News Stories · Digital - Disruption - Start-up

IMD MBA and EMBA alumnae are bridging the digital gender gap one tech startup at a time

CEOs Aike Festini, Sibongile Manganyi-Rath and Lara Pierce are breaking gender barriers by leading firms that focus on disruptive innovation.
March 2021

 - IMD Business School


It’s no secret that the tech sector has a difficult time attracting and retaining female employees.

Women are missing at many levels of the industry – from technical specialists to C-suite executives to seed-funding recipients.

As the percentage of employed women across all job sectors in the US has grown over the years, the five largest tech companies on the planet (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) only have a workforce of about 34.4% women. The exception is Netflix, where 47 % of employees are female.

There are many reasons explaining why women are less present in the industry, from universities failing to attract enough female engineering students to the fact that women own less than 10% of startups worldwide – and tech disruption is where the top startups are at.

Women can solve problems, too

One area to focus on is getting women involved “in the very design stage of the solutions that technology has allowed us to leverage,” in the eyes of alumna Sibongile Manganyi-Rath (EMBA 2018), who co-founded two digital health startups that are revolutionizing local healthcare in South Africa.

“There seems to be an unconscious acceptance that tech needs a strong masculine mind to solve problems,” she said. “Once the solutions have been found by men, companies feel they can be managed by women – as they scramble to window-dress diversity gaps in public.”

Having suffered discrimination as a woman in a traditionally male field, Manganyi-Rath is set to turn the tides with brainchild Alma Clinics; a new type of nurse-led clinic based on a savvy digital platform called ABEOCARE that tracks and monitors patient information. It is a comprehensive system unlike any other worldwide; in addition to housing visitors’ full medical history, ABEOCARE stores their information on prescriptions, appointments and medical advice.

Taking on the challenge

Fellow alumna Aike Festini (EMBA 2016) has succeeded in reversing a second unconscious bias that has infiltrated the tech field: that certain jobs are “too challenging” for women.

She is the Founder and CEO of LuckaBox, a web-based, multi-carrier shipping solution for eCommerce and multichannel retailers. It is designed to streamline the last-mile process, with software offering a vast number of integrations that allow retailers to import and process orders automatically from their most popular sales channels and shopping carts.

However, Festini says she has not suffered much discrimination due to gender.

“In my circle of tech entrepreneurs, I don’t see much of a problem because we women running these types of companies are very determined,” she said. “We simply don’t care and don’t let anyone stand in our way.”

She does admit that, rarely, some overly patriarchal SMEs have been hesitant to work with her female-led company – but only at first.

“I find that in general, even when I am the sole woman among a hundred men, they are more curious than anything else and find a woman’s deep knowledge in logistics – a typically male industry – refreshing,” Festini stated.

Despite Festini’s positive experience today, Manganyi-Rath feels the sins of the past have contributed to the present digital gender gap.

“Historically, women have been excluded from technical work opportunities under the guise that they are too challenging,” she said. “This has resulted in fewer women participating in the important decisions that have shaped the world we live in today.”

The importance of both hard and ‘soft’ roles

Being a female CEO of a tech company is still unusual, but it provides unique opportunities, says Lara Pierce (MBA 2014): “I focus a lot on communication skills in product and engineering, and have no concerns about gaps in employment (due to parental leave), so I tend to end up with more women on the team than in similar companies.”

Pierce is the CEO of Curbside SOS, “the Uber of roadside assistance” that is currently in pilot mode in the US state of Michigan. The venture aims to improve the safety and security of roadside assistance in the US with an app that puts drivers and police in touch with local tow-away services.

“What I love about Curbside SOS is that it’s pushing boundaries with disruptive innovation,” said Pierce, who enjoys the unpredictability of the start-up world despite its challenges.

For Manganyi-Rath, every role – from CEO to sales assistant – counts.

“Indeed, we women do need to take up what are deemed soft roles in sales and HR, but I believe this excludes women in the ideation process of important decisions that eventually shape the future of companies and products,” she said.

Pierce is especially dedicated to ensuring women are involved in every stage, at every level: “We include women at the heart of product development to better represent women users, and to form a more well-rounded understanding of the problems in the market that our product solves.”

Festini echoes the words of Susan Wojcicki, the 16th Google employee and current CEO of YouTube, who is widely regarded as the most powerful woman in tech: “Tech is an incredible force that will change our world in ways we can’t anticipate. If that force is only 20 to 30% women, that is a problem.”

As more and more organizations embrace diversity, equity and inclusion principles, the untapped potential of having women operating at all levels of the tech industry will certainly be revealed – closing the digital gender gap once and for all.