Mentor-pairing service Everwise wants to elevate women in tech

April 7, 2016 Updated: April 7, 2016 4:54pm
Julia Cline, director - product management Rubicon, stands for a portrait at the Rubicon office on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Julia Cline, director - product management Rubicon, stands for a portrait at the Rubicon office on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California.

Amy Fox has worked in tech for a half-dozen years. In that time, she’s always worked for a man. Lately, though, she’s gotten to spend time in a room full of female leaders.

That experience is unusual in Silicon Valley’s male-dominated work world. Women comprise 23 percent of leadership positions in the tech field, according to a 2014 study by research firm Statista.

There is, however, an established way to address this: mentorships. Matching junior employees with seasoned executives has proven it can propel women in their careers. But studies show that women have a harder time finding mentors than men do.

For Fox, the director of strategic partnerships at Lyft, the fix is proving to be Everwise, a San Francisco company whose women-centric professional-development program has received attention for how it uses algorithms to pair workers with compatible mentors.

Some business experts believe the mentorship gap exists because of a lack of matchmaking programs and other institutional support in companies. A 2011 LinkedIn survey of women found that of those who reported never having had a mentor at work, more than half said it was because they had never met anyone appropriate.

A gender imbalance among a company’s managers can hinder women’s advancement up the ranks, experts say.

“If you’re an older male executive and you start spending a lot of time with a young woman, especially if she’s attractive, you start getting a whole lot of flak for it — whether or not anything inappropriate is actually going on,” said Myra Strober, a labor economist and Stanford professor. “Getting around that perception when you want to institute a mentorship program for women, that’s hard.”

Mike Bergelson, co-founder and chief executive of Everwise, said he began looking into research about the gender and racial disparity that exists in tech in 2014 as the conversation about diversity in the industry heated up and companies began releasing demographic data.

“Many industries right now are having conversations about a lack of diversity and inclusion,” said Bergelson. “But studies have shown if you have diverse and inclusive leaders, more diversity will follow. We need to have more women leaders, we need to have more professionals of color. But people often don’t put equal energy into developing and pushing folks who don’t look like them.”

Women first

Julia Cline, director of product management at Rubicon Labs, works on her computer in the office. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Julia Cline, director of product management at Rubicon Labs, works on her computer in the office.

He decided to zero in on women to start. Everwise said other programs tailored to other marginalized groups are still in development.

“There’s that marzipan layer right below general manager and senior leadership — that’s where the workplace gender balance tends to fall off the cliff,” Bergelson said. “So we decided that, right there, that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

In the EverwiseWomen program, which combines a variety of professional development methods into a yearlong process aimed at mid-level women on the rise in their respective fields, the mentors — who can be men — do not work at the same companies participants do.

Most don’t even live in the same city.

They hold virtual meetings via video chat and phone calls. And in the event they meet for coffee, no one around the office is left to whisper or wonder what’s going on.

“By connecting people across companies and across industries, there is no moment where someone walks in on Fred and Sara in a coffee shop and sees them sitting there and jumps to conclusions — which is absurd anyway — but with our program, we just avoid that altogether,” Bergelson said.

Mentors and proteges are paired up using Everwise’s blend of data pulled from the individuals’ resumes, LinkedIn profiles, extended questionnaires and a personal interview with Everwise staff.

“I’ve had mentors in the past, but (Everwise) came out with a mentor who was just so spot on, I could hardly believe it,” said Julia Cline, director of product management at San Francisco’s Rubicon Labs. “It almost looked like he had written what he likes to focus on with me, specifically, in mind.”

All mentors are volunteers. More than 76 percent are director-level or above, and more than half work for Fortune 500 companies, Everwise said. They hail from 120 industries and more than 70 countries. More than 90 percent of those cleared to take on a new protege ask for one immediately. No mentor is allowed more than one protege at a time.

EverwiseWomen, which is midway through its first cohort in the Bay Area, will launch one more in April and another in May. Each is capped at 50 women.

Of course, there is no shortage of career-development programs in the Bay Area.

Conference-goers bedecked with badges regularly congregate in downtown San Francisco. Popular bars get shut down for networking events. Workspaces host lunchtime seminars. And even fun events like PowerPoint improv end up being one more chance to swap business cards.

But participants said they’ve never experienced a program that has combined practical advice that they can put to work tomorrow with the freedom of being surrounded by female professionals who “get it.”

“I come from a hardware engineering background and there just aren’t a lot of women once you get into leadership — it’s kind of a sad numbers game, so you’re just not going run into all that many peers at a senior level,” Cline said. “Being in those women-only settings is nice because it’s not just a bunch of women, it really is a group of peers whose knowledge and experience really helps everyone else in the group along. It’s an open space where you can bring your ideas and concerns and questions to in a way that I don’t know I would be comfortable doing with people I work with every day.”

Connecting with similarly positioned women across industries or from different backgrounds is what Everwise calls “building your own board of advisers.”

Fox said she’s been encouraged to seek mentors and was given an internal career coach at Lyft. But the experience of receiving feedback from outside the company where she has worked for six years has allowed her to see her career with new eyes.

Her mentor is also a woman, which she said she specifically requested.

“It was less about having a woman mentor as much as in my professional career I’ve always only had male managers,” Fox said. “So being able to get a different perspective and advice from someone whose brain, broadly speaking, just works a little differently is really fantastic.”

For Bergelson, the problem Everwise is solving hits uncomfortably close to home. In 2014, when Everwise released its diversity numbers, Bergelson found women made up 14 percent of the company’s leadership at a vice president level or or higher.

“I was particularly alarmed by those numbers,” said Bergelson, who credits his female colleagues with doing the heavy lifting behind the EverwiseWomen program. “A diverse leadership team makes companies more successful.”

Many tech firms

And it may make Everwise successful, too. Local tech companies like Salesforce, Lyft, Oracle and Zendesk pay at least $125 per month per employee to enroll in Everwise’s training and development programs.

The EverwiseWomen program costs a little more and is open to companies and individuals — though individuals have to get the expressed endorsement of their company to join.

Since the program launched, there has been a waitlist.

“In tech and startups, everything moves so quickly and there are so many really pressing priorities, that creating these peer groups for women who are established, successful people in the workforce a lot of the time just doesn’t take priority because everyone is busy, everyone has so much else to do,” Fox said. “But this lets us carve out time and a space where you can really open up without worrying about all of that.”

Marissa Lang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mlang@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Marissa_Jae

Marissa Lang

Marissa Lang

Tech Culture Reporter