Women in technology. Women in STEM. Female tech startups. In most cases, such phrases are empowering for females who see themselves working toward STEM positions or leadership roles in the tech industry, and they are also empowering to the general structure of startups where investors and leadership want to see more balance in the workforce because they recognize diversity as a benefit to growth. At the same time, many women in tech who have worked their way into leadership roles are tired of having the “female” qualifier every time “technology” is mentioned.
Despite the media coverage that elevates the talents and innovative discoveries of women in tech, only 2.2% of investments are currently allocated to women-run tech startups, even though these companies led by women have a 35% ROI. Even with such setbacks, there are still plenty of conversations about diversity in tech and the industry is making some progress—and it is most apparent in early start ups that are built on a diverse work culture from the start.
Though women in tech leadership roles are exceptional, they are no longer an exception to the rule. Despite glass ceilings, these women create real human solutions with a competitive edge that inject innovation into ecommerce, science, security, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, software, biology, city planning, robotics, AI, and ecology, just to name a few. Here are four great women founders and leaders in tech startups that grabbed our attention.
Co-founder and CEO Leigh Honeywell helped lay the groundwork of Tall Poppy, which offers companies access to high-quality personal security tools and services to prevent online harassment, and has become more prominent during the emergence of social media.
Honeywell’s background led her to this tech solution. She has more than a decade of experience in computer security incident response. Prior to co-founding Tall Poppy in 2018, she was a Technology Fellow at the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology. Her industry career included running security incident response at Slack, protecting infrastructure at Salesforce.com, shipping patches for computers at Microsoft, and analyzing malware at Symantec.
Honeywell explains that her startup offers social media counseling as a benefit that companies provide their workers, like health insurance against trolls.
“Online harassment disproportionately targets women, disproportionately targets people of color, LGBT [people], folks with disabilities,” Honeywell said in a 2018 interview with Forbes. “I want to get employers to pay for it for their whole employee base in order to be able to scale up the service.”
As for her take on women in tech, she is very vocal (and very active) about the need for a change of perspective across the industry.
“There’s an argument about diversity in tech that comes up often enough that I wanted to address it head-on—the idea that hiring women, recruiting diversely, etc. will somehow result in quality going down,” she wrote in her blog. “It comes up a lot with respect to quotas and affirmative action policies. The thing is, it’s just wrong.”
In May of 2019, Tall Poppy recently received $1M in seed round investment to help further fight online harassment.
As a founder and CEO, Ting Shih developed the idea of ClickMedix during an MIT workshop where the professor asked each one in the class to come up with an idea that could help a billion people. She took that idea and made it happen.
ClickMedix is now an award-winning social enterprise that enables coordinated healthcare delivery through telemedicine. Services are delivered by frontline health practitioners using digital, mobile technology that improves access, lowers costs, and enhances healthcare for patients throughout the world. It is especially beneficial in underserved areas that may not have local access to immediate medical care.
“It’s a lot more than a gadget,” Ting explained in a CGTN America interview. “What we use the mobile application for is really to empower those around the patient who can actually help the patient.”
Shih overcame her own struggles with being female in the tech industry, explaining that when she was starting out at Carnegie Mellon as a computer science major, she had to deal with comments like “You got in just because you were a girl.”
In an interview with Carnegie Mellon’s Women@SCS, she explained, “I felt like I always had to prove myself to my male peers in order for my ideas to be heard…But this made me tougher and more determined to prove those guys wrong and that females are just as good as males in learning computer science.”
In 2015, Shih was named a “Mother of Invention” by Toyota for her work with ClickMedix.
Leah LaSalla is the technical founder and CEO of Astral AR, a company that creates and programs armored drones to allow law enforcement to detect guns and bombs through walls, as well as detect heartbeats and breathing, which can be beneficial in finding people who are trapped in tight places.
Overall, LaSalla says the technology exists to create “situational awareness” so law enforcement can make educated decisions about risk and safety, for themselves and those around them.
As for the work culture she has created with co-founder José La Placa Amigò, she explained in a 2018 interview with Forbes, “One day I woke up and realized that an employer is an extremely powerful position to be in and drive what needs to happen in society...80 percent of our team are women and people of color, and some of us are veterans and disabled individuals, so this is very personal for all of us.”
LaSalla grew up around technology—her father was an aviation engineer at Northrop Grumman who later started a super-precision tool-and-die job shop where LaSalla worked during high school. She studied computer-aided design in college and taught herself nine coding languages (describing herself as a self-taught polyglot). LaSalla also spent over a decade as a software engineer while raising her daughter.
Through her experiences, her leadership skills include paying everyone at Astral AR equally and mentoring disadvantaged females in technology.
Mariana Matus, CEO and cofounder at Biobot Analytics, has laid the groundwork for community health through epidemiological data with Newsha Ghaeli, also co-founder and president.
Simply put, the startup measures wastewater to determine the health of a community, from the kind of diet they have, to the kinds of drugs they use. It all ends up in the sewers and cities are now finding ways to implement health changes to the community based on their findings.
Matus was born in Mexico City, studied college at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and received a master’s degree at Wageningen University in the Netherlands before going to MIT for her Ph.D. in computational biology.
“[Newsha and I] both believe in the technology we are building—that it will be present in cities all over the world, and that it will help them to collect intelligence that make healthier communities,” Matus said in an interview with VCGC investment group.
When asked about how people look at women in tech these days, Matus explained, “I don’t think too much about it. If I think about it, then it will hold me back. Sometimes you find people that will not respond well to your actions, but more often, you find that most people are completely fine and see you as an equal contributor.”
Regardless of the background and education, these women in tech are a small core sample of the many women who are forging new models for tech startups and are influencing smaller and larger companies to rethink their own models to include more diversity in tech.