I recently covered the 2014 International CES as my team does annually, which is the largest consumer electronics show in the world. As a female business owner myself with a passion for technology and it’s implementation to make business more efficient, I usually hunt first for the seminars and keynotes by female CEOs and members of the C-Suite of major tech and entertainment companies.
Then as a female entrepreneur of color, I look for panels on diversity, multiculturalism, female presence in the tech and entertainment fields as well as innovative products from startups run by women or minorities. These are usually few and far between, but these finds are the highlights of my week in Las Vegas. Somehow, it amazes me how few women are present at the event, whether they are exhibitors, press, panelists, members of the C-Suite or innovators pushing the latest start-up idea for a shot at being the “next big thing.”
Some argue its the chicken vs the egg theory. You need more women studying technology and learning how to code at an early age to foster a healthy interest. Those girls who code arguably grown up to be executives at top companies, so more women will be hired in top positions. Others argue that if there was more workforce flexibility for women in technology fields, women might be more apt to “lean in” and pursue executive roles in technology companies like the non-traditional employee atmospheres that exist at Google, with on-premise daycare, flexible work hours and maternity/paternity leave support for new moms and dads.
While efforts by companies to hire more women are helping to narrow the gender gap, the glass ceiling has been difficult to shatter. A 2012 International Business Report survey showed that women only hold one in five senior management roles globally, with fewer than one in 10 businesses employing a female CEO.
According to data compiled by the Computing Research Association, fewer than 12 percent of all computer science graduates in the 2010-11 academic year were women — a staggering drop from 1984, when 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. When I come across an example of a tech idea launched by a woman, it becomes important to highlight.
Kelsey Recht knows a thing or two about working in a male-dominated field. The New York City-based entrepreneur started out in the world of finance — long seen as a boys club — and that did not stop her from succeeding in the similarly male-dominated tech industry. If anything, Recht says the gender gap has made her more driven, fueling her desire to pay that success forward.
Recht launched the startup VenueBook.com, an OpenTable-like platform for finding and booking event spaces last year, joining a small but growing percentage of female CEOs in a sector where males largely outnumber women — particularly in leadership positions.
The key to bridging the gap, according to Kelsey, is the support of other women in leadership roles. A study conducted by Pace University professor Susan Schor showed that women in corporate leadership roles, such as CEOs and vice presidents have had up to four strong mentoring relationships that lasted two to five years, while only half of their male counterparts have ever had a mentor.
VenueBook found support from Joanne Wilson, a tech startup investor who writes the blog Gotham Gal and whom Recht now regards as her mentor, one who is helping to build the “next generation of women leading companies,” Kelsey said.
Mrs. Wilson, an early investor of VenueBook, will join the company’s board this month. “Joanne has been amazing because she’s really supportive of female entrepreneurs, and that’s what helps you survive in the tech world,” Recht said. A 2011 LinkedIn study found that 82 percent of women (in a survey of nearly 1,000 female professionals in the U.S.) agree that having a mentor is critical to their success. But before any entrepreneur can get backing, she or he has to have that million-dollar idea.
The VenueBook concept first came to Recht in Chicago, where as director of finance for a startup nonprofit, she witnessed the frustrating back-and-forth email chain and numerous phone calls involved in planning a fundraiser. She wondered if there was an online platform that allowed corporate event planners — or even an individual planning a friend’s birthday party — to search for a space and find all the relevant information about budget, availability, capacity, menu and other details all in one place. When her search came up empty, VenueBook was born.
“It became clear that there was inefficiency in this market, and it seemed like the simple solution was to build a better media website, but what I ended up doing is delving that much deeper,” Kelsey said. “The real problem was the booking problem, so we flipped the market totally on its head and digitized the venues’ booking process first.” The website is powered by a digital software solution that is sold to venues, allowing them to handle all of their bookings, interact with the kitchen and maintain their contacts on one platform. Typically, the average time in planning an event from inquiry to booking takes five to seven days, according to Recht. With VenueBook, that process takes 24 hours, she said.
In the early stages of the project, Recht made sure to connect with people with experience in the venue world to ensure that venue managers and event planners would actually meet and collaborate. She also made it a point to recruit the right employees and seek the advice of both female and male mentors. A study from the Centre for Women in Business at the London Business School found the optimal gender balance for teams that drive innovation is 50-50.
“Companies with a balanced team of both men and women tend to outperform [the competition], because both genders have their unique strengths, and there are a lot of men out there who want to build the next generation of women,” Kelsey said. While VenueBook just launched in New York City and is currently focused on bars, restaurants, loft spaces, galleries and general event spaces, the company plans to roll out its platform to other markets around the country over the next year. Kelsey’s advice to those interested in building a brand that stands out against competition?
“Build a beautiful, useful product and talk to your customers often about how your product can make their lives easier. If no one wants your product, you do not have a business.”
My sentiments exactly. Check out VenueBook at www.venuebook.com and follow them on Twitter at @VenueBook. For more articles, especially geared towards event professionals, check out DIRadioCast.com’s “Event Planners” section and search the hashtag #eventprofs online.