Geek Speak: Vanessa Dawson, cofounder of Girls Raising

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      Vanessa Dawson knows that there’s a gender imbalance in the technology sector. So, she’s doing her part to help women enter the startup scene and succeed.

      Dawson is the 29-year-old cofounder of Girls Raising, a New York-based organization that's bringing together women entrepreneurs and investors. Launched in August, Girls Raising will hold its third event on October 29 at Facebook’s office in Vancouver. This event will see five startups (Notey, Go2gether, Décor Addict, KurateStyle, and Orbits) present their ideas to a panel (Natalie Grunberg, Maura Rodgers, Stephanie Zahn, and Maria Cuasay) for feedback. On November 19, Girls Raising will put on its fourth event in Toronto.

      Born on Vancouver Island, Dawson grew up in West Vancouver and now lives in New York City. As the founder of Evry—a startup working on a social planning and payment tool—she realized there are “so many blind spots and issues in the industry for women”. Dawson cofounded Girls Raising with Kathleen Ong of Vancouver.

      The Georgia Straight reached Dawson by phone in the San Francisco Bay Area.

      What happens at a Girls Raising event?

      Right now, we’re focusing on showcasing the five female founders and their companies and what they’re up to. We’re also focused on bringing together female VCs [venture capitalists] and angels and past successful founders. So, companies that have raised a round of financing—so that they’ve gone through the process, they understand it, and they seem comfortable inside of it.

      What happens is basically the five founders present their ideas in about two minutes. Then the panel is allowed to ask them questions and then give them some really actionable, targeted feedback....[You’re] getting advice from past founders and VCs and angels, and it’s all in an environment where you’re presenting, so you’re building that confidence and that assurance with your pitch and your company and your idea.

      Why is your organization needed?

      It’s needed because there are not enough women entrepreneurs and female-founded startups in the pipeline to even invest in. There’s actually quite a few organizations out there that have come together. From the investment standpoint, there are lots of women that have the money and are excited and interested in investing, but there’s actually just a lack of companies to invest in.

      I think it’s an issue of awareness. I think it’s an issue that women don’t have that support network and they’re a little bit more risk-averse than men. So, they want to feel comfortable and supported with their ideas and with their ability to do something like that. Hopefully, this organization is going to bring more awareness to the fact that there are actually female-founded startups out there, but also help women that are maybe thinking of getting into that, and make them feel more supported and that there’s a place for them and the resources and networks to lean on.

      Other than the events, how is your organization going to further its goals?

      We are going to build an online platform that has two core focuses. We want to build a miniature focus-group platform so you can test product ideas or you can test particular features or have the ability to user test your ideas before you launch or if you have already launched and are fine tuning those ideas.

      Then we also want to be a move back to the barter system. Say you’re a designer and you want to give five hours of design, but you need help writing a press release. So, swapping those tools and resources online and within our network. We want to create that community of support. That’s obviously far in the future, and will need to be built out technologically. For now, we’re starting to build the awareness and bringing women together offline.

      What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer to a woman technology entrepreneur who’s just getting into the business?

      It depends what stage you’re at. But I would definitely just say it’s meeting as many people as you can and getting an idea of how they’ve experienced things—or the trials and tribulations that they went through....I think it’s very difficult to go it on your own too, so finding that right partner or person that you potentially want to work with on an idea is very important.

      It’s a long and it’s a hard process. You need to make sure that you find someone that can support you. It doesn’t need to be another female founder. Just having in mind that you should be looking for that support or cofounder that you can lean on is very important.

      Anything you’d like to add?

      In general, I think we need to start talking more about getting women involved in the innovation process. I think that, for too long, men have been controlling all the products that are being created, and then they’re also controlling the money that’s being invested in those products. It’s so, so important that we start bringing women into that process, because it’s not balanced right now. There’s inherent biases in that system, especially in digital and startups.

      I think, in particular, Girls Raising not only facilitates and streamlines networking for women founders and VCs, but it really plays an important role in helping to make more balanced decisions in product creation and the allocation of money and funds and movement of capital. I think that’s a core thing we’re trying to build out in an actionable way. A lot of women’s organizations out there right now are very content or media-oriented. So, you get a newsletter and a “Five Ways to Be Good in the Workplace”—or you get something like that. But they’re not actionable. There’s not really any steps that you then take to move forward. Hopefully, Girls Raising is going to be more of an action-driven offline and online mover to make change and make more things happen.