female entrepreneurs and cyberspace

Thursday, May 10, 2001
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street


Sociologists have coined the term "entrepreneurial feminism" to refer to a significant new trend -- women are opening new businesses at a dramatically faster rate than men and are gaining economic independence and cultural influence. Women have been at the center of e-commerce efforts, often working out of their own homes, and in many cases juggling child-care expectations. This Forum brings together leading female entrepreneurs to talk about the potentials and challenges faced by today's wired women.


Marney Morris
founded San Francisco-based Animatrix in 1984 where she continues as the creative lead on all projects. She teaches interaction design at Stanford University. Morris holds degrees from the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of California at Davis, and studied with John Cage and Wayne Thiebaud.

Denise Brosseau
is CEO and co-founder of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE) and co-founder of Springboard Enterprises, which hosts the Springboard 2000 venture conferences. San Francisco Women on the Web named her one of the "Top 25 Women on the Web - Leaders of the Millennium." Brosseau earned an MBA from Stanford University and did her undergraduate work at Wellesley College.



DENISE BROSSEAU described the challenges she faced in 1993 when she co-founded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE) , a San Francisco-based networking organization for women in business and investors.

In the early and mid 1990s, only about 21 percent of top management positions (vice president or higher) in high-growth companies were held by women, Brosseau said, and it was difficult for women to attract venture capital primarily because they had no track record of securing funding, starting up and succeeding with companies.

The dot-com investment boom of the late 1990s changed that. In 1999, as Internet funding ballooned, the percentage of women holding top management positions increased to 41 percent, and in the first quarter of 2000 women-led companies were getting 12.7 percent of the available venture capital, up from five percent in 1999.

Today the door to venture capital has been opened to women. In fact, FWE and Springboard.org, its collaboration with the federal government's National Women's Business Council, have raised more than $550 million for women-led businesses. For this trend to continue, Brosseau said, more women must become venture capitalists themselves as their own businesses succeed. Brosseau explained that before the year 2000, which she refers to as the "Year of the Woman Entrepreneur," a handful of "poster girls" received all the press attention for running business in Silicon Valley. That changed drastically last year, according to Brosseau, when the media began reporting women entrepreneur success stories on a daily basis.

If the same success can be duplicated outside of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, and if successful female executives serve as mentors for other women in business, then half the available venture capital will be support to women-led companies in the next 20-30 years, according to Brosseau.

  MARNEY MORRIS, who founded the interactive design firm Animatrix in 1984, said she was one of those "poster girls" routinely paraded out as women-in-business success stories before the boom of the late 1990s.

Morris described her early work with Apple, Microsoft and other digital pioneers. She said she often selected clients in part because collaborating with cutting-edge companies would be a learning experience for her staff of engineers and graphic designers.

Morris concluded by examining a website designed by Animatrix called SprocketWorks.com , a graphically rich interactive website designed by Animatrix and intended as a showcase for the company. This site includes subpages devoted to a range of subjects: the solar system, the history of music, U.S. history, space flight, horses, chemistry, birds, ships, oceans. The site includes a "look it up" section exploits interactive and hypertextual principles, including a world map that zooms in to a continent and locates individual countries, a flying-time calculator for both domestic and international routes, and a tool that converts a variety of measurements such as distance, weight and temperature from one standard to another.

Demonstrating the link to space and the solar system from the Sprocketworks homepage, Morris clicked through a number of interactive features. For example, a user can retrieve information about the planets by clicking through a model of the solar system, or access a comprehensive history of space flight that includes images of satellites floating across the computer screen in a simulation of outer space. This interactive page even permits users to build and launch a virtual rocket.

Clicking on the music link from the Sprocketworks homepage, Morris showed a timeline of classical music in which signature passages by composers are played when the cursor rolls across their names. Pass the cursor across "Mozart," for example, and you hear the beginning of his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Click on "Mozart," and you go to a page containing his portrait, a brief biography and more musical selections.

Morris also demonstrated the "learn music" link, which allows users to play a note on a piano keyboard, and then have that note recorded as well as displayed graphically as a composer would write it. Users can play back their compositions,
or edit them by rearranging notes before replaying them.



MORRIS responded to a question from the audience by explaining that Animatrix had retained topic specialists to work in each area covered by the Sprocketworks site.

BROSSEAU asked her where she put all these employees when they got together.

MORRIS explained that there had been very little "face to face" time on the project, and most of the work was done by telecommuters in remote locations. Eventually, she said, everyone will be working out of their home.

BROSSEAU I work in an incubator building full of women-led business in California. We found that when this whole virtual-office trend exploded, people still wanted to meet, so the building has conference rooms you can rent so you can bring your people together. You can rent parking spaces just for a meeting. It is great to work at home, but it can be isolating. People do want to come together sometimes.

HENRY JENKINS, Director of Comparative Media Studies, MIT: It has been suggested that the reason so many women have opened more small businesses online is this ability to work at home but remain publicly active. What has your research found?

: People start businesses for a variety of reasons. Women who joined the Internet boom were looking for freedom, independence and balance. They weren't finding that at big companies. Many women started Internet business
because of the low cost of entry, but they also wanted to create their own environment, a place where they really wanted to work. I see a similar flow among men in what I call new-economy businesses. It's not about doing the drone thing, it's about creating a company that reflects your own values.

How can men encourage female entrepreneurs? Especially if you are a male entrepreneur and you want to promote this diversity how do you find and attract a woman to be a co-founder in a startup?

BROSSEAU: On the FWE website, you can post positions. That's primarily a west coast resource, but a lot of women visit that area because you can find jobs that are startup related. Girlgeeks.com is another site that lists opportunities for women in cyberspace. A recent study showed that companies with gender balance are more successful than companies without gender balance. So if you want to create a company without glass ceilings where woman hold positions are at all levels of the organization, you have to start early to create that culture. It is an important thing to strive for. If we can't help you, there are many organizations that can.

LINDA SAMUELS: When you have an idea for starting a business, what materials do you actually need and where do go to get money?

BROSSEAU: What kind of business do you have in mind?

SAMUELS: It is called the Science of Learning Center. After 30 years in teaching, I want to figure out what really works in terms of learning and improving memory at all ages. So I enrolled in an MBA program and have begun working on this project. But would like some guidance.

BROSSEAU: If you are in an MBA program, it is important that you use as many of your class projects as possible to get your business plan written. In fact, FWE was started as a class project at Stanford by my co-founder. It's a great opportunity to bring your classmates' brainpower to bear on what you want to do. Another piece is to build an advisory board of people who have done something similar. You don't want to have to reinvent the wheel. And find someone whose skills complement your own. Let's say are good at marketing and sales, you may need someone who is good on the money raising side. A fourth key task is to figure out what you need in the way of money. Until you do that, you cannot go out and get funded. Ask yourself, what I am trying to do here? Am I opening up a single learning center in the first year, and want ten branches in the first year, and 100 in the third? The answer will affect your money needs, and how you'll get financing - whether you'll get a bank loan or, God forbid, use your credit cards or find an equity investor. If you are a woman, add 20 percent to what you think you need because women tend to underestimate.

Yes, one of the most important decisions to make in starting a new company is the funding model - is it a debt model or an equity model? A debt model with a service company is what I did. When I used my credit cards to get started, it wasn't that much money. If you choose equity you are going to have someone sitting on your board. You're not going to be making decisions yourself. Your company is going to have a different structure. You have to have an exit strategy because the people who put money into your company want to be able to get it out.

BROSSEAU: They want it out in a short amount of time, in fewer than ten years; sometimes less than seven.

There is an advantage to having that big investor to help you along. But, if you do a debt model as I did, you are in control. I had several offers to buy the company, and I could have sold it. But my interest was in being a designer and my endgame wasn't to cash out. If I had had an investor, I might have been forced to cash out. I started my company with a five-year plan and 17 years later I am still doing it. Not because I am stuck, but because it's what I want to do.

You said you wanted to be totally home-based. How will you separate home from your work?

The question is, has she ever done that? [LAUGHTER] Not too many entrepreneurs I know have succeeded at that.

I made a conscious decision to buy a house that is big enough to do that. Now that the business is successful, I can see how the house can serve as a conference center such as Denise mentioned, and as a place to meet clients and
make a deal. Plus, I have moved to Southern California where that Hollywood model lends itself to doing technology projects at home.

There are caveats to be offered here. For years, I have watched friends being taken over by work. Only in the last three months have I seen people reconnecting with their friends and families and disconnecting from their pagers
and cell phones. You have to be careful about what your own style can be and what your personality can adjust to. I have taken computers out of my house. I find I do need to completely disconnect because I am a workaholic. I will work non-stop if I don't disconnect. I don't work out of my house for that very reason. Or, you have the other side of it: you are a small consultant and not too busy and the television looks more interesting than what you are doing. It can be dangerous.

I make sure to schedule personal time for myself everyday. You have to set your priorities and my family and friends come first. People say, 'you can have it all, but you can't have it all at once.' I have been thinking about that a lot and am not sure it is true. Maybe you can't have it all, but you can prioritize the different aspects of your life. For me it has always been friends and family first, my business second. If you can keep your goals straight, I think it works. Have you [to Denise Brosseau] ever achieved that balance?

I have never achieved it, and I don't know anybody who has. I have seen very few people who have it all and don't have an ulcer or a backache all the time, or aren't stressed out. But things may be changing. How many folks did I talk to within the last few years with business plans that were just okay? You would tell them their plan is just okay, and they wouldn't ask what could be done to improve it because somewhere along the way people started thinking that anything could be turned into a business and any business could get funding. It was very destructive. Now, we are seeing some realism returning. And, we are seeing some people listening and other folks who lost businesses that could have been better if they had listened. We are also seeing some babies thrown out with the bathwater, a sad consequence of the euphoria over Internet businesses changing. This return to sanity - to where not every business in the world will make you rich, and not every job you take will make you a millionaire - is a healthy thing.

DAVID THORBURN, Professor of Literature, MIT: Marney, I was immensely impressed by the demonstration you gave of Sprocketworks.com. It is rich in graphic and intellectual substance, but it doesn't seem commercially viable. That site is informative and beautiful, but it is hard for me to see its commercial aspects. Can you address this problem: that some of your most creative, intellectually satisfying and substantive projects might not be the ones that will find a market? What if your most valuable projects don't get commercial support?

It's a decision you have to make. We were aware of the whole dot-com craze, and we could have gone into any area, but as designers we wanted to do Sprocketworks. We had serious discussions with major education companies about investing, but we didn't follow through because I didn't want to work for someone else. If I had equity partners, I wouldn't be able to be so altruistic about things.

THORBURN: From my viewpoint, that's the most radical and inspiring message that you have for us. Maybe this new entrepreneurial model doesn't have to be so profit obsessed. If you have the impulse to pursue creative projects that are genuinely satisfying such as Sprocketworks, you're suggesting that that is a viable way to go.

Sprocketworks is certainly a showcase of what interactive design can be, and it certainly has led to other projects and opportunities. I think every company devotes a certain amount of resources to R&D. Also, we were very profitable on our service side and that allowed us to do Sprocketworks. We were fortunate, and are very happy that we created Sprocketworks.

--compiled by Brad Seawell