Training Future ‘Lady Bosses’

A woman in Reno wants to instill an entrepreneurial mindset in girls.

Mandisa Bailey, 13, and other girls, brainstorm ways to reduce the wage gap between men and women during Girl Empire, a Reno event to encourage girls to be businesswomen. (David Calvert)

RENO, Nev.—As this city grows its fledgling tech and business sectors, some residents want to make sure women hold leadership roles from the beginning. In the United States, women are severely underrepresented in both areas. An analysis last year found that just 15 percent of U.S.-based startups that received funding between 2009 and 2014 have a female founder. Only around 13 percent of Twitter’s tech employees are women, a percentage in line with those at other companies, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. While Silicon Valley struggles to address the disparity, a group of women in Reno wants to prevent it from growing in their city by inspiring girls to start businesses and pursue leadership roles.

On a recent Saturday morning, about 45 girls and young women, ages 7 to 23, filed into a local art venue to attend Girl Empire. They were there to learn how to pitch ideas to investors and take the lead in solving community problems—two crucial skills for entrepreneurs, but not necessarily ones taught in school.

For Lauren Klein, the CEO of Girlmade and the organizer of the event, helping women start businesses is personal. Her teenaged daughter expressed an interest in being an entrepreneur, but Klein had to supplement her daughter’s school work with lessons on how to start and run a business. Klein, who devised growth and marketing strategies for Silicon Valley companies, realized not all parents have the time or ability to do what she did. “This market is ripe for this,” she says. “Eventually, we could be the Girls Who Code of entrepreneurship,” she adds, referring to the nonprofit that focuses on getting more girls into tech.

After initial introductions, participants divide into teams led by local business owners, all of them women, to brainstorm solutions to problems they see in their community. Later, they pitch them and receive feedback. In the beginning, there are wide stares and mumbled ideas. The lack of directions and the freedom to make choices seem foreign to some. “You can make the rules,” Klein encourages them. “You can be a lady boss.”

Several of the teams decide they want to tackle women’s inequality, a nebulous phrase they eventually realize they need to define as they brainstorm solutions.  “Maybe it can start with women getting paid more,” offers 11-year-old Leilani Carlos. “I don’t get why we’re not, because we’re more qualified,” says Mandisa Bailey, 13, correctly noting that more women than men earn bachelor’s degrees.

One team agrees it’s unfair that a member isn’t allowed to play lacrosse with boys after eighth grade and builds a case for inclusion. Another calls out a store that only sells superhero shirts in the “boys” section of the store, and decides they could launch a campaign to get the shop to add superhero shirts to the “girls” section, or start their own shirt company. “Sexist is reckless! Sexist is reckless!” they chant.

Will any of the girls end up as startup founders? Not necessarily, but the idea is to get them thinking like entrepreneurs and innovators, so they’ll be armed with the confidence and mindset to launch something of their own.

“I think it gives them confidence when they see women doing things and realize they can do it, too,” says Kelly Northridge, who co-founded a tech company that helps users navigate the healthcare industry. “Things are changing here,” she continues, but notes that few of the girls she interacts with are receiving the type of mentoring in school that would encourage them to start companies.

“In an emerging city like Reno, we’ve got all kinds of talent and creativity and entrepreneurial spirit,” says Tracy Benelli, a volunteer mentor, who has worked at senior levels at Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Benelli moved to Reno two years ago by choice, she says, and has found that women here are very supportive of each other. She decided to volunteer at the event, she says, to inspire younger girls to take on leadership roles.”It’s about building the scaffolding,” she says.

Girlmade is a small operation for now, but Klein, who also runs a breakfast club for local businesswomen, says she has fielded requests to take the operation on the road. Eventually, she’d like to lead workshops across the United States and offer programs in multiple languages. For now, as more tech companies move their operations to Reno and the city’s own startup incubator gives rise to new ventures, Klein is all about empowering girls in this city to not only be a part of the changes, but to play a leading role in what it looks like in the future.