Women in STEM are major drivers of the economy, but men continue to be industry leaders. Shaherose Charania is the CEO & Co-Founder of Women 2.0, a pioneering media company focused on increasing the presence of women in technology as leaders, founders, and investors.
Charania along with Angie Chang, Shivani Sopory, and Wen-Wen Lam started Women 2.0 as a side project in 2006, but Charania continued to grow it into a leading resource for tens of thousands of women entrepreneurs and technology professionals around the world. The company administers networking events, conferences, and digital tools.
This week, Women 2.0 will host a sold out crowd of 300+ Silicon Valley women & men tech innovators and investors at its first Women 2.0 Awards event to highlight those innovators and companies who are reshaping the future of tech. Nominees include U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, Huffington Post President & Editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, Yahoo! President & CEO Marissa Mayer, IBM Chairwoman & CEO Ginni Rometti, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Prior to Women 2.0, Canadian-born Charania led consumer products at Ribbit (acquired by British Telecom) and she was Director of Product Management at Talenthouse and JAJAH (acquired by Telefónica/O2). She is on the board of Good World Solutions and Hacker Dojo. She has also received recognition by Fast Company as one of the Most Powerful Women In Technology and by Glamour as 35 Women Under 35 Who Are Changing the Tech Industry.
I spoke with Charania via phone and email for this interview.
Kristina Moore: What inspired you to launch Women 2.0?
Shaherose Charania: It was actually all unplanned and unexpected. I had just arrived in Silicon Valley from Canada…no money, no job, no visa…just an interest in figuring out how to be a part of this “movement” of technology — it was 2005, Twitter was not yet a thing, smartphones – what was that?! – and Facebook was only open to US-based college students. It was a bit of a flat time in the valley, but I was personally jazzed after finishing University and a year abroad in Spain to make my mark in the world, and I felt tech was the way to do it. I didn’t know [in that moment] what that really meant, I just felt that technology could be used for good, not just to incrementally improve lives, but perhaps transform them.
I had always been fascinated by the story of Grameenphone, an idea by entrepreneur, Iqbal Quadir, in Bangladesh. His premise ‘connectivity leads to productivity’ really sank in for me. When people are connected to each other…to information…they are empowered. They can conduct commerce…they can understand each other…barriers are dropped. They can do more simply through connectivity.
Around that same time, I discovered the work of Jeff Skoll, the first CEO of eBay and a fellow Canadian, who went on to start the Skoll Foundation, where, I think, he defined a new type of entrepreneur, the social entrepreneur, defined by Skoll Foundation as ‘society’s change agents and creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better.’
This ideal view of being an entrepreneur rang with me, and with those two inspirations, I set out to explore Silicon Valley.
I planned to first work at startups to cut my teeth at the process – understand how to build products and to build a business. In the process, I discovered a more acute problem here in my new backyard. How could I possibly focus on ‘helping others through technology’ in other parts of the world where here, in the Mecca of innovation, women were not a part of the discussion, not a part of building, not a part of ideating? I noticed everywhere I looked, women were nearly nonexistent – big tech companies, startups, etc. I met plenty of women, but they all seemed to not want to take a front seat.
I thought if this industry was going to be the most defining industry of our time and its only role models in the U.S. [are] a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, or a Sergey Brin, how are we going to appear to global markets, especially emerging markets, where many women for the last decade are becoming entrepreneurs? Why are there so few women tech leaders in the U.S.? The disconnect was too big for me to not do something about it.
Our discussion started with “there aren’t enough women in the valley” and became Women 2.0, hosting networking events, at first in our own apartments, helping people to connect, ultimately hiring each other, funding each other, and creating startups together. It was in the process of solving the seemingly small problem in front of us that led to bigger meaning and purpose.
Moore: Why is it important to have female founders and what role do they play in the future success of tech?
Charania: Why is it not important?! Of course, we need female founders! That’s happening. It is changing. Founders are the beginning of innovation and disruption of any change and then they become the culture for the business. The environment becomes no longer about beer pong, but about welcoming other employees, uncovering new ideas, solving a problem, and having the most diverse perspective, all leading a company to further innovation.
Moore: In what ways can businesses better leverage women technology professionals?
Charania: Promoting women not because they are a woman, but because of the work they do is one way. Also, making sure the company has enough diversity. It is hard, because a company needs to hire when they need to hire and that [ideal] person may not be available. It all sounds simple, but it is not.
Moore: Would you say funding is still the #1 challenge for female tech startups? What kinds of improvements (if any) are you seeing?
Charania: Funding is hard for all founders. Do women face bigger challenges than their male counterparts? Yes and no. If you are a first time founder, no matter what, it’s hard. If you are pitching to what I call ‘old world investors’, then, yes!, you, as a woman, will have a hard time – you’re pushing against expected norms, people are creatures of habit, and it’s quite that simple, men have been mostly founding tech startups. If you find ‘new world investors’ that look beyond traditional norms — that’s when you are talking about a level playing field and more and more of these investors are popping up, becoming more experienced and making more investments.
Moore: Are there any specific ways men can support gender diversity in the tech space?
Charania: Absolutely! One is to be vocal role models. Be active in a way that supports them. Mentor women as well as men. Be aware. Be more thoughtful. Tech guys got comfortable in male dominated environments and a fun, dude fest became part of the company culture. Oftentimes, that’s just not as much fun for women. I recommend being more responsible in an environment where there are more women.
Moore: What is one recommendation you have for female professionals to thrive in the technology field?
Charania: My advice to anyone who wants to thrive in technology is to really hone in on what your professional vision is and really build that in your story and work on that vision everyday, so you become that professional that stands out. The tech field is a very competitive environment, so start with a clear vision early in your career. And go for it! Jobs change. Environments change. Keep honing a very clear vision in the world of technology and the means to make it happen.
Moore: Sheryl Sandberg asks future women leaders to “lean in”, and Katty Kay and Claire Shipman advise them to find ways to support their self-confidence in moving forward. In an increasingly visual world, women of influence (WOI) make a serious impact before they utter a word of their presentation. Considering this, are you beginning to see a style change in women in tech? Or female tech entrepreuners using visual presentation to convey substance?
Charania: Good question. Style is a personal thing, and it starts off very differently for everyone — is style even a part of my expression, or not. So this is really only relevant to people (men and women) who feel it is.
So I can’t see that there are more or less women or people in tech using style as a self expression tool, but I know that there are many of us who do.
And this has nothing to do with being stylish, it is just something we’ve chosen in our own personalities as a mode of expression.
In fact, even the choice not to use it, is a statement in itself. Or the choice to embrace what is considered a stereotypical ‘tech style’ of hoodies and jeans.
Moore: Has style become one of your tools? How do you think of it when you are preparing for a presentation?
Charania: I use style very deliberately, because I’ve always been interested in style to express my unique personality, my values, and even my emotions since from a young age. I was very aware that people make snap judgments just on appearance, and I wanted to use that moment to be remembered.
Style, for example, can be edgy yet conservative. Colors also express different emotions. I like bright colors, because I’m a happy person.
Style also has been important to me, not just clothes, but with hairstyles as well — I know it sounds superficial. Somehow, I’ve always used my hair to convey, upon first look, that yes, I am someone different.
Actually, I can’t believe I’m expressing this for the first time! I have used this as a means to be remembered!! But I suppose it’s a good marketing tool when you think of it – it’s really branding.
Everyone remembers my particular haircut, my particular green streak and the style that I wear, and often comment on it. I hope I’m not sounding superficial, but I absolutely have used it to brand myself, to be remembered, to stand out in a crowd.
Moore: What is the next goal(s) of Women 2.0?
Charania: What’s next for Women 2.0? Global domination of course! We want to see our local events in more cities around the world, we want to see more people reading our content around the world, and we want to see more people attending our conferences around the world. We want to do things that make it accessible — thus more events that are virtual, which will engage the global community — so in the end? Everything we do, more of it everywhere.
Moore: In addition to running Women 2.0, how else do you enjoy spending your time? What activities do you do that allow you to replenish your creativity and energy?
Charania: I do a lot of yoga. It is a 4-6 times a week thing. It is very important to me. It replenishes my mind, body, and spirit. One-and-half to two-hour sessions are what is necessary for me. It is a part of my life – I can’t imagine doing without it. Last year, I added meditation to my life. I was exposed to it in my upbringing and now practice short meditations for stress management, problem solving, balancing the unbalancing act of running a growing business.
Music is also very important in my life. It enlivens me. I always have a soundtrack playing in my head. If I’m not in conversation, you will likely find an ear bud in my ear. My weekend guilty pleasure is to find new music. I have a deep appreciation for artists and what they do and try to go to live concerts as often as I can.
Time alone: to do nothing is doing something! It has become important to me too. I didn’t realize until recently that it is something I need in my life. I make sure to schedule in ‘doing nothing’. I no longer think it is lazy, but rather an important part of the creative process. It rejuvenates my mind. It is in the gaps of silence, in times of “doing nothing” or in times of mediation that the most creative, deep thoughts, oh, and [those] forgotten to-dos, come alive!
Forbes Style File: Women Of Influence is a platform featuring women who are embracing change in the business and political landscape. The series highlights her professional endeavors and the way in which she uses the tools available to her to influence change. She is intelligent, competent, dynamic, supportive, collaborative, and, by the way, she is also interested in what she wears as a means to visually convey these qualities. What a WOI wears is a business decision and, so this series will also discuss how she uses style as an effective communication tool in today’s highly-visual, modern world.
Is there an inspirational professional woman or WOI that you would like us to interview on Forbes Style File: Women Of Influence? Let us know in the comments section.
Kristina Moore is a style expert focusing on visual presentation as a dynamic professional tool. She is the founder and editor of Corporate Fashionista. Kristina welcomes your comments and questions.
This article was written by Kristina Moore from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.