that giving back, reaching out to the next generation, teaching, and mentoring are key.  But equally important is the willingness to ask the difficult questions when women are obviously underrepresented—as keynote speakers or panelists, in the op-ed pages, on boards, and in executive roles.  Everyone (men and women!) needs to speak up proactively to ensure that our subliminal bias toward people we know doesn’t prevent us from seeing highly qualified people who are outside our typical line of sight.

When we’re asking the hard questions, the answers may feel uncomfortable at first; it’s hard to be the first woman at the table. But I’ve see how powerful it can be when tech companies have a culture of support for women—and as the cofounder of a company that identifies and accelerates the most promising startups that are bringing technology to regulated industries, I love when visitors remark at how many women they see at 1776. That’s what happens when we take conversations—like the ones in which Cathy and Lori engaged last week—and turn the words into actions.

AT&T is a supporting partner of the 1776 Campus. Donna Harris is the cofounder of 1776.

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