'You are all influencers': How lesbians in tech are gaining ground

Willie Grace | 4/13/2015, 12:29 p.m.
Pittsford, founder of the group Lesbians Who Tech, will be hosting a summit in New York later this year, and ...
LGBT women are advancing in the tech world, but they need help finding support in such a male-dominated field.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- It's happy hour at an underground bar in Manhattan, and Leanne Pittsford is asking lesbians in tech what they want.

"You are all influencers," she says. "You know what's going on here."

LGBT women are advancing in the tech world, but they need help finding support in such a male-dominated field.

Pittsford, founder of the group Lesbians Who Tech, will be hosting a summit in New York later this year, and set up the happy hour to crowdsource what would make the event successful.

Lesbians Who Tech, which got its start at a bar in San Francisco in 2012, has grown to include 9,000 members worldwide.

The organization is just one of many that help LGBT women connect with each other, start their own businesses and access a growing network of LGBT mentors and investors. It's a serious need, given that women in tech earn significantly less than men and are less satisfied with their jobs, according to a Glassdoor study released last year.

"When we come together, we can start thinking of some of these issues and tackling them," Pittsford said, adding that she doesn't always see LGBT issues as part of the bigger conversation about diversity in Silicon Valley.

"We all know there are too few women in tech. Parse that down to lesbians in tech and there are very few," said Marie Trexler, head of the lesbian entrepreneur mentoring program for StartOut, a nonprofit working to create more LGBT-identified business leaders. "Sexual identity isn't always front and center in your business life, but it can be, and it can be very valuable."

A few years ago, Trexler started attending gay tech events, but found, unsurprisingly, that the crowd was mostly male.

"Often it would be me, two or three female friends and 50 to 60 guys," said Trexler, an experienced venture capitalist.

When she started asking lesbians in tech what they wanted, mentoring was repeated over and over.

"The role modeling component really does make a difference," said Trexler.

With StartOut's lesbian entrepreneurship program, each mentee is paired with a mentor for six months. Trexler said one of the biggest challenges for the mentees is funding, which is true for female entrepreneurs across the board.

Several funds have been launched to support LGBT-identified entrepreneurs.

VentureOut funds seed-stage startups founded by business leaders in the LGBT community. LGBT Capital takes a different angle, supporting companies that target the LGBT consumer market.

Pitching investors is a big part of Trexler's program.

It made a difference for B. Cole, founder of Brioxy, a soon-to-be-launched platform that helps young people of color find fellowships. She completed the StartOut program last year.

"As a person of color who identifies as a lesbian and someone gender non-conforming, the deck is stacked, so they say," she said. The program helped her identify investors and build a network.

She is looking to raise $500,000 in the next year, to add to the $15,000 she raised on Indiegogo last year. "I'm ready to increase the size of the team and go after a larger market share," she said.

For women who may not want to build their own startups, but still have their sights set on tech, Pittsford said events like hers bring inspiring women together.

At one summit, Megan Smith, who President Obama named as U.S. chief technology officer last year, gave a talk and then stayed to talk to attendees.

Pittsford said the line to get face time with Smith was nearly out the door, and it's women like her that provide a solid role model not just for LGBT women, but women everywhere.

That means a lot to Pittsford, who said that before she started her organization, women said they didn't even have one person they looked up to who was in tech and a lesbian.

"I thought, 'There is something we can solve here,'" she said.

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