Inforum Aims to Give Women in Tech the Confidence and Skills to Grow

Like most women involved with the tech industry, I cringed when I read about Ellen Pao’s discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins, perhaps the most storied venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. I have experienced what they call “soft sexism” throughout my career, and in different sectors—not just tech—and many of Pao’s allegations rang true for me. That pervasive culture where the contributions of women are systematically devalued is one thing Inforum is trying to change.

Inforum is a professional women’s organization that, in part, focuses on female startup founders. Inforum recently launched a new program called inGAGE, which seeks to position Michigan as a hub for tech entrepreneurs who are women.

Two classes—inGAGE Growth and inGAGE Master Class—are starting in Detroit and Grand Rapids this spring, and the goal is to take women-led tech startups to “the next level,” said Alyssa Martina, a serial tech entrepreneur and lecturer at the University of Michigan law school who helped develop the curriculum. Those interested in participating in either class should apply soon, Martina said. (Links to do so are here and here.)

“We have a problem in Michigan, where we have a lot of women who own small businesses, but not many who are tech entrepreneurs,” Martina said. “What are the gaps and how can we help close them? We want to help scale their technology and companies, and help them be as successful as they can be. I know how hard the landscape is because I have my own tech startup.”

Martina said many women in tech seek authenticity—a nice way of saying they’re not always comfortable with the bluster and relentless self-promotion that are prevalent in the startup world—or they don’t feel the confidence they need to effectively sell their ideas. It’s harder for women entrepreneurs to connect with the resources they need to grow their startups because they can “fold more easily” in the face of criticism, she added, particularly if feels dismissive. Part of the goal of inGAGE classes is to give participants the skills and confidence they need to grow.

“I also think the industry has an image problem,” Martina points out, meaning that investors are so keen to find the next Mark Zuckerberg that they tend to discount ideas coming from women, people of color, or people who are older because they don’t fit the young, white, male Zuckerberg mold. “We have to keep breaking down those misconceptions.”

Martina recently went live with Memloom, her fourth startup in which she’s one of three female co-founders. Memloom is a marketing platform that focuses on effective storytelling as a means to build customer and stakeholder relationships, she said. (Nonprofits and foundations are a few of her target customers, so it’s not just corporations she’s after.)

“Having launched several companies, I know it’s easy to lose focus, particularly if you’re a woman with family obligations,” she said. “That’s why we also do self-reflection and goal-setting at inGAGE. Part of it means being really concrete about your accomplishment goals, or about your work-life balance.”

Martina also feels the encouragement from facilitators and fellow participants is key to making inGAGE work. “There’s a lack of competitive hostility that is really phenomenal,” she said. “They all want each other to win.”

One thing Martina has discovered as part of her own journey as a serial entrepreneur is how supportive male angel investors in Michigan have been, though she’d still like to see more accredited women get involved. “They need to feel like this is a state open to doing business with them,” she added.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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