Female tech leaders: Gender equality is a long way off for Miami’s tech scene

Anywhere you turn in Miami, it seems, you can find women in leadership positions in tech, from CIC Miami, to Refresh Miami, to The LAB, to Wyncode.

Yet despite their high profiles, some of these same women say Miami’s tech scene is no better than the national tech community in creating a fair playing field for women. And as the nation becomes further engulfed in a debate over women’s status in tech, that’s something that a community looking to put itself on the national tech landscape needs to be talking about.  

It’s a complex issue, one that is arguably masked by the very prominence of some of Miami’s female tech leaders. But it shows up if you know where to look.

As one female founder who wished to remain anonymous, told Startup.Miami of a recent article touting Miami’s recent startup funding successes: “I read it and all I see is dudes, dudes, and more dudes.”

Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, general manager of CIC Miami and one of the leading voices in Miami’s tech scene, said she doesn’t even think women play a more prominent role in our scene compared with other cities.

“We are fortunate to have some women leaders here across all sectors — as in other parts of country — but I don’t think there is gender parity in any sector here,” she said.

To get closer to parity will require a host of measures, and lots more time, she says.

‘Nagging feeling’

Miami tech’s bias against women takes a number of forms. While most of those interviewed by Startup.Miami they haven’t experienced direct sexual harassment, bias against women is still there. One female founder who wished to remain anonymous described what she said was a “nagging feeling of uncertainty” that can come up when talking to VCs.

“When you’re comparing yourself to the other company [that got funded], you wonder, ‘Did they not understand our financials, or was it something else…You’re constantly asking yourself.”  

She described a typical experience of being invited to a “business meeting” by a male potential client or supporter, only to be left wondering whether that individual meant something more romantic than just business.

“You go in having the benefit of the doubt about them wanting to do business, but you end up going ‘That was weird.’”

She also said she’s been on the receiving end of at best, out of context, or at worst, outright aggressive, text or LinkedIn messages that, if left unanswered, can feel like she is jeopardizing her company.

“I was like ‘I don’t want to write back, I’m not sure what they meant by that, but I also don’t want to ignore them — I’d like to keep them talking about the business.”

South Florida’s most nationally recognized tech company, Plantation-based Magic Leap, just settled a major gender discrimination suit.

Tannen Campbell, a female tech executive who was hired by Magic Leap to specifically address complaints from women at its workplace, ended up suing the company for wrongful termination, saying a culture of “macho bullying” prevailed that allowed women’s ideas to be “ridiculed openly and their opinions ignored in favor of those of their male counterparts,” the Sun-Sentinel reported.

What the data show

Miami’s tech gender gap can also be found in any number of statistics. Right now, for instance, women make up just 21 percent of the graduating class of Miami’s premier coding academy, Wyncode.

The complexity of the issue is further demonstrated by the portfolio of Miami’s most prominent female-led VC firm, Krillion Ventures. Melissa Krinzman, Krillion’s managing partner, said five of Krillion Ventures’ portfolio companies, or 25 percent of its total portfolio, are led by female founders or co-founders, and two of those are based in Miami.  

“Our focus is on leadership’s experience, management capabilities, drive, ability to attract A+ team members, and inspire confidence in customers,” she said in an email.

The gap in local funding for female-led firms points to a  dysfunction in the startup pipeline Martinez-Kalinina says.

She pointed to data showing that the value of contracts Miami-Dade county awards to women-owned businesses represent just 3.7 percent of the total value of all contracts given out.

And a 2016 FIU study showed profound gender-wage gaps in Miami’s economy — even for individuals with grad degrees. And sales among all women-owned firms were less than 20 percent those of males’.

Separate but equal

These data show the deep-rooted nature of the problem, Martinez-Kalinina says.

“The actual channels for moving the needle on [gender] are obscure and complex, and require more systematic action and thinking that not enough people are doing, so the needle still doesn’t move,” she said. “It’s not because they think it’s unimportant, but the willingness to put in the effort required to move that needle is not there.”

Too often, Martinez-Kalinina said, a “separate but equal” mentality takes hold that leads to the creation of “insular” channels of support for women. That ends up just simplifying the problem, she said.

In addition to her role at CIC, Martinez-Kalinina is one of the cofounders of Aminta Ventures, a new network for advancing women into VC roles. The organization’s focus on creating female venture capitalists, as opposed to encouraging existing VCs to focus more on female-led startups, exemplifies the approach she says is necessary to allowing women to take on the same roles as men in tech.

“In my best case, eventually we wouldn’t need to have an imperative to focus on like, ‘Let’s invest in female-led businesses,’” she said. “We should be excited to invest in women-led and men-led, because we will have prepared [women] better and on-ramped them better, and preempted the whole conversation.”

Maxeme Tuchman, founder of Caribu, a video calling and reading app for families with young kids, agreed that any conversation about advancing women in tech in Miami must move beyond an “affirmative action” mentality.

“It’s not about investing or promoting a woman over a man,” she said. “It’s about bringing more women into the application pool in the first place, and doing a better job of interviewing more women for tech jobs and sourcing deal flow with female founders.”

“When I hear, ‘I can’t find any women’ — is that person hiding under rock?” Tuchman continued. “We have female founder accelerators, women dominating pitch competitions, engineering/coding schools graduating women — it’s not as hard as it used to be to find female-founded companies. Investors and founders need to be more intentional about meeting with more women.”

Despite its coterie of female leaders, Miami is no different than the rest of the nation when it comes to falling behind in supporting women in its startup ecosystem, says Alia Mahmoud, who leads leadership development programs at at Radical Partners and is a co-founder of female VC support group Aminta Ventures. She used to work at local facial recognition tech company Kairos.

“We have a few notable awesome female success stories, but I’ve also spoken with women who are really struggling, where they feel like…as a woman it’s harder to raise money than their male compatriots,” she said.

Right track?

Johanna Mikkola, cofounder of Wyncode, says there is evidence Miami is outperforming at the coder level, noting that female Wyncode grads on average earn a higher starting salary than men — $47,500 compared with $45,881 according to the most recent data available.

She also cited the example of medical tech firm MDLive, which currently employs 12 Wyncode grads, seven of whom are women.

Given that it is still a growing ecosystem, Mikkola said, Miami has a chance not to repeat the mistakes found in Silicon Valley.

“People really need to have this conversation, otherwise you [naturally] forget to have diversity,” she said.

Wifredo Fernandez, co-founder of The LAB and StartUP FIU, said in an email that, anecdotally, he believes Miami is in fact ahead of other peer cities, like Seattle or D..C, when it comes to gender in tech.

“One of our greatest strengths is that we have great role models, which will help us overcome any weaknesses,” he added.

Martinez-Kalanina argues there are no cities with perfect gender-in-tech records. But because Miami is still evolving, it can get to a place where, by the time it has matured, it will have avoided tech’s more traditional shortcomings.

“Issues of gender bias are still prevalent in much more mature ecosystems like Silicon Valley and New York City — it’s not like those who are completely ahead of us have totally figured out how to resolve this issue,” she says.

“In that light, what’s exciting is that in Miami, we have this distinct opportunity to engage this topic as we mature.”

By Rob Wile
Rob Wile, the curator for Startup.Miami, is a writer and entrepreneur living in Miami Beach. He’s a former staff writer for Fusion and Business Insider. His work has also appeared in Slate, Newsweek, Money Magazine and The New Tropic. He writes a newsletter on tech, business, and the South Florida economy called The Heatwave.