Inside a conference room on the 36th floor of Rockefeller Center, a group of 17 high school girls are animatedly talking about their startup plans.
One team is plotting Tek Truk, a vehicle loaded with computers, chargers and other devices, that would cater to students or people in parks in need of an electronic fix. Another team wants to engineer high-heeled shoes called Taussure that would easily convert to flats for comfortable walking.
Still another team is huddling around a computer screen, assessing their idea for Green Life, an eco-friendly gym where the cardio-equipment would harness kinetic energy to power the building. “It would take a lot of money to start up, and you probably wouldn’t see a profit for two years,” explains Sophia Ortega, 18, a recent graduate of Oakwood Friends in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who plans to attend University of Southern California in the fall.
The week-long summer program, held last week, is an experiment from the MIT Enterprise Forum, an organization that fosters the growth of tech-based ventures. The theory: Introduce girls to tech entrepreneurship early on, and you’ll ultimately see more women dotting the tech world’s mostly male landscape.
Lori Hoberman, the chair of MIT Enterprise Forum’s New York chapter, came up with the idea after years of hosting events for the forum’s mostly male membership. “I love promoting women entrepreneurs. We don’t have enough of them,” she says. “I thought, we should focus on girls. The younger you go, the less the fear.”
Encouraging girls to purse tech entrepreneurship before they’ve been dissuaded by peers, society and other influences is critical, Hoberman says. “It’s this age group, especially girls, that need to be encouraged in math and science,” she says. “If we can empower girls as to what they can do with these topics – and how they can create their own businesses – we’ll have more girls going into those areas.”
Only 3 percent of tech companies are currently started by women, according to research from the Kauffman Foundation and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa. Some studies, like this one published in the academic feminist journal Frontiers, find that girls as young as middle-school students have less confidence than boys in computer science, in part because of lack of encouragement from family, peers or school personnel. A recent report published by the UK-based Expert Market concludes that the best way to combat the tech industry’s gender gap is to get girls more involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) at the junior high or high school level.
A number of groups, including Society of Women Engineers, Girls Who Code and even NASA have started programs to foster girls’ interest in STEM. See a list here.
Hoberman hopes to expand her program, called MIT Enterprise Forum NYC Future Entrepreneurs, to two weeks and 30 female students next summer. This year, she worked with NYC Promise, a nonprofit that promotes STEM initiatives, to choose girls from five area high schools for the inaugural class. Some 50 students applied for a spot, and 17 were selected in part for their interest in business and STEM. Applicants also had to be in the top quartile of their class.
The girls, broken into small teams, came up with ideas for tech-oriented startups, and polished those ideas over the course of the week. The program included five days of workshops, speakers that included female entrepreneurs and former Gov. George Pataki of New York, and a pitch competition. Next year, Hoberman wants to add classes on coding and designing apps.
On the final day of this year’s event, the team of girls who had come up with Taussure (a play on the French word for shoe) earned top points in the pitch competition, receiving Kindles as prizes. Many plan to continue to grow their startup ideas, and several have already asked to come back next year to work with the fresh crop of students, according to Hoberman.
“This is the way we are going to change the demographics,” she says. “The more women are involved, the more women will succeed and turn around and invest in other women, the more it will level the playing field.”