the ceiling at 1871
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Two years later, how I feel about the Women in Tech piece I wrote for Crain’s

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Two years ago this week I was working at a tech company at 1871, Chicago’s tech co-working space, and I commented on a post about the lack of women in tech on the Built in Chicago forum. An editor from Crain’s Chicago Business reached out to me to see if I would expand on my ideas and write an editorial for the magazine about why I thought there weren’t more women working in Chicago tech. Why they didn’t ask the original post author, Reva Minkoff, I don’t know, but I think the editors were specifically interested in my somewhat unbridled remarks that 1871 was filled with dudes. If technology was going to be the next big industry in Chicago, they prompted me, wouldn’t it be a pity if it turned out to be just another white boys’ club like so many industries that have come before it?

Yes, I thought. But we already know that tech is dominated by white guys. I didn’t really feel like writing an editorial representing all women in the Chicago tech scene; I wasn’t even an active member of women in tech groups or friends with that many women who worked at 1871. But I did know a lot of women business owners who were making shit happen at a very grassroots level and who the city, it seemed, didn’t give two shits about. I’d rather write about how the businesses that are inclusive of women are being shut out and shut down by the city. So that’s what I told them.

If being a woman gave me access to a soapbox I wouldn’t otherwise get, I thought, I was going to take it.

They said okay.

So I wrote about my experience at 1871, how it seemed the city paid attention to the startups run by white men there while it actively shut down businesses run by women because they couldn’t find a way to permit them. I said more women needed access to tech who didn’t have it, and that the city should pay attention to women who weren’t interested in building massively scalable businesses.

When the essay was published I made a conscious decision not to read the comments. I knew there would be some element of what I said that wouldn’t sit well with some women in tech, that maybe it seemed I was saying most women weren’t interested in tech.

Of course a follow-up essay appeared as a response to say how dare I speak for all women in tech, women who are perfectly capable of building their own websites and scaling massive enterprises. But when I opened my mouth two years ago, despite having reservations for exactly this reason, it wasn’t to speak for all women in tech. It was to call out the hypocrisy of a city that supports an industry dominated by white males while actively trying to shut down businesses that are traditionally more accessible to women and people of color, those with lower barriers to entry that rely less on business school connections.

While the entrepreneurs at 1871 had access to endless amounts of financial and human capital to sandbox their sometimes horrendous startup ideas, ideas that solved the problems of an elite few and often failed due to lack of market interest or operational ineptitude, real Chicago small businesses were closing their doors because they couldn’t operate around out-of-date City of Chicago licensing requirements. Their ideas had been validated by the marketplace, but they couldn’t legally operate in the city. City leaders who showed up to the “workshops” for food trucks, coffee carts, organic ice cream producers and shared kitchens weren’t there to support business like they were at 1871, but rather to tell entrepreneurs why they had to shut down.

This still makes me mad and it should make everyone mad, and I’m not thrilled that I only got the chance to write about it for publication because I was a woman working at 1871. Having to write about it with that lens, and with the unfortunate headline, “Why Aren’t There More Women in Chicago Tech?” takes the issue away from Chicago’s hypocritical and hostile business environment and turns it into the tech version of the mommy wars: a virtual cat fight through potentially viral content, provided for free by women who want to speak out about issues that are important to them.

I don’t blame the editors at Crain’s for this. I didn’t turn in exactly what they were looking for and I thank them for giving me the platform anyway. But how could they expect one woman to effectively answer the question they posed. Why there aren’t more women in Chicago tech? That’s a research assignment, not an opinion piece.

I could only speak for my own experiences at 1871. I arrived there as a former small business owner (I quit my business in 2012 and handed the keys to my business partner, a story for another post), eager to meet other entrepreneurs, and was shocked to find that the founders there weren’t interested in building businesses, they were only interested in scaling infinitely scalable ideas.

Chalk it up to me naively thinking tech was just small business with better web design skills. Despite my decade-long exposure to the startup community in the form of bibliographical fandom (my home library included copies of the 4-Hour Workweek, Re-work, back issues of Fast Company, etc.), I didn’t realize startups were an entirely different business model. After a while it was clear that 1871 was a place where clueless business school graduates were showered with resources until they failed fast or pivoted. Need reservations at an exclusive restaurant at the very last minute? We can get you those. Want to rent out anything in your apartment to your neighbor to earn extra cash? We can facilitate that.

And it was mostly men.

I didn’t have the vocabulary for it until recently, and I regret not being able to sum it up more succinctly: startup culture isn’t interested in what’s known as a lifestyle business. It’s considered a weakness to have a target audience interested buying some thing you’re building, because if you’re going to be a viable startup, your target audience should be everyone, your thing, everything.

Startups with the potential for mass scalability require founders to be available at all hours to co-founders, employees, customers (if there are customers) and investors. They may require an ass in a seat at an incubator that’s hundreds of miles away from home. They don’t allow for much personal time. So who does that leave to run them? People who have access to capital, industry connections, education, physical health, and time to themselves — time that doesn’t have to be spend on family or work obligations outside a (sometimes unpaid) startup gig. These are most likely to be young, white men.

Of course many people who are not young white men have founded successful tech companies. There are also many young, white men with health problems, aging parents, children, lack of access to capital or other issues which limit their ability to participate in demanding startup culture who did it anyway. However the reality remains: startups place demands on people that are most likely to be fulfilled, given our current cultural and business landscape, by white men. We know this, and we continue to fund tech initiatives as if they are the answer to our city’s economic future.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with supporting tech if it’s part of a larger initiative that supports all kinds of business growth. If we want to support an inclusive business environment that paves the way to a future vibrant business culture in Chicago then we need to make the practice of starting a business inclusive to people of all backgrounds.

To do this we have to:

  1. Support those who wish to have access to “closed” industries like tech, manufacturing, etc. to have access to opportunities, training and capital.
  2. Support industries with lower barriers to entry that are typically more inclusive, like food vending and personal care services, by limiting the restrictions on cost and licensing in order to start and operate these businesses.
  3. Create a culture where around-the-clock work isn’t considered the only path to success. Where “lifestyle” businesses are also given the resources they need to flourish.

I would like to see a city that supports innovative business ideas in the tech and brick and mortar space, whether it’s selling coffee on the street, creating a shared space for food entrepreneurs to safely prepare products, or a tech environment that strives to provide access to developer talent and startup capital to people of all backgrounds. It’s not about women versus men or worse yet, women versus women.

I’m sorry if it didn’t come off like that the first time around.

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