Five female tech entrepreneurs who never got the memo that the field was dominated by men
Author Erin Brady, Nicholas DeRenzo and Chris Wright Illustration Graham Smith
Conventional wisdom has it that women aren’t exactly setting the tech world on fire. According to a couple of the more commonly bandied-about statistics, women have launched only 3 percent of tech startups, and they receive just 5 percent of tech venture capital funding. The list goes on.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that the balance may be shifting. A recent Kauffman Foundation report found that, when women run tech companies, they achieve a 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts. Another recent study found that, between 2009 and 2013, the average age of women launching tech startups dropped from 41 to 32.
This last figure is telling. While the tech field is still tilted very much in favor of men, there is a large and growing number of young, talented female entrepreneurs whose ideas promise to go further than just shaking up Silicon Valley’s old boys’ network. Here, we introduce five of these unsung pioneers, whose work could very well end up changing the way we live.
Name: Meredith Perry
Measure of Success: Perry received $1.7 million in seed funding from Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and others after a simple cold email and a 12-minute in-person pitch.
A few years ago, Meredith Perry was sitting in her dorm at the University of Pennsylvania, scheming against her laptop cord. Perry was studying astrobiology at the time, but her interests didn’t stop there. “I’ve always had a crazy interest in science,” she says. “One thing I do is ask questions about everything, kind of obsessively.” Perry carries a notebook around with her, in which she keeps tabs on things that, in her opinion, need fixing. “I keep asking questions until I find the answer,” she says. “If I stumble across a problem, I’m going to solve it.”
So it was with that laptop cord, and the genesis of Perry’s startup, uBeam. “I wanted to know how to get rid of this archaic thing, how to make wireless wireless,” she says. “So I came up with a way to do it.”
Perry’s eureka moment occurred, oddly enough, while she was thinking about war. “I saw there were contractors creating acoustic weapons,” she says. “I thought, if sounds can be used to make a bomb, they could probably be used to charge a cellphone.”
Shortly afterward, she invented a transmitter that emits ultrasonic waves that make tiny crystals in a receiver vibrate, generating electrical power. That power can be used to charge the batteries of a computer, smartphone or any other device to which the receiver is attached. No more wires.
While uBeam has had no problem attracting investors (like Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer), the early days weren’t easy. “Engineers and physicists I spoke to told me this was not possible,” Perry says. “But I knew that if I wasn’t breaking the rules of physics I could do it. I had to.”
As for when we can abandon our chargers, Perry hopes to have her invention on the market within two years. From here, the system’s uses could expand, to power everything from vacuum cleaners to electric cars, introducing the prospect of a truly wireless world.
Meanwhile, the obsessive problem solver is still scribbling in her notebook. There are, she says, “a zillion other things I want to do.” —CW
Name: Jessica Scorpio
Measure of Success: When insurance companies balked at covering participating cars, Scorpio went to Sacramento, where she fought successfully to get new liability laws on the books.
There are a billion cars on the planet, and most sit idle 22 hours a day,” Jessica Scorpio says. It’s a staggering statistic and one that Scorpio mentions as the inspiration for her revolutionary peer-to-peer car-sharing service, Getaround.
The project emerged from a session with Google co-founder Larry Page, who tasked her class at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University with creating something that could help a billion people over the next decade. Riffing on the shared economy model popularized by outfits like Airbnb, Scorpio designed a solution that would pair people in need of a ride with cars that languish all day in garages and driveways.
“What’s really unique about our app is on-demand car-sharing,” Scorpio says. “You can literally get a car within the next hour if you need it.” Currently available in San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, San Diego and Portland, Oregon, Getaround will expand nationally—and then possibly internationally—in 2015.
The program’s success lies in its execution. Hesitant to rent your car to a stranger? All drivers undergo real-time DMV background checks. The service comes with 24-hour roadside assistance and insurance coverage up to $1 million, while an easy-to-install device allows the car to be unlocked, day or night, using the renter’s smart phone.
While many users jump at the chance to drive prestige cars like Teslas and Porsches—at about half the price of a rental car—Scorpio notes that the real winners are those who simply need to get around and have no other means of doing so.
So far, cities have been happy to hop on board. This spring, San Francisco handed over 900 parking spaces to car-sharing sites, with Getaround the only peer-to-peer brand to make the cut. This is good news for the company and also for those who rely on it. After all, as Scorpio points out, her firm grew out of an assignment to do some good.
“The sharing economy,” she says, “allows people to live a better life with fewer resources: to stay in a better apartment, to have a more flexible job, to drive a better car.” —ND
Name: Samantha John
Measure of Success: Downloaded 20,000 times in its first week alone, Hopscotch has since been used to create 1.5 million unique projects in more than 100 countries.
When Samantha John started building websites as a senior at Columbia University, she quickly realized that, like any language, computer programming was best learned at a young age. But how do you entice kids to code? Her app, Hopscotch, which she debuted last spring with partner Jocelyn Leavitt, turns programming into an intuitive building-block system, in which chunks of pre-written code can be combined to animate characters and have them react to stimuli in their virtual world. Think of it as Lego for the video game set.
“It’s a powerful concept for kids to learn that the technology they use every day is absolutely within their power to create,” John says. Her elegantly simple app addresses two basic issues facing kids who want to code: First, they’re far more interested in apps and
tablets than websites and computers; second, they’re generally terrible typists. “One of the biggest hurdles is learning to type like a programmer,” John says. “Even in adult classes, they’ll ask me, ‘How do I find this character on my keyboard?’”
Kids start by choosing an animated avatar (an alien, a robot, a walking cupcake) and then create basic cause-and-effect rules—the alien inflates like a balloon when you tap the screen, the cupcake jumps when you clap—by dragging and dropping directions. Each directive can then be modified to account for variables like distance and speed. From these building blocks, kids have designed video games, calculators, even pinball machines. “Teachers have had a lot of success with Hopscotch,” John says. “We realized early on that games were a great motivator for both boys and girls.”
What has most impressed John, however, is the way that children have made Hopscotch their own. One popular hack saw kids bypassing the app’s preloaded characters and creating their own using Apple’s emoji keyboard. “We built something, and they are doing things with it that we never could have imagined,” John says. “That’s incredibly exciting!” —ND
Name: Hannah Chung
Measure of success: Chung won the 2013 Perfect Pitch contest at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Judge Warren Buffett was so impressed that he dubbed himself the “papa bear” to Chung’s “mama bear.”
Jerry looks like a Care Bear who has had his “tummy symbol” upgraded to a sleek, interactive screen. But before you dismiss him as just another high-tech distraction, note his most important feature: Jerry has type 1 diabetes, which makes him uniquely qualified to educate, entertain and comfort young patients.
Jerry was created by Hannah Chung, who teamed with fellow Northwestern alum Aaron Horowitz to found Sproutel, a startup devoted to inventing toys for kids with chronic illnesses. Diabetes proved a particular challenge: Children are often diagnosed between the ages of three and seven, when it’s difficult to master complex, critical concepts like carb counting. “We saw that these kids had plush animals and dolls,” Chung says, “and they were pricking their fingers, giving them insulin,” without any real idea of what they were actually doing.
Another thing Chung observed was that these kids “wanted emotional companionship, but it’s hard to find another kid in the neighborhood with type 1.” Besides being cuddly, her toy—Teddy Ruxpin meets Tamagotchi—allows youngsters to manage their symptoms by acting as caretakers: squeeze Jerry’s fingers to check blood glucose levels, feed him snacks using nutrition-labeled food disks, administer insulin and pick up handy tips (remember to rotate injection sites!) from Jerry’s animal friends, who appear on his screen in educational animated stories.
What has struck Chung is how much her creation transcends its role as a toy. “When you talk to users, they say he’s a member of the family,” she says. During its first year, Sproutel managed to get bears into the hands of 2 percent of newly diagnosed cases. “There are now 300 Jerries in the wild!” Chung says. The company’s goal is to get bears out to all newly diagnosed kids—about 12,000 a year—and it has turned to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to hit that target. Next up, Chung hopes to tackle asthma, and Sproutel has also begun exploring ways to adapt its technology for the elderly. —ND
Name: Jessica O. Matthews
Company: Uncharted Play
Measure of Success: The Uncharted Play team was invited to join President Obama on a trip to Tanzania, where he demonstrated the Soccket with a presidential header.
The easiest way to get someone to change,” says Jessica O. Matthews, co-founder and CEO of socially conscious sportsgear startup Uncharted Play, “is to make it seem like they’re not changing at all.” For proof, look no further than her company’s offerings, which include the Soccket, a soccer ball that converts kicks into electric energy that powers a small LED lamp that is inserted into the ball.
“In the immediate present, we are providing play products,” Matthews says of the toy she invented while an undergrad at Harvard. “And if there is a problem with energy availability in a community, we are providing a clean alternative.” Originally fashioned from a gyroscope, a battery and a hamster ball, the Soccket, now in its seventh iteration, remains in principle the same. Thirty minutes of play with the plastic-coated ball produces three hours of energy that can be tapped through a discreet outlet.
“It’s as easy to repair as a watch,” Matthews says of the device, which, for obvious reasons, tends to endure more wear-and-tear than most electrical items. “Anything is going to fall apart,” she concedes, “but if we can get our general durability to about two years and provide tools for repairs to extend wearability, we think that the lasting impact there goes way beyond the product.”
To help extend the Soccket’s impact, Uncharted Play has a five-part curriculum, which pairs the company with nonprofit groups across the globe and teaches students to try their hands at invention as well as sport. “The goal isn’t to have communities chained to Soccket balls for power for decades,” she says. “We want them to invent a better system than what they have.”
While the Soccket and its sister device, an energy-producing jump rope, aren’t yet for sale commercially, they seem to be making good on Matthews’ goals in pilot programs in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria, among others. “We don’t have to deal with the world’s problems in such a morose, depressing way,” she says. “When you mix it in with play, you can find ways to address social ills in a positive, fun and enjoyable way. ” —EB