Your startup is inferior to that guy with the mobile app for golfers

In case you needed a reminder that ventures traditionally associated with women are inherently inferior to things that are manly and such, tech reporter Jolie O’Dell is happy to remind you via Twitter.

Women: Stop making startups about fashion, shopping, & babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.

After a few of her followers call her to task, she eventually backs down to “there’s a glut of them & it bothers me” and “[a]ll the DEMO female-led companies are one of those three niches. I was disappointed, clearly.” But ultimately, she arrives at the classic girl-stuff burial ground: Girl stuff is stupid because it’s pointless, because it’s girl stuff.

Because I refuse to believe those smart, talented women are making the best use of their time & skills to change the world.

(Background: O’Dell made her comments in regard to DEMO 2011, a tech conference with some amount of focus on emerging tech and entrepreneurship–lots of pitches, presentations, and demonstrations. In her 140-word tweets, she doesn’t get around to mentioning exactly which girly startups she found so offensive, so one can only speculate.)

I get where she’s coming from, almost. A little. In the business world, where women still struggle for acceptance and recognition, it can be jarring to see women make it to the big show and start talking about shoes and diapers. It’s not an image some women want to see promoted. But O’Dell’s complaint has nothing to do with female business founders flashing cleavage or tittering through demos–they’re giving women a bad image simply by offering products of a traditionally female nature.

(As many of O’Dell’s Twitter responders pointed out, as well as many of the women surveyed by post author J. Maureen Henderson, the founders of Zappos, Bluefly, and Diapers.com also spend a lot of time talking about shoes and diapers. They can get away with it, though, because apparently it’s okay if you’re a guy.)

The best use of a woman’s “time & skills,” it’s implied, is non-girly stuff. Commerce, parenting–these things are women’s concerns, frivolous and meaningless. We’re held to the standard of world-changing. O’Dell never really gives us examples of what she does consider a worthy such pursuit, outside of GitHub and Kiva, but since she doesn’t criticize any of the male business founders for presenting not one but two services helping you find the right wine, or the guy who made a robot that dances to your iPod, her standards for startups that “change the world” seem rather obscure. It’s not really a matter of changing the world, or of business savvy or market saturation–it’s a matter of a shameful aspect of female-ness that O’Dell would rather not intrude on the business world.

Starting a business requires an investment of time, energy, money, and focus that can only really be directed at something that interests and inspires. O’Dell seems to have been exaggerating a bit in her tweets, considering the number of women-driven launches and demos that fell outside of that forbidden category. (She seems to have missed BringShare, a tool to help small businesses track and evaluate their online marketing efforts; and Stroome, a cloud-based platform that allows journalists, filmmakers, and others to collaboratively edit and share video online.) But if what engages a woman really is shopping, or motherhood, or gardening or cupcakes, telling her she should be pursuing something more serious and man-approved leaves her to a) devote her resources to something she doesn’t necessarily care about or understand, or b) remove herself from the market entirely.

There’s also the fact that so many businesses got their start as a way to address specific needs. Zappos got its start when founder Nick Swinmurn couldn’t find brown Airwalks at the mall. Diapers.com was started by two dads struggling to keep up with diaper demands in their young households. Memetales, launched at this past DEMO, is headed by CEO Maya Bisineer, a developer and mother who wanted to make engaging children’s books easily available to kids. Dismissing a woman’s work to address her needs is in the direction of dismissing her needs. Whether the needs are to find a book your kid will read, to find a cheaper or quicker way to buy clothes, or just to capitalize on a talent or an activity that interests you, the message is, Don’t waste your time on that. What’s important to you isn’t important. Do things that are important to other people.

Seeing more female-lead startups in male-dominated fields would be awesome. It’s on the list of other things to work toward: Getting more girls and women interested in tech fields. Gaining widespread recognition for women already in tech fields. Supporting women in all areas of the workplace, top to bottom. Helping more women into C-level positions, and then helping them help other women up behind them. And, yeah, giving interested women the opportunities for entrepreneurship that have traditionally been the territory of men. No business exists in a vacuum, of course, and certainly no business venture is completely beyond criticism, but when we’re trying to encourage entrepreneurship among women, it’s disingenuous to then say, “Wait! Stop! We didn’t mean that kind of entrepreneurship. That kind is embarrassing and not okay.”

Here’s what’s not okay: According to the Center for Venture Research’s annual report on the “angel investor” market, in 2010, women-owned ventures accounted for 21 percent of applications for angel capital, and that 13 percent of them received it–five percent below the overall rate. Facebook’s top female executive both preaches and practices the importance of supporting other women–but also criticizes women for asking “girl questions” about, say, finding a mentor, and suggests that the glass ceiling will go away if we don’t believe in it, that what we see as sexism is just women not being assertive enough. And a woman in the tech industry goes to a conference and sees woman after woman presenting startups–and her only contribution is to criticize them for being girly. That’s pretty embarrassing to me. I’m embarrassed for her.

It’s not a zero-sum game–encouraging women as they enter into male-dominated fields doesn’t require cutting other women down. A world where women can lead tech businesses requires a) a world where women own businesses, and b) a world where women lead in tech. It takes both. Creating an environment in which women are supported in their entrepreneurial efforts sends a message to all women with entrepreneurial tendencies, whether Mommy or manly, that there is a place for them in startups. Today’s girls startup could be tomorrow’s CEO and angel investor, helping yet another woman get her startup off the ground.

Well, okay, not tomorrow. At some point in the next few years. Whenever it’s okay with Jolie O’Dell.

For those interested: Fast Company’s Allyson Kapin offers a list of 25 women-run startups to watch, with a bonus list of organizations supporting female entrepreneurs.

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20 Responses to Your startup is inferior to that guy with the mobile app for golfers

  1. EG says:

    Because I refuse to believe those smart, talented women are making the best use of their time & skills to change the world.

    Sure. I mean, getting women the resources they need to make raising children less difficult and and stressful, how the hell could something like that benefit the world? And by “world,” I of course mean “men.”

  2. Lisa says:

    Great post! And thanks for getting me onto MeMeTales – that looks really interesting and cool! (I work in a library, and I get very excited about apps that encourage reading ^_^)

    There probably are a lot of startups about fashion, shopping, and babies – but there are probably also a lot about sports, cars, and the stock market because people are interested in those kinds of things! I don’t think every startup needs to be “world-changing” and I would much rather women be behind fashion startups then none at all.

    And if I made an app, it would probably be about crochet, because that’s what I like. In fact, I’m thinking of going to technical college to learn *how* to make apps … sorry Jolie – looks there’s more girly tech stuff coming your way! ~_^

  3. James says:

    Fuck the bourgeoisie.

  4. ugsome says:

    Nice way to publicly reinforce the smug dudebros’ little stereotypes that chix aren’t serious people, Ms. O’Dell. Don’t think your ploy to suck up to the tech boy’s club goes unnoticed.

  5. Z S says:

    About 70-80% of domestic consumer spending (variation by industry) in the US is in female control – much of this it may technically be men’s money, but women take care of it. That means if you want to sell to children, or even to a lot of men, you have to go through women, and if you want to sell to women, you have to go through women. Hence catering to mothers/wives/all women is GOOD BUSINESS. It is necessary, important business. It is ludicrous to sideline or diminish consumer spending; it is 70% of the economy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_spending Yes it is girly, and it is also what keeps the rest of the world turning. The choices of women pay for the bombs and the hospitals and the schools and the roads and all the grown-up, manly things Ms O’Dell deems so much more “important”. The choices we make as consumers every day are part of the world she wants us to change.

    Besides, were it not for washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and so on, how many women would still be forced to stay at home who right now can get out there and pursue their dream? They are as important as tractors, fertilizers, and combine harvesters, that free men and women from subsistence farming. They radically transform what humans can spend their lives doing; discovering DNA, flying to the moon etc. Women are half the world and so are men, and what changes their everyday lives so profoundly also changes the world.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Dismissing a woman’s work to address her needs is in the direction of dismissing her needs. Whether the needs are to find a book your kid will read, to find a cheaper or quicker way to buy clothes, or just to capitalize on a talent or an activity that interests you, the message is, Don’t waste your time on that. What’s important to you isn’t important. Do things that are important to other people.

    Bingo!

  7. Seth Gordon says:

    The emphasis on startups that “change the world” is really an artifact of the tech-journalism world, where the startups worth paying attention to are the companies flush with venture capital whose business models can be summarized in a short drama-laden paragraph.

    I used to work for Kenan Systems, a company that specialized in billing software for telecom companies. (Remember when phone companies had all these arcane rules about calling your five best friends for free, and ten cents a minute for anyone within fifty miles, discounted to eight cents a minute on Saturdays, Sundays, and alternate Tuesdays? We handled that.) World-changing? Not really. Sexy? No. Profitable? Hell yeah: the founder started it in 1982 with a thousand bucks of his own money, took no outside investment, and then sold it in 1999 for over a billion.

  8. Amarantha says:

    I fail to see how these types of products are any less valuable than any other “manly man” ones, whatever those are. But aside from that, what do you want to bet that ladies who are pitching “traditionally female products” may have an easier time getting funding as women? I’m guessing that the very male VC world is less likely to fund a woman entrepreneur full-stop, but may be more likely to trust their ability in a more traditionally “female” genre. Because of sexism. So it’s probably also a matter of women chasing the money.

  9. The underlying problem here seems to be that of a male-identified woman. These are women who glorify (rather than just respect or appreciate) anything male to the point that they become somewhat anti-female. It’s as though they’re trying to earn brownie points by saying, “see I think like you guys think” or “I’m really one of you guys” or “I’m so not like those other women/girls.” It’s really a form of self-hatred, a kind of self-contempt that also presents itself in racial and ethnic distancing where someone denies their racial affiliation to try to identify more with those in “power.”

  10. When I started my business I thought: ‘I shouldn’t start a serious company, so I’ll do a girly thing! Mobile app to let women create their own jewelry it is!” Then I giggled and went to bake some cupcakes and frolic in my garden…

    Oh wait! No! I did it because I know tech, and I know jewelry, and combining them made sense. And because the market is huge. And because it fits a growing market trend.

    Stuff like this really pisses me off.

  11. This is so on point. I’ve often thought similar things and I’m glad you wrote it.

  12. Maya says:

    Thank you for addressing this a giving MeMeTales a shout!
    It is incredibly strange that anyone would find it embarrassing that we are working on startups with huge markets and in domains we understand. I am sure she would not have said that had she ever tried to do a startup on her own. Startups are hard enough, it would be stupidity to start a company in a space where we have neither passion not domain knowledge.

  13. Tony says:

    It’s amazing how many professions that are now considered feminine actually represented progress when women first entered them. One that comes to example now is teaching. When women were first allowed to become teachers, it was a huge advance and a lot of the most forward thinking women of the 19th century were school teachers, it also justified more education for women. A hypothetical critic could have come then and lamented that “all the women in white collar jobs are teachers”, but that would be beside the point. Another example would be first generation immigrants who work at restaurants, farms, convenience stores, as maids, and other initially most accessible service positions. The next generation can go to college, etc. although there is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with any of the above professions. So here is my hypothesis to O’Dell… when women have established themselves as entrepreneurs in a critical mass within areas that they feel comfortable, however “stereotypical”, it will be a big help to women branching out in other areas of entrepreneurship.

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  15. Lolagirl says:

    Jennifer: Bingo!

    Ditto.

    Let’s just call O’Dell blatant sexism for what it is. Anything related to what is traditionally considered “women’s stuff” is silly and trivial while whatever gets a man’s attention is superior and truly important.

    I’m personally sick and tired of supposedly feminist women falling into these tired tropes and (inadvertently, purposefully?) undermining other women in the pursuit of their personal passions and dreams. Of course women don’t have to buy into any of the stuff that is traditionally considered feminine if that isn’t their thing, but that doesn’t mean that any other women who does is some sort of pathetic traitor to their sex.

    And hello, gender essentialist much. Ms. O’Dell?

  16. numb says:

    EG: Sure.I mean, getting women the resources they need to make raising children less difficult and and stressful, how the hell could something like that benefit the world?And by “world,” I of course mean “men.”

    pretty sure getting anybody “the resources they need to make raising children less difficult and and stressful” is a world benefit, how is this NOT a benefit to men again?

  17. seisy says:

    I wish I didn’t understand her point. I mean, I see exactly where it is wrong, and I know that my ‘getting it’ stems from a lot of internalized nonsense about how girl/woman-associated things are bad or lesser, but that doesn’t make it easier to escape.

    Especially when it comes to those things that are part of gender roles and stereotypes I personally find constricting. And there is a catch-22 here (though that seems true of pretty much every experience related to being a woman in this society), in that….hmm… we’re all so pigeonholed, sometimes. And when only a few people break that mold, they often get dismissed as the exception that proves the rule: that the categories are solid and real and inescapable. And even though it isn’t fair at all, in that context, it can be very difficult (though still wrong) to not see those who do conform to it as…IDK, hurting the effort to break free of those narrow roles.

  18. FYouMudFlaps says:

    I see your point, article-creator. But I also must say I share Ms. O’Dell’s frustration somewhat. NOT because girl stuff is lesser or bad. It seems every time there’s a list of “hot young entrepreneurs” and the like, there’s about 7-9 men out of 10. The 1 or so women present are presented as tokens almost and yes their startups seem to always be about one of those three things.

    So how bout this, maybe I should turn my annoyance to the writers who select these entrepreneurs rather than the women themselves?

  19. ola says:

    Z S:
    About 70-80% of domestic consumer spending (variation by industry) in the US is in female control – much of this it may technically be men’s money, but women take care of it. That means if you want to sell to children, or even to a lot of men, you have to go through women, and if you want to sell to women, you have to go through women. Hence catering to mothers/wives/all women is GOOD BUSINESS. It is necessary, important business. It is ludicrous to sideline or diminish consumer spending; it is 70% of the economy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_spendingYes it is girly, and it is also what keeps the rest of the world turning. The choices of women pay for the bombs and the hospitals and the schools and the roads and all the grown-up, manly things Ms O’Dell deems so much more “important”. The choices we make as consumers every day are part of the world she wants us to change.

    Besides, were it not for washing machines, fridges, vacuum cleaners and so on, how many women would still be forced to stay at home who right now can get out there and pursue their dream? They are as important as tractors, fertilizers, and combine harvesters, that free men and women from subsistence farming. They radically transform what humans can spend their lives doing; discovering DNA, flying to the moon etc. Women are half the world and so are men, and what changes their everyday lives so profoundly also changes the world.

  20. Adda says:

    I love this post. It addresses such important points.

    I too have had moments where I look at a list of women led startups and see that 2/3s are family/fashion orientated and groaned. I think sometimes the concern is that putting a fashion company online doesn’t a tech company make.

    That said, I totally agree that tearing down the entrepreneurial efforts of any women-led startup in NO WAY benefits anyone. The only way to get a more diverse pool of women-led startups is to just encourage, encourage, encourage. More women, no matter what they are doing, is a good thing. And the only way to get more women doing anything at all is to tell them that what they have to contribute is valuable for the world and in the market and that we need them to take risks and devote themselves to solving problems. And who knows what someone’s next startup idea will be?

    Look, most startups are not good ideas, most will fail. But you have to encourage all 100 companies in order to get the 10 that will really shine.

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