Brad Feld

Category: Philanthropy

I’ve been chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for the past year.  I recently wrote an article – which is up on the NCWIT web site – on why I chose to get involved in NCWIT.  I’ve reposted it here for convenience. 

The most common question I’ve received over the past year, regarding the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), is “why is the board chair a man?”

When I agreed to be chair, I anticipated that people would ask me this question. What I didn’t realize was that it would be so perplexing. Initially I’d respond with an easy and pithy answer, but as time has passed my response has become deeper and more reflective. Someday, I hope the question will simply disappear – along with the need for an organization like NCWIT (one of our goals is in fact to make ourselves obsolete.)

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. My training has been furthered by my wife Amy, a Wellesley graduate, writer, and feminist; and my mother Cecelia, an artist and a feminist. “Women’s issues” is one of the major philanthropic areas that Amy and I support (the others are education, environment, entrepreneurship, human rights, and art) and I’ve had a long-standing hatred and disdain for sexist behavior. But while NCWIT has a clear gender focus — it is, after all, the National Center for Women & Information Technology — the gender issue was only a small impetus for my enthusiasm for getting involved in NCWIT.

I’d never really thought about the implications of the lack of women in the information technology (IT) business or the computer sciences. My first company – a software consulting company – had 15 consultants, half of whom were women. We knew we were atypical, but we found that women were often better consultants than men and our goal was to hire the absolute best people we could find, regardless of gender. I’ve worked closely with several female entrepreneurs who stood out as much more effective than their male counterparts. While it was obvious that there were many more men than women in the IT industry, I didn’t pay much attention to it.

Then I met Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT. Lucy is a nerd, so we connected immediately. During her career, she worked her way up from an entry level programming job to the CTO position at a major telecommunications company (Avaya.) In our first conversation, she spoke eloquently about the issues facing women in information technology and computer science.

She hooked me when she said, “Brad, this isn’t about gender – it’s about competitiveness.”

At that moment, I started thinking about the issue in a different way. I immediately thought back to my first company, where our goal was to hire the best possible people we could find. Logically, the gender balance should be roughly 50/50 in the IT business since the skills for IT, computer science, and programming, in my opinion, don’t have any real gender linkages. But all you have to do is look around any IT organization to know the gender split is anything but 50/50.

One can supply plenty of “quick and easy” reasons why women (and girls) don’t gravitate toward computer science and IT. It’s geeky. It’s a male-dominated culture. It’s anti-social to sit in front of a computer all day long. The work is boring. The jobs are going to all go offshore. The list goes on.

But there’s something deeper going on, and I decided I wanted to help figure it out. It dawned on me that if the U.S. wants to continue to be competitive in IT and computer science 20 years from now, the dramatic gender split that currently exists needs to be gone — for multiple reasons, not the least of which are the fundamental issues of design (if 50 percent of your users are women, don’t you want 50 percent of your designers to be women?) and supply and demand (there simply aren’t enough men to satisfy the growth of the industry.)

When Lucy approached me she was clear that she didn’t know the underlying issues. While there are plenty of hypotheses and speculation, there was, then, no central organization dedicated to figuring out what was going on, coordinating all the various groups that were working on different parts of the problem, and then implementing (and communicating) broad-based, long-term solutions. She wanted NCWIT to be that organization.

At that point, it was clear to me that NCWIT was a lot bigger than “yet another women’s organization.” Lucy is an engineer, and she’s designing a system to solve the problem. Once the design is done, she’s going to execute the solution.

That’s something to which I can subscribe, regardless of my gender.

A short spot on National Public Radio today titled Computer Science: Calling All Women does a super job explaining why I’ve been working with Lucy Sanders on the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  In three minutes and thirty seconds, you’ll hear what the issue is, why we care, and a few of the things we are doing.

Women at Gnomedex

Jun 24, 2005

I’m at Gnomedex.  Rick Klau said it earlier today when he said that the Gnomedex theme song is “It’s Raining Men.”  I’m in a room with 500 people and there are less than 10 women in the room.  I’d better tell my friends a the National Center for Women & Information Technology that the RSS tech universe needs to be studied a little more.  Remarkably, within the first hour of the conference, we destroyed the “newly amped up WiFi at the Bell Harbor Conference Center.”  So – there you go – RSS Disconnected.  We just sang the official Gnomedex theme song (led by Dave Winer) – “Yellow Submarine.”

As chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’m always on the lookout for real evidence that there is causal impact between various programs aimed specifically at women in helping with IT and entrepreneurship and long term competitiveness and economic development.  The Center for Women’s Leadership at Babson College just released a study that shows that Women’s Business Centers (WBC’s) are driving entrepreneurship among economically disadvantaged women.  WBC’s were created in 1988 through the federal Women’s Business Ownership Act – there’s some good stuff in the report summarizing the current state of play of WBC’s.

This study was done in conjuction with several organizations (including the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation which I have a long standing respect for an a historical relationship with) and – if you are interested in this sort of stuff – worth taking a look at.

I spent a day in Washington DC last week on my continued mission to evangelize for the National Center for Women & Information Technologies.  We had an evening event that was kindly hosted by the folks at McKenna Long & Aldridge with our local Colorado Congressman Mark Udall keynoted the evening.

In between my normal daily email and phone calls, I had three completely fascinating meetings concerning women and information technology.  The Honorable Paula Stern was my guide for the day (Paula used to be the chairwoman of the International Trade Commission and is a huge friend of NCWIT) and she generally kept me out of trouble.

My first meeting was with the folks from the Committee for Economic Development (the people that gave us the Marshall Plan). Charles Kolb and his team had a major clue, got the issues we were discussing immediately, and laid some groundwork for future collaboration.  I left their office with a pile of scintillating material to read, including publications such as (a) Making Trade Work: Straight Talk on Jobs, Trade, and Adjustments and (b) Learning for the Future: Changing the Culture of Math and Science Education To Ensure a Competitive Workforce.  These dudes are smart, data driven, and intensely logical thinkers – I look forward to more interaction with them.

Next up was a short meeting with Bruce Mehlman and Karin Hudson at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.  Mehlman is the Executive Director of the Computer Systems Policy Project – an affiliation of CEO’s from nine computer companies: Dell, HP, IBM, Intel, NCR, Unisys, Motorola, EMC, and Applied Materials.  One of NCWIT’s core messages is that we need to encourage women to join the US IT workforce to increase the long term competitiveness of the US computer industry.  We thought this would resonate with Bruce.  It didn’t.  Karin got it however so there’s hope that we’ll make some progress in the future with them and CSPP.

Finally, I wandered over the Russell Senate Office Building (nope – I’d never been there before – man those ceilings are high) to meet with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff Tamera Luzzatto.  Tamera is a total rock star – she got it immediately (even while watching the house vote on stem cell research out of the corner of her eye) and committed to include the NCWIT messages and agenda in their future thinking.  I had to split early because of a meeting with one of our LPs, although Paula stayed behind and finished the meeting.  Unquestionably the most powerful meeting of the day.

Paula was a little disappointed that we were only two out of three for the day (three out of four if you include the awesome evening event.)  I explained to her that two out of three is a phenomenal result for a VC and that – while I was only marginally more clueful about Washington DC then I was at the beginning of the day – I was delighted to have spent it with her.

While Amy and I are involved in and support a number of non-profits, I limit the number of non-profit boards I sit on at any one time to a total of three as I’ve seen way too many “passive non-profit board members.”  While this might be good for the person’s resume, ego, or the non-profit’s external perception of involvement from meaningful people in the community, it’s just not my way – if I’m going to sit on a board, I take it seriously and give it the energy, time, and attention it deserves.

Currently I’m chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology and on the boards of the Colorado Conservation Trust and the Watershed SchoolNCWIT and CCT both released radically updated websites this week.  If you are interested in either organization or have looked at their sites in the past, it’s worth a refresher.

Last year at about this time I hosted a fundraiser for the Boulder Philharmonic and was the guest conductor. Prior to this I knew nothing about conducting and – while I like music – have no real musical aptitude beyond singing in the shower – so it was both a fun time and a good learning experience for me. In addition to conducting, I was also the guest auctioneer for the live auction (which was much easier).  Amy and I chose the Boulder Phil as our major philanthropic initiative last year and our efforts (among others) at the fundraiser resulted in over $130,000 of additional contribution, helping the Boulder Phil land in the black for the first time in a while.

I’m doing it again this year.  As part of the auction last year, I auctioned off the opportunity to conduct the orchestra.  Peter Johnson, who recently married my friend Carrie van Heyst, won the right to conduct (at Carrie’s prompting – I think she might have actually been the one bidding).  Peter then roped me into co-conducting with him since I was “experienced” and it was apparently my fault that he was “getting” to do this.

So – if you are in Boulder on April 9th, come to i due Maestri to see Peter and I conduct (guaranteed to be entertaining), participate in the live and silent auction, and enjoy the beautiful new St. Julien Hotel in downtown Boulder while contributing to one of Boulder’s key arts groups.  I’ll be the auctioneer again and you never know what I might auction off (last year it included a day with my parents – which was happily picked up by our friends Larry and Pat Nelson.)

I hope to see you there.  Tickets can be bought online here.

I’m chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  A lot of my friends ask me why an organization aimed at women has a guy as chairman.  I respond by telling them that NCWIT is not a women’s issue focused organization (although I’d still be supportive if it was) – it’s all about the long term negative impact on innovation of the gender imbalance that currently exists in the IT industry, especially on the technical side – which obviously involved both men and women. 

Lucy Sanders – the CEO of NCWIT and ex-CTO of Avaya Labs – is much more articulate about it than I could ever be.  She has a great interview in Saturday’s Rocky Mountain News that describes the issue clearly, including the following sound bites:

  • Goal of NCWIT: Gender parity in the IT work force in 20 years.
  • Evidence of Today’s Situation: Only 16% of high schoolers taking the AP Computer Science test are girls.
  • Why Does This Matter?: Men and Women bring different creative skills to the innovation table and we need both in the invention of technology.
  • What Does NCWIT Plan to Do?: First – build a national community around the issue and figure out what’s really going on.  Then, create alliances, build community, mobilize for change, and use effective practices based on research results.

I recently agreed to be chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology – an organization run by Lucy Sanders (ex-CTO Avaya Labs) – whose mission is to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology.  Lucy and NCWIT are the real deal – in its first year we’ve raised over $4.5 million from the National Science Foundation, Avaya, Microsoft, Google, and a number of other technology companies.  Lucy has an ambitious multi-decade vision which – when you sit and listen – makes you say “wow – that’s perfect – yes – absolutely” and other unambiguous affirmative phrases.

Several weeks ago, Larry Summers – the President of Harvard University – generated a predictable controversy when he suggested “that innate differences between the genders could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.”  I cracked up when I heard this for the first time since I figured he was simply being sarcastic and poking fun at his crosstown rival (my alma matter) due to the recent appointment of a woman (Dr. Susan Hockfield) as President of MIT.  But it was clear that he was deadly serious, and after an uproar, several apologies from Summers, and a lot of public discussion, the topic of the level of participation of women in IT has real visibility.

We had a NCWIT board meeting the week of Summers’ remarks.  At the meeting, we decided that the right approach was not to castigate Summers, nor join the “backlash”, but rather to invite Summers to get involved and help us better understand and address the issue (I suggested we ask him to join the NCWIT board).  To that end, Lucy wrote an op-ed the other day that follows.

As CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’d like to thank Harvard’s President, Larry Summers. His recent remarks – that innate gender differences might explain the dearth of women in science and engineering – call attention to a critical issue even as they misconstrue it.

Innovation is inherently a creative and highly personal process: from Penicillin to iPods, the most influential innovations of our time reflect the perspectives and experience of their creators. Employing gender diversity in the innovation process yields different products and better ideas, contributing to stronger U.S. economic performance.

While women’s contributions have neared parity in biological sciences and math, women’s position in the information technology (IT) professions has slipped significantly. Women now earn only 28 percent of computer science degrees (down from 37 percent in 1984) and represent only one-quarter of professional workers in IT occupations.

This problem comes at a critical juncture for America: As IT globalizes, many of its products and services become commodities and even high-value IT jobs move off-shore. What will differentiate U.S. performance? Women can, and must play an important role in fostering new IT innovations if the US is to remain competitive.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is a growing coalition of over 40 respected corporations, academic institutions and non-profits working aggressively to understand and solve this problem. NCWIT intends to increase the participation of girls and women in information technology and, through their contributions, to help the U.S. remain at the forefront of IT innovation. From K-12 education to corporate careers, we know that certain approaches work to engage and educate this over-looked talent pool of creative women. We need to put these approaches into action. We are a community of change-agents committed to investing in research and education, determining best practices for progress, and implementing these solutions across the country.

There’s no doubt that women are creative innovators. Debating whether their cognitive abilities match those of their male counterparts is a waste of time; it is in fact our differences that make women’s contributions so essential to our economy and society, no less in IT than anywhere else.

Read it carefully.  It describes the core of what NCWIT is trying to accomplish, why it matters, and how the differences between men and women can impact the innovation process.  Lucy – this is fun!