Up and Comers Who Are Breaking Down a Digital Divide

Up-and-Comers Who Are Breaking Down a Digital Divide

By Kim Hart
Monday, July 27, 2009

Around town, I often hear people referring to a tech start-up as just "two guys in a garage." But that phrase excludes a gender that, some say, is too often overlooked in the technology industry. In Washington, a number of women are leaving their mark as entrepreneurs, social media enthusiasts and policy experts. And they're trying to make room for more girl geeks. Here are five women who have established themselves as influential figures in the region's tech circles and are worth keeping an eye on.

-- Shireen Mitchell's interest in technology began when she became addicted to Atari video games as a teenager. When she came to Washington for college at Howard University and graduate school at the University of the District of Columbia, she began to notice that she was one of the few women who frequented tech events and got involved in "geeky" projects.

"I was never encouraged to be interested in technology," said Mitchell, 39. "Even my mother thought I was going to the arcade room to hang around boys -- not because I actually loved the games . . . There just aren't a lot of women who feel comfortable in the field."

In 2000, she started Digital Sisters, a nonprofit that provides training for women and others who traditionally have not been part of the tech community. Nine years later, she said she still sees a huge digital divide that adversely affects women, especially minority women.

She's tried to bridge that gap by helping communities and neighborhoods take advantage of tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter to organize events, respond to issues and spread information.

"Social media is the one tech industry that seems natural for women to be part of," she said. "It's all about communicating, and women's communication skills are great assets."

-- Larissa Fair, 26, has been president of the Washington chapter of the Social Media Club for two years, since shortly after it formed. Under her charge, the group now has more than 900 members (by Facebook's count, anyway) and meets every month to network and discuss trends ranging from cloud computing to mobile media campaigns. She's done public relations work for local firms such as Platinum Solutions and Livingston Communications, and now manages Web communications for a nonprofit.

Fair's main passion is expanding the reach of social networks among associations, educational institutions and government groups.

"The idea of it has gone much more mainstream," she said. "People are going to be online anyway, so you need to find the way to reach them."

-- After stints as a professional dancer and labor union worker, Alexis Rodich, 28, changed directions and went to American University's business school to study finance. Her interest in venture capitalists and angel investors helped her land a job as an associate for LaunchBox Digital, which has a 12-week incubator program in the District that invests in and advises eight start-up companies. She helps the entrepreneurs craft revenue models, define their markets and develop social media strategies.

Rodich plans to continue to work with a couple of the start-ups at the end of the summer and launch her own company related to yoga.

She also writes a regular column about entrepreneurship for Women Grow Business, a community blog hosted by Herndon-based Network Solutions and edited by Jill Foster, who co-founded DC Media Makers, an organization that focuses on digital media.

There's something very optimistic about what's going on right now," she said.

-- Kady Chiu, 37, had been working as a sales and marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard for more than 10 years when she started to feel a bit bored. So she launched her own consulting firm, called Kadidid, and helped companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton integrate social media tools into its management system.

She then met Paul Worsham, who works for the Transportation Security Administration, and wanted to learn more about Web 2.0 technologies. The duo teamed to form a group on social network site Meetup to find other like-minded techies in Washington. The first event attracted only two people, but has since grown to have about 1,250 followers. Chiu said she is working to make the group -- newly branded as 1 Piazza -- a nonprofit organization that helps start-ups.

She organizes two types of events: Social Rockstar events are designed to help people network with other social media friends, and Startup Rockstar events have become a popular venue for start-ups to demo their products and business plans. "I knew nothing about Twitter and didn't really care, until I came to one of the events and I was so surprised by the energy and the type of people who were into it," Chiu said.

-- A veteran of the D.C. tech scene, Shana Glickfield, 33, got her start as a consumer issues lobbyist. She spent four years at Amplify Public Affairs developing online strategies for telecommunications clients and this year started her own consulting firm. She's currently working on a project for the trade association USTelecom called NextGenWeb, an online community that promotes the use of Internet networks as a backbone for social media, health information technology and smart-grid initiatives.

"We're trying to connect these great goals back to networks, which kind of gets lost in all the excitement about broadband," she said.

She also recently put together a series of workshops for Capitol Hill staffers to help them learn about using social networks, online video, Twitter and blogs.

Glickfield has a second identity as the author of her blog, the DC Concierge, where she parlays her knowledge of the city's hotspots to give tips on where to get the best burger or most exotic martini. In that capacity, she's gotten to know the local start-up community.

"I don't consider myself a lobbyist, but I do consider myself a connector to bridge all these different D.C. worlds," she said.

I have enjoyed connecting the dots between these worlds for the past year. I will continue to watch with great interest as Washington's technology community evolves, but I will not be writing about it in this column. This will be my last Download column as I pursue a new career opportunity. I have enjoyed getting to know the spirited entrepreneurs, eternally optimistic investors and seasoned technology gurus that make this area's tech scene so unique. Even in the worst economy in decades, start-ups have been formed and jobs have been found -- largely due, I believe, to the camaraderie and enthusiasm of this community.