Recognized as one of Upstate New York’s most vibrant and diverse commercial hubs, downtown Ithaca is home to scores of one-of-a-kind shops, eateries, entertainment venues, and personal care services, all within a walkable 22-block district full of character and historic charm. A less visible component of this tight-knit business community is a dynamic cluster of high-tech companies – and a closer look at this cohort reveals that it’s bucking a troubling national trend.
While the number of women-owned businesses in the United States has climbed steadily for decades, there is still a severe shortage of female leaders in the fast-growing sectors of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek reported that only 3 percent of technology startups are headed by women; the media company Women 2.0 proposes a hardly more robust figure of 5 percent.
These statistics might send a dispiriting message, especially to young women pursuing an education and career in the STEM fields. The good news is that there are a handful of emerging high-tech hotbeds across the country where this status quo is changing quickly – and downtown Ithaca is at the head of the pack with a substantial number of women at the helm of successful, cutting-edge enterprises.
According to Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “We like to think of our downtown as an incubator in its own right, with a diverse array of spaces and amenities for startups of all kinds. Technology businesses thrive in small but cosmopolitan downtowns like Ithaca’s and we are committed to nurturing the entrepreneurs in our community – especially those who are underrepresented in the workforce.”
Elisa Miller-Out is CEO of Singlebrook Technology, a web and mobile software company with headquarters on South Cayuga Street and satellite offices in Boulder and Boston. With clients including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Social Venture Network, Singlebrook is a certified Benefit Corporation with a strong emphasis on social and environmental responsibility. Says Miller-Out, “We’ve been able to keep our overhead costs much lower than they would be in a big city. The quality of life, the beautiful surroundings, and the vibrant community are what drew us to Ithaca.”
Christine Houseworth is Founder and President of BSU Incorporated, a contract assembly manufacturer of industrial, medical, and military products on East State Street. Houseworth, along with Vice President Denver Jones started BSU in 1989 when they discovered a niche – it was difficult to find a supplier capable of performing highly technical work in lower volumes. For Houseworth, the community’s recruitment potential was key: “Downtown Ithaca was a natural center point for me and Denver, allowing us to draw from the surrounding communities to build our excellent team of 40 employees.”
Heather Healey, Ph.D. is Senior Energy Engineer at TRC Energy Services. With offices across from the historic State Theatre on West State Street, TRC designs and manages programs for a broad range of governmental, commercial, and industrial clients throughout the northeast with the objective of reducing energy costs, lowering emissions, and improving health and safety. Says Healey, “TRC has had an office in downtown Ithaca for over six years. The focus of our work is energy efficiency and there is a lot of support for this kind of work in this community.”
When asked what words of wisdom she would give future female engineers, Heather Healey advises, “The most important ingredient for success is finding a mentor – someone who you’d like to be when you grow up.” Elisa Miller-Out adds, “Don’t be afraid to shout it from the rooftops! As women in this field, we have an extra responsibility to be seen, heard, and represented.” Concludes Christine Houseworth, “We have come a long way, but it still requires perseverance. No matter what, no one should give up on their dreams.”