Aliza Sherman is not easily intimidated. In the mid-nineties, she faced down a group of gun-wielding kidnappers, dove headlong into the relatively unexplored world of HTML and web design, and, without start-up capital, single-handedly overcame the odds to create one of the first online communities for women—Cybergrrl. That last feat was no small one, given the fact that, as Sherman puts it, "no one believed that women would ever go online." Debuting in 1995, Cybergrrl quickly grew to include Webgrrls, a real-world networking community for women with over 100 chapters worldwide, and Femina, a searchable database of online information concerning women.

Fast forward to 2000. Although Sherman contends that five years in Internet time is roughly 50 years in real time, she believes that many of the challenges involved in creating online products for a niche market have remained the same. On April 26, at a lecture sponsored by the Wharton Diversity Task Force and Wharton Women in Business, Sherman discussed her latest adventure in cyberspace: Co-founding eViva, a bilingual web site for Hispanic women professionals. "It’s a different year, but it’s the same question all over again," Sherman says. "People keep asking, ‘Why build a web site for Hispanic women?’"

For several reasons, replies Sherman. First, however, is the ability to provide a needed service for a specific community. When finding a niche, merely locating a "good market" for a product is not enough, in Sherman’s opinion. "You need to add value to that community, and then you can enlist the community to help you build the right thing," she says. That is something Sherman learned while growing her business at Cybergrrl—something she has taken with her and that will define the way eViva does its business.

When Sherman began developing web sites, for example, she felt that there must be other women like herself online, but she had no market data to prove it. To avoid discrimination in the then-male-dominated tech world, she called her business "CG Internet Media," instead of Cybergrrl, mainly using the Cybergrrl web site as a "calling card" for her web design capabilities. Eventually the site took off, offering women access to job and lifestyle information that pertained specifically to them. Webgrrls followed, and Femina (the women’s database) was created by Sherman after she entered "women" into Yahoo’s search engine and came up with a listing of X-rated sites.

Still, the battle to prove to others—sponsors, mainly—that her market existed continued. When she approached Lifetime Television about a possible partnership, for instance, they responded that they didn’t do Internet programming because "no women were on the net." Many of the male investors she approached had the same hesitation. Sponsors finally came around when larger, investor-backed women-oriented sites, such as i-Village,, and Oxygen were launched, but by that point the major capital for women’s sites was largely used up.

In November last year, Sherman decided to leave Cybergrrl with what she had learned about starting an Internet business to begin a new project. She and a new business partner first thought they could offer a more global network for professional women. Remembering the lessons she had learned about the power of tapping into underrepresented populations from her days at Cybergrrl, Sherman refined the focus to domestic Spanish-speaking professional women—for whom at present there is virtually no representation on the web. Whereas only 50% of professional Latinas have computers at home, the majority do have web access at work, Sherman says. Citing a statistic that Hispanic women in this country are starting craft and service businesses at four times the rate of other populations, she explained that the site will enable Latina entrepreneurs to create their own web sites to promote their products within the Hispanic community. She also made reference to the fact that a great deal of market research exists on what types of products the Hispanic female population is buying, as well as to the tremendous buying power women have in Hispanic households.

Despite this information, Sherman concedes, sponsors will be skeptical until the idea is proven successful. But that doesn’t faze her. If anything, her experience with Cybergrrl has taught her believe in her vision. In fact, she says, relying too heavily on advertisers and sponsors is the wrong way to build a community-oriented online business. "You must provide a needed service, and utilize the grass-roots nature of the Internet to spread the word," she states. "The best way to get people online and build a brand is through off-line word-of-mouth."

Learning how to serve a population was initially difficult, Sherman admits, because she had a tendency to want to do everything herself, instead of focusing on what was most needed by her customers or what her company could do best. Technology was a "drain" at Cybergrrl, she says, because it was not the company’s core competency. "Know what you do well," she advises, "and outsource the rest."

"We intend to outsource as much as possible at eViva," she adds. "We’re going to be smart, fast and lean." And certainly fearless, as well. Cybergrrl is back.