Some call it “The Oscars of Silicon Valley.” This year, the glitzy, red carpet affair celebrated four Wonder Women: Megan Smith, Ann Winblad, Neri Oxman and Linda Rottenberg. Alison van Diggelen reports on SVForum’s Visionary Awards for the BBC World Service. What are the secrets of these Wonder Womens’ success, and what do they think needs done to bring more women into the tech field?
Here’s a transcript of our dialogue (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicoll: Investigations reveal that women occupy only about 11% of Silicon Valley executive positions…and a tiny percentage of startups are owned by women. Are things going to change? Alison, you’ve been to an event to recognize talent in the sector…
Alison van Diggelen: Last week I attended Silicon Valley Forum’s Visionary Awards. SVForum is celebrating its 20th anniversary and unlike its usual male-dominated roster of honorees (Bill Gates, Vint Cerf, Elon Musk etc.), this year: three of its five honorees were female. I was curious to learn the secrets of their success, and what they think needs to be done to bring more women into the tech field. This is all in the context of Uber’s chief stepping down from the company this week – at least temporarily – and the company tacitly acknowledging that it needs to change what some are calling its toxic corporate culture for women. I was curious to learn the secrets of these Wonder Womens’ success, and what do they think needs to be done to bring more women into the tech field?
[Atmos: Crowd, music, welcome]
SVForum CEO, Denyse Cardozo: Good evening and welcome to the 20th anniversary Visionary Awards….
Alison van Diggelen: Just before she went onstage, I found tech pioneer Megan Smith surrounded by a group of adoring fans. She was President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer and now she’s back from DC her rockstar status is soaring among the technorati. You might even call her Silicon Valley’s Wonder Woman. Tall and forceful, she oozes enthusiasm and credits the valley’s unique ecosystem for her success.
Megan Smith: One of the things I’m going to talk about tonight is this “apprentice- journeyman-master” and Silicon Valley is so good at that. We learn from those who have gone before. I was mentored here in this community by extraordinary people…
Alison van Diggelen: Notably, her list is all men. Women make up less than 15% of most tech companies’ technical teams. Why so few?
Megan Smith: We have this strange idea that there’s technical people and non-technical people and it’s a very un-useful cultural problem: stereotyping…The truth is women and men, people of color from every corner of the earth have been doing extraordinary, heroic and technical things and sometimes the stories get lost…
Alison van Diggelen: Smith blames story tellers for ignoring the significant contributions of women at Bletchley Park, at Apple and at NASA. Although she praises the recent “Hidden Figures” movie for finally highlighting the female heroes at NASA during the space race. Ann Winblad echoes the need to raise the profile of role models. She’s an influential venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and received her visionary award back in ‘99, alongside Bill Gates.
Ann Winblad: Women are not hidden figures in this industry. We’re honoring three really strong women tonight…….The more that we do things like these events where we show there are as many strong women to honor as strong men, it will enlighten women that there is a real opportunity.
Alison van Diggelen: Winblad reframes it in FOMO terms…Fear of missing out:
Ann Winblad: Six of the top ten highest valued companies in the world are tech companies…. We all know their names. For women they’re missing a huge opportunity if they don’t join the fastest growing, most exciting industry in the world.
Alison van Diggelen: Linda Rottenberg knows about huge opportunities. Her visionary award is for pioneering Silicon Valley’s high-impact entrepreneurship model around the world. She challenges women to be braver and bolder; and to break stereotypes:
Linda Rottenberg: Not all innovators are boys in hoodies in their 20s: People are going to be over 50, people are going to be women…Sometimes our view of entrepreneurship gets so narrow cast that we dismiss the talent and creativity right in our midst. The biggest risk is taking none at all….
Alison van Diggelen: Fellow visionary, Neri Oxman believes in risk-taking and passion. She’s an inventor and designer at MIT’s Media Lab, famed for her “material ecology” innovations.
Neri Oxman: It’s not easy to define a new field and to generate new technologies for the kinds of project that we are creating, so it requires a suspense of disbelief; and a willingness to fail…
Alison van Diggelen: For her part, Megan Smith is passionate to launch a new tech startup soon to continue her White House mission. She believes that her computer science initiative will help empower many school kids. Here’s President Obama promoting the program back in January 2016…
President Obama: I’ve got a plan to help make sure all our kids get an opportunity to learn computer science, especially girls and minorities. It’s called Computer Science For All. And it means just what it says – giving every student in America an early start at learning the skills they’ll need to get ahead in the new economy…to make sure all our young people can compete in a high-tech, global economy.
Alison van Diggelen: Smith challenges tech leaders for not doing enough to make diversity a top priority:
Megan Smith: It’s really outrageous and irresponsible for the leadership in tech…and it’s also bad for the bottom line. Research shows the more diverse the team, the better financial performance…We’ve got to field the whole human team …it’s especially urgent right now with the beginnings of Artificial Intelligence and data science.
Alison van Diggelen: Celebrating these strong role models – these Wonder Women in Silicon Valley – is one thing, but boosting the pipeline of candidates is vital. Across the US, only 18% of computer science and engineering students are women. As the evening winds down and Silicon Valley’s glitterati disperse into the balmy San Jose evening, Ann Winblad throws down the gauntlet to the next generation:
Ann Winblad: I encourage young women to get excited about science and to make those computer science classes, those engineering classes at least 50% women. If it got higher than 50%, women would OWN the tech industry.
[Crowd, music…fade out] Report ends.
This report also aired several times on the BBC’s World Business Report