A Start-Up of Her Own
Meet the new generation of American CEOs: They're young, wired, fearless--and female
That shift in scale is largely the result of an influx of female CEOs of the Internet generation. Young, tech-smart, and armed with both impressive credentials and chutzpah, they aren't content to work their way up through the corporate ranks and await the keys to the executive suite. After all, despite the hoopla capping Carly Fiorina's appointment as CEO of Hewlett-Packard last year, she remains one of only three women heading a Fortune 500 corporation.
Instead, women are hitching their fortunes to the entrepreneurial zeitgeist in the air, writing their own business plans and appointing themselves president, CEO, and chairwoman of the board. "The new generation of women entrepreneurs that I see have not even tested the corporate waters," says Myra Hart, a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. "They're going straight out on their own. The economic environment is better for women than it ever has been."
One reason is the emergence of the Internet economy. Originally, the high-tech revolution centered on semiconductor makers and hardware know-how, a traditional male stronghold. But five years ago, the commercialization of the Internet brought a demand for marketing savvy and consumer service--fields in which women have long flourished. "Now you can take a retail idea, put it on top of the Internet, and build a huge business," says Hart. "For the first time, really big deals were open to women."
These days the media regularly offer up inspirational images of those self-made moguls: Meg Whitman building eBay into a multimillion-dollar online flea market and Martha Stewart wowing Wall Street with her artfully crafted stock offering, served up along with cocktails and canapes. As Hart points out, "The role models for entrepreneurs have become almost as popular as basketball stars."
Even for a 29-year-old techno-wizard like Krishna Subramanian, who holds a master's degree in computer science and five patents from Sun Microsystems' labs, those celebrity role models have proved oddly reassuring. Last year, when she left Sun to co-found Kovair, a San Jose-based Web platform for managing E-business clients, she found comfort in the notion that other unlikely women had transformed themselves into new-economy deal makers. "When you see more women running big companies, it seems more doable," she says. "And it's changed other people's perception of whether women can do the job."
In a sleek loft development in San Francisco's trendy South of Market district--known here as start-up central--one sculpture strikes a strangely plaintive note. Over a fireplace, a foot-high pink papier-mache dress, complete with prim pleated skirt, sports a caption reading, "I Hope He Calls Me Tomorrow." That tribute to decades of helpless feminine longing stands in ironic counterpoint to the can-do determination of the dozen resident entrepreneurs currently ensconced in the Women's Technology Cluster.
High-tech incubator. Founded last year by Catherine Muther, 52, a former vice president of marketing at Cisco Systems, the cluster is a monument to mentoring: the first high-tech incubator focused exclusively on fostering female-run firms. Initially financed by Muther's Three Guineas Fund--a private foundation named after a Virginia Woolf essay--it provides loft space, advice, and expert round tables for 10 to 13 burgeoning businesses at any given time.