Virtual Launch Interview Series: In Conversation with…

We are excited to kick off the official virtual launch of the Hawaii chapter of Girls in Tech with the first in a series of conversations between our Managing Director, Naré G. Aleksanyan, and local wahine in technology who have demonstrated a continued effort and commitment to the advancement of girls and women in technology in Hawaii.

Meet Chenoa Farnsworth!

Chenoa is a founding member of Hawaii Angels, a premier seed-level investment network for private equity angel investors. She is also the Managing Partner of Blue Startups, a nationally ranked top accelerator. This year, Blue Startups aligned its accelerator program with several of the United Nations sustainability goals – including Gender Equality – and we asked Chenoa to share her thoughts on access to equal opportunities for women in technology and entrepreneurship in Hawaii and much more.

Naré G. Aleksanyan (NGA): What role can a more diverse workforce play in improving the local economy? What would be some advantages to having more female perspectives in the local workforce?

Chenoa Farnsworth (CF): Women are great entrepreneurs, and they have a better chance of succeeding. Given an option, I would rather place my bets there. Statistically, teams that at least have a female co-founder, but even more important to me, a female CEO and leader, see a higher success rate. Startups founded by female CEOs outperform based on both my own experience and on the literature, so why is that– it’s anybody’s guess. Maybe we work a little harder? If you’re familiar with Backstage Capital and the work of the founder there, she talks about the ‘grit’ aspect of being a startup founder. She invests only in founders of color, females and other underrepresented groups such as LGBTQ. It’s her premise that these people have had to fight harder and will continue to have to fight harder than folks who had it easier in life, and that this kind of component of ‘grit’ if you will, is important to success in startups. That’s her theory, and I ascribe to that as well.

I think women also are very competent and in my experience women usually over-prepare for things as compared to their male counterparts who are underprepared. The only thing that women often lack is confidence as opposed to competence. I am always coaching my female founders: “Hey, you got the competence, bring the confidence, because that is what’s holding you back. You know your business. You know it very well.” Women also tend to do less overcompensating for what they don’t know. They’re not going to just venture a guess. But we’ve been kind of trained, especially in the world of venture capital, to respond positively, to that kind of bravado and that kind of confidence, even if it’s unfounded. I find in female founders their confidence is well founded. They know their business, now they just have to bring that same level of bravado as well that the market is used to seeing and used to reacting to positively.

NGA: What are some of the unique challenges that women in Hawaii who want to pursue a career in technology or entrepreneurship face?

CF: Tech in Hawaii is hard enough. You’re already in a bit of an uphill battle in that you are not alone, but there are not a whole lot of colleagues out there. If you look around and see that the people working in this field are predominantly male, then you start to question your own path. I think there are two sides to that here in Hawaii. One, it is just a numbers game – we have small numbers; therefore, we have small numbers of people working in tech and therefore even smaller number of women working in tech. It’s thus harder to find a critical mass of those colleagues that can relate. But on the flip side of that, the good thing about that scale for us is that it is not too male dominated here, or overwhelmingly so. If you ever walked into say a large incubator or accelerator on the mainland, you would be hard pressed to find one woman there. It feels very different, it feels like a frat house. As a woman, you really don’t want to be there. I think for us, at Blue Startups, we are able to create an environment that is very inclusive. Both my partner Maya Rogers and myself are female founders and females in both tech and venture capital, so starting at the top we’re setting a tone that is not frat-house like. That kind of ‘bro down’ mentality is not something we encourage. It’s not something you will find in this environment, so I think female founders feel much more comfortable here for those reasons.

NGA: What steps can we take to attract and retain more women in technology in the local market? We envision the Hawaii chapter as playing a role in this by bringing more exposure to young girls and more women to STEM education and careers. What would you suggest should we put our efforts in?

CF: I am a big fan of starting at the beginning, which is the education system. I always like to see more of a starting point earlier and younger to kind of open eyes to the fact that entrepreneurship is a path, technology is a path, to a career and more importantly, not just for boys but for girls too. I’ve told a lot of educators, for example, our offices are always open – bring students down here; show them what this looks like. I think one of the things that happens here locally is that the kids just aren’t exposed to it. If you’re in the Bay Area, you’re exposed to high tech environments all the time. One of your parents works in that environment, or one of your friends’ parents works in that environment, so you have an exposure that you don’t have to look for, it’s just kind of there all around you. Here, we just have to be a little more purposeful about it. Kids have to go looking for it. I’ve had groups of school kids down here and some of their reactions are: “Wow, I could work here?” “This is cool!” “There’s a ping-pong table here?!” “It’s not the bank!”.

I think it’s really important to get that exposure as young as possible, and the exposure of not you and me going to the classroom to talk to them, but of them getting out of the classroom and into an environment that is hopefully inspiring. I do love, for example, business plan competitions at that age. That can be really helpful and inspiring. I’ve been a judge at the American Savings Bank KeikiCo Contest business plan competition, and these kids come up with amazing stuff! They are so inventive. The other one we’ve done year after year is Lemonade Ally, which is basically a lemonade stand competition for kids. It’s interesting, because the younger the participants of these competitions are the more creative they are. As they get into high school, they’ll be like ‘my lemonade stand is organic,’ whereas the first graders will come up with stuff like ‘we’re going to go to the moon and the lemonade is from the moon’! They are just so out of the box with the whole thing.

One of the things that Hawaii suffers from is this brain drain. We have smart kids leave the islands and they often don’t come back. I think that’s why it’s even more important to expose them young to the local startup scene, so that they might think ‘well do I stay in San Francisco to do this or can I go back in Hawaii and do this?’ This kind of early exposure can plant those seeds early on, and we can ideally get them back here. Maybe once we do, the ecosystem will start to build on its own.

NGA: What are some steps existing local organizations as well as newcomers like Girls in Tech Hawaii can take to see state support for innovation economy as well as to have one coherent plan to diversify the workforce?

CF: I think getting everybody on the same page can be very difficult, and it takes time. When the accelerators got started here around 2013, a whole bunch of us got started around the same time, and we all came together and came under the umbrella of Startup Paradise. The state supported that, but I think that has kind of drifted apart, because there was not a central leadership around it. How can you do that in a way that works? I don’t really know. I am kind of torn on government involvement on that. We certainly talked a lot about that during that time when we had regular Startup Paradise meetings and talked about at a minimum the things that we would be doing. We talked about whether to hand this over to the government and have them lead it but decided against it.

It may need to be a concerted effort of the private sector and not just the state. For example, another thing I am involved with is the Hawaii Business Roundtable and many of us involved in the innovation subcommittee talk about different strategies on how to move the ball forward in a coordinated effort. I think that’s hopeful but again that’s being driven by a minority of big businesses in Hawaii and not the majority. It’s really hard, especially now, in a financial crisis, the building of a new sector of the economy versus maintaining what you have.

The other problem with that is just the financial reality with this current situation. Our tax revenue has dropped by a third already, and it’s just going to continue to drop, so new programs are not going to be funded. We need to take care of our neediest populations. And that’s also been a problem all along. You have these kinds of major socio-economic crises here like homelessness and our broken public education system. Those take precedence as they should. Until we can feed and house people we really can’t start talking about building a whole new sector of the economy. I think those things get the government bogged down because that has to be their priority.

For the private sector encouraging new businesses is a matter of survival. If you are not creating new businesses, then you are not creating new bank accounts, you are not creating new insurance customers, you are not creating things that the mainstay businesses need in Hawaii to survive. It definitely is in their best interest to get involved there and try to move that needle.

NGA: Finally, what is your message to women trying to enter the world of technology and entrepreneurship in Hawaii? What would be your advice to young girls who, on the contrary, shy away from considering such a path?

CF: I think one of the great but overlooked resources are the coding academies. They are everywhere and readily available both here at home and many online resources. DevLeague is an example, which is on pause but I am sure will start up again soon. I encourage everybody, young, male and female to learn to code, because it is really the building blocks of our new economy, and you’re either going to understand it or you’re not, and if you don’t, you will be left behind. It’s something that is very much within reach for everyone, because it is right on your computer, so there really is no barrier to entry in that. You don’t need a Harvard degree to learn to code, so this really kind of democratizes the workplace in ways that we haven’t seen in generations. I think every young person should take advantage of that first and foremost.

And then obviously I am a proponent of entrepreneurship and think everyone should try their hand at entrepreneurship at least once in their life. Sink or swim – that’s fine. Another thing that I think happens here in Hawaii is this fear of failure. We are culturally risk averse. But I think as our world becomes more global, we have to start thinking globally as well. It’s also not always about who’s living here. The other thing I talk to my entrepreneurs about is that if you are frustrated with things here in Hawaii, think of the world as your home, because really it is. With the Internet, if you’re looking for expertise that you cannot find next you, you can build from anywhere. I don’t think we need to see the geographic boundaries as boundaries to what is possible anymore, and I am sure our young people won’t. It’s a generational issue where people from my generation think that if they can’t hire this person who can sit next to them then they can’t build a company, and that’s just not true anymore. So, I think the path forward is – we learn to code, and we think globally.

NGA: Chenoa, thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from your experiences and look forward to doing our part in building the diverse and inclusive tech workforce Hawaii needs.

We are excited to get to know our community and grow the chapter with you and for you!

Subscribe and stay tuned for our next interview.

Have someone in mind that you would like to nominate for an interview? Email us for consideration at [email protected] Please include their name, a short biography and contact information.

Mahalo #GITohana.


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