In 2014, Kristen Cooper made the leap from working in the nonprofit industry to working in tech. Why? “I had kind of a bad day back in 2011,” she jokes. Cooper attended a venture-focused luncheon, one she had been attending for years. “There were a few hundred people in the room - almost all men. On that particular day, someone sat next to me who said something very nasty about politics. Afterward I thought, ‘I am so tired of listening to people whose values are not in alignment with mine.’ They didn’t listen well and weren’t interested in my perspective.” That same day, Cooper closed a huge deal, but felt no joy about it like she typically would have.
“I thought, ‘I have this incredible Rolodex and I don’t want to spend time with anyone in it. Why can’t there be a Match.com for friends?’ Facebook wasn’t a behemoth yet.” As Cooper struggled to find people in Indianapolis with similar values, whimsical conversations became more and more serious, until she was getting buy-in for her idea from members of the tech community. That’s when she decided to make the leap. “I started sketching out a wireframe and began raising money before I knew anything about how to build software or technology.” A small software development firm called Sticksnleaves loved the idea of a friend-finding app and helped Cooper develop a non-functioning prototype.
Though she developed an incredible support network and raised over $80,000, Cooper never brought that product, Friendtro, to market. That effort would require funding in the tens of millions of dollars. “But even a failed tech product, as we all know, can be a major step forward. For me, that step was learning the process of how to build technology.” Cooper saw this as a very unifying and logic-based experience. “When meeting with software experts they poked holes in concepts for the sole purpose of making the product better. No personal or political agenda. I fell in love with that. I had never felt more comfortable in business than I did talking about building tech.”
Soon, her collaborators at Sticksnleaves invited Cooper to join their team as the Vice President of Operations and Corporate Development. “They offered to teach me to build technology if I could help them with operations and business development. It was a major pay cut,” Kristen admitted, “but very few women get this opportunity and they were interested in making a trade that could propel my career into an entirely different industry.”
Cooper is grateful that longtime member of Women & Hi Tech, Tonya Hanshew, got her involved shortly after they met at a coworking space in 2014. “Too many women talk themselves out of starting a company, in part because not enough people around them have done it successfully,” Cooper said. “In many ways, Women & Hi Tech is like exposure therapy. The more professionals that you meet like you rising up in STEM, the more comfortable you feel doing the same.”
Though she joined the Sticksnleaves team with gusto, Cooper still wondered what could have gone differently with Friendtro. She wanted to meet more female founders who had successfully completed exits. “I started introducing myself to women in the ladies room at the coworking space. One day, I actually closed a deal in that bathroom! After laughing about the rarity of having the opportunity to do business with fellow women in this space, I suggested that we go to lunch.” One lunch with three women led to monthly lunches with more and more attendees. Soon this led Kristen to create a list of everything she wished she had known, or still wanted to know, about founding a tech startup. “I just started matching experts in my rolodex with the topics I needed to learn about. I set up twice-monthly events to get people to share this information. That was the beginning of my path to founding The Startup Ladies--camaraderie, education, and now, funding.”
Today, Cooper is CEO and Founder of The Startup Ladies, an organization committed to educating founders and investors alike about startups, and the massive gender disparity in the market. “In 2019 136.5 billion was invested into startups, and less than 3% of that went to female founders,” she explained. “There are so many problems that have been identified by women and people of color in the STEM community. Most of our members do not have access to a network of people who could write checks to fund a proof of concept. The profile of most of our founders looks like this: they became an industry expert, identified a problem, came up with a solution, and never built a business or tech before. We educate entrepreneurs focused on scalable business models, regardless of the industry.
The Startup Ladies operates in 3 cities with over 170 members, and has helped members raise over $300,000 in funding. Kristen emphasized that her involvement with Women & Hi Tech was essential in the early days and remains essential as the two organizations work together to connect women to opportunities in STEM. “We have different yet complementary missions and are constantly seeking ways to help each other be bigger and better. We are doing this now, so more women can achieve similar goals in the future, without unconscious and conscious bias against them.”
When thinking about the future, Cooper hopes to see more members of the C-suite (regardless of gender) joining both Women & Hi Tech and The Startup Ladies. “The founders of Women & Hi Tech built a strong foundation for women in STEM in Indiana. We need to capitalize on the momentum and build plans to ensure that all C-suites, boards, and investment deals include 50% women.”