A Start-Up of Her Own
Meet the new generation of American CEOs: They're young, wired, fearless--and female
Muther's theory was that the incubator's sense of community and its visiting cast of experts could make up for the financial networks that most women entrepreneurs lack as they set out to join the dot-com gold rush. "We're interested in Internet companies because that's where the new wealth is being created," says Margarita Quihuis, the cluster's 38-year-old director. "And our mission is to make sure women get their share."
Until now, their pickings have been slim. In a survey of 100 Internet-related companies released last month, Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm, found only 3 percent of them had female directors. By contrast, 84 percent of Fortune 500 companies boasted at least one woman on their boards.
With an eye to changing the dynamic, she and Muther screen every applicant in a grueling good cop-bad cop interview routine. "We see how they respond to pressure," Quihuis says. "If they go in front of a venture capitalist, they're going to get hammered." One team's business plan looked promising on paper. "But they came in and they immediately cratered," she recalls. "You could tell from the body language and the slumped shoulders that they didn't have what it takes."
Once CEOs pass muster, they can stay at the cluster until their companies grow beyond an informal 30-employee limit. Then, as Quihuis puts it, "We kick them out of the nest." Already, four of the cluster's firms have graduated in the past six months. And scheduled for the boot by September is LevelEdge.com, the brainchild of 38-year-old Lisa Henderson. A spiky-haired blond who grew up poor but athletic, Henderson got into Missouri's Lindenwood University through a fluke. Watching a college soccer game when she was a high school senior, she was asked to sub for an absent player. She scored two goals, landing herself an athletic scholarship. After graduation and six years in marketing at Ralston Purina, Henderson realized the Internet could offer other young athletes the future she once kicked open for herself. At lunch with Muther last fall, she plotted out her dream on a paper napkin: a database that would democratize college recruiting by tracking the performance of America's 10 million high school athletes. "I thought technology could be the great equalizer to get kids noticed," she says.
In April, she launched LevelEdge.com at the National Collegiate Athletic Association finals, and 3,000 coaches signed up. That same week, she wrapped up $4 million in first-round financing from investors, including Goldman Sachs and former tennis star Billie Jean King. But for Henderson, the most moving vote of confidence came in a personal check from one of her former bosses, Carol Bartz, CEO of San Raphael-based Autodesk. "I got two slides into my presentation," Henderson recalls, "and she said, `I love it. I know you have the drive to succeed. Let me introduce you to whoever I can.' "
That sort of mentoring is precisely what Muther hopes to encourage as she rolls out plans for a series of similar Women's Technology Clusters in high-tech hubs from Seattle and Austin to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., over the next two years. But she has not left that philanthropic impulse entirely to chance. The price for enlisting in her incubator is to hand over 2 percent of each company's worth. For Muther, the point is not to build a fat stock portfolio but to ensure that the cycle of philanthropy carries on. "It's not enough to make money," Quihuis says. "You have to give back."