2013-09-18

What It’s Like To Be A Woman In Y Combinator

I sat down with 99dresses creator Nikki Durkin and found out it’s not all bad being the famous incubator’s “purple cow.”



As a journalist, you usually see the same patterns in people’s stories. Each story is impressive it its own right, but you rarely find a new pattern. But that changed with the last interview I did. The company is called 99dresses, and it's an online trading network for women’s clothing.

Nikki Durkin

At 20, CEO Nikki Durkin-–who had no programming skills or a fancy MBA–-applied to Y Combinator and got accepted. Now three years later, 99dresses is making its North American debut on the iOS App Store on September 23. Here’s what she had to say about solving problems, learning on the job, and being a woman at Y Combinator.

99dresses doesn’t sound like a problem a guy would have ever thought of solving.

(Laughs) 99dresses was pretty much trying to solve a problem that I had myself. I had the idea when I was 16, and sure, it’s something quite relevant to the whole “women in tech” conversation because I don't think a guy would have come up with that idea. I was trying to solve a problem that hadn't really been solved properly and it was a by-product of scratching my own itch as a woman.

Most teenagers have problems and ask their parents to solve them. But instead you wrote a business plan, right?

Yeah. I was in school and I was running this other business called Kultkandy and my business studies teacher wanted me to enter a business plan competition. At the time, I had been having a very fortunate problem: I was taking all the money I was earning from my other business and spending it on clothes because I had no expenses, I was 15. I spent hundreds of dollars every week on clothes and then I'd get bored of them after a week and then they'd just sit there doing nothing. It was this vicious cycle, but the same one most women have: a full closet with nothing to wear. So I came up with a more efficient way for women to consume fashion. I wrote the business plan and it won the National Business Planning competition.

What I find really interesting is the market research you did before you launched 99dresses. You called it “creative prototyping” because not everyone has the money to actually get a real prototype off the ground.

Yes, it’s important to get some kind of validation so you know you’re on the right track. I had this idea for 99dresses, but I needed to know if other people would like it. I had no marketing budget, so I started a Facebook event. I said, “Hey, my name is Nikki. I’m 18, I have this problem: I have a closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear and all my friends have the same problem and it’s kind of stupid and no one’s solving it so I figured I would just do it. This is my idea on how this all can work. If you’d use a website like this, can you click the ‘Attending’ button and if not can you click ‘Not Attending’?” It was a free way to easily post a survey before Facebook allowed you to have polls. It ended up getting 40,000 “attendees” and went viral in Australia.

And it was very successful in Australia. But then you decided you wanted to break into America, so you applied to Y Combinator and got accepted. YC and the tech industry in general are male dominated. What was the experience for you like?

I loved YC. I was a starry-eyed. I was a 20-year-old girl going to America for the first time, which was a huge deal for me, and went to Silicon Valley, which is what I'd been hearing about for ages. The main value of YC for me was that I came over as an international person trying to break into the American market and I immediately had mentors. I immediately had a community of other people doing startups, some money, connections, and then a level of respect that came from being a YC company. People would just talk to you if you said, "Oh, I'm in YC," and they're like, "Oh!" and they actually take notice of you, which was good because there's so much noise, there’s a lot of stuff happening. I had an amazing experience. I thought it was great.

But being a woman there?

There weren't that many girls, true. But, honestly, a lot of people complain about that like it’s a big problem. Yes, in some ways I guess it is, but at the same time I like that. Why? Because “It's better to be a purple cow.” You’re female. Use it. You’ll stand out because you're quite different from a “normal” coder or “geeky guy” founder. I found at demo day I got a lot of attention just because of the fact that I was some young girl solving a problem for young girls. We can complain about lack of women in tech, but I see it as a massive advantage because I am female.

But did you ever feel like you had more to prove walking into the room?

Yes. But not because I was a woman. What I didn't like was being the non-technical founder. I wish that I had the technical skills. I felt that if I had anything to prove it was on the basis of, “Oh, I wish I could learn to code and be like the rest of those guys and come up with an idea and just execute it.” None of those feels came from being a certain gender.

Do you think the “women in tech” debate is overblown? For example, there was a lot of outrage in the tech media over the Titstare app. Some said it exemplified a boys culture in Silicon valley.

I feel like people will take the smallest thing that might be misconstrued as sexist and run with it. The Titstare app, for example. I thought it was funny, but a lot of people took offense to it. I don't think it's derogatory to women specifically in the tech industry. Maybe that's also part of my personality, but if you view everything though a “is it sexist?” lens, that’s not good.

You’ve never experienced any sexism in the tech industry?

No, I haven’t. Then again, I’ve heard of some other people who’ve had slightly sexist experiences. But in terms of what I’ve experienced, I think it's a big overblown. Yes, I'd like to see more women in tech just because I think more cool problems would get solved, but I feel like getting on your high horse about it is not really helping. On the flip side, like I said, I haven't experienced sexism. I'm sure if I had experienced sexism, I would feel differently. But sexism is everywhere, not just in tech.

Sexism aside. There’s no question there are fewer women in tech than men. Why do you think that is?

When I was going to high school I had a scholarship to one of the best schools in the country and it was an all-girls boarding school. My brother had a scholarship to an all-boys boarding school--and it was just down the road. I got offered electives like textiles. He got offered programming.

So it’s a gender issue that starts in schools?

You need to put programming in high schools regardless of gender. But yes, in Australia girls aren't even exposed to it. Even in university not a lot of girls are taking science and math-based subjects. That means you're not even getting exposed to developers, which means that the chance of you being a developer or meeting a developer that you’re friends with or who you want to start a company with are pretty slim compared to guys who do code. Whereas even if you’re not a developer, but still studying maths or sciences you are going to get exposed to developers. That increases the likelihood of you meeting someone who you’re going to start a company with. I think that's got a lot to do with why there's so many more men doing this stuff.

Do you think women in technology have things to offer that men can’t match?

Definitely, and that’s one of the big points I make when people do ask me about women entrepreneurs in tech. There aren't that many women in tech, which means that there are a lot problems that aren’t being solved. Guys aren’t going to think of solving the same problems as girls. That's why there’s so much opportunity for women who want to get into tech: They can actually solve these problems and offer different perspectives than men can.

And what advice would you have for women with a tech idea?

“Just do it.” I feel people like to talk about their ideas and they go to networking events and they “look into” it and they sit on the sidelines, but they never actually do anything. I always find I get itchy when I have an idea and I just need to go and do it, so I will just do it. I think that's kind of key. If you’re not going to start anything, nothing’s going to happen.

And if they’re apprehensive about being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

Like everything else about you, your gender is also an asset. I find I get more opportunities because I am female; because we do have different strengths. I was on the front page of one of the major newspapers in Australia. They told me it was for this article about Australians going to Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of Australians that go to Silicon Valley, so why me? The reporter said, “We need a girl on the front page.” So they put me above the fold on the front page of one of the biggest newspapers in Australia just because I was a chick in tech. You can call that sexist but I’m going to take it.

[Image: Flickr user Rebecca W]






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3 Comments

  • Marjorie R. Asturias

    I agree with her that sexism can be overblown, but I also think her perspective needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I felt the same way when *I* was 20, but as one gets older being '"the novelty" gets more than a little tiresome and then you realize that it's just another form of sexism that's quite insidious if you blow out the layers of attention that comes with it. It's one thing to get a lot of attention, but quite another to be taken seriously. Young, attractive women in tech -- however brilliant they may be, as this amazing entrepreneur clearly is -- will always get attention, but they won't stay young forever, and attractive can only get you so far. Sexism in the tech industry isn't overblown -- it's very well-documented -- but we're making progress. Unfortunately, it's remarks like hers that turn it into a "well, I'm doing fine, so why can't you just suck it up and deal?" woman-against-woman controversy, which only masks the real problems.

    As a young minority in a very male-dominated field (energy) a few years ago, I attracted a lot of attention as I barnstormed through West Texas signing up landowners for a big energy project. Sure, it got me noticed, but when it came time to actually sit down with the head of our company to talk about development projects? I literally was asked to leave the room...after I'd brought in some sodas. My [male] boss had to fight to get me noticed by the higher-ups. I found out later that a male colleague who was much younger and had less experience than I -- who hadn't signed a single landowner, while I'd signed literally dozens on a project that turned out to be one of the largest in the world -- was making far more than I was. 

    So yes, attention is great, but the brass tacks are salary, respect, advancement, and a place at the Big Table. 

  • Nikki Durkin

    That sucks to hear about your experience Marjorie. Like I said in the interview, I've never personally experienced any sexism so that's where my perspective comes from, and I also state that if I had experienced sexism then I'm sure my perspective would be different, and probably more like yours. Its hard for me to complain about something that myself and very few of my female colleagues have ever really experienced. 

    I think reporters would actually get a lot of value out of interviewing awesome women like you who are kicking butt and have had to deal with sexism in the industry. Hearing stories like the one you relayed in your comment might shed some light on the situation. 

  • Marjorie R. Asturias

    Thanks for the quick response, Nikki! I hope that my comment didn't sound snarky as I didn't mean it that way. I was more irritated with the reporter because he seemed to be taking a particular angle with this story that I found condescending. Still, as I mentioned in my response, I'm very impressed with what you've accomplished and wish I'd been that smart and forward-thinking at your age!

    I'll be keeping an eye on you and your story as you move forward in your life. No matter their age, I'm always inspired by women who make their own way in the world and blaze new trails.

    Cheers,
    Marjorie