As Seattle Startup Week begins, entrepreneur Valerie Trask is hoping to see more female faces.
Valerie Trask has plenty of stories. The business meeting that, unbeknownst to her, was a date. The people who assumed she was in the room as a secretary, rather than a startup founder.
Trask is used to it. But — like many women — she’s tired of being underestimated, overlooked and left out.
There’s no good reason for it: Trask, 33, has an MBA from Seattle University and has founded two successful startups: a digital-loyalty app called Punchkeeper and an at-home, sous-vide cooking device company called Sansaire that raised a record $823,003 in a Kickstarter campaign. Trask served as co-founder and chief operating officer at Sansaire for three years before going out on her own as an entrepreneurial consultant and coach.
One of her goals is to change Seattle’s startup culture to include more women.
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“It’s not a lack of capability,” Trask said the other day. “There are lots of smart women. I just don’t get it. I’m still doing the math on it.”
Aren’t we all scratching our heads and scratching out the numbers for why so many capable women can only get so far — whether in business or otherwise. Ahem.
This week, as part of Seattle Startup Week, Trask will sit on a panel of judges at the IBM Smartcamp Pitch Competition. Six startups will participate in a live pitch event and compete for a slot at the LAUNCH Festival, San Francisco’s biggest startup conference. The winner will land a spot in a festival-sponsored incubator, which includes a $25,000 investment.
Trask hopes to see plenty of women on the teams — but she isn’t holding her breath.
According to data compiled by CrunchBase, Seattle ranks 14th in a list of cities with the most female founders. That same data showed that only 17 percent of venture-backed companies here are founded by women. But hey — that’s double what it was five years ago.
The dearth of female founders is “business suicide,” Trask said, since women are the primary consumers, making 80 percent of buying choices. Including them in early product decisions is key for companies that can’t afford market-testing teams — which is pretty much every startup.
“Every time I’m in a room in a startup space and I see a woman, I’m like, ‘You’re a badass!’ ” she said. “There is this mutual sense that we are lifting each other up.”
They’re also sharing war stories.
One female founder seeking funding for her startup was told by a male venture capitalist, “I don’t fund women’s projects.”
Another woman was asked, “Is your husband going to help you with this?”
Trask remembers being in upper-level funding conversations and not quite feeling included in the group.
“Nothing overt,” she said. “But there was a sense that I wasn’t being spoken to in a meaningful way.”
She wonders how this happened. Are women raised to avoid the kind of risk involved in the startup world? Are they not encouraged in math or science?
Trask’s take? A lack of role models.
Years ago, she made a list of the 10 people in the world that she wanted to meet, who inspired her in business and life. Nelson Mandela. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. The usual suspects.
When she finished, though, she was surprised to see that she hadn’t listed any women. So she tore up her list and started over.
“It was really hard to come up with the names for women to whom you say, ‘Oh, I want to be just like you.’ And that’s amazing to say as a female founder.”
Over the years, that list has grown to 30 women, including Melinda Gates.
She is also encouraged by people like Julie Sandler of the Madrona Group and the women involved in the Seattle Women Entrepreneur Network.
It’s great, but she also wishes a gender-specific network wasn’t necessary.
I hear that. You’re torn between rounding up an army of women to help you knock down the door and wanting to just have the door open for you.
She trusts that the problem will be solved, over time, though, as men interact with female entrepreneurs “in a more meaningful way.”
“I don’t want any special treatment,” Trask said. “I don’t want the pendulum going the other way. Just because I’m in favor of women doesn’t mean I am against men. There are so many great male champions lifting women up.
“I just want the rooms to be a little more crowded with women.”