Diversity Efforts at 1871 Yield More Women Founders

When it comes to tech startups, women make up less than 5 percent of entrepreneurs nationwide, says Shaherose Charania, co-founder and CEO of an online community called Women 2.0. The stats in the Windy City are no different.

When 1871, a 50-thousand square-foot startup incubator located on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart, opened its doors in May of 2012, there were plenty of applicants from early-stage startups. However, most of them came from teams of male entrepreneurs.

Kevin Willer, CEO of 1871, knew that he had to find a way to attract more female entrepreneurs to the new space. Built with a combination of public and private funds, 1871 needed a good representation of women.

One of the first things that Willer did was to reach out to a friend from college — entrepreneur Genevieve Thiers. She was the founder and CEO of Sitter City, a Chicago-based online business which matches 2 million babysitters with busy parents. Thiers opened her spacious Lincoln Park home for a networking night to dozens of local women entrepreneurs, social media experts, and other professionals.

Dinner and marshmallow-roasting were followed by a plea from Willer who asked the women to consider setting up shop at 1871 or telling a female entrepreneur friend about it.

Since that gathering, female tenants slowly began trickling in to 1871. That small effort, aided by the incubator’s open and welcoming environment, have made 1871 a place where a diverse group of people, especially women, are comfortable working and visiting.

Six months after it opened its doors, 1871 bucked the national trend by announcing that, currently, 28% of its startup companies are headed by women. How did they do it? We spoke with Melissa Lederer of 1871, and some of the women who call 1871 home. ❒

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