March is Women’s History Month. A time set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of women. While they have made great strides in many industries, women are still lagging when it comes to working and leading in STEM. While women make up more than half of the workforce in the U.S., they only account for 27 percent of those working in STEM. And the numbers are even lower when it comes to running or owning STEM related companies.
- 19 percent of STEM companies’ board members are women
- Only three percent of CEOs in the STEM industry are women.
- And there is even less parity in the software industry, according to The Wall Street Journal.
- Less than two percent of enterprise software start-ups in the U.S. have at least one female founder, according to the Wall Street Journal.
- In 2019, 18.1% of all software developers in the U.S. are women and on average earn 88.7% of what their male counterparts earn, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The companies that are led by women are reaping the rewards. According to Forbes Magazine, “private tech companies led by women achieve 35% higher ROI.”
The outlook today is not that different from what it was like 25 years ago, when Jennifer Robertson founded Red Maple. In this interview, Robertson shares her journey to starting a growing Red Maple into a successful, global technology company.
Question: What inspired you to start Red Maple in 1997?
I was working for another company and felt very undervalued. I was treated differently than my male counterparts. For example: I paid for my technical certifications up front and was reimbursed 1/12 per month after I completed them. A co-worker in our group had his paid upfront and never completed his certifications. His salary was over 44% higher than my salary while his monthly billing requirement was 37% lower than my requirement. We had open book management so you could see what everyone billed. During the last six months I was there I was billing an average 50% of my annual salary every month. So, I was earning this company 6 times my annual salary in direct revenue. When they cut our team, the senior partner came and told me I could build the team (that was just laid off), but if it didn’t work out for the firm, they would give me time to find something else. That is when I started preparing to start my own company. I gave 2 weeks’ notice and told them what I was going to do. The firm did not counter to have me stay, so I fulfilled my notice period and officially started Red Maple the next day.
Question: As a woman, what obstacles did you face while launching your company?
I was one of the first women to get my Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer in 1997. There were very few women and, at age 25, I was one of the younger ones.
There were times when I definitely encountered gender discrimination. I was young, and I was very good at implementing accounting systems (which is what Red Maple originally did). I faced difficulties at times – and still do- when negotiating with large companies that underestimate our worth and our strength.
Question – Please share moment or a challenge you faced either while building and growing your that stuck with you.
In late 2000, Red Maple signed a deal with Navision to start selling and implementing a new product line, Axapta. This ended up being a great move for Red Maple, but at the time it was very difficult. Red Maple invested a lot of money to license this product, train our staff and then 9/11 happened. It brought everything pending to a halt. There were financial decisions made in preparation to take on this product line that didn’t factor an unexpected event such as 9/11. After Red Maple financially recovered, I changed my approach to financially supporting and growing Red Maple which has changed the outcome of our company. It is a lesson I will never forget.
Question: Please share some of the challenges you faced as a young female entrepreneur in technology.
Many times, I was underestimated because of my age and sex. It was a situation I faced often and sometimes still do. Once Red Maple transitioned to a software company from an implementation company of other software systems, I continued to be challenged. Red Maple’s clients became more recognizable companies and with in-house counsels who would want to negotiate every aspect of our contracts. Negotiating these contracts as a business owner, you need to protect your business but want to still be fair and provide a quality product. This has proven to be an ongoing challenge.
Question: At what point, or moment, did you realize or accept that you are successful?
There have been several phases of success over the years. The original business line was successful right away because the barrier to entry was “knowledge”. I was invited to be on the founding Accpac Advisory Council to help Accpac’s management team (at the time owned by CA which is now owned by Sage) with product direction. I was one of only two women – and the youngest member by several years – on this board. It was an honor to serve as a member and the secretary. This business line was sold in 2002.
Another great moment of success was the issue of Red Maple’s technology patent.
Question: What is your advice for young women who aspire to work in technology and even launch their own company?
There are many things I would say. Prepare to be challenged both mentally and emotionally. Prepare for change. The only constant in technology is change so you need to be nimble. Prepare to be strong. You must be a strong leader who works to balance strength and conviction as well as compromise. It’s a very tall order.
Question: The theme of this year’s International Women’s Month is #BreaktheBias to encourage people to challenge inequality and gender bias. What does that mean to you?
#BreaktheBias encourages me that change is coming. I think all women in tech will still face challenges, but it is encouraging to see recognition of the bias which will hopefully facilitate more change.
While women in tech are underpaid compared to men, the gap is much smaller compared to other industries. Women in computer science earn an average of $79,223 vs. $82,159 for men, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
There is good news on the horizon for women in technology. Here are three notable achievements from the past year.
- Women gained leadership roles: According to the McKinsey Report, 44% of companies had at least three women in executive leadership in 2021. That’s up from 29% in 2015. Because senior managers have such a large influence on a company’s culture, structure, and focus, having even one woman as part of the leadership team is a positive trend.
- Women gained visibility: Here is one example. Six women gave keynote presentations at the prestigious CES 2021 and seven spoke at the 2022 conference, considered to be "the most influential tech event in the world." Speakers at CES 2022 included Sue Bai, chief engineer of Honda, and Asha Sharma, chief operating officer of Instacart.
- Women gained startup funding: Startups with female founders excelled financially in 2021. Startups with women at the top raised more than $40 billion through September of 2021, according to the New York Times. That’s almost double the investment in companies founded by women in all of 2020 and 2019.