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York Butter Factory Tweet Aftermath, Gender and Technology in Australia’s Tech Start-up Scene: Technology

Is Australia’s tech start-up scene a self-satisfied boys’ club?

By Oliver Milman and Michelle Hammond
Wednesday, 18 April 2012

feature-no-women-allowed-thumbIt is a rather grim irony that the York Butter Factory – a venture designed to unearth the most innovative, modern tech businesses in Australia – could fall foul to the kind of needless Twitter gaffe that other, less web-savvy, companies have blundered into.

 

The Melbourne-based incubator provoked a storm of online indignation with its tweet yesterday: “Techs are the pussy of the start-up scene, fill the club with them and the business guys will follow. Got tech chops? @YorkButter wants you!”

 

The tweet was hastily deleted, but not before screen shots of the offending message had been circulated as yet another lesson of how not to use Twitter.

 

Although the York Butter Factory has since apologised, the tweet has raised concerns that Australia’s tech start-up community is little more than a self-satisfied, immature boys club.

 

Certainly, the male-dominated nature of tech accelerators and incubators in Australia cannot be denied. A StartupSmart investigation, detailed below, shows that not a single senior figure heading these organisations is a woman.

 

Furthermore, very few of the businesses these incubators invest in have any sort of female input.

 

Female tech entrepreneur Kate Kendall says that women should not be deterred by the male-centric nature of the industry.

 

“What women need to do is just push forward and not be brought down by this commentary, otherwise it becomes the focus,” she advises.

 

“I do feel there is this [male-centric] culture in the Australian start-up scene and this comment is one example of that that.”

 

“We need to elevate the success of female entrepreneurs more. There is a need to continually pin these people as amazing in their own right.”

 

“The more we can show the journey of local entrepreneurs being successful, this will be when a lot of these things get evened out.”

 

So which of Australia’s tech start-up hubs are doing well when it comes to female representation and which could do better? We’ve picked out seven of the leading incubators and accelerators to assess their gender equality credentials.

 

 

1. York Butter Factory

 

Key people: Stuart Richardson, Safwan Shah, David Scott Carlick, Darcy Naunton and Tom Haslam.

 

How many of these are women? Zero.

 

York Butter Factory, situated at the foot of Melbourne’s Rialto Tower, has become the unwitting focus of the Twitter sexism furore, clouding what had, up until then, been a promising initial period.

 

Co-founded by VC firm Adventure Capital, the venue hosts nearly 30 early-stage businesses, which each pay $600 a month for a permanent space.

 

While York Butter Factory itself has just one female member of staff – Nichole Fraser, the office manager – there are five women who work in the space as start-up founders.

 

They are: Alison Hardacre of HealthKit (was SpecialistLink until recently), Julie Bray of Ventiv, Briony Clare of VeNa, Rita Kanji of Wink Brand Design and Gabrielle McMillan of Equiem.

 

Although it would be incorrect to call the incubator a male-only zone, questions have been raised over the culture of a business where such a tweet could be made, especially with the prior knowledge of a company meeting.

 

Richardson admits: “I guess in terms of the industry, there is a bit of gender bias which exists. It is, in a lot of ways, male-dominated.”

 

“I certainly wasn’t [present in the aforementioned meeting] and it was not a formal meeting. That tweet was not in any way embargoed, discussed or endorsed by the founders.”

 

“I think there will be a further discussion on the matter, as we move past the issue and back to managing the day to day, which for us is about having a high-performance community.”

 

“I hope [the tweet is] not too damaging but this can demonstrate the power of social media.”

 

“It has the power to be very damaging and puts the ball firmly in our court, as we move forward, to demonstrate our culture.”

 

 

2. PushStart

 

Key people: Kim Heras and Roger Kermode

 

Either of them women? No.

 

Mentoring network PushStart recently unveiled the eight start-ups that will take part in its first accelerator programme.

 

Of the 18 founders involved in these businesses, just one - Sarah-Jane Kurtini, co-founder of tinybeans.com, is female.

 

Within PushStart’s 130-strong mentor network, Kim Heras estimates that just 20 are women. But he claims that PushStart is doing no worse than a wider community that struggles with several long-term issues.

 

“I know that all the key people in the industry are trying to address these issues and we are very supportive of female entrepreneurs,” he says.

 

“I heard a stat the other day that just 10% of computer science students are female, which is far lower than fields such as law and medicine. The numbers of women skilled in this area just aren’t coming through.”

 

“There’s an aspirational issue too – there aren’t many female tech entrepreneurs, so there are fewer role models for younger women to look up to. It’s a legacy issue we have to deal with.”

 

 

3. Future Capital

 

Key people: Domenic Carosa, Andrew Fiori-Dea, Danny Wallis, Tony Stephen, Irwin Saunders and Bill Kyriacou.

 

How many of these are women? Zero.

 

Future Capital has 14 businesses in its portfolio – five in Sydney and five in Melbourne, with the others spread across different parts of the country.

 

None of Future Capital’s senior team – nor its advisory board – is female. There are also no women heading the businesses it invests in.

 

CEO Andrew Fiori-Dea says: “Looking at the companies, you’re probably looking at 25% to 30% of women [overall], so the majority is men.”

 

“We don’t have any female founders, but I would have to say that’s probably not a conscious or deliberate decision.”

 

“Looking back over the last 18 months, I’ve probably seen a dozen female founders. Most tend to be lifestyle-oriented businesses – fashion and food-related type businesses.”

 

“The tech space has largely been the domain of engineers, which is traditionally male-oriented.”

 

 

4. Blue Chilli

 

Key person: Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin

 

Female? No.

 

Sydney-based accelerator Blue Chilli fares comparatively well, gender-wise, when it comes to the businesses it partners with.

 

Founder Sebastian Eckersley-Maslin says that around 20% of start-ups that pitch to him are headed by women, with the business investing in six female-led ventures so far. By comparison, eight are male-led, with a further two having both a male and female founder.

 

Despite having a rough 50-50 split in its founder base, Eckersley-Maslin admits more needs to be done: “I’d like to have more female start-ups pitch to us, of course, but we can’t actively influence the people who apply to us.”

 

“I can see where the perception of the tech industry as a boys club comes from, but there are networks such as Head Over Heels challenging this and there certainly isn’t a negative perception to women at Blue Chilli.”

 

Sonia Domeyko, founder of social commerce site SwarmIn, says that the situation is improving.

 

Domeyko, who has partnered with Blue Chilli to launch her business, says that she has noticed more women in the tech arena after taking a career break to have children.

 

“I think things have come on leaps and bounds – even as a consumer, I come across business models that are being founded by women,” she says. “IT can certainly be a bit of a boys club, but the consumer web is certainly something that is being heavily influenced by the social and purchasing power of women.”

 

 

5. Pollenizer

 

Key people: Mick Liubinskas and Phil Morle

 

Either of them women? No.

 

Although two of Pollenizer’s leading investments – Posse and 99dresses – have female founders, the Sydney incubator admits it hopes to partner with more women entrepreneurs in the future.

 

Co-founder Mick Liubinskas says: “We’ve had fairly good representation of female founders in the past, probably more than average… [But] I’d love to see more female engineers and more female founders.”

 

According to Liubinskas, approximately 20% of the team members in Pollenizer’s portfolio companies are female.

 

“Pollenizer itself, being more of an engineering and product-focused firm, is more male-dominated than female.”

 

“There are four females in the team at Pollenizer, out of 20. That’s one fifth, which is not too bad but not great. Our general manager of operations is a female.”

 

“In terms of the industry, it’s a risk-taking industry. You need a bit of an ego and you need the confidence to go and do it. There might be some things there that are more male-dominated.”

 

 

6. Startmate

 

Key people: Co-founders David Jones and Niki Scevak.

 

Either of them women? No.

 

Few would argue that Startmate has provided a significant leg-up to a clutch of Australia’s most promising tech businesses.

 

Each one of the inaugural four start-ups last year managed to attract external funding, with one, Grabble, even being acquired by US retail behemoth Walmart.

 

However, it’s noticeable that latest batch of eight start-ups are dominated by those with the Y chromosome.

 

Indeed, of the 23 founders that have flocked through the doors as Startmate’s class of 2012, a mere three are women.

 

Startmate’s list of mentors is even more one-sided. Embarrassingly, of the 32 leading industry figures that offer their money and advice to the selected start-ups, just one – Tjoos co-founder Kim Chen – is female.

 

 

7. AngelCube

 

Key people: Andrew Birt, Andrew Stone and Richie Khoo.

 

How many of this trio are women? Zero.

 

AngelCube is one of the newest start-up incubators in Australia, choosing its first four start-ups, each getting $20,000 each in seed capital, in September.

 

It’s unclear what, if any, female involvement there is in RentWant.com, Lexim.com.au, TestPilot.me and Goodfil.ms, with AngelCube’s three (male) founders not responding to calls at the time of publication.

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Comments (10)

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"Techs are the pussy of the start-up scene, fill the club with them and the business guys will follow. Got tech chops? @YorkButter wants you!”

The irony in this statement is not in its context as YBF as a tech investment firm. The irony is how you determined its fate as a self fulfilling prophecy.
Woodz , April 19, 2012
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What a surprise... Not. 2012 and we're not even close to overcoming the Neanderthal syndrome. Pretty pathetic.
Ralph Becker , April 19, 2012
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The reason there are so few women in tech startups has been discussed for some time now.

To quote Paul Graham...

"I read on the Internet that only 1.7% of VC-backed startups are founded by women. The percentage of female hackers is small, but not that small. So why the discrepancy?

When you realize that successful startups tend to have multiple founders who were already friends, a possible explanation emerges.

People's best friends are likely to be of the same sex, and if one group is a minority in some population, pairs of them will be a minority squared."

It's not a boys club, that's sensationalist at best and deliberately inflammatory at worst . The tech scene welcomes all genders, races and creeds more than almost any other sector from my experience - the quality of skills and ideas is what matters.

That said it is true that there are markedly less women in tech than men. If more women want to be in the tech scene, then they should study engineering. Almost every successful enterpreneur i know also writes code. Stick your head in any engineering department and you will see
nickhac2 , April 19, 2012
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If it's not a boys club, then how can such a Tweet not only be sanctioned within a major tech incubator, but approved at a prior meeting? It's not inflammatory to suggest that a boys club may exist when such language is used publicly (not to mention what's said privately).

Also, you don't need to be a hardcore programmer to launch a tech business. Does Gerry Harvey know how to build TVs? Does Richard Branson fly planes and build mobile phone networks? Or are they just business people with an idea of what the customer wants and how to make money from them?

If the latter, why is the tech industry any different? You will need a tech co-founder, of course, but the idea that tech businesses can only be founded by engineers is silly. You can build the most stunning website in the world, but if you don't understand customers, know how to hire, pitch for funding etc it won't matter a bit.
Finntastic , April 19, 2012
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Dont overthink it. One stupid tweet doesn't define the culture of hundreds of people...
nickhac2 , April 19, 2012
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Of course, you're right. But it does give an insight into the kind of culture that can arise when your organisation is 99.9% male. Just like a different culture can arise if it is 99.9% over-60s, 99.9% women, etc.

Lack of diversity isn't healthy for any business.
Finntastic , April 19, 2012
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Orsi Parkanyi
I have been raising this issue for quite a while...We need more women in tech/mentors/entrepreneurs, and not only because it is fair (it is tho!), but also because DIVERSITY DRIVES INNOVATION and results in a more competitive team - if we talk about startups! Lately, I have seen many Australian, male only startups pitcing for money, who's target market are women, yet could not build/communicate/sell their products to women at all because of the lack of female mentors and team players! I felt sorry for them knowing they were heading to the USA where the competition is much much bigger! A tiny mistake like this can be fatal in the startup space, although some of the ideas and products would have been so great!... Sooner or later we have to challenge the outdated traditions in business/startups and start being more strategic, thinking about target markets, marketing to women, and business sense! INCLUDING WOMEN MAKES BUSINESS SENSE because like it or not - unless you are building a video game - chances are, the vast majority of your customers will be women...
Orsi Parkanyi , April 19, 2012
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I agree with Nick. It was obviously a stupid tweet to send out, but I'm a female founder and I've travelled down to Melbourne and whilst I was there I worked out of YBF. And in no way did I feel like I didn't fit in because I didn't have a penis. In fact, I've NEVER felt that way in the startup community. One stupid tweet doesn't reflect the culture of an entire community.

And as for the women in tech debate, I agree with Paul Graham 100%. And Finntastic, I'm a non-tech founder and I managed to start something, but my biggest regret was not getting a tech co-founder on board from the beginning. And not being an engineer or networking in engineer-type circles (like studying computer science at a uni) made it incredibly difficult to find a tech co-founder (it took me a good 18 months). But once you do find a suitable tech co-founder candidate you have the job of convincing them to work on a female-focused startup, and for many techy guys fashion isn't exactly up the top of their interest list. I got incredibly lucky with my two co-founders.

So I'm honestly not surprised there aren't more female founders and I don't think its anyone's fault and certainly nothing to do with a sexist culture.
Nikki Durkin , April 20, 2012
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It is easy to get gender balance. You make sure there are always women in the pool of candidates when you interview. Often then, they are the ones that get hired as it is clear in the interview they are the best person for the job. Also tell all managers, male and female, that it is human to want to hire in your own image but that is not good for the business.
amandag , April 20, 2012
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I'm surprised no one has brought up the fact that they think of techies in such a derogatory way. I mean, that's kind of the main point isn't it? That they just see techies as just a way to "make money" and somehow "inferior" to the business guys? That's what the tech community should be angry about.
kkt , April 24, 2012
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