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The Boston Globe

Opinion

opinion | mike ross

Break Boston’s digital ceiling

The city could start a revolution in women-led start-ups

Heidi Younger for the Boston Globe

Ilene Fischer began working as a chemical engineer for Raytheon at a time when there were no female mentors in her field. She spent much of her career determined to change that. But now, more than three decades later, she’s running into new barriers, this time among the start-up generation. While pinstripes may have given way to skinny jeans and Warby Parker glasses, she’s found that today’s companies have established a new “digital” ceiling, that is as impenetrable as in the past. Twitter’s all-white, all-male board is par for the course.

After attending one too many male-dominated workshops — once being told that women tend to open catering and knitting companies so they really don’t need venture backing — Fischer had enough. And so she started WomenLEAD Inc., which pairs women from Fortune 500 companies through an online mentorship program. The respected start-up accelerator MassChallenge chose WomenLEAD as a finalist this year.

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The underrepresentation of women on corporate boards (16 percent), as CEOs within their companies (6.5 percent), and among recipients of start-up funds from venture capital firms (4.2 percent), reveals an inequality that cannot be ignored. And like all inequalities, it is bad for business and our broader economic growth.

Most progressive leaders reject the idea that the path to equality must be paved by conformity, playing by the rules, or watching sports — all of which have been put forth as “solutions.” Progress isn’t made by accepting the status quo, it’s made by changing it.

As Boston’s start-up and innovation community continues to find ways to distinguish itself from Silicon Valley and New York City, here is one area in which this city can shape its future and break away from the pack of male-dominated business clusters across the country.

What if we developed a competitive advantage by establishing that, more than anywhere else, Boston is the place for women to launch and lead companies?

As it turns out, a group of local leaders in Boston, including Fischer, are already focused on making that a reality, as their efforts portend:

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Kit Murray Maloney has opened one of the country’s first shared work spaces dedicated to women entrepreneurs. Collabratory 4.0, located in the South End, focuses on supporting female executives and founders throughout the life cycle of their start-up businesses. By creating practice pitch sessions, and networking opportunities with a host of leaders, the group has helped put its first round of incubated businesses well on their way toward success.

When Bettina Hein previously worked in Europe, she told me, she was the only executive, or “C-level” leader, that she knew of. Today, as the CEO of Pixability, a Cambridge start-up that specializes in YouTube advertising and marketing, she has started “She-EO’s,” a local networking group that now boasts over 130 participating, executive-level, women.

Jules Pieri, the cofounder and CEO of The Grommet, an online shopping experience that launches undiscovered consumer products, is offering a transformative idea. Modeled after the Title IX requirement that balances schools’ spending for women’s and men’s sports programs, this new proposal would require venture firms that receive favorable tax treatment to make proportional investments in women-run businesses.

Area universities have helped to seed the region with programs like Babson’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership and the work of Cathy Minehan at Simmons School of Management. Longrunning organizations like the Women’s Club as well as sustained women’s leadership within our Chamber of Commerce, have also brought about a change in culture. And earlier this year Mayor Menino declared it the year of the woman, vowing to close the wage gap with the launching of the Boston’s Women Compact.

Supporting greater equality within business is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. The truth is women-run companies are often more successful. According to a Dow Jones report, companies with more female executives outpace those with fewer, and the odds of the company’s success increases as senior women employees increase. Data from the nonprofit Catalyst show companies with more women board members experience a higher return.

Despite all the grass-roots energy aimed at promoting women entrepreneurs, Boston and its tech community have yet to brand the city as more friendly to women than anywhere else. But they — we — should. For the same reasons we have been thought-leaders for generations — strong, forward-thinking academic institutions and leaders eager to buck the status quo — Boston now seems well prepared to break the digital ceiling of the 21st century.

Mike Ross is a Boston city councilor.

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