In San Francisco, Melody McCloskey stands out as a rare woman in the land of tech start-ups. She has raised some $14 million in venture capital for StyleSeat, an online booking platform for salon professionals that she founded in 2011 along with Dan Levine, a developer. Today, some 260,000 stylists use the platform, and the company employs 31 people.
But McCloskey’s career in tech was nearly derailed in 2002, back when she was a high school student in suburban San Francisco and she took an advanced placement course in computer science, something of an introduction to coding. “I have always loved computers and I’ve always loved tech,” she says. “I was really excited about it.”
McCloskey, who studied ballet until growing too tall, brought a dancer’s discipline to her studies. “The coursework wasn’t harder than any of my other A.P. courses,” she says. “But I was the only woman in the class.” And right away, she says, “there was all this tension and attention present because of that. All the guys either wanted to talk to me or didn’t want me to be there.”
As an adult, she might have been able to handle that, but as a high school student, she says, “it added extra pressure that I didn’t feel in any of my other classes.” Ultimately, she decided to drop the course — and tech all together, at least for a while. She majored in international relations and French at the University of California, Davis, where she says a counselor advised her to pursue public relations: “You’re a girl — you have great social skills.”
McCloskey did try public relations after graduating but didn’t like it. Then, she took a job managing online content for Current, the now-defunct television channel. “I was helping to build all the back-end C.M.S.” — the content management system — “like really nerdy stuff,” she says. “It was really fun.”
As is common in the San Francisco Bay Area, she began hanging out with start-up founders and other people in tech. “A lot of my friends were talking about raising money, building minimum viable products and how to get the best engineering talent,” she says, which got her thinking about starting a business. After a series of disappointing haircuts, she came up with the idea for StyleSeat, a platform where consumers can search for stylists, read reviews and book appointments, something of a Yelp-meets-OpenTable for hair salons and spas.
McCloskey spent the first year and a half working on the start-up seven days a week. One early backer was Garrett Camp, a friend and the chairman of ride-sharing service Uber, who invested $10,000. To get stylists to use the service, she invited them to parties, where she offered free Champagne and showed PowerPoint presentations on how to use StyleSeat. The user base tripled in a year, she says, attracting other high-profile investors like Ashton Kutcher, Sophia Bush and Guy Oseary. Since its launch, StyleSeat has recorded more than $500 million in bookings, and it now operates in over 15,000 cities. StyleSeat has begin to record revenue, although it wouldn’t disclose how much or if it has turned a profit.
Thinking back to high school, McCloskey says she regretted dropping out of computer science, but she’s glad the experience didn’t stop her from pursuing a career in tech. Not many women can say the same. A number of research studies have found that college-bound women interested in science, technology, math and engineering — the STEM subjects — often encounter bias from faculty and either choose or are steered into other fields, such as arts and the humanities. Women hold less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs, according to Commerce Department data.
Still, some schools are creating programs to attract women to tech. For instance, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont Calif. has split its introductory computer science course into two sections — “black” for more experienced programmers (usually young men) and “gold” for those who need a little more help. Since then, it has seen a substantial increase in female computer science graduates.
McCloskey says she would have kept up her studies if there had been more support, like a “Women Joining Computer Science Club” at school. Young girls face a discouragement that is far more subtle than “take away the calculator and give them a Barbie,” she says. Rather, “it’s more the ecosystem not being particularly favorable to girls,” she says. “No one turned to me and said, ‘You can be a software engineer.’”