Highlights: 2015 Geek Girl Tech Conference

Move over Barbie---there’s a new girl in town, and she’s just as likely into computers as she is designer jeans. That is the message that Gina Heitkamp, co-founder of the startup iBesties.com wants to give to young girls, and what better place to spread that message than at the 2015 Geek Girl Technology Conference held at the University of California, San Diego on June 20th.

Heitkamp was one of approximately 400 women---and a small cohort of men---who participated in the conference. Originally started seven years ago by CEO Leslie Fishlock as a way to help women feel more comfortable with technology, the conference has grown into a major event with speakers from around the country and training sessions that range from email marketing to website coding to best practices for Instagram.  There are also sessions (playfully known as the Sharkette Tank) where founders present their ideas, compete for gifts, and receive constructive criticism from venture capitalists.

Gina Heitkamp was one of these founders, braving the waters to pitch the company she believes in so passionately. Her message: “We tell young girls they can be anything they want to be, but then we don’t give them the tools to do it.” Heitkamp did well, impressing the judges with both her presentation and her product.

Specifically, iBesties will offer girls an alternative to dolls currently on the market.  Heitkamp says that unlike Barbie---a doll that depicts a young woman in her 20s with the body of a swimsuit fashion model---their doll “represents a middle school girl, with minimal makeup, cool but modest outfits, and a rounder childlike body.”  Although promoting a  healthier, more realistic body image is one of the company’s goals, iBesties’  primary focus is to provide young girls with a roadmap for building careers, especially in technology.   

It’s a need that is not being met, according to the company’s co-founders. They say it’s good that toy makers like Mattel have recognized many girls today want to be engineers, astronauts, and entrepreneurs, but they believe the companies have addressed this shifting trend at a superficial level.  It’s not enough to put a white coat on the doll, hand her a stethoscope, and call her a doctor, suggests Heitkamp. “What we do is show the girls how to prepare for those careers---what skills are needed and how to acquire those skills.”

Looks like the new startup is well on its way.  In May of 2014, iBesties won the University of California, Irvine’s Business Plan Competition, which infused the company with $15K in seed money. Considering the win a “proof of concept,” Gina and her sister Jenae mustered-up their courage and took the leap---quitting their jobs to work on the company full-time.   They recently began a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising another $50K by late July, 2015.

iBesties’ timeline is not for the faint of heart. By early October of this year, its co-founders plan to be fulfilling orders for their products and possibly living in China to oversee the manufacturing of the first product run.  Looking out six months, they plan to have their distribution strategy in place, along with purchase orders from major retailers and independent stores. They will also continue to develop their digital content to support the “edutainment” side of the business.  

Excitement at the Geek Girl Conference was not limited to the battle among Sharkette Tank contestants, however.  One exhibitor drawing attention was Tabitha Sukhai, CEO of thesnug.com---a new content hub for sharing DIY and decor inspiration. Using high-quality content from edited publications like People, Real Simple, This Old House and Southern Living, the site provides directions on how to do everything from making a barn door cover for a wall-mounted TV to building a mini-Mason Jar aquarium for the kids. Sukhai says that the site also engages users, inviting them to join thesnug.com community and post their stories alongside their favorite content creators.

Users appear to be excited.  The company launched in January of 2015 and their numbers are impressive.  They have grown to over 600,000 monthly unique users and are experiencing an average 20% month-over-month growth rate. ​

Sukhai’s story is interesting as well. She began 15 years ago as an intern at Teen People and worked her way up to a position with This Old House, part of the Time/Warner conglomerate.  The idea for thesnug.com simmered on the back burner for quite a while, says Sukhai. “For about 8 to 10 years it was ‘wouldn’t this be cool?’ and then suddenly it was GO-GO-GO!”  

Taking a concept and getting it “green-lighted” within an organization (unofficially known as becoming an “intrapreneur”) is not an easy feat, admits Sukhai. She says that as a digital startup being incubated within a 100-year-old publishing house, she faced some difficult challenges---agility being the greatest problem.

Difficulties aside, the success of thesnug.com suggests that creating a startup doesn’t have to be done alone. It can sometimes happen within an existing organization and should be an option for entrepreneurs to consider.

The conference highlighted numerous other technology experts, among them Sheila Oliver of SROTrainer, who gave a dynamic hands-on workshop on the blogging platform Wordpress and demonstrated to those in attendance how to bring a new blog to life right before their very eyes.

Also impressing the audience was Kelsey Chase of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most prestigious startup law firms.  He showed an enthusiastic gathering of female founders how to give an “elevator pitch” guaranteed to turn heads and garner attention from angels and VCs.

As the 2015 Geek Girl Conference came to a close, several participants reflected on what in particular had inspired them.  For Gina Heitkamp it was “seeing multiple generations of women coming together and building a better foundation for the young business leaders of tomorrow.”

Fast forward 20 years and that business leader might well be Sage, the daughter of Leslie Myrell.  Myrell is Vice President of Mogl, a venture-backed restaurant rewards company, who participated in the event with her young daughter happily in tow.  According to Myrell, “Sage is 6 months old and a future Geek Girl.”

Mada Seghete, co-founder of Branch Metrics, a mobile growth company that provides deep linking and analytics for mobile apps, was moved by, “Seeing so many girls and women who were interested in technology and determined to succeed and make a change in the world.”

Geek Girl founder and CEO, Leslie Fishlock,  shared her special moments as well.  One was that so many teams came to participate in the Sharkette Tank competition. She was also extremely proud of the 75 free scholarships (sponsored by New Relic) that were given to children from underserved schools in the area.  But her highlight was Brenda VanDeVen, the 59-year-old grandmother who was so inspired by the first Geek Girl conference she went back to school and recently graduated with a degree in computer science. “Brenda’s story is the Geek Girl story,” says Fishlock, “never too old or too young to start to learn to code or to get into tech!”

As for iBesties’  little doll with the big glasses and even bigger ambition? She walked away from the Sharkette tank with first prize.  So in 12 months, don’t be surprised to see her on store shelves, online platforms, and---if Gina Heitkamp has her way---even starring in her own animated series.

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