Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why age matters for startups - it's not a young person's game

When it comes to startups, and especially tech startups, there is always buzz about the breakthrough startup companies that have made it big.  Everyone knows that the founder of Facebook is a young man who's now a bazillionaire before he's even turned 30.  And there are many more stories of young people, usually dudes, who have made millions in their twenties.  Even awards for inventors and entrepreneurs are often limited to those under age 30, for example, the Alva Emerging Fellowship, and the Inc Magazine 30 under 30.  While certainly commendable for the individuals featured in these prestigious awards and publications, all this focus on youth can seem daunting to the over-30 crowd.

But fear not - Looking at successful CEOs and heads of engineering and product development at technology companies, a research team at Harvard and MIT found that twice as many successful tech entrepreneurs had started businesses in their 50s as did those in their 20s. 

Why are older entrepreneurs more successful?

It shouldn't be surprising that older entrepreneurs are more successful than younger entrepreneurs.  Tthe longer you're around, you've had more time to build up your personal network of people who are able to support you in your startup, whether financially, instrumentally, or just with plain old advice.  Pierre Bourdieu, a famous sociologist, called this "social capital," and it's thought of as a sort of bank account that gets built up depending partly on age, but also on other factors like level of education, wealth, and work experience.

Social capital helps to explain why college dropouts (particularly those from Harvard and other prestigious institutions) can make it big in tech startups.  The very same social capital that helped them get into the college in the first place is the same social capital that enables them to connect with investors and obtain other kinds of support that startups need to survive.  There's a reason we don't see many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds dropping out of college and giving up their scholarships to start businesses - they don't have access to the social capital that young people from a more privileged background have.

Another important concept is "cultural capital."  This is the social knowledge you need to get by in a particular type of social situation, such as knowing whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek as a greeting.  It's knowing that wearing a three-piece suit to an interview at a tech company means you're probably overdressed and look like you're trying too hard - where's your 5 o'clock shadow?  Or that certain words should not be used in certain company.  This is the kind of capital that also enables success in multiple areas, and why those who blend in with the kinds of people already in the field have a greater chance of obtaining venture capital.  Do you talk the talk and walk the walk?  Come right in!

So don't think of your age as an impediment, think of it as an asset, a form of capital that can be used to obtain the kind of capital that really matters for your startup, whether cash or guidance or access to people who can help you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Women, Technology, and Stereotype Threat

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in the tech world.  With a smaller proportion of women receiving computer and information science degrees in 2009 than in 1985 (it went from 37% women in 1985 down to 18% in 2009!), the future for women in computer science looks bleak.  A recent article on the Women 2.0 blog by Christian Fernandez highlighted the lack of female representation in computer science courses in universities, with women representing only 10-20% of students graduating with computer science degrees, despite some programs starting with a 50/50 gender ratio.  He attributes this to women feeling intimidated by a hostile environment that leaves them feeling inadequate.

The sociological term for this phenomenon is called "stereotype threat," and it means that the individual (woman in this case), being part of society, recognizes that there is a negative stereotype about them. In this case, the stereotype is that women are not as good as men at technical stuff.  Because they recognize this, they become anxious that they will inadvertently confirm the stereotype.  In response, they behave in certain ways that can undermine their success, or, they may overcompensate for what they think will be a negative reaction by working harder than everyone else.  In the first case, they are faced with failure, and in the second, with burnout.  Sociologists have studied this phenomenon in great detail when it comes to racial stereortypes.

But stereotype threat is also a concept that tends to blame the victim.  By saying that women's worries about confirming negative stereotypes are causing them to drop out and feel inadequate, we are missing out on the importance of the social context in contributing to women's under-representation in technology.  In particular, Fernandez's report that women felt the environment in computer science courses was "hostile" towards women, indicates that this is not just about how these women feel about themselves and their abilities.

The context and culture of the university (or workplace) are critical in creating this hostile environment.  This includes things like whether women are in leadership positions, whether the work is structured as competitive or collaborative, and whether efforts are made to highlight the contributions of minorities and ensure they are included in activities.  Thus, it is one thing to prepare young women for university-level coursework, but it is altogether another to create an environment in which they can thrive without gender being an issue.

What's the solution?
Universities and high schools need to place an emphasis on structuring the work environment in a way that doesn't privilege the status quo.  For example, women may feel isolated from the community of computer science students if study or work groups are divided by gender.  Providing opportunities for more interaction among students in a non-competitive environment may help to bring down some of the barriers women face in these programs.  Young women may also be looking for role models, and either bringing in guest lecturers or hiring more female faculty members would provide young women with an opportunity to learn from those who have been there before them.

Why does this matter for startups?
In industries where there are few minorities, like women in tech, it's important to be aware of ways you may be alienating those who are not typical of your industry.  For example, while Beer Fridays can be a great team spirit-building time for small companies, they may also exclude those who choose not to drink alcohol, or who feel obligated to drink alcohol when they'd prefer not to.  This is something that women think about because they are physically smaller and cannot process as much alcohol as men, so two beers for a petite woman could make her quite tipsy while a 200 pound man would barely notice it.  Because of this, some women or people who do not drink alcohol, may remove themselves from otherwise fun group activities.  So try to make your events as open and welcoming to all kinds of people in your business.

What else can universities or businesses do support gender equality in computer science and technology programs?