Featured Carousel Features January 2019 Uncategorized

Empowering Women in Technology Startups

Written By: Sara Dagen, Allison Alsup

When Julie Johnson first started working in the lighting design industry, providing the best lighting solution for buildings was fairly simple. First, design your lighting plan alongside architects based on codes and calculations. Second, work with lighting manufacturers to find the right product. Third, install your design to meet your client’s aesthetic needs.

With the advent of LED technology and the internet, the lighting design industry changed. Formerly, Johnson could base her quotes to clients on prices listed in printed catalogs. Now Johnson finds pricing for lighting less than illuminating.

“The number of manufacturers increased dramatically, and, unlike other industries, pricing for lighting is not static,” said Johnson, an 18-year lighting industry veteran and founder of LiteSwap, Inc. “Depending on location, quantities and lighting representatives, the cost fluctuates dramatically, even for the same product. Finding the right lighting product was like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

While Johnson could be more creative with her lighting design, it was difficult to find a good quality and cost-effective product. To solve this problem, Johnson knew she had to take matters into her own hands, specifically by creating a startup business that provided services and a digital marketplace for lighting in the construction industry.

She faced another challenge, however. She didn’t have any experience in starting such a business, especially one in the technology field.

Johnson is one of many women across the world who have college degrees and a business idea, but little experience when it comes to actually starting a business. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, fewer than 10 million women owned businesses; that is but a fraction of the more than 156 million women counted in the 2010 Census.

The problem is even worse for the number of women in leadership roles in business. According to Forbes, 24 female CEOs lead the companies on the 2018 Fortune 500 – a mere 4.8 percent of companies, down from 6.4 percent in 2017.

In the world of technology startups, the number of women in leadership roles is equally as low. Only 5 percent of technology startups are owned by women. To make matters worse, 90 percent of investor money goes to startups founded by men and, as of 2010, only 7.7 percent of all patents listed a woman as the primary inventor.

While many have recognized the problem and tried to create programs to address these issues, they haven’t had much success in boosting the number of women in technology startup leadership roles.

However, according to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a few programs have started moving the needle. The University of Florida is the home of one such program – Empowering Women in Technology Startups. EWITS is a 10-week, hands-on, experiential learning program intended to help professional women understand the
process of commercialization of an invention. In the program, women divide into teams to develop a business model for a real technology and develop the elements of a company to commercialize the invention.

“EWITS provides a simulation of a real-world experience of a startup company,” said Kathy Sohar, EWITS co-founder and director of the Collaboratory for Women Innovators located in UF Innovate | The Hub. “Participants learn the elements of commercializing a technology, writing a business plan and developing an investor pitch – but they don’t have to quit their current job or take a financial risk.”

The program has helped more than 300 women since it began in 2012, according to Sohar. Johnson was one of those women inspired by the experience.

“The program opened my eyes to the opportunity and risks associated with starting a business,” Johnson said. “The part of the program that helped navigate me onto the entrepreneurial path was learning that I don’t need to know everything! I need to have a good solution for a big problem.”

Johnson decided to help architects, designers and engineers find the best possible lighting products that meet their budget and design criteria by creating a software as a service platform with a marketplace for lighting.

“I may not have my platform ready, but I have come a long way,” Johnson said. “I have a prototype, patent, explainer video, website and partners waiting for my next step. Completing the EWITS program helped me succeed by showing me the tools, process and resources to get started.

“It also reminded me that failure happens – and that I am up to the challenge.”

The EWITS program addresses both hard and soft skills, Sohar said. In addition to providing the basics of forming a business, it also addresses the barriers women face. It helps encourage participants to stretch beyond their comfort zones, to recognize they don’t need to know everything or be perfect – or even do it all by themselves.

“The team aspect is very powerful,” Sohar said. “The women work as a team, learning various aspects of business such as market research, financials and marketing, as they simulate building a company.”

Sohar said that they have been fortunate to have strong community support for the program.

“The Barnett Family Foundation provided important early-stage funding,” she said. “We also were honored to have Info Tech as the sponsor for the recent Fall 2018 EWITS cohort. The program also relies heavily on volunteers who serve as mentors and speakers.”

Over the years, EWITS alumni, such as Johnson, have shared their stories with the program organizers. Now they are bringing these stories to a larger stage. On Jan. 31, the Collaboratory for Women Innovators, in partnership with the Cade Museum and Guts & Glory GNV Storytelling, will host a special event highlighting the EWITS program and showcasing stories from alumni. The public is welcome to attend, but tickets are limited.

EWITS was the genesis for the Collaboratory for Women Innovators, which launched this past year. Details about the Collaboratory and the EWITS storytelling event are available at innovate.research.ufl.edu/collaboratory. 

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