SAN FRANCISCO — Dina bitton and natalie Wood are thoroughly modern women: well-educated, career minded, and entrepreneurial.
They may also turn out to be pioneers. Each is likely to take part in a first-of-its-kind project to narrow a yawning gender gap that has made America's newest industry, technology, look much like its older ones: owned and operated by men.
Ms. Bitton and Ms. Wood are part of a small stampede of women technologists applying to be part of the so-called Women's Technology Cluster, which will open its doors here in early January. The cluster is the first of its kind in the nation and will operate on the principle that when fledgling enterprises operate cheek by jowl, they share ideas, information, and resources. In short, they build the kinds of relationships and "networks" that are well established for men, but not women.
The project is regarded as a particularly focused and innovative attempt to end the dearth of women leaders in technology and generate the type of big-time commercial successes that have so far largely eluded women in the booming technology field.
And the objective goes beyond simply changing the gender profile of the technology sector. It includes inculcating a new philosophy. Companies accepted in this new technology center must agree to devote at least 2 percent of their equity to a fund that will invest in the community, a noteworthy promise of social commitment within an industry often criticized for being stingy and self-centered.
"What we're trying to do is give women an opportunity to participate in the wealth-creating process of the technology boom. At the same time, we want to educate entrepreneurs about what it means to have wealth and to reinvest in their community," says Catherine Muther, founder of the Women's Technology Cluster.
Ms. Muther embodies both objectives. In 1994, she shared in the enormous wealth generated by Cisco Systems of Santa Clara, Calif., by cashing in a bundle of stock options and walking away from a top executive marketing position. She used $3 million of the proceeds to establish the Three Guineas Fund, named after the book by Virginia Woolf and dedicated to school and workplace opportunities for girls and women. The Women's Technology Cluster is the foundation's newest venture.
The cluster, which will house 20 or 25 firms, is built on a model that has a proven track record. Across the country, clusters and so-called incubators have sprouted in recent years to help entrepreneurs in a common field work side by side. They save money through economies of scale and allow otherwise isolated entrepreneurs to tap into established networks of mentors.
Cluster provides valuable networks
James Robbins has established seven such business clusters, all focused on technology, across California and is developing the women's cluster for Muther. Mr. Robbins says women are active in technology, but "they tend to have more difficulty because they're not hooked into the same networks, particularly with respect to financing."
The new technology cluster for women will provide market-rate rents, but occupants get a host of free legal and accounting services from individuals and companies supporting the venture.
While technology may be the driving force behind the nation's economic expansion of the last six years, women's role not only lags way behind men's, but shows only glacial progress, say some experts.
"Truthfully, I can't say that there are any more women in leadership roles" in technology than a few years ago, says Becky Morgan who recently resigned as president of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, which promotes technology and the Silicon Valley. "It disappoints me," she adds.
Indeed, women corporate officers are as common in the building-materials industry as they are in the computer and data-services fields, according to the Catalyst research firm in New York. And women board directors are more common in the aerospace industry, for instance, than they are in computer software.
Experts offer a variety of explanations, including society's pervasive and reinforcing gender stereotyping, early education methods, unequal family responsibilities, and job bias. But a number of analysts say the clearest and most immediate obstacle to women building and leading their own technology enterprises is capital.
"Women tend to self-finance, whereas most technology start-ups get outside capital," says Robbins. As a result, women's ideas are often underfed, squeezed into a spare bedroom or a corner of the garage despite commercial promise.
Capital for MizBiz?
Wood, founder of Womanhood Inc., is eager to expand her fledgling firm, which is building an Internet site (MizBiz.Com) to help other women entrepreneurs start and expand businesses online. Wood is likely to be an early occupant of the Women's Technology Cluster.
Although she has raised more than $200,000 from individual investors, Wood has shopped her idea to over a dozen venture-capital firms without success. But through Muthers contacts, Wood is hopeful she'll find more willing sources for the $2.5 million she wants to raise in 1999.
Bitton, a computer scientist and professor for 10 years at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has launched one software firm and is looking for capital to expand a second, fledgling enterprise. Bitton also hopes to make contacts through the cluster that will lead to sources of funds for her new software company. "As a woman in the field of technology, I've always been isolated," says Bitton. The cluster, she predicts, will change that.