Finding ‘Stephanie’ Jobs

Stephanie-Jobs

Women entrepreneurs in Chicago’s tech community can take us to the next level.

Steve Jobs was renowned for relentlessly pursuing his vision until it was realized as something truly transformational. Since his death, the tech world has searched for the next Steve Jobs – could she be a ‘Stephanie?’

Take Daphne Preuss, scientist-turned-CEO of Chromatin – an agbiotech company that leverages MIT scientists’ 16 years in plant research to create crops better suited to feeding and fueling a hungry planet. Ms. Preuss launched her company with breakthrough synthetic chromosome technology she developed, then licensed to agricultural conglomerates. She acquired and developed a platform in sorghum – a crop with the resilience needed to solve global agriculture resource problems. Today, Chromatin focuses on innovating the sorghum crop using a variety of techniques that rely on breeding, DNA technologies and improving agronomic practices. Turning a revolutionary invention into a business is complex. “It’s exciting to see the impact we’re having as we bring improved sorghum to Africa and China,” says Ms. Preuss.

“Daphne is committed 1,000 percent to the pursuit of a quality product that will make a difference in the world,” explains Nancy Sullivan, CEO/managing director of Illinois Ventures, an early-stage technology investment firm. Chromatin is one of the Illinois Venture Fund’s portfolio companies. “She’s a great example of achieving what others never expected,” observes Ms. Sullivan, who cites women achievements in academia (more women getting PhDs) as an indication that the needle has moved.

Steve Jobs focused on experiences, which enabled him to create what customers wanted before they even wanted it. For Chicago women tech entrepreneurs, the true test of legitimacy is when investors put real money behind them.

Hyde Park Angels has invested in 25 tech companies since 2007 with three led by women,” says Karin O’Connor, managing director of the network that provides a forum for individuals and corporations to invest in early-stage businesses. One such company is Moxie Jean, co-founded by Sandra Pinter (mother of two) and Sharon Schneider (mother of three) that was funded by Techstars (then Excelerate Labs) through Hyde Park Angels.

“We almost didn’t apply because we didn’t know if we could make it work with five kids at home between the two of us,” says Ms. Schneider. “[Techstars Managing Director] Troy Henikoff has a strong track record of mentoring women CEOs in every Techstars class.”

Moxie Jean was originally conceived as a subscription service where moms could buy and sell gently used, quality children’s clothing, but it wasn’t working. The Techstars process challenged them to rethink the business. Once they landed on the consignment model, MoxieJean.com has been off and running.

Dabble.co, another Hyde Park Angel investment, was co-founded by Jessica Lybeck and Erin Hopmann to solve their own interests in dabbling in new things they wanted to try without a big commitment. They started offering 18 classes and now have 170, from holiday entertaining to tango lessons and more. Classes start at $20 and are one-time only, in-person sessions taught by anyone who has a skill or passion to share.

Melissa Pierce started Chicago Women Developers because she wanted to know more about coding. This network attracts women with various backgrounds and technical expertise who meet at 1871 (a co-working center for digital start-ups based in the Merchandise Mart) and other locations. They’re “passionate about coding and creating a more diverse tech landscape,” explains Ms. Pierce, who’s also COO of Everpurse, a purse that wirelessly charges mobile phones. She plans to take the Kickstarter darling “to a full-fledged international fashion tech company because technology should be incorporated into everything we do.”

Initially, Sunyeon Kim didn’t set out to identify the most talented young people in technology in one locale; the goal was to help develop them wherever they lived. Alltuition was in response to her frustration with the student loan process as a student at the University of Chicago. She evolved Alltuition (college financing made easy) to Brilliant (www.brilliant.org), which aims to find and develop the most talented young people worldwide. Brilliant’s free online problem-solving community in math and science attracts intellectually ambitious people from 135 countries.

No doubt about it, Chicago, ‘Stephanie Jobs’ is here and on her way to the top.

Rosemary Fanti Illustration

Karen_Kane

About Karen Kane

Karen Kane, former senior vice president and board secretary of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, writes frequently on leadership and provides corporate communication services to organizations. She was Lifestyle Editor of the Houston Chronicle and a member of senior management for two Chicago firms. A NACD Governance Fellow, she is author of the book Voices of Governance: Why Oversight Is Important to All of Us.