“A Long Way to Go”: Spotlight on 7 Female Founders of Successful Tech Startups

March 5, 2020 Charity Heller

Lack of women in leadership positions is a problem in the technology industry: From funding and investment, to hiring, to wages, to promotion, women have been struggling for equal access in the technology space since its inception.

The odds in this battle are even steeper than you think: VC investment as a whole surpassed $136.5 billion in U.S.-based companies by the end of 2019, according to PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor, just shy of record investment in 2018 of $140 billion. And yet women-led companies raise less than 3% of U.S. venture capital dollars, according to Fast Company.

For women of color, this number is even worse: “Less than 0.2% of all early-stage venture funding goes to Black women, while we make up approximately 8% of the U.S. population and are one of the fastest-growing entrepreneur segments in the country,” says Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital.

These numbers are terribly low. But there are still a lot of women-founded technology companies and stories of female-led success. To celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8), we compiled a far-from-complete list of female founders who are bringing B2B solutions to market.

But Smartsheet co-founder Maria Colacurcio might have already said it best: “The fact that we’re celebrating women in tech seems like the strongest confirmation that we have a long way to go.”

“The fact that we’re celebrating women in tech seems like the strongest confirmation that we have a long way to go.”

Someday, being a woman won’t be a remarkable quality in a founder. But until that day comes, these successful female founders continue to inspire: the single mom teaching herself code at night after the kids are in bed, the low-wage worker writing her business plan in between shifts, the middle-aged woman finally going back to school for her degree - and all the other would-be female technology leaders struggling to make their mark.

Gina Bianchini

Gina Bianchini is the founder and CEO of Mighty Networks, rival to Facebook: a white-label community social platform for brands to create websites, online courses, and sub-groups that can be branded and customized. Mighty Networks isn’t Bianchini’s first rodeo. In 2004, she co-founded Ning, another custom content creation platform that had 100 million users within its first three years. (Ning was purchased by Glam Media in 2011 and was co-founded by Marc Andreessen.)

“I celebrate resilience, I celebrate hard work, I celebrate learning from every single experience.” - Gina Bianchini

Melanie Perkins

Melanie Perkins is the co-founder and CEO of Canva, a web-based platform that brought graphic design to the masses. Hailed for being one of the youngest female founders of a tech “unicorn” (company valued at over $1 billion), Australian-born Perkins was just 19 when she launched an online design business for school yearbooks that would eventually become Canva. (Canva was co-founded by Cliff Obrecht, who serves as the COO.)

“If you are determined to solve a problem and passionate to learn everything as you go, that is enough.” - Melanie Perkins

Sandy Lerner

Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco, began building routers in her living room with the goal of sharing data among computer facilities and students at Stanford University, when she co-founded Cisco - named for her hometown of San Francisco. Although Lerner was later fired from her own company by an early investor, she used her stock windfall to fund other technology projects, such as a spectrometer for SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. (Cisco was co-founded by Leonard Bosack.)

“The first rule of every game is to know you’re in one.” - Sandy Lerner

Diane Greene

Diane Greene co-founded VMware, a public cloud computing and virtualization software company. Greene was abruptly ousted from her position as VMware CEO in 2008, following poor stock performance and conflict with Joe Tucci, CEO of Dell EMC. (Dell EMC acquired VMWare in 2004 and is the parent company.)

Greene, who is also an avid sailor and windsurfer, went on to found BeBop and served as CEO for Google Cloud until she resigned in early 2019. (Mendel Rosenblum, Scott Devine, Ellen Wang, and Edouard Bugnion are also co-founders of VMWare.)

“I think the biggest mistake I made was feeling like it was selfish of me to not sell VM Ware, because [my co-founders] wanted to.” - Diane Greene

Alicia Thomas

DIBS was built for a niche industry, but "surge pricing" is a $1 trillion industry. DIBS Founder and CEO Alicia Thomas uses the same dynamic pricing technology that companies like Uber use to adjust prices based on demand, maximizing revenue and customer lifetime - in this case, for gyms and fitness centers, with plans to expand into other industries.

"It’s not the rejection that is the most difficult; it’s managing all of the follow up and the process. You’re constantly selling yourself and your vision for your young company. You have to get people to buy into you, and to believe that you’re the person to build this business from scratch." - Alicia Thomas

Jessica Livingston

If you’ve used Airbnb, Dropbox, Instacart, Reddit, Coinbase, or any number of 2000-plus tech startups that have gone through startup incubation, thank Y Combinator co-founder Jessica Livingston. Y Combinator is an incubator to develop and fund early stage technology startups - worth a combined $155 billion.

Livingston has made fresh headlines with her Summer Hackers Program, which provides coding education and a living stipend to 40 women. Livingston is also a key financial backer of OpenAI, a research organization for the application of general artificial intelligence. (Trevor Blackwell, Paul Graham, and Robert Morris are also co-founders of Y Combinator.)

“I’ll tell you that it is going to be harder for you as a woman, [but] it’s not going to be so much harder that it will make the difference between success and failure. If you want to start a startup, just go ahead and do it, and don’t let yourself be intimidated or distracted by all the noise… The conversation around this topic is too often driven by people who are not actually building anything themselves.” - Jessica Livingston

Lynda Weinman

Meet the Lynda who cofounded Lynda.com. Lynda Weinman is a self-taught web designer who has been called “the mother of the internet.” She wrote Designing Web Graphics in- one of the first non-technical resources available for aspiring designers - in 1995, before creating Lynda.com.

The website began as a free resource for her design students, with videos on animation, audio, design, home computing, photography, video, and interactive design. Lynda.com was acquired by LinkedIn in April 2015 for $1.5 billion. (Lynda.com was also co-founded by Weinman’s husband, Bruce Heavin.)

“Making money is what you have to do to sustain a business. Being driven to create something of value and purpose is much more powerful.” - Lynda Weinman

A common thread among many female founders’ is the desire to assist and inspire other talented women in the tech industry and make success as a technology leader easier for the next generation of women. Too often the tech startup story is told as a fabulous tale of staggering overnight success. But for most founders - female or otherwise - this story begins as one of patience, diligence, and being humble enough to learn from every single mistake.

As we take stock for International Women's Day, we celebrate these business-building qualities that contribute to the sustainable, long-term growth successful female-founded technology companies are known for.

About the Author

Charity Heller

Charity Heller is a senior manager of content at ZoomInfo and Datanyze. She is passionate about creating relationships through storytelling, communication, language, and strategy. Charity is a certified project manager with a BA in English literature and professional editing certification from the University of California, Berkeley.

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