Photo obtained from 1871 Chicago Facebook page: WiSTEM’s 2nd cohort with 1871 team members, https://www.facebook.com/1871Chicago
By Mariah Quintanilla
In a crowded room of fellow entrepreneurs and investors, Christina Marshall-Valdez started her business pitch with a picture of herself and two other girls at a New York City party in the same white dress. “Plus sized women just don’t have a lot of options,” she said. So she founded Elu, described as “an online, made-to-measure apparel brand for plus-size women using smart technology to enable fit, style, and customization,” with apparel makers located in Chicago.
The women of WiSTEM—Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math—celebrated the culmination of a 16-week technology-based business boot camp at their Spring Showcase Thursday. The heads of 1871, an “entrepreneurial hub for digital startups” located in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Plaza, founded WiSTEM last September to advance opportunities for women in technology.
According to Compass, an San Francisco-based online platform for business matrix, Chicago had the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs out of the top 20 startup cities in the U.S. in 2015, with 30 percent of founders being female. Among the group of 13 WiSTEM businesses was an interactive museum app, a website connecting middle and high school teachers with teaching assistants, and a multicultural children’s book company.
Marshall-Valdez said WiSTEM gave her a supportive community of women entrepreneurs, as well as the mentorship of more experienced business owners. “It’s become a little bit of a sisterhood,” she said.
For women in business, especially those in STEM fields, having a strong foundation of support may be key. According to the United States Department of Labor, women constitute only 26 percent of people employed in computer and mathematical occupations. Even fewer women—only 4.6 percent—currently hold CEO positions at Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies according to Catalyst, a New York City-based nonprofit for workplace inclusion.
Jessica Williams, co-facilitator of WiSTEM, works on connecting the women with community investors and potential clients so they can quickly find investors and prepare for necessary fundraising. “I get to help remove some of those obstacles that keep [women and people of color] stuck in our circumstances,” she said.
Moira Hardek, president and CEO of Galvanize Labs based in Chicago, said, “We need to start educating girls younger.”
With guidance from WiSTEM, she launched Taken Charge, an “online educational video game for teaching technology skills to kids.” Hardek built and ran Best Buy’s Geek Squad Summer Academy, a youth technology education program, for nearly 8 1/2 years.
“Really early on, I got big into the women in technology movement,” she said. Now she hopes her educational game will promote technological literacy in children, specifically in young girls. Hardek credits WiSTEM with “re-igniting [her] passion” for technology and facilitating a “tremendous bond” between women who are changing the landscape of entrepreneurship in Chicago.
Kristy Ross, co-CEO and president of Dough Inc., a user-friendly online investing platform based out of Chicago, was the keynote speaker at the event. In preparing her speech, Ross asked her 10-year-old daughter what she should say to empower the WiSTEM’s graduates.
Her daughter replied, “Just tell them that women started the world.”