Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in 2012, knocking out power and leaving residents and storeowners desperate to access digital data. One New Yorker saw how access varied among users, and created a service that would allow local businesses to search for available data sources.

Aileen Gemma Smith, founder and CEO of Vizalytics Technology, sought investors to help launch her product. What she found instead was sexism, ageism and elitism.

“I was told by investors that I was too old, would not be committed and did not have the right education to be investable,” said Smith. “I chose not to listen to that feedback.”

So she sold her house to get the seed money she needed to launch her business.

Private-Public Seed Money 

In February 2019, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, along with select venture capital firms, launched the WE.NYC initiative, aimed at providing capital to start-up tech companies founded by woman and minorities.

“The beauty of this program is—we have a voice in the businesses that we want to invest in,” said Diana Franco, Executive Director of Launch Services at the city’s Department of Small Business Services, which helped launch the WE.NYC initiative.

The venture capitalist partners are responsible for evaluating up-and-coming tech companies and investing $20M in the industry over the next five years. The NYC EDC would match their investments at a 2:1 ratio, providing $10M over the same five-year period.

The investment partners include Archer Gray, Future\Perfect Ventures, Golden Seeds Venture Fund, WOCstar Fund, and the Multicultural Innovation Lab at Morgan Stanley, which have a record of providing capital to women who want to start a business.

Mind The Gap

There were 60,000 workers in the New York City tech field in 2006. By 2016, that number had climbed to nearly 130,000. But the majority of those new jobs have gone to men—the city’s tech workforce is 68% male compared to 58% in non-tech industries, according to American Community Survey data from the US Census Bureau.

Women own 36% of US businesses, yet only 12% of venture capital funding goes to startups founded by at least one woman, said Fortune magazine. And if a startup is lead by women exclusively, that number drops to 2%.

“This program is opening that door and breaking that networking issue. Women will receive the opportunity to be interviewed by an investment firm without having a [preexisting] network,” said Franco.

Designed By Women For Women

Greater diversity in the industry won’t just be creating a fairer business climate, but will also be creating better tech products and services. The male-dominated tech industry is often asked to solve problems that women uniquely face, and the results can sometimes miss the mark.

“We need a deeper bench of women and minorities [in tech],” said Carley Graham Garcia, Executive Director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Montclair State University. “We all know now the data around how much better certain products and services can be if they benefit from a diverse group of people at the table building them.”

Garcia recently hosted an entrepreneurship conference at Montclair State for 550 women focused on getting their businesses off the ground. The event provided free childcare for attendees.

“The kids were in the other room, the moms were adjacent, and it was exemplary of what you can do when you think about how to support and diversify the pipeline,” said Garcia.

From Struggle to Success

Today, Vizalytics provides data analytics to public and private sector clients around the world in transportation, tourism and economic development. Smith used her experience to help other women break into the tech field by becoming a WE.NYC mentor.

“Bias runs deep,” said Smith. “To create change, sometimes we have to create a different table that is inclusive and welcoming, because current structures don’t allow it.” 

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