There I was at another conference in Silicon Valley with another panel on female entrepreneurs, who appeared to be reaching a familiar conclusion: There aren't enough of them.
The moderator, sitting on a stage at Stanford University with six female CEOs, noted dejectedly how hard it was to find six female CEOs. A man sitting up front shouted, "And it's a shame." There were nods and applause and murmurs of agreement.
And it is a shame. But maybe it's a shame we won't live with for much longer. In fact, there are encouraging signs that a new wave of female entrepreneurs is positioning itself to erode the historic gender imbalance in high-tech entrepreneurship.
My optimism comes from two key sources.
First, I caught up with Carol Realini, one of the CEOs on stage at the conference. I asked her for her take on female entrepreneurship in the valley.
It is better for women, she said, even better than just 10 years ago. More women are being taken seriously and doing serious things. She is not hearing, as she once did, that women can't be CEOs or that women can't raise money, though raising venture capital is apparently still tougher for women than men.
So, what's it going to take in 2010, I asked Realini, for us to see more women starting and running companies?
"The challenge of being a woman CEO is, one, you've got to get in the game. So, you have to be willing to try," says Realini, CEO of Obopay, a Redwood City mobile
payment company. "And it's intimidating, especially if you've never done it before."
Realini knows something about this. Here is a woman, after all, who's sold one company, taken another public and is working on her third, for which she's raised $140 million in five years.
And listening to her, it strikes me that in some ways this is a numbers game. Historically more men have come through the technology education pipeline. That means more men have risen to top positions in tech companies. And that means more men have started and taken companies public, securing the money and credibility that leads to investment and more startups. More have filled the chairs of venture partners, who decide which ideas get funded and which ones don't.
Of course women are capable of doing the same things, Realini said. Here is what it takes: You've got to know how to raise money. And to do that you have to know how to navigate the world of venture capital.
Then you have to be fearless and tireless and ready to have people tell you no many times over. You have to be smart and wise. You have to be confident and prepared to ask for and accept help from those who might know more than you do. You have to stick by your guns and be flexible and be ready to give up your private life for your work life for some length of time.
I mentioned to Realini that every bit of advice she has for female entrepreneurs holds true for men.
"I would say the same thing," she says. "It is not about women. A man's got the same challenges and a male entrepreneur, a black entrepreneur, a gay entrepreneur, they're all going to have the same challenges."
Which is where my second source of optimism comes in: A recent paper by Oakland venture capitalist Cindy Padnos shows that women are increasingly positioning themselves in the same way men have historically. Women are putting themselves into the game, as Realini might say.
Citing a long list of academic and industry studies and original research, Padnos argues convincingly that many more women are starting companies, taking them public and providing investors with bigger returns on smaller investments. And yet woman-led companies are still sorely underrepresented when it comes to landing venture capital for their enterprises. (You can find the white paper at www.illuminate.com/white paper.)
It seems inevitable, though, that the money will catch up with the reality that more women are working on profitable ideas. And no doubt more successful startup women will move over to the venture side and become the people who decide who gets funded next.
It's only a matter of time. My advice to wannabe female entrepreneurs: Don't be patient.
By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 408-920-5536. Follow him at http://twitter.com/mikecassidy.