As a patent expert and former entrepreneur, Elizabeth Gearhart knows all about the challenges of being a startup in the technology sector. She also knows those challenges can be amplified if you're a woman.
That's why Gearhart has teamed with Launch NJ, a Madison-based collaboration network for entrepreneurs, to create an offshoot that supports women starting their own businesses.
“We want to have women that network with each other,” said Gearhart, a patent agent at Gearhart Law in Summit. “Women would bring to the table things that have worked especially well for them in the entrepreneurial space, such as whatever resources are available.”
The group, which will host its first meeting this Aug. 13, is part of a growing support system for women in New Jersey's technology sector. As meetups continue to grow within the industry, gender-based networks aim to give women entrepreneurs a venue to trade ideas, learn how to build a business and attract investment.
According to a 2013 study conducted by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners and Wells Fargo & Co., women owned 38 percent of U.S. businesses, but received only 2 percent of venture capital funding.
Ethné Swartz, a professor of entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Silberman College of Business, said a strong network might be exactly what women entrepreneurs need to start changing these numbers. A 2010 study coauthored by Swartz looked at the factors that made women successful in acquiring investments — 79 percent of respondents said the most helpful adviser they found was an experienced entrepreneur who had raised money before.
“If you've not done it and you don't know how to do, the next best alternative is to go to somebody who can actually become a guide,” said Swartz, who chairs the Marketing and Entrepreneurial Studies Department at the college.
Groups such as Gearhart's aim to give women the guidance they may need. She said the group plans to have investors “come in and talk about what they're looking for,” while potentially hearing and critiquing pitch presentations.
Creating a support network is what Sylvia Wandahwa had in mind when she formed an offshoot of the Google Developers Group North Jersey. Wandahwa, a research development chemist at Reckitt Benckiser, became interested in cloud computing and data analysis earlier this year, prompting her to join a meetup group called NJ Cloud Architects.
That's where she met Todd Nakamura, who founded the Google group. He asked her to speak on a panel at this year's Google I/O Extended event in Montclair about how challenging it is to be a woman in the tech world.
“I didn't know why, so I kept asking him and he said, 'Because you're the only female in my group,'” Wandahwa said. “It did shake me a little bit; it was eye-opening.”
So she co-founded the women's group. And she sees a real potential as she builds her group and integrates it with the established 226 members of GDG North Jersey.
Nakamura said the group complements Wandahwa's existing career — chemistry and research create loads of data. And on the most basic level, cultivating diversity is one of the reasons he wanted to support a women's group.
“Diversity of staff brings a diversity of thought,” he said.
That's also important to Wandahwa, who hopes to make her group as inclusive as possible in order to help women catch up in the tech and entrepreneurship worlds, she said.
“It's not only for people who are developers,” she said. “We're all diverse in using technology today. We see women running their own businesses and being entrepreneurs.”
Diversity also extends to gender, even in groups organized around women. Gearhart, who teamed with Launch NJ Founder Carlos Abad to form her group, believes men can serve as guides.
“The group is also open to men because, even though this is focused on women, they have contributions to make as well,” she said.
And why not? Based on the numbers alone, shutting out men entirely would prevent the group from accessing the past experience that might help women grow their business in the future.
This would be key, because Swartz's study has found that successfully procuring VC funds may require a level of preparedness many don't realize.
“The process you engage in needs to be so completely, thoroughly thought through, and the preparation needs to be extremely detailed,” Swartz said. “If you've never done this before, how do you know what to do?”
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