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How I excel as a female entrepreneur in the tech space


group of friends talking

Let’s get over ourselves, ladies.

This is my story as the female founder of a tech startup, which has managed to raise over £500,000 in just 12 months without a single active user (yet).

Perhaps it’s not so tough being a female founder in tech after all?

I have noticed a lot of female entrepreneurs being rather negative about how much harder it is for women to get ahead as entrepreneurs, especially in the tech industry but as controversial as this sounds, I would have to disagree.

I recently traveled from London to beautiful Lisbon to attend the Web Summit tech conference (the biggest in Europe) and was invited to a ‘Women in Tech’ event, which I felt rather obliged to attend for obvious reasons. I realize I’m unlikely to make many new friends by saying this but it really did feel like a suffragette feminist rally. Wild exaggeration of course but, instead of inspiring each other with stories of entrepreneurial success and how we’ve overcome struggles, we spent an hour listening to so-called stories of prejudice towards women in the tech space and it saddened me.

First of all, since when was being ‘different’ such a bad thing?

In my experience as a rather ‘unusual’ person in many respects, I have found it can so often reap positive results because you can stand out & tend to be memorable as a result. As a woman in tech, I have had the opportunity to speak at far more ‘how I got started’ presentations, have been invited to special events and have been overly praised for my efforts & achievements thus far despite feeling like I should actually be much further ahead than I am by now.

Many ‘women in tech’ would feel patronized by that kind of commendation, but I think of it in entirely the opposite way. I bloody deserve all the praise I can get for the little I’ve achieved so far because it’s been seriously hard work and terrifying at times; so quite frankly I am happy to take all the back-pats going. And to be honest, I feel bad for the lads in tech who are just expected to have reached the milestones I have by now and are probably berated if not.

Having said this, when people tell me that my female biology has helped me to raise the investment I have so far, it always prickles me.

Apparently because I’m female I’m better at empathizing with people and am therefore more likable and more investable.

Look, that may be true to a point – I’m very likable – only kidding – but let’s get one thing straight. Investors invest in ‘people’ for sure but success and likability is entirely down to the individual and how hard they work, the appeal of their character, how trustworthy they seem, how innovative and exciting their idea is, how passionate and competent they are and how dedicated to the cause, aka how much blood, sweat and tears they are willing to donate to reach their goals. It is entirely about the ‘individual’ as a person rather than ‘gender’ that will get you ahead in the tech industry or anywhere else for that matter.

I back myself as a human being, not as a female.

I am very aware of my faults and failings and I am no where near reaching my goals yet but I really do believe in what I’m doing and I absolutely think people can feel that.

I created Zone app because I really REALLY wanted it to exist, simply so that me and my friends would be able to meet new people more easily; in real life situations and most importantly, in the actual moment, without having to pre-book or message strangers for days on end or having to define ourselves by our relationship status or sexuality. I am obsessed with my phone like anyone else but I don’t think we’re using ‘social’ tech in the right way yet, so I like to think of Zone as more of a social movement than an app, especially as I am entirely ‘UNtechy’ really.

After all this, I feel like I’ve just outed myself as a fraudulent ‘female in tech’ but the truth is that if you’re really passionate about an idea then you’re going to have to outsource plenty of areas of the business you don’t have a clue about, mine just happened to be the ‘tech’ part itself!

There was a time I thought you’d hand Java Script to an actor and UI stood for Under the Influence. Just saying.

I think technology is amazing at putting us in front of millions of people (well, profiles) in an instant but how often are we actually ‘meeting’? Not very. I felt frustrated that the technology was there and the people were there but there was a link missing in bringing the two together.

I would argue that we could actually do with an injection of ‘non-techies’ in the tech industry because if you think about it, it’s these incredibly bright but intensely tech-focused geniuses who are building code which will determine our future as a species. A little far-fetched perhaps, but the techies are making unbelievable strides into the future, which we are all fascinated/obsessed by but with little regard to how socially dangerous they could actually be for us as people. The emphasis is nearly always entirely on how innovative and new age the technology is but the industry needs to realize the importance of its responsibility for making sure they consider what humans actually need rather than what will sell.

female entrepreneur - woman staringI was on holiday with my best friend in a relevant situation when the first light bulb lit up on this topic for me and they’ve been lighting up all over my life ever since. I think of Zone as my back to the future app. It’s a social app to meet new like-minded people who are in your GPS location in real life and in the moment, either on your own (as a Lone Wolf) or with your friends (as a Wolfpack) but the focus is using online to get offline. Alanis Morrisette would have something to say about that no doubt.

Yes, I’ve experienced a number of so-called ‘prejudices’ but I always thought of myself as a welcome novelty rather than an alien that must be destroyed.

One occasion I distinctly remember was when I attended a ‘Geeks in Tech’ event hoping I’d find one who could help me become one. I took myself off to this super cool techy warehouse-style office building. I was wearing a little pink ensemble and heels and confidently strutted into the room of rather geeky looking techy chaps. You must excuse the stereotype because it really isn’t far from the truth at these things and certainly was on this occasion.

I was the ONLY girl and it felt like all the attendees were wondering why on earth I was there.

Then, the one at the front of the room on the mic thinking I had stumbled into the wrong event proceeded to direct me to the Cocktail making class upstairs. It was pretty judgmental really but I refused to be insulted and enthusiastically announced to the room that I was the Founder of a tech startup & was looking for someone to build my app… put it this way, there wasn’t much of a queue for the role initially but once I got chatting to people most were very welcoming and willing to help. The eye-rollers among them were just not cool people – I didn’t feel any more offended because they were male.

24 months later, people still seem fairly stunned when I say I’m in ‘tech’ because a) I don’t fit the stereotype b) the ratios of men to women are still so off c) I think men can feel quite emasculated by it, like ‘tech’ is their right or something. To be fair this is kind of how I feel at the idea of a House Husband, which is JUST as judgmental.

I have realized writing this, that I’m even more passionate about this topic than I had thought. I feel strongly that the kudos to the successful women of the world is such old news. I couldn’t help but feel this way at Web Summit; if we’d been sat in a conference room in Somalia or had transported back to Europe 100 years ago, then we would have the right to sing and dance about being fabulous simply for having a vagina but it’s 2016 and Europe has one of the highest populations of women advancing in all areas of the tech industry. Get over it ladies!

It’s been quite the journey. As a female entrepreneur heading into the tech world with an enormous amount of passion but absolutely zero tech knowledge was seemingly a very risky decision and to be honest I’m glad I didn’t know what I know now but because it’s REALLY hard to build an app NOT because it’s hard to be a woman in tech.

Having said all this, I arrived at a meeting with a wealth manager a couple of weeks ago and the guy asked me what time we should expect Charly. He was pretty embarrassed when I revealed that I was in fact Charly, which would have been innocent enough a mistake if he hadn’t gone on to say “Oh, I thought you might be Charly’s PA”. There’s obviously nothing wrong with being a PA but I couldn’t help but feel immediately defensive when I asked him why. This was his response:

“A) the waving of the pink sparkly pen over the pretty notebook B) from our emails I was expecting ‘Charly’ to be a man C) Isn’t it pretty rare for girls to do what you’re doing? Good for you and good luck though, I guess.“

There’s so much wrong with this response that I wouldn’t know where to start but I thought I’d finish on that just to contradict my entire argument and give you a laugh at my expense.

One of our most important brand messages reminds us that we are made of cells not pixels because we really believe in the importance of remembering what it means to be (a male or female) HUMAN.

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Written by Charly Harrison

Charly is the CEO of Zone App, a new social networking app for groups of friends to find other groups of people who are nearby, right now.