Progress for gender-based diversity seemed elusive when Twitter published its demographic stats last July. 70 percent of its employees and 79 percent of those in leadership roles were male. Similarly, despite the installment of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s leadership force remains 77 percent male, while women constitute only 37 percent of its general staff. Adding salt to the invested reader’s proverbial wound, Google and Facebook released similarly stark numbers. (“We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity,” notes a blurb on Google’s workforce demographics page.)
This data is a grave reminder of the very real dearth of women in the tech industry — the product of a systemic, intricate problem that boils down to a lack of opportunity.
While correcting this disparity is no small feat (droves of articles could be and have been written on that alone), initiatives are being taken in tech-concentrated cities across the country. Web development workshops for women are held regularly in metropolises like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The accelerators Women’s Startup Lab of Menlo Park, California; Avinde of Austin, Texas; and Prosper Women Entrepreneurs of St. Louis, Missouri foster the efforts of women cultivating leadership roles in tech.
And now, Boulder-based incubator program MergeLane seeks to bring more opportunities for women to the forefront.
MergeLane is the product of co-founders Sue Heilbronner’s and Elizabeth Kraus’s experience working in executive capacities at startups. Recognizing the hindrances they faced in, to borrow their words, “a climate that was heavily weighted toward men,” Heilbronner and Kraus decided to advocate for a more balanced demographic fabric in tech. By spring of 2014, they began to mentor and invest in promising women-led companies, a series of moves that would culminate in the birth of MergeLane.
“We...made a determination that we could blend our passion for narrowing the gap in the startup ecosystem with what the evidence shows is a strong investment thesis in favor of companies with diverse leadership teams,” said Heilbronner and Kraus. “This was our inspiration – MergeLane blends our passion for a shift in our culture with our talent and our motivation to provide excellent investor returns.”
A 12-week, full-time program, MergeLane incubates companies operating under at least one female executive with equity interest. Its inaugural session (scheduled for February 2-April 24, 2015) is designed to equip participants with the essentials: over 20 “featured” virtual and local mentors, personal executive coaching, a curriculum covering early-stage business strategies (in this case, based on the book The Lean Startup), and investor connections.
But, given their firsthand experience in the tech workforce – especially as women, Heilbronner and Kraus have tailored MergeLane to address and accommodate more specific needs as well.
Unlike most accelerator programs, MergeLane doesn’t require its enrollees to spend the entire 12 weeks in Boulder; instead, they’re only obligated to spend the first two weeks and the final week on-site. With this “reduced residency requirement,” Heilbronner and Kraus intend to extend participation to entrepreneurs with family-related or other personal commitments.
“We think the decision to NOT require full-time residency in Boulder will expand this option to a far more diverse set of teams who may struggle to leave their homes for 12-13 weeks to participate in an accelerator,” the co-founders said.
Furthermore, MergeLane’s curriculum delves into concepts that adversely affect female executives in tech. “We believe that women, as a generalization, frequently (a) have challenges in asking for help; (b) are less willing to go live, seek funding, or take risks until everything is “ready” or even more than ready; (c) tend to shoulder all of the responsibility versus sharing it with others and creating a support network; (d) undersell, think small, raise too little money in a fundraising round, etc.,” said Heilbronner and Kraus. “We are going to cater the program to meet the leaders right where they are, but we are going to be willing to be in dialogue on these unique issues that we see commonly in the women leaders we encounter – and, candidly, in ourselves.”
In contrast with much of its incubator kin, MergeLane seeks relatively established companies. It favors startups with revenue, contracts, strategic partnerships, and/or other indicators of concrete development in their repertories. Companies with some degree of traction, Heilbronner and Kraus maintain, are more likely to attract investment capital and make otherwise meaningful progress.
However, based on their experience and research, Heilbronner and Kraus understand how this may discourage some women from applying; accordingly, their admission criteria are flexible. “We have designed our program to meet the needs of more established businesses, but because women are statistically less likely to apply for things unless they meet every criteria and we want to make it very clear that we will weigh ALL factors carefully.”
Heilbronner and Kraus are currently raising funds for the 2015 program and are weighing their options for MergeLane’s future, including a multi-year fund.
“We would take a long-range view at planning for future cohorts. There are many opportunities to grow through geographic expansion, partnerships with other organizations or industry and business-stage specialization,” they added.
While calibrating the tech industry’s opportunities for women might seem a Herculean task, Heilbronner and Kraus are eager to take part. “We really want to make a difference in narrowing the gap of women in key milestone stages of the startup ecosystem. We think that matters, and it is the primary motivation for this effort. Based on our internal compasses and the market reception of this idea (investors, mentors, and prospective teams), we think we are the right people, at the right time, doing exactly the right thing to make change.”