Zuckerberg is one in a million. So why do people keep holding him up as a role model for women?
By Gina Bianchini, guest contributor
FORTUNE — Where is the female Mark Zuckerberg? I’ve heard this question a lot. Typically, a fair amount of hand-wringing comes with trying to answer it. There’s a reason that the question is hard to answer. It’s the wrong question.
As it turns out, there are very few male Mark Zuckerbergs. Starting consumer Internet companies is hard. Really hard. And if you look beyond the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, you’ll notice a pattern in entrepreneurial success stories that is different from what you see in the movies.
Many industry observers and venture capitalists talk about investing only in technical founders. I’ve heard people I respect say, essentially, “Don’t try to be a consumer Internet entrepreneur unless you can code.” Despite being a three-time founder who has helped build products used, collectively, by close to 100 million people around the world, I’ve occasionally wondered if I, because of my educational background, chose an impossible path. I have a BA in political science from Stanford, plus an MBA.
I went to the data, and then I realized that perception is not reality. I looked at the entrepreneurs I know beyond Zuckerberg at Facebook and Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google GOOG . What is the background of social and consumer technology founders, my peer group? Are they more technical than I am? And by the way, did they get it right on their first try, or did they fail first and try again?
If you disregard gender, they actually look a lot more like me than like Mark Zuckerberg, who was a computer science major at Harvard when he started Facebook (and still codes to this day). Other iconic entrepreneurs have backgrounds that could well have led them anywhere except the Internet. Zynga’s Mark Pincus was an economics major at the University of Pennsylvania. Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley has a BA in advertising from Syracuse University. Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon, majored in music at Northwestern, for heaven’s sake. Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who co-founded online retailer Gilt Groupe, majored in romance languages at Harvard before earning her MBA there. Gilt co-founders Kevin Ryan and Alexis Maybank also traveled the non-tech route.
If Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and Bill Gates are the pattern creators, Steve Jobs may be the best counter-evidence to the creation myth. He didn’t study computer science during his brief time at Reed College. He didn’t need to be an ace at coding. Instead, he relentlessly and passionately focused on products. He marketed. He sold. He inspired. He challenged. He succeeded. He failed. He kept going. Then, he succeeded again. These are the true characteristics of a successful entrepreneur in the consumer Internet space. And there is nothing stopping women from performing just as well as men.
While it’s true that women don’t sit in the upper echelons of the corporate universe — and I’ll let others speculate on why that is — I know this about succeeding as a consumer Internet entrepreneur: The key is to focus on the data and bury the stereotypes that signal to women that the game is not for us.
Gina Bianchini recently launched Mightybell, a social platform that lets users create and organize content in a step-by-step format. She is the co-founder and former CEO of Ning.