Computer Science 101 ruined Kristen Miller’s perfect GPA.
She was close to finishing her degree at the University of Illinois but had been putting off the required class. A psychology major with a 4.0 GPA throughout her college career, Miller finished the class with a “C” that broke her streak.
“I felt like it was this language that was indecipherable to me, that I could not understand and I felt like anyone that was a technologist was a magician,” Miller said at an event at Microsoft this week. “They knew how to do these amazing things and because I couldn’t speak the language it was inaccessible to me.”
That was her last computer science class, but it certainly wasn’t the end of her time in the tech world.
Today, Miller is the CEO of Stylyze, a Seattle-based software-as-a-service startup focused on the home décor and interior design industries. Miller is a serial entrepreneur dating back to her college days, and she’s already founded four companies throughout her career.
Miller is one of more than 30 female entrepreneurs that have gone through the Microsoft Cloud Accelerator Program, an initiative led by Women in Cloud, Microsoft and cross-industry collaboration company Ideagen. The organizations announced today plans to expand the program to eight additional countries. The accelerator completed its first-ever cohort in Seattle and in the fall will launch programs in New York City and Chicago.
Miller’s path into the tech world is emblematic of the issues facing the tech industry when it comes to diversity. She didn’t feel comfortable in a computer science class as her first exposure to the technology world. There’s no telling how many hard-wired entrepreneurs have been pushed away from tech due to intimidating barriers to entry.
Making STEM disciplines more welcoming for girls as early as elementary school is an important part of fixing the gender gap in tech, said Gretchen O’Hara, vice president of go to market strategy for Microsoft One Commercial Partner. Women are often pushed away from the field from a very young age or don’t stick with it as they move through high school and college and that needs to change, she said.
Miller took a circuitous route to becoming a tech startup CEO, getting there without any technical background. Her entrepreneurial chops led her to recognize the importance of cloud computing and data to solve problems in every industry. She surrounded herself with a strong engineering team, including CTO Sophie Huang, a long-time SaaS veteran who cut her teeth at IBM in the 1980s.
In her previous business, Miller offered sales, marketing and design services for general contractors. But the biggest challenge she saw in the industry was slogging through all the various resources to buy furniture to find pieces that complement each other.
Stylyze uses machine learning and other technology to recommend furniture and decor items based on pieces the homeowner already owns. Miller characterizes the company’s mission as “coding the brain of the designer,” using data to make it easier to search for and match products. The company has raised $2.8 million to date and has 20 employees.
Stylyze needed guidance on pricing and selling its service with a limited sales force. Miller said the accelerator helped the startup craft a go-to market strategy and figure out the science of landing deals with big enterprises.
The startups and their leaders that have gone through the Microsoft Cloud Accelerator Program cover a wide variety of industries and come from diverse backgrounds. Some have no tech background, while others have Microsoft and other big tech DNA and are setting out on their own for the first time.
Jill Angelo spent more than 15 years at Microsoft on the marketing and product side. While on a sabbatical, a former manager introduced her to Jacqui Brandwynne, a former Neutrogena executive who was working on a line of products for women’s hormonal health.
Angelo took the leap and quit her job, and today she is CEO of genneve, which offers an online clinic for women experiencing menopause in addition to its original line of health products. The 3-person Seattle startup now has 70,000 monthly active users and is working on a round of seed investment.
“We have a community platform where women can connect with other women because every woman goes through menopausal changes in her life and yet nobody talks about it,” Angelo said. “We’ve used this community to elevate the conversation to prepare women as they go into this phase of life.”
Angelo, who grew up on a cattle ranch in North Dakota, has worked for tech companies on the marketing side since she graduated college and has absorbed a lot via osmosis. When Angelo first heard about the program, she wasn’t sure her company would be a good fit because she already had that knowledge and access to Microsoft. Angelo primarily wanted connections and resources for bringing genneve to enterprises.
“When I got into the program, I realized how much I didn’t know,” Angelo said.
Angelo knew Microsoft offered plenty of cloud and AI tools to help startups, but the program taught her which ones make sense for her business. The program also helped with little things like negotiating with enterprises. She has since connected with Providence Health & Services and is talking with the organization about a potential partnership.
At Microsoft, Angelo was aware of the challenges women faced in the tech industry but said she never really experienced them herself.
Programs such as Women in Cloud help give women-led startups more opportunities, and they also keep the conversation going. Angelo argues that just knowing there’s a problem, and confronting the scope of it, is one of the most important parts of finding a solution.
“Until you either face the challenge or are made super aware of it, you’re just part of the system and you’re not doing anything to change it,” Angelo said. “Anytime Women in Cloud asks me to come speak, you bet I’m going to do that because that is something I can do and help bring awareness to women who might not know that they’re being hampered or pulled back.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been changed to better reflect the accelerator’s expansion to eight additional countries.