Tampa Bay Tech kicked off Women’s History Month with a panel discussion, held via Zoom, that featured leaders of the region’s top business incubators — all of whom happen to be women.
Hosted by Tampa Bay Tech Executive Director Jill St. Thomas, the lineup of speakers consisted of Tampa Bay Innovation Center President and CEO Tonya Elmore, Tampa Bay Wave President and CEO Linda Olson and Embarc Collective CEO Lakshmi Shenoy.
St. Thomas prefaced the discussion by cautioning attendees that, during the Q&A session at the end of the event, the panel would not address certain types of questions.
“As executives for a number of years, all of us have been invited at one time or another to join a women-branded leadership event,” she said. “Inevitably we get asked a question, not about our leadership acumen or our journey, but, you know, ‘How do you balance it all? How do you maintain work-life balance? How do you manage your time?’ I can assure you that we’ll be spending today on topics that are far more relevant, and you’ve either got all that figured out or you don’t, but either way you slice it, that’s not what we’re going to be addressing today.”
The group discussed how Tampa Bay has done a great job of both nurturing startups and luring them to move here from somewhere else, particularly the U.S. West Coast, but that even with all of the new arrivals, a significant gender gap remains in the tech sector.
“We don’t have enough women who are technology founders,” Shenoy said. “They’re not getting funded. We don’t have enough women participating in investment opportunities here.”
Embarc Collective, she said, has taken action to reverse that trend. It recently partnered with JPMorgan Chase on a gender gap report and related virtual summit that sought to increase the support for women-led startups and increase the number of women startup investors in Florida. The report found that in 2019 only 13 percent of venture capital dollars, worldwide, went to startups that had at least one woman founder. In Florida over the past decade, startups founded by women received just 12 percent of early-stage venture capital dollars.
“It’s on us to continue to improve the metrics around participation, investment and business success,” Shenoy said. “We want to not just help these women thrive and grow, but also hopefully put a message out there that if we, as a community, really want to have a vibrant innovation ecosystem here, there’s a role that all of us can play in building that ecosystem.”
Olson said that Tampa Bay Wave, which just kicked off the latest round of its TechDiversity Accelerator program, has deliberately been targeting underserved founders. But she was quick to point out that it does so not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes good economic sense – brilliant entrepreneurs can come from any background.
“When you look at the Tampa Bay community, we’re not unlike a lot of places where [the population] is probably just a little bit over 50 percent women,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of minorities making up a significant part of the population, as well. And if they don’t have pathways to entrepreneurship, to success, we’re only hurting ourselves and hurting the whole community by leaving them out.”
Elmore indicated that events of the past few years, starting with the #MeToo movement and culminating in last summer’s nationwide protests against system racism, could prove to be a tipping point in terms of elevating and prioritizing diversity in business and entrepreneurship.
“It’s been challenging, I’ll be honest with you, over the past 18 years to find diversity in the tech arena,” she said. “And it’s not like we haven’t tried — early on, we offered programming but I think it’s much more likely to be successful now than it was in 2003, 2005, 2010. I think we’ll have a better opportunity to be more inclusive and have female and minority tech leaders at the table, more than ever, I’m hopeful. I am truly hopeful and whether it’s in science or math or tech, whatever it might be, I’m hoping that we’ll have the opportunity to work with more diverse founders.”