Entrepreneurial Stereotypes on Display at SXSW

Quick, picture a tech startup founder: Are they male, maybe around 27 years old, a resident of Silicon Valley? Apparently that’s what it takes to build a tech startup for a seed incubation program, at least according to the explicit and implicit wisdom shared at Seed Combinators panel today at South by Southwest.

The panel, which featured Paul Graham from Y Combinator, David Cohen from TechStars, Naval Ravikant co-founder of Venture Hacks and Josh Baer from Austin’s Capital Factory, offered much of the expected commentary on how the ability to build cheap startups has changed the funding and entrepreneurial landscape. We at GigaOM have covered that, even the debate on whether you need to found your startup in the Valley (answer: if you want venture capital you have to go to the Valley), so what was most interesting was how narrow the definition of entrepreneur was for these programs.

Someone on the panel tried to make a point about how not all startup entrepreneurs are young, but then backed off of that when Cohen said the median age of a TechStars participant was 27 — ditto for those in Y Combinator. When an audience member asked why the programs didn’t accept older entrepreneurs, the consensus onstage was that it’s much more difficult to find two founders who are older, ready to pull up stakes and move to a new place to risk it all on building a company. And no one wanted to back an entrepreneur without a co-founder.

This makes sense in some ways. Investing in startups is risky, and all investors look for ways to mitigate those risks. Forcing folks to have a founder is simply part of that risk-mitigation formula, although it tends to force out older entrepreneurs. It’s also a reason why Valley companies tend to do better — they can find capital because they’re closer to their investors, eliminating travel and risk for their backers. So this brings me to the other elephant in the room, or rather the one that wasn’t in the room.

There were very few women — one in 10 would be a stretch. One actually asked about the lack of women in the programs, prompting Baer to note that of the 15 startups that Capital Factory has worked with, five of them had women as co-founders. And TechStars tweeted that a mere 11 percent of its founders are women (I have yet to hear from anyone from Y Combinator). But instead of wondering where the women are, or say you wish they were more (as a few panelists did), why not ask what is it about these programs that either make it difficult for them to accept women or make women not even bother to apply (or show up for panels on the topic?)?

I’ve put forth some ideas as to why there are so few women tech entrepreneurs, as have others. Do female entrepreneurs not get into these programs because they don’t fit the formula? Then we need to be talking about the risks to a startup’s success that women pose — we need to bring that into the open. If that’s not it, then we need to figure out why women aren’t in these programs. Are they not applying in equal numbers? My hunch is they don’t.

Doesn’t that mean we need to figure out why? Are there not enough of them? What opportunities are being denied to women, and more importantly, what are the ideas and businesses that venture firms lose out on? I welcome your thoughts and comments.


For the GigaOM network’s complete SXSW coverage, check out this round-up.

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