Calling All Girl Geeks

Making Madison the best place for women entrepreneurs

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new crop of technology and innovation companies sprouting up all over the city.

Many entrepreneurs are launching start-ups in dorm rooms or soon after graduation with the help of academic training, business plan and pitch competitions hosted by UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Technology Council, among others, in addition to a growing number of accelerator programs and incubators like Sector67, gener8tor, Madison Enterprise Center, University Research Park and new co-working spaces like Horizon and 100State. Other companies are founded by folks skewing a bit older, in their thirties and forties, who parlay their careers into ventures of their own.

It’s too soon to know the impact these businesses might have on job growth, tax base and the overall health of our economy, but I like what I saw in a recent study by UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti. In his book, The New Geography of Jobs, he writes: “For each new high-tech job in a city, five additional jobs are created outside the high-tech sector in that city … Most sectors have a multiplier effect, but the innovation sector has the largest multiplier of all: about three times larger than that of manufacturing.”

Amy Gannon is an Edgewood College business professor who plugged into Madison’s tech community when she was tapped to help organize the first “Startup Weekend” in 2012. It was there she met a young entrepreneur named Heather Wentler and the two began to whisper to one another, and to the handful of other females in the male-dominated room, "Where are all the women?” That whisper has quickly turned into an influential roar, not of outrage but of action. “There’s a ton of latent potential here that our community isn’t tapping into,” says Gannon, who co-founded the women’s networking organization the Doyenne Group with Wentler, founder and CEO of Fractal, which provides S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum design and programming for students of all ages and abilities. This month the group is convening a task force to identify leading indicators the Madison region could use as benchmarks to become the best place in the country for women entrepreneurs.

“I saw a list in a magazine about best cities for women entrepreneurs, and all they measured was how many women applied to start a business,” says Gannon, who cites percentage of venture capital invested in women-led start-ups, number of female participants in accelerators, incubators and contests, and quality and quantity of exposure to entrepreneurship at all academic levels as more meaningful measures. “Those would be indicators that our ecosystem recognizes that women need a place in the conversation and that women do amazing things.”

Gannon the academic talks smartly and at length about organizational behavior as well as research on gender bias and stereotypes, such as women and negotiation (when women ask for stuff they are always perceived negatively no matter how nicely or assertively they ask for it).

Gannon the mom laments that there’s only one girl in her son’s BadgerBOTS program and whether girls—and their parents—are consciously or subconsciously absorbing negative messages about their aptitude for science and technology. Gannon the teacher and mentor holds design-a-thons and strategic planning retreats through the Doyenne Group and spearheaded Edgewood’s business school curriculum redesign, which in part transforms instructors from “sage on stage to coach in the game” to give students an edge in both education and careers.

Gannon the entrepreneur wants to someday tell this story: “If you really want to know how to do that women entrepreneur thing in your community, you better go check out Madison. I want people in cities all over the country to say, ‘How did they figure this out?’”

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more of her columns here.

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