published on January 29, 2016 - 11:38 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Following a year of major growth and expansion in the Fresno technology scene, a new trend is emerging and setting the local industry apart from many of the state’s larger markets — the strong representation of women.

From startups to major technology groups, the number of women involved in the Central Valley technology scene is growing nearly on pace with the industry’s overall labor force expansion and narrowing gender gap.

Bitwise Industries, one of the region’s most visible organizations, boasts a workforce with 38 percent women, and 68 percent minorities, said Irma Olguin Jr., cofounder and chief technology officer of the group. 

Those numbers are also reflected in her own software company, Edit LLC, and its two subsidiaries, Buildicus and Montage.  The companies offer a host of software programs and data storage solutions for Web developers and are based in the new Bitwise South Stadium building in Downtown Fresno.  

While the number of women in Bitwise and Edit’s workforce still has room to grow, the groups are faring much better than the industry’s overall average. 

Women accounted for just 26 percent of the nations computing workforce in 2014, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. 

Top California technology companies like Google and Intel mirror that national average, reporting workforces with 27.8 percent and 23.8 percent women gender respectively, according to a 2015 study by Fortune magazine. 

But while more established tech hubs such as Silicon Valley have struggled with gender diversity for years, Olguin said Fresno’s technology scene is in the unique position of forging its own path. 

“Women in tech are severely underrepresented. What’s cool about [Fresno] is that we get to build our own culture from the ground up,” she said. “We can start at the beginning.”

That optimism is also reflected in the region’s startup culture, which has proven inclusive of women-owned businesses. 

“I’ve seen some really amazing strides all over for closing the gender gap on gender in the industry, and in Fresno, the environment is really great,” said Kelly Lamb, CEO and founder of peer-to-peer delivery service app Helpfulist. 

Her startup has a total of seven employees — five women and two men — and is looking to add student interns as it gears up for its summer launch. 

The group is in the midst of a branding and fundraising campaign for the app, which seeks to coordinate independent contractors and small businesses with users interested in a wide range of services. 

While the concept is not new, other services like TaskRabbit and Angie’s List offer similar elements, Lamb said her version would take the legwork out of searches by consolidating a variety of lifestyle services in one place.  

Neither Lamb nor cofounder Brittany Collymore has a background in technology, but the pair has taken advantage of community workspaces like the Hashtag, a program launched by Olguin in 2011 to learn from fellow entrepreneurs and connect with mentors. 

“I had this business idea, which was inspired by me being a mom, so I took it to the Hashtag,” Lamb said. “There are so many people there that are willing to help and give advice, it was great.”

Helpfulist is now applying to be a virtual tenant at Bitwise South Stadium. The membership will allow the group access to the facility’s kitchen, lounges, conference rooms and collaborative workspaces. 

“It’s really a family environment,” Lamb said. “They’re really building a strong community.”

The welcoming environment was created with everyone in mind, but has proven especially powerful in helping to connect with women, Olguin said. 

Rather than focusing on women’s-only events or programs, her groups have instead relied on communication, spreading the word about new tech opportunities and resources to anyone who will listen.

“The barrier for entry into the tech industry is very low. Anyone can make a startup. It’s just a matter of putting the time in and learning new skills, and to do that, you have to feel comfortable in the environment,” Olguin said.  “Because of that message getting out, now you’re starting to see more diverse startups in the area.”

While the Hashtag has helped encourage fledgling talent to stay the course, other programs are in place to recognize individuals with skills that stand out. By inviting more experienced coders to teach a class or lead a discussion at Bitwise, Olguin said the group is able to shine a spotlight on local men and women who have the potential to serve as mentors. 

The practice is used to help draw both genders further into the local tech scene, but has proven beneficial for building up the female workforce since it allows others to see a woman in a leadership role.

That type of exposure is important for women pursuing careers in tech since individuals who feel comfortable are more likely to stay in the industry, accruing the necessary experience to climb higher within the workforce, Olguin said.  

Addressing that need is an important step in helping to ensure gender diversity reaches all levels of the industry. Fortune magazine’s 2015 study found women accounted for 16 percent of leadership positions at Google and Intel, showing the gender gap widens as one progresses up the corporate ladder. 

While the industry as a whole has a lot of ground to cover before closing the gender gap in leadership, women like Lamb, Collymore and Olguin have managed to buck the trend by striking out on their own ventures. 

Their initiative sets an important precedent as Fresno’s technology scene grows and ultimately helps set the Central Valley apart from many other industry hubs.  

“Fresno isn’t like any other place and we don’t want it to be like any other place,” Olguin said. “By having a welcome sign to anybody and everybody, we are making a very strong tech ecosystem for the future.”

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