Bobbie Carlton 86 A Tech Game-Changer

In Boston, when you say the name “Bobbie,” most people in the tech start-up space know who you mean.

You mean Bobbie Carlton ’86, of course: ultimate networking pro, founder of three successful ventures, and champion for advancing women in tech.

Named to the Boston Business Journal’s Women to Watch in 2015, and listed in 2010 as one of the 10 Bostonians who have done the most for the start-up community, Carlton didn’t set out to work in tech, or as an entrepreneur. A TV-R major with concentrations in advertising/PR and audio engineering at Ithaca, Carlton moved to Boston after graduation and got a job writing catalog copy for Deerskin Trading Post. “I learned more about leather and shearling moccasins than I’d ever wanted to know,” she joked.

Carlton soon found her way into high-tech PR, where she held increasingly prominent roles in PR agencies and tech companies for close to 20 years. In 2006, as she was considering her next move, she did something a bit out of her comfort zone: she joined a start-up, the Beacon Street Girls, which produced a social network and book series for pre-teen girls.

It was kismet, and Carlton’s entrepreneurial streak was sparked.

In 2008, she started her own boutique marketing and PR firm and soon wanted to find a way to “experiment with social media without experimenting on a client.” So she founded Mass Innovation Nights, a forum for monthly collaborative product launch and networking events.  

Carlton’s idea was simple: use social media to create buzz and visibility to help both start-ups and mature companies launch new products. And it worked. Since 2009, there have been more than 100 Mass Innovation Nights, which have helped launch nearly 1,000 new products that represent more than $2.1 billion in funding. They have held an event every month since they began, and Carlton has attended nearly all of them. (She had to excuse herself from the November 2011 Innovation Night when she accepted a Mass High Tech All-Star Award in recognition of her work.)

As Mass Innovation Nights grew, so, too did Carlton’s speaking engagements at conferences and events, where she continued to witness issues related to the lack of women in tech.  

She recalled the time she was asked to speak on a panel about HTML5. She was invited by a colleague who had heard her speak and thought she’d be a great addition to the panel. The problem, Carlton said, was that she didn’t know a thing about HTML5.  

“When I got out of college, I thought ‘that gender thing’ was my mom’s generation,” Carlton said. “But so much of it is unconscious bias.”

She wanted to change all of that. She had created a work culture at Carlton PR and Marketing that prioritized flexible hours, part-time work schedules, and other benefits that might be attractive to working mothers. But she wanted to do more. So in 2014 she created an online speakers’ bureau, Innovation Women, to connect event managers with women in the field, giving women more opportunities for speaking engagements, ultimately bringing more gender equity to tech conferences and events.  

As she reflected on her career, Carlton said her Ithaca education has served her well, irrespective of the changing media and technology over the last 30 years. “Having the foundation and understanding of how media works definitely prepared me for how social media works,” she said. “It’s really just another tool for communicating.”

Ithaca continues to be a constant presence in Carlton’s world. At her firm, her team includes her husband, Nat Hefferman ’87, Kristen Avini ’92, and Dillon Watson ’17, as well as Hannah Byron ’19, who interned with Carlton last summer.

In all of the professional roles and opportunities she has had, Carlton said she is proudest of the communities she has built to support Innovation Nights and Innovation Women. “We create to solve a problem,” she said. “We build community.”