Giving Girls a Startup Chance in Silicon Valley

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Sixteen tables line the sides of the showcase at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Grinning merchants man each one, enticing customers with their wares. For these startups, it’s their chance to make that major sale and perhaps win the support of a venture capitalist.

One vendor happily completes a transaction with the flourish of a fuzzy, flower pen. Another group advertises their deluxe options — laptop stickers that range from “I <3 Justin Bieber” to “One Directioner.”

If this sounds a bit junior high to you, you’d be right: All the companies have been started and run by seventh grade girls.

Welcome to Entrepreneurial Night for the Girls Middle School, a progressive intermediate school in Palo Alto, Calif. Founded by tech entrepreneur Kathleen Bennett in 1998, the school’s goal is to foster girls’ curiosity in typically male-centric areas — namely, entrepreneurship and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

“Middle school is the time when [girls] stop identifying as liking those subjects or being good at those subjects,” said Dan Glass, GMS’ director of communications.

Parents agree. “Boys tend to hog the mic in classrooms, especially on those types of topics and especially in Silicon Valley where their fathers are all engineers,” said Brad Williams, a GMS parent whose daughter, Caroline, currently attends the 6th grade. “The idea was that girls in a girls-only environment have an unobstructed path to choosing science, technology, engineering, math if they’re interested without it being selected away from them by a bunch of boys who are more assertive.”

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GMS curriculum is Silicon Valley to the core. Students follow a six-day course rotation that cycles through a regular five-day week to make room for unconventional requirements, including computer science and entrepreneurial studies.

The mandatory entrepreneurial program is one of the school’s centerpieces, with 150 companies started since the program’s inception. Recruitment starts in sixth grade and is focused on building teamwork, as the girls are thrown together on various camping trips and other bonding activities. They work together at open tables.

After observing the students’ work habits throughout the year, they are then grouped together to begin writing their business proposals and learning the importance of teamwork.

Like actual entrepreneurs, the girls learn basic accounting, write up a business plan and go through a prototyping process with focus groups, with their goods targeted at other middle school girls.

And, if groups pitch similar business plans, they must diversify. For example, Snuggle Up creates custom pillows and blankets, while Pillow Pockets makes animal pillows with, as the name suggests, a pocket in the back to hold small items.

Though they receive plenty of support and mentorship along the way, students are ultimately required to run the business on their own, with no outsourcing to parents allowed unless they’re willing to be hired at the standard $2 per hour rate. Each girl receives a designated title as the vice president of communications, finance, marketing or manufacturing.

Each startup is expected to develop a product and sell enough to pay back the school’s initial loan — usually between $100 and $200 — as well as donate some profits to charity. Leftover materials are liquidated at the end of the year.

“You walk into a seventh grade classroom and you’d see one group of girls with scissors and sewing machines,” Glass said. “And one group of girls is working on printing on water bottles.”

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Whether or not GMS actually inspires the next generation of female entrepreneurs remains to be seen. The school is only 15 years old, which means its oldest alumni haven’t even exited their 20s yet. But, according to Glass, a number have gone the entrepreneurial route, including one who started a jewelry-making business.

GMS holds an Entrepreneurial Night as a culmination of the girls’ achievements. By the time the event rolls around in late January, most, if not all, startups have more than repaid the school’s initial loan. Here, they have a chance to make their grand pitch in front of a panel of real-life venture capitalists, along with an audience of more than a hundred people.

“They learn that communication is most essential when you have to present to investors and present to your parents,” humanities teacher Amoy Walker said, with the girls learning self-presentation skills including inflection, body language and eye contact.

For parents who feared their daughters would lose their voices to outspoken boys, it was clear at Entrepreneurial Night that those voices were definitely present, loud and strong.

Of course, there were still nerves. As the young entrepreneurs filed into Hahn Auditorium, some closed their eyes and did breathing exercises. GMS parent and entrepreneurial coach Roberta Friedman cheered on her charges.

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“You’ll be fine! You guys know what you’re doing!,” she reassured them.

The presentations covered the basics of the product, the girls’ journey from conception to execution, competition and a proposal to the VCs for a $100 loan with the promise of full repayment, plus three percent of their total profit. Some girls spoke clearly and confidently, while others were visibly nervous and stumbled. However, overall, the girls exuded professionalism with a healthy dose of endearing, preadolescent charm.

One Pillow Pockets VP assessed her products’ main competition — Pillow Pets.

“They’re a pillow and a pet,” she declared. “But we’re a pillow, a pet and a pocket!”

Another startup, CTRL + ALT + DEL explained the story behind its name. The girls recycle old keyboard keys and remote control buttons to make jewelry and key chains.

“Somebody asked for a CTRL + ALT + DEL pin to wear during meetings but we had no idea what that meant because we all have Macs,” the girl stated matter-of-factly. However, they liked the name so much, they adopted it.

In the end, each VC invests in two startups — with everyone receiving funding. So not exactly the ending for every Silicon Valley startup, but it’s certainly a nice beginning.


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