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

Wednesday, 18 April 2012 | By Oliver Milman and Michelle Hammond

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.