Much has been said and written about the lack of women in the tech sector, be it as investors (or associates), founders or in management positions at major companies. Is the problem the old boys network – or that success in technology is seen as a young man’s game? In this series, we speak with New York-based women in the industry as they discuss the challenges they face, the perceptions that need to be changed and the work that’s being done – or not – to help to promote women in tech.
Today we hear from Cynthia Schames, founder of Abbey Post, a social commerce platform that brings together boutiques, indie designers and small brands with Plus Size shoppers–a severely underserved market. Schames’ background is in business development, having spent ten years in enterprise software at AltaVista, Equilibrium and Netopia (acquired by Google). Her previous startup, La Boite Orange, a privately held luxury ecommerce retailer, was the largest consignor of Hermes Birkin bags in the world.
What was/is the biggest challenge facing you as a female entrepreneur?
I believe that female entrepreneurs have to work much harder to be taken seriously by potential investors (and fellow entrepreneurs), and that’s frustrating—especially because statistics show clearly that women-led businesses are more profitable than the average business. We also control 85 cents of every dollar spent in this country, but even as consumers, we’re often overlooked by brand marketing efforts.
Honestly, I think I face the same challenges every entrepreneur faces: time, resources, having only two hands. Whether or not that’s harder for me as a woman only rarely enters my mind, unless it comes from an external source.
What can be done to further promote female entrepreneurship in New York?
I’d like to see more focus on helping women create strong, investable brand stories for investors. Women communicate differently than men as a rule, and since men control the vast majority of the investor dollars, we need to learn to speak more effectively to them. For example, one of my personal observations is that, as women, we tend to make assumptions that the implicit value in what we’re doing is obvious to everyone in the audience. In fact, that isn’t the case. We need to be trained to point out the inherent value (not just the “why”, but also the “why is this important”) of our ideas, as opposed to just putting the idea out there and expecting those listening to “get it”.
On a related note, women are less likely to brag or “swag”. In a situation where a young male entrepreneur might say, “This is a billion dollar business!” even when it’s so totally not, a female entrepreneur is likely to say “We believe that we can build this to $XXX in sales within X time”. And frankly, investors clearly would rather hear the former, even if the latter is much more realistic.
So, short answer: we need help crafting messages that make us, and our companies, more fundable.
What is being done that you like presently?
New York as an ecosystem is incredibly fortunate to have some amazing women in positions of influence. Great examples are the WIM Accelerator team of Kelly Hoey, Veronika Sonsev and Deborah Jackson; Rachel Sklar; Jessica Lawrence from NY Tech Meetup; and many, many other successful female founders and investors.
I’m really, really happy to see that the Pipeline Fellowship growing by leaps and bounds—Natalia Oberti Noguera is pretty amazing.
Last but definitely not least, Reshma Saujani is building something incredibly meaningful with Girls Who Code. She’s creating the next generation of female entrepreneurs right here in our own back yard.
Are you involved in any organizations that help to promote female entrepreneurship? Or, do you do anything personally to help promote women in technology?
I’m an active member of the Fashion Tech CEO Round Table, an invitation-only series of events sponsored by WIM Accelerator, which is primarily made up of female entrepreneurs. I’ve also become involved recently with Women Empowered, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, but expanding their events to NYC—I’ll be speaking on their Women’s Entrepreneurship panel here in the city on October 24.
I also head up the Founder Accountability group for Founders Network. Here in NYC, our group is about 50% female, which is something I’m really proud of.
Oh, yeah…and I’m teaching my 5 year old daughter HTML 5 right now.
Do you feel investors have a different mindset when it comes to investing in a woman-run company? For example, does the work/life balance issue come up?
I’d like to think it’s an unconscious bias, if anything. That said, as a wife and mom of young children, I can say that I have occasionally heard comments expressing surprise at the number of hours I work, the number of events I attend, the amount of time I spend mentoring or working with other entrepreneurs, etc. I’ve never heard these types of comments about male entrepreneurs. So I guess there’s your answer.
Do you think that women in top roles at major tech companies are scrutinized more closely than their male counterparts?
Yes. Absolutely. I actually think the media is more at fault than the investor community, though. If I read one more headline characterizing Marissa Mayer as being on an acquisition “shopping spree”, I’m pretty sure I’m going to explode.
Gender bias can be shockingly subtle, and language choices like this undermine the fact that Ms. Mayer is doing an amazing job reinventing a gigantic dinosaur of a company. Investors will follow the opportunities and the dollars, while many publications are too busy trying to drive page views to actually consider how they’re reinforcing biased gender roles.
Where do you and your company fit into the ecosystem?
AbbeyPost has a unique voice in a few ways. We sit firmly at the intersection of fashion and big data, two of the NYC startup ecosystem’s most vibrant and profitable sectors. Given my background in both enterprise software solutions and ecommerce, this company perfectly combines my skills, experience and passions.
At first glance, you might see AbbeyPost as a somewhat traditional-looking ecommerce marketplace—but look more closely and you’ll realize that we’re focused on an incredibly underserved consumer: the Plus Size woman. There are over 65 million plus size women in the United States today (yes, that’s a majority!), but the traditional fashion industry neglects and marginalizes this market. In true New Yorker style, we’re embracing that underdog, and giving her a voice.
We’re creating a social commerce marketplace connecting makers of plus size fashion (indie designers, brands and boutiques) with the shoppers, but on top of that, we’re building an exclusive 3D body scanning technology. This tech, called Find Your Fit, helps us to accurately recommend items chosen for the shopper’s precise body measurements and shape. No more fiddling with tape measures, squinting at fit charts, or dealing with the disappointment of having to return items because they don’t fit. Just the perfect fit, the first time and every time. Our future plans include the launch of a real time manufactured, custom-fitted clothing line based on the consumer’s own measurements.