When Girls Don’t Do STEM, Women Don’t Do Tech
AMA with Blackbird Partner Sam Wong, talking about venture capitalism, diversity in STEM and Startmate.
Nick Crocker You have access to some of the best Australian deal flow for startups. What are the most common mistakes you see founders making in their pitches to Blackbird?
- Not having a pithy, succinct way of describing what they do that captures the depth of the problem, the elegance of the solution and the size of the opportunity.
- Not having a big enough vision, or being too afraid to verbalise it. Pitching is 90% emotion — capturing the imagination of the investor.
- Not understanding how we invest. It’s in our blog, it’s on Medium. You should always qualify your lead before you try to sell to them!
Steven Pack: Do you think VC-land will be a stop on your entrepreneurial journey? Or the new journey itself?
Samantha Wong When I first joined Blackbird, I thought I’d stay for 2 years, regroup and then have another go at something different. But 1 year in and from where I stand now I can’t imagine starting a company again. The bar for everything is an order of magnitude higher than I could imagine myself building, to be perfectly frank. In my first 3–4 months at Blackbird alone, it was a blur of learning about autonomous vehicles, new types of LIDAR to help robots see the world around them, AI to help robots understand take that data and decide what to do next,graph databases to enable every application built for the web to be smarter, more intuitive, faster, quantum computing… The list goes on. Nothing I could think up is anywhere near as exciting as being front-row to the evolution of all that. So while I have a bad track record of getting bored of everything after 3 years, I can’t imagine getting bored with this.
Stuart Snyder In Adelaide our Universities graduate about 1,000 students studying law when there are only about 20 or 30 jobs available in local law firms. I also mentor young entrepreneurs and the most common question I get is do you know a software developer who can create an app or web site? Seems to me their is a mismatch of skills that will hold back the startup sector. Why do you think more students aren’t studying IT, especially women?
Samantha Wong This is such a multi-facetted question Stuart! But a good one so forgive me if I’m long-winded. So in my view the education system is borderline completely structurally broken. Universities are economically incentivised to offer thousands of places for law (and other) degrees that are cheap to deliver but sell easily because they’re ‘prestigious’ and ‘vocational’. They then use that cash to subsidise degrees that are expensive to deliver, like STEM degrees. Schools are incentivised to advise kids to make subject choices, not for enjoyment or the challenge, but for maximising their ATAR (aka HSC) mark. So we produce young adults who have not cultivated a growth mindset with degrees that are not particularly useful for the present or future.
For universities, with the way funding is set up you can hardly blame them. My view is like drug reform you should address market demand, not regulate supply.
And this is where things get really complicated and particularly bad for girls. The decision to not do a STEM degree is not made when you’re 18 and finish school; it’s made way earlier when you choose you year 11 and 12 subjects. When one-fifth of girls do not maths, or half do not science, and one-sixth don’t do either, Houston we have a problem. What is happening to these girls that at 15 or 16 that they have decided STEM is not for them?
I think subliminally from a young age girls learn that building things, puzzles, problem-solving and asking hard questions are not for them. They are taught to and cultivate talents in communication, visual or verbal, organisation and so on. They begin to see themselves and are valued by others around them for certain straits and not others.
When you get girls young enough and expose them to STEM subjects early, the data suggests it significantly increases the chance they will go on to choose a STEM degree and ultimately STEM career. We love supporting projects at Blackbird that actively encourage this.
Nick Crocker In your post: ‘Why is it a struggle to get more women in tech to support gender diversity in tech?’ — you wrote: “When I speak to a lot of successful women in tech, the majority don’t identify with the gender diversity problem.” This may have been surprising to some people… What else is non-obvious about the challenge of bringing gender diversity to tech?
Samantha Wong For me the second biggest non-obvious realisation was that for many it’s simply a question of time and priorities. If you’re a successful woman in tech, you’re spending a boatload of your time creating a successful company. And in many cases you’re also the primary carer, for children and/or aging parents, and taking on yet one more role is not something you have bandwidth for. This is a huge problem that not enough people talk about and it’s actual a cultural problem that parenting isn’t really seen as 50/50 and the economic and social support isn’t there for it to be.
Peter Huynh Having Startmate and Blackbird as a platform from which to influence and shape the Australian Tech Startup industry, what are the causes that you are most passionate about supporting and the key issues you’d like to help address?
Samantha Wong On my mind right now are
- STEM education
- diversity in STEM — particularly gender and Indigenous Australians
On the last point, it’s been a journey for me. A year ago I really didn’t care that much about female diversity issues in tech because I never felt disadvantaged personally. In the first 3–4 months at Blackbird I learned that the really hot stuff getting funded right now is an order of magnitude more technically complex than I realised. Autonomous vehicles, robotics generally, lidar, quantum computing, fusion, space, AI. Seriously.
Then if you believe as I do that 70% of jobs in the future will require STEM skills, and only 14% of female graduates have the relevant skills for those jobs, that means reversing 100 years of economic progress for women. History tells us that the world is a pretty crappy place when women lack economic power.
Then, if you consider the position of Indigenous Australians, the potential outcome is too awful to contemplate.
So these are the 3 things I wish I had more time in the day to work on but am trying to chip away at with the help of others.
@Ben Hartney As someone who presumably fields a lot of questions about starting a company or getting into tech, what is the most common question you receive? What is the question you rarely get, that you think people should ask?
Samantha Wong It’s funny, on a whole we don’t get asked questions very much at all! But we should, it should be a two-way interview. I think we’re more judged on the quality of the questions we ask (or don’t ask), to be honest.
The question that I don’t think we receive enough is what do we like to invest in and how we can help or ‘add value’? Cash is a commodity. I’d like to think that even if early-stage companies could get access to low-interest rate loans, they’d still want to take our money for the help we bring. Maybe that’s too naive of me. But the relationships, knowledge and experience of people who are well-connected and well-regarded can be enormously helpful to your chances of success.
And also if you’re one of the 75% who don’t survive, VCs can be very good at making sure you find a happy future home.
Dean McEvoy What was your perception of the startup world before you jumped into it. How does it compare to the reality and what made you jump in the end. How do we get more, particularly awesome women like yourself to do it?
Samantha Wong Ha, well when I was lawyer I thought it was all about ‘strategy’. Then I realised it’s not, it’s about rolling your sleeves up and doing the work and talking to customers. Then I realised that it’s all about the depth of the problem, and your unique insights into how to solve the problem, and how to sell it and market it. Then I realised you have to fundamentally feel empathy and like your customer as you will serve them, think about them your working day and sometimes even in your dreams, for 7–10 years if you’re lucky. OR, you can be the sort of person who is driven by the intellectual challenge of building a business n’importe quoi what sort. I am not one of the latter.
How do you get more women into startups? I don’t really know yet, but what we are trying and beginning to see good results with are:
- being sensitive to how you appear to the outside world, particularly women and minorities. Are there only male pictures on your website? Are all your events a dudefest? Are you reaching out to womens groups/audiences? What’s your language like?
- reaching out and giving a platform (AMAs, The Sunrise, Startmate) to women who we think are great rolemodels so that they can be a beacon for others.
It’s early days, I’m sure we’ll make mistakes but if we’re measuring and learning, we’ll make progress.
Why should you apply for Startmate? How will joining an accelerator change my business?
I don’t really believe anything other than the founder directly changes the business. But I believe accelerators really help develop founders and through that, gives them the best chances of success.
Startmate does this in 3 ways:
- creates an environment that draws absolutely everything out of you that you have got to give. It’s the same dynamic of being in the peloton in the Tour de France — only everyone can win a yellow jersey. You cannot compare this to moving at your own self-imposed pace, unaware of how
- forces you to focus on the only things that really make a big impact on your business. Building product and talking to customers and both at the same time. And only building so much product as you need to sell to customers, no more, no less.
- gives you an express entry card into the US market. Startmate has the best networked mentor group in the US and intros are everything in Silicon Valley. If you were to jump on a plane and try to get intros to all of them yourself one by one it would take a lot longer and have much more varied results because you haven;t been battle-hardened by weeks of mentor-roulette and Niki and Nick Crocker office hours!
Investment Notes: Mint Innovation
Blackbird has invested in the Series B round of Mint Innovation, an e-waste startup turning garbage into gold.