Lucy Sanders, the founder/CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology is a remarkable person. I’ve worked with Lucy since 2005 and she’s done more advancing the cause of engaging women in IT, computer science, and entrepreneurship than anyone I know.
As a bonus, she – and NCWIT – are based in Boulder. I like to refer to them as a gem of CU Boulder that is hidden in plain site.
Next Wednesday, as part of the Entrepreneurs Unplugged interview series I’ve been helping host for the past few years, Jill Dupre and I will interview Lucy at the ATLAS Center in Room 100.
I promise you that it will be a special one. Lucy started her career as a young woman at Bell Labs in the 1970s. She was one of the only ones. When she retired from Avaya Labs in 2001, she was CTO, R&D Vice President and Bell Labs Fellow and had about 600 people reporting to her. Her journey up to this point was amazing, but she was just getting started. What she’s done in the last decade as the CEO of NCWIT is amazing.
My work with Lucy has been one of the most satisfying non-profit experiences I’ve been involved in. In addition, I’ve learned an incredible amount from her about the dynamics of women in technology, business, and entrepreneurship. She’s had a dramatic impact on my thinking and behavior and I’d love to share some of her magic with you.
I have been talking, writing, and helping advocate for women in technology for a long time. While my most visible role is as chair of National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) since its inception in 2006, I’ve tried to be actively involved and supportive of as many initiatives as I can. My partners and I are focused on promoting diversity in our fund (here’s a run-down of our stats) and have recently back several female CEOs, with a few more about to happen. At Techstars, we’ve put a huge amount of energy into building a pipeline of female founders and getting women involved in Techstars in many roles, especially at the leadership level in companies and the program.
Six months ago, two Boulder entrepreneurs and angel investors approached me and my partners about investing in a new accelerator targeting women-led companies. We’ve known and worked with both Elizabeth Kraus and Sue Heilbronner and deeply believe that each are committed to the “give before you get” ethos of our startup community in Boulder.
Our respect for Elizabeth and Sue, combined with our passion for their objective, led us to invest personally in MergeLane, which has secured strong support from a tremendous group of mentors, investors, media, and the Boulder startup community.
In order to be considered for admission into the 12-week program, which begins on February 2nd, companies must have at least one female in a leadership role. The program is industry-agnostic, but startups need to have some level of traction. MergeLane requires only three weeks of residency in Boulder in hopes of accommodating founders that can’t relocate for a full three months.
The deadline to apply for MergeLane is December 15th. Take a look and apply at www.MergeLane.com.
Suddenly, there’s a lot of constructive conversation about women in technology and entrepreneurship. I’m glad, as there is a continuous mess of sexism, misogyny, hatred, anger, specious assertions, and general weirdness. This mess is from men to women, from women to women, from men to men, and from women to men. Basically, there’s gender equality in the awful parts of this.
As chair of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’ve seen all sides of this, including plenty aimed at me. I’m an enormous believer in the power of being a male advocate so I’ll continue to be outspoken, supportive, and thoughtful on the issues and engagement of women in technology.
I was very excited to get a chance to read the book Innovating Women by Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya. It’s an excellent combination of stories from powerful female innovators, along with analysis and research supporting the context. I enjoyed the book a lot, heard some new stories, and got a few new ideas.
As I read through some of the Amazon reviews and threads that spiraled out from them, I once again saw a continuous mess of sexism, misogyny, hatred, anger, specious assertions, and general weirdness. This mess is from men to women, from women to women, from men to men, and from women to men. Basically, there’s gender equality in the awful parts of this.
In my fantasy, humans would learn how to be constructive participants in a conversation. I recognize this is a fantasy, but I’ll keep trying, especially around this issue.
A few weeks ago we had a summit for the women execs in our portfolio. About 40 women attended. Overall we identified about 70 women in our portfolio in leadership positions, which I estimate is about 15% of the exec positions in our portfolio.
The event was organized by three of the women – Joanne Lord (until recently CMO at BigDoor, now at Porch), Nicole Glaros (Techstars Boulder Managing Director), and Terry Morreale (NCWIT Associate Director). Like many of our internal summits, the agenda was organically developed and the event was a lightly structured, high engagement day. It was an all female event until 4pm, when I joined for a 75 minute fireside chat followed by a nice dinner at Pizzeria Locale.
This morning I’m heading over the NCWIT annual employee retreat and participating in the first session, which is a retrospective on the past year and current state of NCWIT. I’ve been chair of NCWIT for nine years and am amazed and what Lucy Sanders and the organization has achieved. Personally, I’ve learned an incredible amount about the issues surrounding women in technology and have a handle on what I think are root causes of the challenges as well as long term solutions.
Last night I gave a talk at Galvanize on failure for Startup Summer, one of the Startup Colorado programs. About 10% of the people in the room were women. After almost 90 minutes of talk and Q&A, the last question was an awesome one about the women in the room and what we could do to encourage more engagement by and with women in the startup scene.
About a year ago, we realized that none of our active companies had a female CEO. Today, three of the 58 do: Moz (Sarah Bird), littleBits (Ayah Bdeir), and Nix Hydra (Lina Chen). If you are looking for a percentage on that, it’s 5%.
5%, 10%, and 15% are low numbers. But at least we are looking at them, measuring them, talking about gender dynamics in tech, and taking action around it.
As many of you know, mentoring women in startups and STEM careers is important to me, so I’m very pleased to be a part of the Startup Phenomenon: Women program, a one-day event in Macky Auditorium at CU-Boulder.
The speaking line-up for the day is really outstanding. It includes author Amanda Steinberg, founder and CEO of DailyWorth; Margaret Neale, management professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business; and Michele Weslander Quaid, chief technology officer (federal) and innovation evangelist at Google. If you’d like to see all the speakers scheduled, you can check out the website.
We’ll be covering topics of interest to entrepreneurs like startup financing, mentoring by and for women entrepreneurs, alternative business models and resources available for women-led businesses.
The conference is open to the public, and and a line-up like this doesn’t come along every day. Tickets start at $25 for students and $100 for the general public. I’m looking forward to an informative and inspiring day, and I hope you’ll consider attending.
Last week I was called out on a blog titled Stop Squawking; Embody The Change. In it, Nilofer Merchant (the writer) asserts that while my writing about the lack women in tech / entrepreneurship / computer science is useful, it doesn’t have much impact. Nilofer says:
“Those posts are all “Yeahness”; maybe they are helping educate the few people on this earth who haven’t read the research, statistics that says that diversity of opinions improves the performance of any workgroup. Perhaps they counteract the “women just want to have babies” or “women don’t take risks” posts out there.”
She goes on to make a call to action for me and a few others, saying:
“If Mark, or Fred, or Brad wanted to actually see things change, they have to be willing to be changed. They have to have their networks changed. They cannot stay in their current circles, talking to the same people they already talk with, and then imagine they will run into more women to invest in. They cannot expect things to change by asking “boy, I wish things would change”. That’s a gesture. A politically correct gesture, sure, and maybe it gives the warm fuzzies, but accomplishes little else. It is certainly not embodying the necessary change. To move from impossible and unattainable to possible and attainable is more than chopping off a few letters. It means we need to embody the change.”
I agree strongly with Nilofer that we need to embody the change. Since I don’t agree that all I do is write about the issue, I left a comment with a few examples of the things that I actually do, rather than just write about, to address this issue.
One of the things I do is chair the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology. It is well documented that there is a significant gender imbalance in IT. Only 18% of computer and information science degrees were awarded to women in 2009 (11% at major research universities), though 57% of college degrees are awarded to women (source: NCWIT By the Numbers 2009.) One of the things I’m especially proud of is the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.
The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is designed to reverse this trend by identifying, recognizing and supporting young women interested in and aspiring to pursue a major in computing. It was created in 2007 and has grown to a combined National and Affiliate program with local awards serving 22 states in 2011. To date NCWIT has recognized 855 young women and plans to grow the award program to a reach of 10,000 young women and recognize 1,000 award recipients annually. I wrote about my experience attending the 2010 awards and spending time with the winners, including the college scholarship that Amy and I decided to give each winner in the spur of the moment.
The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is much more than an award program. Recipients are provided long-term support for their interests in computing through peer networking, mentorship, scholarships and access to opportunities. Applications are now open to any high school young women residing in the US. Please encourage all the young women you know to apply before the end of October.
I spent the day yesterday in Kansas City at the Kauffman Foundation with about 20 women entrepreneurs who were the E&Y Winning Women from 2008, 2009, and 2010. As part of their program, Paul Kedrosky and I spent the morning talking to them about accelerating their growth, dynamics around financings, and boards – mostly about how to build a board and use it effectively. It was a great day – awesome energy with stimulating discussions. In addition to a great discussion, I learned a lot in my continuous quest to better understand dynamics around gender in entrepreneurship. I also met some amazing women.
On Monday, I had a meeting with a CEO of a company I’m an investor in who was frustrated with his role in the business. He had grown bored and restless with a lot of the work he was responsible for and felt like much of what he was doing was a grind that wasn’t inspiring to him. At the event yesterday, I heard from several of the entrepreneurs that they were stuck at a certain size (one at $22m, one at $5m) where day to day activities in the business consumed all of their time. As with the CEO I spoke with on Monday, I heard frustration about the daily grind and a lack of enjoyment and stimulation from the business.
I remember this feeling very clearly from my days running my first business. At about 20 people / $2m in revenue I got very bored. I was very busy, so it wasn’t lack of things to do, I just found the things I was doing to be excruciating dull since I’d been doing them for a while (at least five years). At the time, I struggled with how to address this; we ultimately ended up being acquired before I really felt like I figured it out.
During our discussion yesterday, one of the entrepreneurs brought up the notion of “Working on your business, instead of just in your business.” I heard this line many years ago but had forgotten it. It hit me right between the eyes as something that captured the conversation that I’d had with the entrepreneur on Monday and was exactly the correct notion to summarize the way to address the boredom of the endless business grind.
My friend Matt Blumberg at Return Path has really mastered this. He writes about it a lot on his blog Only Once (in fact, his blog is a tool for him to explore the issues that a first time CEO faces, since you are only a first time CEO once.) But it’s reflected in the impressive business that he and his team have created. Tim Miller at Rally Software is another entrepreneur that I have immense respect for and when I think about how he spends his time, much of it is working on the business. These guys have both scaled from CEO of a raw startup with a few people to CEO’s of 250+ employee companies, while moving through their own personal evolution while the businesses growth and thrive.
In the discussion yesterday, I kept thinking that a CEO’s need to spend more time working “on the company”, not “in the company.” Of course, there are loads of tasks in the company a CEO has to do. But having the balance shift all the way to never spending any time on the company is a huge mistake. Plus, it leads to the inevitable grind that I once found so unsatisfying.
To all the women I spent the day with yesterday – thanks for exposing me to your stories and spending your time with me so I could think through this more.
My long time friend Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, wrote a blog post today titled A New Kind of Partnership for Return Path. In it he talks about his recognition, as Return Path has grown (they are now around 250 people), of the gender imbalance in the software engineering team (women are around 15% of total engineering team.. He knew about NCWIT from my role as chairman and Matt and his team decided to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance to engage in helping address this issue.
Matt and his team then did something that blew me away. They provided the sponsorship of the first-ever NCWIT/Return Path Student Seed Fund. This will program will provide seed funding to groups of technical women at universities across the US to advance the goals of women in computing. There are so many things about this that are exciting to me, including the focus on students, seed funding, and the linkage to NCWIT’s overall goal.
We’ve got a huge NCWIT announcement coming in a few days that Return Path is also involved in as one of the founding members. I’ll post more about it, why it’s so important to me, who’s involved, and what you can do to engage – probably over the weekend.
Return Path – thank you!
The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.
Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.” A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.
Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business). Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.) The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.
Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).
For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial. As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.
I’m extremely impressed with Vivek Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch. He’s been blogging periodically for them since last fall and has shown that he’s willing to take on difficult, controversial, and complicated issues and discuss them in data driven and systematic ways.
Recently, Vivek wrote a post titled Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem that resulted from a research project he did with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (I’m chairman). I thought the post was excellent. The comments, however, were really enlightening to me. The amount of anger and hostility, especially irrational attacks, surprised me. Well – I guess it only surprised me a little – it mostly disappointed me.
After that article, Vivek sent me an email with the following questions “why did you originally get involved with NCWIT” and “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”. The first one was easy – I pointed him at a post I wrote in September 2005 titled Why the NCWIT Board Chair is a Man. I then spent some time thinking and emailing with Lucy Sanders *the CEO of NCWIT), about what we have learned to address the question of “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?” My goal was to boil my answer down into a very simple set of suggestions, as NCWIT has several programs in their Entrepreneurial Alliance that address this problem. In my experience, a simple answer is much better than a complex one, especially for people who haven’t yet thought hard about the problem but are interested in it.
I came up with two specific things that I’ve learned over the past five years and have incorporated into my brain:
1. We simply need more technical women in the software industry. If there were more, there would be more starting software and Internet companies.
2. Existing entrepreneurs and VCs can help a lot by encouraging women to become entrepreneurs and then supporting them when they take the plunge. It turns out that the simple act of encouragement (from parents, teachers, peers) is hugely impactful across the entire education and entrepreneurial pipeline so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is also important in the startup phase.
At some level it’s that simple. The implementation and execution of these two (related) concepts is really difficult. So, when I read Vivek’s post this morning titled A Fix for Discrimination: Follow the Indian Trails I realized he had once again totally nailed it. The example of how Indian entrepreneurs, first as individuals, and then through TiE, became a force in entrepreneurship through the US and the world, is a great one. And it’s an excellent analogy for women (and other groups that feel discrimination in the entrepreneur ecosystem.)
Once again, the early comments were disappointing in their anger and hostility. However, given some of the stuff I’ve heard over the past five years through my involvement in NCWIT, they weren’t a surprise to me this time.