Geek Speak: Shaherose Charania, CEO of Women 2.0

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Shaherose Charania doesn’t want to see women get left behind in the technology sector. So, she cofounded a media company that promotes the involvement of women in every level of tech businesses.

Charania is the CEO of Women 2.0, which began as a side project in 2006 and became a “real company” in 2011. Women 2.0 regularly holds Founder Friday networking events in 20 cities around the world, including Vancouver, Seattle, New York City, Buenos Aires, and Madrid. The next Vancouver event will take place on January 10, 2014. (For Vancouver updates, check out the hashtag #FFVAN on Twitter.)

A 32-year-old entrepreneur, Charania grew up in Vancouver and now lives in San Francisco. She started Founder Labs and previously worked at tech startups Jajah, Talenthouse, and Ribbit.

The Georgia Straight interviewed Charania by phone.

Why did you cofound Women 2.0?

I first moved to the [Silicon] Valley in 2005. I didn’t really know what an entrepreneur or a VC [venture capitalist] was, but I was in this place and I started to go to networking events and caught wind of the underbelly of innovation. At every event, I found that I was always the only girl in the room. I wasn’t too bothered by it, but I thought it was kind of strange.

I met this one particular individual, who was an early Facebook employee, and he said, “Hey, you’re one of the only girls here. You should meet these other girls I know, and you guys should do something about it.” So, he set up a meeting for us at the Facebook office, and we sat there and were like, “Yeah, this is a problem.” Innovation was taking off here in 2005. Everyone was talking about this thing called Web 2.0. No one really understood it. It was just this term. But it didn’t matter, because what we were watching, what we were seeing was that guys were funding their guy friends. This whole wave of innovation was taking off without us.

In parallel, the movement of micro-loans empowering women in emerging markets was very real. Women were becoming more powerful in emerging markets. As they become more educated and more entrepreneurial, of course they are always going to look to the western world for influences and inspiration. As they become more technical, they are going to look to the most influential tech companies, like Facebook and Google and Cisco and Intel. Everyone at the top of those companies is a guy.

While in our own backyard there was an issue, my personal beef was that this cycle, if not broken in the West, was going to continue to perpetuate all over the world, and the most important companies of our time, which we knew in 2005 were going to be technology companies, would continue to be male-run and women would just not be a part of the conversation. So, that’s the motivation behind why we’ve continued to grow Women 2.0: to ensure that from every level—a founding level, an executive level, a managerial level, an employee level—that there are women involved. Because at the same time—the third piece of this—the number one users and buyers of technology products are women.

Facebook—74 percent of daily active users are women. More women are on Twitter than males. More women are on Snapchat than males. We’re the drivers and the users, but the creators of these companies don’t look anything like us. To be a sustainable business driving innovation, you need to understand your customer. There’s all sorts of facts about how diversity makes for better companies.

How does your company promote diversity in the technology sector?

We do three things to realize our mission. The first thing is we have content online. You’re probably familiar with the stat that only 27 percent of news sources are women. The rest are men. Our point is to have a site where women are writing their own news, they’re writing stories, and so our blog is one-third editorial, one-third syndicated, and one-third contributed content from female founders, leaders in technology, and female investors. That’s something we do. We have content that people can learn from, be inspired by.

The second thing we do is our community events in 20 cities around the world—just bringing people together. The events are for men and women. But the idea is to create a comfortable, safe environment for people to network. If you were in our shoes, you would know what it would be like to go to an event where you are totally outnumbered. Even if you are not insecure, you suddenly feel insecure. That’s another thing. Networks lead to founding teams. Networks lead to hiring. All that kind of stuff happens when people meet each other. Technology culture is very much driven around networking. We bring that to all the cities that we’re in through Founder Friday.

We also do big conferences. The point of conferences is to create a voice and create a platform to show off some of the leading innovators in technology that are women. We include men on stage, because it’s a boring conversation without them. We try to reflect reality as much as we can. But the conferences happen as another way for people to connect, to be educated, to be inspired, and to also show off some of the up-and-coming tech startups. Every year, we do two startup competitions that are focused on getting female founders to pitch.

For you, what was the highlight of your conference in Las Vegas in November?

I would say two things for me stood out. One was the exploration of the next generation of innovation that Megan Smith is leading at Google X. I think she is in a position where this grown-up startup is tackling problems that no one really can. I think it’s exciting she’s at the helm of that.

The other interesting highlight was listening to Jane Poynter, who was one of eight people who lived in the Biosphere way back in the day but now is running a space company. She’s trying to use hot-air balloons to get to Mars. You think about all the things you can build through software, but technology that takes you to space—that’s out of this world. It really forced everyone to think bigger that they do.

What happens at a Founder Friday event?

It’s an event that goes from 6 to 9. We start off with one hour of warm-up networking. We go at 7 o’clock and we have a female founder or investor give a talk for about 10 minutes. It’s meant to be a very informal, personal talk about their experiences, about their lessons, about what they think is important, and what they’re passionate about—just to create an opportunity for learning and exchange. Following that talk, we open it back up to networking. That format is the same in every city around the world. Events happen on the same day, same time in the local time zone, so they’re all simultaneously happening.

Why is Women 2.0 set up as a company rather than a non-profit organization?

Our target audience is educated individuals or smart individuals. We’re not trying to cure malaria. We’re not trying to find the solution to AIDS. We are encouraging women to be entrepreneurial and business-minded, so, for us, we wanted to walk the walk. We said, ‘We’re going to start a business, a media company, a brand that is set up that way.’ We’re addressing a very valuable market. That’s part of the thinking behind it. We’re walking the walk. We’re building a really valuable company that people want to get in front of as a customer, and they should pay for it.

We really do believe our company is mission-driven. We talk about being a social-impact enterprise. So, for us, we’re not entirely driven by revenues. We’re equally driven by the impact we want to create. That model is hard, of course, which is probably why we grow in the organic fashion that we do. But that’s the way we want to be. We’re not trying to be a Snapchat, because we’re not a tech company. But we’re certainly trying to be a powerful brand that has positive impact. To this date, we haven’t added any ads to our site as a revenue stream. We will, but they’ll be very thoughtful. For us, having social impact is very important.

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