Forget the glass ceiling, women are on nanotech’s ground floor

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Jan. 23, 2003 — The Massachusetts Nanotechnology Initiative has added a new element to the mix of law firms, technology councils and business associations that typically support nanotech conferences and events: women.

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Women Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (WEST), a nonprofit organization for innovative women scientists, engineers and executives, shared billing with the likes of the NanoBusiness Alliance, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and Lucash Gesmer and Updegrove LLP as sponsors of the initiative’s kickoff reception in Boston in mid-January.

WEST is among a handful of women’s professional and business groups that see nanotechnology playing a role in their members’ future. Some, like WEST, want to ensure women entrepreneurs get a foothold into an emerging industry while it is young and rife with opportunity. Others, like Women in Technology International (WITI), recognize nanotechnology offers tools that women business leaders and technologists can use to improve products, services and their bottom line.

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WEST and WITI go a step beyond the few nanotechnology-themed women’s campus groups by offering formal workshops, presentations and networking chances to professional women who are, or hope to become, business leaders. Their goals are not only to increase women’s representation in business and nanotechnology, but also to help women rise to the top.

“No one cared about what I called the nerdy, geeky women,” said Jiahong Juda, a physicist-turned-entrepreneur who co-founded WEST about two years ago. “The infrastructure wasn’t there.”

Numbers and naivety are among the stumbling blocks that impede women who want to convert scientific and technical expertise into enterprise, Juda said. According to the National Science Foundation, less than 15 percent of engineering doctorates awarded in 1999 went to women, and women earned only about 23 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences. Women fared better in the biological sciences, getting about 40 percent of the total Ph.D.s.

At the same time, women with entrepreneurial aspirations and talents lacked the support given their male counterparts. Part of WEST’s mission is to help women envision and act on possibilities like those developing in the evolving field of nanotechnology. “It’s not quite prime time,” Juda said, “so it’s the perfect time to start.”

Some states also are beginning to see women as an untapped resource for building their economies through innovation. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the organizing force behind the Massachusetts Nanotechnology Initiative, invited WEST and its 240 members to participate in the kickoff to encourage their involvement.

“They wanted to tap into this niche,” said Juda. About half of WEST’s members hold doctorates in science or engineering and live in the Boston area. “As a population, we’re well-educated but sometimes business clueless.”

The roughly 10,000-member Women in Technology International identified nanotechnology’s development as a trend to watch a few years ago and scheduled several regional nanotechnology workshops in 2002 to educate members. The topic has generated so much interest that WITI is considering devoting a segment of its conference in San Jose, Calif., in June to nanotechnology’s history and future, according to Susan Frate, WITI’s national event and conference director.

WITI expanded about three years ago from a network for women technologists to an organization for women who see technology as a critical part of their business success. It has 37 regional chapters in the United States, England, Australia and Mexico that tailor events to meet area members’ needs. The Dallas, Santa Clara and Chicago chapters scheduled workshops and discussions on nanotechnology in 2002. Those three cities are also hot spots for nanotechnology research, development and commercialization.

“This is a new area that has lots of opportunities,” said Yvonne Brown, a business consultant who helped organize the Chicago chapter’s nanotechnology presentation in July. The event included a talk by Vijaya Vasista, chief operating officer of Nanosphere Inc. in suburban Chicago. Nanosphere is a life sciences company that develops nanoscale biodetection devices. “Women need to be aware of what it is, and the opportunities.”

As chief executive and president of a consultancy called Ball of Gold Corp. that helps companies manage their knowledge and technology resources, Brown is attuned to the impact new technology can have on existing industries. She recognized nanotechnology offered broadly applicable approaches that women executives could exploit to give them, their clients or their companies a competitive edge. She also realized the emerging field could blindside women leaders and make their businesses obsolete if they didn’t prepare for change.

“An organization like WITI’s responsibility is to raise awareness as well as access so the number (of women business leaders) goes up,” Brown said. “… It is knowledge that makes members more valuable professionally.”

Women now make up about a quarter of the science and engineering work force in the United States, according to the National Science Foundation, and hold about 16 percent of top-ranking executive positions, the women’s advisory group Catalyst Inc. calculates. Nanotechnology may provide the leverage to bump those figures up a notch, advocates say.

“Women have a long way to go with critical mass,” Juda said. “The key is getting women in science and technology breaking ground in nanotechnology. The challenge is reaching out to them.”


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