Women tech entrepreneurs in the retail and lifestyle space are increasingly gaining customers and attracting venture capital interest. Companies like Birchbox, Gilt, Rent the Runway and Foodspotting — as well as the women starting them – are establishing a foothold in an ever-growing and crowded sector.
Elena Silenok, founder and CEO of the fashion site Clothia, believes people create companies that tap into their interest. “When people start companies, it’s because they’re interested in that field,” she says. “Eighty percent of retail spending is done by women, whether it’s shopping for themselves, a partner or the family.” But more importantly, she observes, simply more women have succeeded in the fashion and retail space historically. So, when innovation is applied there, it’s inevitable that women might consider a tech idea linked to it. “Combine interest with knowledge and it contributes to women creating retail startups,” she says.
In her case, Silenok saw a growing need for better connections between customers and brands. Her online destination and iPad app use augmented reality to let users try on clothes virtually and keep an online closet. Silenok earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California, San Diego, and worked as a lead developer at Bessemer Venture Partners. Speaking about the creation of Clothia, she says, “There was a lot of cash being left on the table, and the consumer wasn’t getting as good an experience as they should. There was simply an opportunity there.” (Clothia is currently in private beta.)
The Link to Education
Another reason women might look to create businesses outside of the traditional IT space could be related to education. “We still have a bit of a phenomenon where women building tech companies may not have a tech degree,” says Peggy Wallace, managing partner of the investment firm Golden Seeds in New York.
In 2010, 18 percent of computer and information science undergraduate degrees were awarded to women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, when many women entrepreneurs come to tech, they have some other kind of academic and business experience under their belt. Indeed, Wallace says, women tech entrepreneurs often possess extensive qualifications from another field. They “find a critical market need or user experience” and apply a technological solution to it.
A Complicated Subject
Despite what appears to be a trend, Silenok argues that the media has a lot to do with the perception that women focus their efforts on fashion and lifestyle tech companies. “Consumer startups and companies tend to get more press in general,” she points out. And while some might assume that VCs would favor giving women dollars in industries seen as better suited to them, Silenok doesn’t believe it. “Investors are only interested in whether or not the idea is going to make money,” she says. “They want to make cash, no matter the idea. They’re looking at the business model and the team and at the viability of the concept.”
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