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Female tech leaders say mentoring is key

Melissa Mixon

At the SXSW Interactive panel "Tech Superwomen: Mentors and Mentees, FTW," five female leaders in the tech industry said mentorship is key to increasing the low numbers of women in high tech, entrepreneurial roles a point they drove home by talking about the mentors in their own lives who helped them get where they are today.

"As I look back over my career, every major decision I made has largely been motivated by a mentor that maybe knew a little bit about me and my interests and said, 'Have you thought about this, or studying this topic or looking at this role?,'\u2009" said Margot Bloomstein, principal, brand and content strategist at Appropriate Inc.

The panelists began the session by telling what they think makes a good mentor, which included qualities such as contributing to your knowledge base, having faith in you and providing a strong dose of tough love to say "stop whining" and go do it.

"Good mentors will tell you to step up," said Cathryn Posey, founder of Tech By Superwomen.

Panelist and author at nilofermerchant.com, Nilofer Merchant, started the session by laying out statistics that women face in the corporate world. Only 3 percent of venture-backed funding goes to female entrepreneurs, she said, and women make up 2 percent of CEO seats and less than 10 percent of corporate board seats.

Leslie Bradshaw, president, chief operating officer and co-founder of JESS3, said women have been systematically held back, but in the past 20 to 30 years have increasingly pursued professional degrees and positions. Those numbers will continue to go up, she said, and "the only thing standing in the way will be ourselves."

Merchant said a panel dedicated to women being underrepresented in the tech industry should not even exist in the next five years because it's a "completely solvable issue."

Part of the challenge, Merchant said, is how women see themselves.

"What's the story you tell yourself (about what you're capable of)?," Merchant asked. "No one is going to say, 'Yes, you do have permission.' You have to give yourself that permission first and from that place mentorship starts. It starts with that story we're telling ourselves of, 'Am I allowed?'\u2009"

She said women need to be more strategic about how they network and cited research showing that women network with people they know and like while men tend to network with people they believe they should know.

The panelists responded to questions — including one from a male engineer asking whether he should approach mentoring a woman any differently than mentoring a male (the response was mixed), and another about how to increase funding to female entrepreneurs (Merchant recommended companies have a female advisory board).

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