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INNOVATION BEAT

Are more women running tech unicorns and VC firms?

Stefania Mallett, CEO of ezCater, encouraged women entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. With Bloomberg's Janet Wu (left) and Aileen Lee from All Raise (right).Aaron Pressman

Earlier this week, a couple of leading women in the tech scene offered inspirational words from an inspirational setting.

Stefania Mallett, who cofounded and heads Boston startup ezCater, and venture capitalist Aileen Lee, who first coined the term “unicorn” for startups worth more than $1 billion, spoke at an event Wednesday that was sponsored by the Boston chapter of All Raise.

The nonprofit, which Lee started in 2017 to promote women and non-binary founders and funders, partnered with Northeastern’s entrepreneurial student groups and held the talk in the stunning 17th-floor event space of the university’s East Village dorm, with gorgeous sunset-bathed views of Boston to the north and south.

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Though there was a vaccination requirement and most people wore masks, there was a sense of energy in the room that could never happen on Zoom. Glasswing Ventures managing partner Sarah Fay, introducing the panel, got some of the strongest applause of the night just by mentioning it was her first big in-person event since COVID hit.

Mallett explained that she toiled for 20 years at local tech companies before founding a series of her own companies. She related the rampant sexism of the tech industry in the 1980s, when she worked for Digital Equipment and its legendary CEO, Ken Olsen (who died in 2011).

“He said ‘it doesn’t matter that much what you pay a woman, because it’s not that important to her. But it matters what you pay a man,’” Mallett recalled. “He said this in front of a whole group of people with me sitting there.”

By the 1990s, she decided it was better to run her own companies, starting with a business software startup. “I didn’t want people to keep telling me what to do,” she told the audience, a mix of students and professionals. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could make this... up myself.”

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COVID was a disaster for ezCater at first. The company, which delivers restaurant food for business events, lost 85 percent of its customers almost overnight. Mallett had to lay off half the company but also focused on succeeding with fewer resources and finding new customers.

“It’s the last thing I thought I would say back in March of 2020, but COVID has helped us,” Mallett said. “It has given us a much broader range of customers that we didn’t even realize we didn’t have before.”

After the bounce back, ezCater was recently valued at $1.6 billion, cementing its status as one of Boston’s better-known unicorns.

Lee, meanwhile, was one of the first women hired at legendary VC firm Kleiner Perkins and struck out on her own 10 years ago. But she declined to recount the legion of sexist behavior she’d witnessed (“Oh, gosh, we don’t have time for that”), instead choosing to emphasize the progress that’s been made.

“We’re not alone, and also we have other allies out there that are kind of on the bus with us,” she said. “And we’re a growing movement... it’s not zero-sum. Like, we can all be successful.”

But the challenge of diversifying startups and venture capital has a long way to go. Female founders got only 2 percent of venture capital last year, the smallest slice since 2016, according to PitchBook data. The number of VC and private equity firms majority-owned by women or people of color jumped 25 percent last year from 2020, according to Fairview Capital.

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Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him @ampressman.