Dodging the Glass Ceiling: Women, Immigrants Flock to Start-Ups

The shift is a display of innovation in more ways than one

By Alyssa Oursler, InvestorPlace Contributor

Innovation is a buzzword in the business world, but it doesn’t just apply to creating hot new products. Progress is also important in the culture of business.

Women & DiversityJust look at women and minorities. The rethinking of norms has allowed these groups to make some impressive leaps in the corporate world. At the same time, they are still severely underrepresented at the highest levels; the glass ceiling is far from shattered.

Many members of these groups have opted out of climbing the corporate ladder only to bang their heads against this tough reality. Instead, they’re simply building their own companies from the ground up.

In a “Women to Watch” special on Bloomberg TV recently, a group of female executives — including Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) Vice President Carolyn Everson — discussed this phenomenon, and cheered the number of women starting tech companies.

Females are flocking to the field and are finding no shortage of opportunity or funding when it comes to Web-based start-ups, even as there remains a clear shortage of female CEOs at big-name businesses (despite tokens like Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and IBM‘s (NYSE:IBM) Virginia Rometty).

Jessica Herrin, who founded fashion site Stella & Dot, was one participant in the talk.

“I fundamentally believe that venture capitalists are interested in good business ideas,” she said.” They’ll take you, whether you’re — whatever color, whatever gender. They’ll take you if your idea is sound and solid.”

And women aren’t the only ones with promising representation in the tech world. Nearly a quarter of engineering and technology start-ups have at least one immigrant founder, a recent study found, while that number jumps to nearly 45% in Silicon Valley.

But this shift does more than change the complexion of the company photo. More immigrants, women and minorities in key roles mean different perspectives — and more innovation on the business end.

Venture capitalist Theresia Gouw Ranzetta from Accel Partners, whose investments include Imperva (NYSE:IMP) and Trulia (NYSE:TRLA), for example, said she is seeing more male founders “explicitly looking to bring women into the executive or founding team” for that very reason.

In the tech world especially, being a woman can actually be seen as a competitive advantage — it is inherent insider information. Ranzetta posits that companies are essentially saying: “You know, two-thirds of my users, my most valuable users are women. We’ve got to get a woman into the boardroom here, right?”

This mindset is hardly exclusive to the start-up world, of course. Many have suggested that Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) should explicitly play her gender card, and use it to shape the struggling company’s identity by focusing on e-commerce efforts appealing to a female audience.

Even beyond gender, though, the bottom line remains the same for innovation: A new perspective is always helpful.

Indeed, the preponderance of immigrants starting their own companies — especially as the issue of immigration gets a spotlight during the election — has many concerned about innovation in the U.S. As the authors of the aforementioned study put it, “High-skilled immigrants will remain a critical asset for maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”

But other countries are becoming more appealing start-up environments, and many are pushing for the U.S. to crack down on illegal immigration, so those high-skilled immigrants may no longer be flocking to Silicon Valley, much less America.

Vivek Wadhwa, for one, sounds this alarm in his book The Immigrant Exodus, saying that the U.S. “has left some of the most educated and talented entrepreneurial immigrants with no choice but to take their innovation elsewhere.”

Some innovative solutions have been suggested, of course, such as an entrepreneurial visa encouraging immigrants to bring their new ideas here.

But either way, one thing is clear: Staying inside the lines doesn’t get women and minorities to the top, and it doesn’t get America to the top.

The number of women and immigrants ditching the corporate ladder and doing things their own way, though, is indeed a promising start.

As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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