November 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Hidden Figures, last March’s box-office hit that grossed nearly $170,000,000, revolved around a group of African-American women working as “human computers.” A study done by the American Association of University Women revealed that, from the 1960s to the 1990s, more than one-third of the employees in computer and mathematical careers were women.

While the same study shows that this number now sits at 26 percent, several key women are a part of what makes the Silicon Prairie a rising star in the tech realm.

Four of these women, all millennials, all leaders in Omaha’s tech industry, recently discussed a clear passion and vision for the future of tech in the area.

Karen Borchert came to Omaha after leading tech startup projects in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. She knows women who remember the day they were first allowed to wear pants to work, who were first “allowed a seat at the table” to make important decisions. Borchert herself sees a different landscape than an older generation who remembers that those groundbreaking moments were “a big deal.”

“It isn’t [a big deal] anymore,” she says of those moments, “and the fact that it isn’t anymore is the biggest deal of all.”

She sits at the executive table of Flywheel. Since starting in 2012, Flywheel has been among Nebraska’s big winners in the startup community. According to its website, in 2016, Flywheel nearly tripled in size, adding 45 employees and expanding into a new 7,500-square-foot facility.

Borchert partially attributes her success at Flywheel to greater gender equality here in Omaha.

“Is the work that you do, the pay that you get, the roles that you have a chance at, the opportunities that you have to grow—is it as good, and in as welcoming an environment, for women as it is for men in Omaha?” Borchert says. “I’d argue that, in a lot of ways, it is.”

Sally Elatta

On that point, Borchert might get agreement from Sally Elatta, president and co-founder of Agile Transformation, another Omaha startup that has outgrown its original space. Agile Transformation uses proprietary data and evaluation software to help large and mid-sized companies build better teams and company culture.

If Elatta ran into any gender bias, she did not notice. If anything, she says, her company lost one bid because the large company felt her startup was too small. She couldn’t think of a time where her gender was an obstacle to overcome.

Elatta was born in Sudan, educated in Scotland, and became a proud U.S. citizen when her family applied for political asylum, she says.

“My mother,” she says, “influenced me to not carry that as a chip on my shoulder, to actually know that I am very strong, and that I can balance being a mother and being an entrepreneur all at the same time.”

While the environment in Omaha is perhaps better than it is in places like the Silicon Valley—where there have been recent reports of blatant sexism and harassment—that doesn’t mean all is well.

While hard data is not available, anecdotally, women report that men far outnumber women in Omaha’s Silicon Prairie. Borchert, at Flywheel, is acutely aware of the disparity, expressing chagrin that her full-time development team of 17 has just one woman.

“That’s not what I want,” she says. “We are doing a lot of work on this right now.”

She added: “Our main strategy on recruiting and on building a more diverse workplace is creating wonderful and equal experiences for our team, and making sure we’re doing right by them,” she says. “We really want people to feel comfortable at Flywheel.”

The lack of women at Flywheel hints at a potentially larger issue with the talent pipeline. For whatever reasons, there may not be as many women available in tech fields. The pipeline problem is one that Rebecca Stavick, executive director at Do Space, is working to change.

Rebecca Stavick

“The biggest lie out there is that women don’t like technology,” Stavick says. “The challenge, I think, is that historically there has been a lack of learning opportunities for women. I think we have done some incredible work on that in the past few years.”

Last year, Do Space started a recurring program that put 20 girls through a computer coding course. Additional work on a national level has increased interest and awareness for girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

A librarian by training, Stavick has a knack for big data and likes to think of herself as an “information activist.”

“The better info you’ve got,” she says, “the better decisions you make, the better life you can lead.”

What Stavick and Do Space provide for the Omaha community is a level of technical information that is unmatched almost anywhere. A unique library that has been studied from afar by several major American cities, Do Space provides free and easy access to some of the most advanced software and hardware systems available.

Do Space makes an effort to see that its membership numbers match the surrounding community. For example, Douglas County is approximately 11 percent African-American. Stavick reports that 10 percent of Do Space members are also African-American.

“My advice then to the startup community, and any other community in town, is to at least start aiming to match the population as a whole surrounding you,” Stavick says. “If women are half the population of Douglas County—I would assume it’s close to half—then they should be half the startup community in Omaha as well.”

Getting to half might sound like a tall order. It should sound ideal to Erica Wassinger, co-founder of the Startup Collaborative, an incubator space in downtown Omaha that gives startups a greater chance for success.

“The best thing in my career is partnering with male co-founders,” Wassinger says. “I think if more founding teams are male and female, you’ll have a lot of wins here.”

Wassinger credits Mark Hasebroock, founder of Dundee Venture Capital, as the “greatest feminist influence on my entire career.” He bet on her as startup founder, and proceeded to treat her just as he treated all of his other founders.

She has seen unintended bias that has been unintentionally harming. For example, a male employee might hesitate to invite a female coworker to join male colleagues at an after-work function.

“Yes, I am outnumbered…but I do really feel like I have a ton of male allies,” she says, adding that the key point is equality.

Wassinger’s solution seems simple enough. It involves treating people, male or female, with respect: “Just act like peers.”

Visit agiletransformation.com, dospace.org, and flywheel.com for more information about the companies noted in the article.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of B2B.

Erica Wassenger