Tech Startup’s Female Co-Founder Addresses STEM Gender Imbalance

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    I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and I’m not easily impressed. I was impressed by Brienne Ghafourifar. Very impressed.

    Three years ago, Ghafourifar co-founded Entefy, a Palo Alto-based startup that says it’s “rewriting the code of digital interaction” by “introducing the first technology to give you seamless access to all of your conversations and connections, across any smart device.” The media’s coverage of Ghafourifar has focused largely on her age—at 17, she became the youngest college graduate to receive $1 million in venture funding, and she won the distinction of “Best, Brightest Tech Prodigy” of 2015.

    Ghafourifar is 20 now, but that fact somehow seems moot. Having spoken with her earlier this week, I can tell you that you would be blown away by her, regardless of her age. The first part of my conversation with her focused on the topic of the gender imbalance in the STEM professions, and the quest to encourage more girls and young women to pursue careers in technology. Ghafourifar said she thinks about that issue a lot:

    I’m in a documentary called “She Started It,” that’s all about this particular conversation. One of the things we’re really passionate about, and one of the reasons I wanted to be part of it, is because role models are what can inspire people. Today, there are not very many role models of women in tech, so as a young girl trying to go into science, technology, engineering, or math, I don’t have a ton of people like me that I can look up to. I think that’s a big challenge today—obviously the more role models there are, the more inspiration, and the more excitement. For me, that’s what the biggest issue is today. We need more women engaging in these fields, and being successful in them and enjoying them—and helping other young women along the way.

    I asked her what’s going to bring about the change that’s needed. She said it’s a combination of things:

    Technology and business aren’t easy. So it’s a matter of stepping a little bit outside of the normal boundaries and being extra courageous—being prepared for anything that’s about to come. It’s utilizing the tools and resources around you to succeed, and asking for help when needed. So it’s a combination of [that and ] community support—I do believe it’s very difficult to succeed when you don’t have a good support system around you. Surround yourself with ‘yea- sayers,’ not naysayers, because business is hard enough. I think it will come down to that—finding people around you who can support you in your goals, who can help you grow, who you can learn from, who you can be inspired by. That’s sort of a group effort.

    Ghafourifar went on to explain that the problem doesn’t lie in any disinclination among young women to pursue degrees in technology and related fields:

    Women make up about 50 percent of the STEM education degrees. But many times what happens is after they get these degrees, they either don’t go into the field, or leave the field after a short amount of time. What we’re seeing is many of these fields are male-dominated, so what can you possibly expect? Even though you want to learn about these industries, there are various factors that can contribute to men making it a challenge for women in these fields. There’s a lot of intimidation, and you need a very high self-esteem. You need to be ready for anything that is going to get in your way, and you also need to understand what makes you special—what sets you apart from everybody else, without worrying about the statistics and about the metrics that may be working against you. I think that’s really the same for every industry.

    I mentioned that a lot has been written about sexism in Silicon Valley, and I asked Ghafourifar what she sees as the root of that problem. She said from her perspective, there are always going to be barriers that get in the way of what you’re trying to do:

    Sometimes it’s going to be race, sometimes it’s going to be age, sometimes it’s going to be gender—there’s always going to be something. I think people just have biases—it’s very natural for everyone to have a bias, whatever it may be. Around those biases, I think the main message that’s really important to keep in mind is just to break down any of those barriers that get in the way. Know that they’re coming—you don’t necessarily know which ones they are, but they definitely exist. There are many things that can make people feel bad about being a statistic that’s not very strong, and people in the community just need to be more supportive, and we need to help change it. We need to do whatever we can to make an impact, to make it better.

    She said the key to solving the problem at its root lies in community support, and developing more resources and tools:

    There are several solutions out there that are working on this very challenge. Girls Who Code is one of them—there are a number of training opportunities for women in technology today, and it’s only growing. That’s really because the community, male and female, is beginning to want to assist, to get more women engaged in these fields. There’s more opportunity today than ever before. So as a society, and as women in tech, we want to make sure that we support and mentor and do whatever we can to assist them along their journey. People just need to get more involved in that, and be more committed to it. I’m confident that we can make it better.

    I asked Ghafourifar what has driven her to accomplish what she’s accomplished so far. She said for her, it’s all about making an impact:

    Impact is the name of my game—it always has been, ever since I was little. I’ve always known that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, ever since I was seven or eight years old. For me, it’s all about how do you make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time. That’s where technology came in. I’m extremely driven by that goal—I wake up in the morning wanting to get there, and I go to bed at night wanting to get there. Sometimes there are only a couple hours of sleep in between, but I’m very committed to making that happen.

    So what’s been the biggest obstacle she’s had to overcome to accomplish what she’s accomplished so far? She said one of the toughest parts of business is teambuilding:

    So one of the things that keeps me up at night is how do we scale an amazing team that can keep up with the vision. For us it’s obviously a challenge—finding people who can put in the risk, who can stick with making the vision a reality, and can be there all the way through. That’s always a challenge—every company struggles with that. It’s not necessarily just technology, or just business—it’s actually around people and teams, and how do you find the exceptional people who are the right fit.

    I asked Ghafourifar if she feels like she’s had any advantages in getting to where she is today that most other young women don’t have. She said it’s possible.

    I think a lot of it comes down to self-esteem and confidence, and obviously a portion of that is going to be instilled. For me, I don’t have all the experience in the world—I certainly haven’t built great companies before. This is my first startup. I think it just comes down to a very, very strong commitment and relentlessness. We really care about where we want to go, and that’s what allows us to overcome anything that comes in the way. So it’s a relentlessness and a perseverance, but it’s also a commitment to learning. I think that’s something that really sets entrepreneurs apart—the commitment to learning. We don’t know everything in the world, but we can certainly learn from others who have been there and done that. We’ve been doing that since we started. For us, that’s been a big advantage. It’s all about people.

    And has she faced any disadvantages that most other young women don’t face? She said many of them are probably the same:

    I happen to have several factors that could cause bias—age, gender, experience, pedigree. There are just a bunch of them, and all of these things come into play. You have VCs and investors out there who say they want to invest in young, white males who are engineers that drop out of college—people build these stereotypes. That’s the exact opposite of what I am—I am 100 percent different from what that is. I think all girls are going through that—I definitely notice it. But at the same time, I’m also prepared for it, and I know how to handle it for myself.

    Ghafourifar is a graduate of Santa Clara University. I asked her what course she took there that she has found has helped her more than any other to prepare for what she’s doing today. Her response:

    I’m an Econ major. I love economics, and one of my favorite classes was Econometrics—I love the convergence of statistics and economics and mathematics. I really enjoyed what we were doing—the whole idea of the course was to mathematically understand how various factors affect others. I remember coming out of that class, and I would be very excited to get working on statistics and data and better understanding what makes people tick.

    I also spoke at length with Ghafourifar about Entefy, and the challenges she’s faced as its co-founder. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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