This piece by Editor and Writer Mike Wollschlager originally appeared on Connecticut Magazine online February 19, 2018.
It’s been widely reported in recent years that people are leaving our state in droves. Other than spending a little less time sitting in traffic, there are few positives one can take from that. The Connecticut Technology Council, a member-based organization that supports the tech ecosystem in Connecticut, is working on initiatives to not only keep people from leaving the state, but to attract people from beyond our borders to come here and join the workforce.
“The companies that are reaching out of state to find talent, once they identify the talent, the talent doesn’t want to move to Connecticut for all the reasons that you know—in terms of our state budget, the cost of living, the opportunities for a social life,” says Taylor Van Antwerp, the CTC’s manager of talent and workforce programs. “From the outside looking in, it doesn’t attract people.”
One of the initiatives the CTC hopes will help reverse this trend is the Women of Innovation awards, the council’s signature event which will be held at the Aqua Turf in Southington on March 28. “This is how we recognize and celebrate women tech or STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] leaders in Connecticut. Connecticut does have an amazing economy for tech companies and there are hundreds of women leading this workforce and it’s not always recognized,” Van Antwerp says.
While Connecticut companies haven’t experienced the reckoning of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in response to widespread sexual harassment on the level of Silicon Valley or Hollywood, that doesn’t mean the playing field is level within the state’s STEM industries. Rose Day, a winner of the CTC’s Connecticut Skills Challenge initiative while a student at the University of Hartford, has witnessed this first-hand. “You always get looked at differently. When I worked at iDevices [the Avon-based tech product firm] I was the only woman engineer that we had on staff, so at times people would forget I was there or not realize that a woman actually worked with them.”
Day, a Torrington native who attended Oliver Wolcott Tech before heading off to UHart, is now in graduate school at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After winning the skills challenge, she was asked to return to serve as a mentor the following year and is now on the committee that will select this year’s winners at the 14th annual Women of Innovation awards. “When the finalists are announced, we’re there at the end of it to say, ‘Hey, we’re the people here to support you. We’re the women already working in this area. … Women of Innovation also recognizes the younger students. It recognizes the kids in high school, it recognizes the college students and then it recognizes the women that are also out there in the workforce.”
Hartford has long been known as the Insurance Capital of the World, but its reputation as a tech hub is a new identity. A recent Brookings Institution report ranked Hartford No. 4 in the nation for technology. “The climate for women in Connecticut is relatively unknown. One, because no one thinks of Connecticut as a tech hub. But we are becoming a tech hub,” Van Antwerp says. “We have a great, supportive climate for women leadership and that continues to grow. There are several women-owned and/or women-led tech firms in Connecticut and I think we need to support that and celebrate that.”
Susan Froshauer, Yale entrepreneur in residence and a Women of Innovation finalist in 2005 and 2006, in addition to being a current committee member, is one of those women. “Connecticut is a place where I go to events and meetings and there’s always a bunch of women around the table,” Froshauer says. “When I was doing my own company, and certainly for years in the very early days at a place like Pfizer, that was not the case.” Froshauer lauded the extraordinary progress that has been made in our state, pointing out that women are leading companies and universities here at home and are down in Washington as legislative and congressional leaders.
She also extolled mentoring systems currently in place, in which women such as Janis Collins of Westport-based The Refinery, a business accelerator with a mission to fuel the growth and close the funding gap of women-led companies, are coaching female CEOs of start-up companies. “The funding step is often the problem, because women have historically had a hard time getting their companies funded. Since we have specific programs in Connecticut targeting that, we’re in really fine shape,” Froshauer says. “We have a lot of really wonderful women CEOs. When I did my company there were none, almost U.S. wide.”
Van Antwerp says the women-empowerment movement in Connecticut in STEM fields is quite strong. With events such as Women of Innovation, the CTC is hoping to promote that, and ensure continued growth in the future.
“I think CTC, with this event, has been out in front,” Froshauer says. “I don’t know how many states have events where they specifically recognize a broad spectrum of women with serious, high-end accomplishments in their professions. It’s wonderful; you just sort of sit there with your mouth open listening to what folks have done.”