Special contributor to Silicon Hills News
In November 2011, Sharp Skirts CEO Carla Thompson took on Forbes Woman with a blog entitled: Forbes Woman, You’re Doing it Wrong. Though Forbes had recently dubbed Sharp Skirts among the top ten sites for entrepreneurial women, she nailed the publication for its recent articles about the dangers of wearing sexy Halloween costumes and the propensity for pretty women to breed more.
Forbes, she pointed out, is a respected business publication.
“So why are they writing about naughty Halloween costumes? Or our breeding and shopping habits? I increasingly feel like I’m reading a copy of Look magazine, circa 1957.”
Forbes responded with a readers’ survey. The survey proved that Thompson’s objections were right on the money. The online magazine gave Thompson her props in its article How Big Media Gets Women in the Biz Beat Wrong.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is one example of how this Austin based organization for women entrepreneurs is poised to transform the way the media talks to women business owners.
Carla Thompson came from the technology world. She’d done public relations for tech firms both as an employee and as head of her own high tech PR company. Then one of her clients, Guidewire Group, hired her as a tech analyst. Her job sent her all over the world, talking with 300-to-500 emerging tech companies a year about their business models, their goals, their roadblocks. She had to attend lots of networking happy hours and workshops where—as a woman– she was seriously in the minority. Few of her female peers ever showed up for these events.
“I’d get calls from girlfriends, asking me questions about their businesses and I asked them ‘Why are you ladies not taking advantage of these events?’”
The answer launched Thompson on a mission. The women avoided events because they couldn’t really talk about their business issues and questions there. They already felt like their gender knocked them down several points on the credibility scale. To be taken seriously, women had to be more competent, more knowledgeable than their male counterparts. Hashing out why something wasn’t working or testing growth ideas in that setting wasn’t comfortable.
“Many women don’t want to profess ignorance around men in business, we feel like we already have the deck stacked against us,” Thompson said.
So why didn’t they attend women’s events?
Don’t get Thompson started.
Her biggest peeve is that events, publications, everything geared to women tends to detour into work/life balance, fashion and other girly topics. Men’s business events and publications never ask “What does your hairstyle say about you?”
At the time she hatched the idea of Sharp Skirts, Thompson was working for Chris Shipley, CEO of Guidewire, a company that supports entrepreneurs and emerging tech companies based in California. In May of 2010, they sadly parted ways and Thompson began her company to build an online network of women business entrepreneurs. The tagline: No Pink. No Platitudes. Just Success for Smart Women.
“She’s always had that passion, especially about women’s entrepreneurial businesses,” said Shipley, of Guidewire, who Thompson calls “the original Sharp Skirt.”
Sharp Skirts started with membership, forums and webinars where women could hash out business issues. One of the things Thompson realized early on was that, while women like face-to-face interaction, they only want to spare the time if there’s serious content involved.
“We had a forum discussion on the website. But that’s really hard to maintain, really hard to keep active and vibrant,” Thompson said. “The forums and the online community stayed active for four or five months then just dried up.”
She also produced webinars, but instead of recording the webinar and having it available, Sharp Skirts needed people to commit to a time, which is difficult. She intends to go back to webinars but do it differently next time. So here she is with a loyal 850 member organization that stretches across the U.S. and into Canada. What direction does she take next? She’s going to use her voice to change the way the world talks to women entrepreneurs. She plans to become a media brand: A smart, candid, business-focused source of solid content for women business owners.
“In 2011, I focused on shifting more to an event producer and a new media brand. There is an almost desperate need for smart, non patronizing content for women in business.”
“It’s so trite but so frigging true that you should follow your passion rather than follow a business trend,” Thompson said. “Ever since I was in high school, I have hated the media targeted to women…Oprah is a particular bane in my existence…. The intent of the Sharp Skirts blog was to write for women who care about more than mascara reviews.”
Many online publications for women—like Sugar Media Network—are festooned with pink, hearts and stars. They could easily, Thompson said, be construed as sites for teenage girls. Her ultimate goal is to effect change in the coverage of women.
“In general, treat them like the adults that they are.”
“She’s really calling out the standard way of thinking,” said Shipley
She’s also going to expand the events piece of her business. She recently launched a Sharp Skirts branch in Chicago which had 30 people at its first event. She has subscribers interested in starting Sharp Skirts organizations in other cities.
“This space is so hungry,” Thompson said. “There are 10,000 things that women in business need with the right kind of vibe and the right venue…. When we started having events in Austin I had people in the online community asking ‘When are you going to start having events in my city?’”
Thompson acknowledges a conundrum in her business model. The mascara and fashion items are what differentiate a lot of women’s content from men’s content. After all, stock prices and tech trends are the same no matter what your gender. Writing about networking in a gender specific way runs the risk of patronizing again. So how does one gear information to women without pigeonholing them?
“There’s a reason this problem hasn’t been solved,” Thompson said. “It’s a really thorny issue to wrestle with. Let’s just say I know how I want to be talked to. I’m trying to write how I want to be talked to and find other writers who do the same.”