A Start-Up of Her Own
Meet the new generation of American CEOs: They're young, wired, fearless--and female
Muther proposed demystifying the process with the first-ever women's venture fair, patterned after celebrated high-testosterone events run every year in Silicon Valley by Red Herring magazine and Garage.com. Her Three Guineas Fund seeded the project, which cost an estimated $500,000. Issuing an appeal for promising business plans from women CEOs over the Internet, Springboard's organizers were swamped with over 300. They whittled that list down to 27--among them Fisher's AudioBasket. Each was promised 17 minutes to make her case to 225 leading venture capitalists. To make sure those 27 were up to par, the organizers hired Kim Marinucci, whose Winning Pitch specialized in honing venture presentations. "There's a style thing--physical presence, how to stand," Quihuis explains. "When women get nervous, we get the Minnie Mouse voice."
Three months later, 26 of the 27 Springboard presenters have received funding worth an estimated $100 million, plus strategic partnerships. "They were fighting off investors," says Amy Millman of the National Women's Business Council.
So successful was Springboard 2000 that follow-up events are already scheduled across the country over the next six months, beginning in Washington, D.C., next fall. And last month, a New York version, billed as "The Women of Silicon Alley Summit," showcased 21 female entrepreneurs--including Pamela Kleier, CEO of c-z.com, a Kentucky-based Web site featuring construction materials. For Kleier, the event helped counter the discrimination she felt from venture capitalists-- not as a woman, but as a Southerner. "There's a geographic bias in the dot-com world," she says. "If it doesn't happen on the West Coast, it's probably not a valid concept."
Still, in the wake of the high-tech market meltdown in recent weeks, some women worry that, at the very moment they are finally landing invitations to the inner sanctums of venture capital, the party is winding down. "It will become more competitive to get that cash," concedes venture capitalist Mason. "The numbers will go down--but not just for women."
Quihuis argues that the new climate may, in fact, play in women's favor. "There was a good deal of get-rich-quick going on," she says. "But women are very conservative. They want to build something real." Fisher, who earned her M.B.A. from Berkeley in 1994, agrees. "People are going to be more selective about where they put their money," she says, "and I kind of like that. Having gone to business school before all this happened, I kind of thought [profitability] was supposed to be your goal. "
Eight months ago, Menekse Gencer looked around her Los Angeles office and found she didn't care for the long-term view. Barely a year after earning her M.B.A. from Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, she had landed a consulting job at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Although she had no complaint about her assignments or six-figure salary, she recoiled from the women she saw in upper management. "Frankly, they just seemed miserable," she recalls. "I said to myself, `I don't want that to be me.' "
In October, Gencer resigned to join two former Wharton classmates as a co-founder of Vistify, a deco-styled Internet appliance intended to simplify household E-commerce. As her example shows, the flip side of women's mass migration to entrepreneurship is their mass exodus from corporate America. For some consulting firms like Deloitte & Touche--where women were once leaving at twice the rate of men--that exodus became so critical that it prompted a radical rewrite of promotion and family-leave policies. And in the tightest labor market in postwar memory, it has added to the thorny task of recruiting women for top management. "There's a huge shortage of talent," says Jeffrey Christian, the Cleveland-based headhunter who found Fiorina for Hewlett-Packard. "There aren't enough good women to go around."