women in tech

In Silicon Valley, a conference for female founders

March 3, 2014: 11:04 AM ET

A gathering of hundreds of women in Mountain View demonstrated that being female in the technology industry should be celebrated, not excused.

Left to right: Jamie Wong of Vayable, Danielle Morrill of Mattermark, Ann Johnson of Interana, Michelle Crosby of Wevorce.

Left to right: Jamie Wong of Vayable, Danielle Morrill of Mattermark, Ann Johnson of Interana, Michelle Crosby of Wevorce.

FORTUNE -- It's no secret that Silicon Valley has long been a boy's club. But with more women seeking careers in STEM -- that's science, technology, engineering, and math -- fields, a support system has emerged for female entrepreneurs.

That network was on display on Saturday when the startup accelerator Y Combinator hosted a women-only gathering in Mountain View, Calif. Called the Female Founders Conference, the event attracted 474 people, almost entirely women in their 20s and 30s, for a day of presentations from established businesswomen. Y Combinator promoted the conference as an opportunity for established female founders to pass on the wisdom of their own experiences to women who are just starting out with their own companies. Speakers included Eventbrite's Julia Hartz, Y Combinator's Jessica Livingston, and VMWare's Diane Greene.

Speakers wasted no time addressing hot topics. Livingston kicked off the conference by addressing parenting. "If you have an option, start [your company] before you have kids," Livingston said. "If you already have kids, just keep in mind what you'll be up against."

Still, not everyone who "leans in" -- to cite Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg's management-meets-gender equality book -- needs to do so as brashly as Silicon Valley's brightest stars. "It's okay to be a quiet co-founder," Livingston said. "You don't have to change who you are, as long as you get stuff done."

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Adora Cheung, co-founder of home cleaning startup Homejoy, said she decided to speak at the conference because she wanted to bring realism to the tough aspects of starting a company. It took years to find the idea for a company, she said, and there were multiple failures along the way. "Things don't mature overnight," she told Fortune after giving her talk. "There are a lot of struggles involved ... conferences like this empower more people, and when women see others like themselves, they feel more comfortable. I think this is the best conference for female founders, and I hope Jessica does it again and again."

Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of the career-building website The Muse, also spoke at the conference. Her own experiences with her startup included her company's struggle to find its focus and grow its audience, which she touched on in her presentation. "I enjoyed being a part of an event that had realistic and honest stories," she said after her talk. "People were very open about the obstacles and insecurities that come with a startup, even at a startup that ends up being successful."

Y Combinator's conference is one of many Bay Area events designed to help women gain an edge in technology and business. Most recently, The Makers Conference held in San Francisco last month brought together high-profile speakers -- including actress Jennifer Aniston, feminist Gloria Steinem, Google X's Megan Smith (GOOG), Facebook's Sandberg, and Martha Stewart (MSO) -- to discuss the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

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