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?
Listen to the report and lively discussion with the BBC’s Fergus Nicoll. Our discussion starts at 26:00 in the podcast.
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.
Continue listening to the discussion on BBC’s Business Matters podcast to hear our discussion and my BBC colleague Dave Lee’s report on Nintendo’s comeback.
This report also aired several times on the BBC’s World Business Report
The other visionary awards were presented to pioneering venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson and Don Eigler, an award-winning nanoscientist.
See more photos of the Visionary Awards and watch video here.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Why are women still struggling to reach parity in the Indian and Silicon Valley jobs market? Why is rock star economist Thomas Piketty predicting that revolution could be the great equalizer? And what explains the unexpected and dramatic rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US election? All this and more was discussed last night on the BBC’s Business Matters.
I joined a lively discussion with BBC host Anu Anand who’s based in Delhi, and Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Listen to the podcast here (Jan 29, 2016)
Here are some highlights from our conversation, (starting at 20:43, edited for length and clarity):
Anu Anand: Alison, you’ve reported from Japan where there’s a real impetus to bring women into the workforce. Any lessons from there?
Alison van Diggelen: Prime Minister Abe has a goal of reaching 30% of women in positions of leadership by 2020. What he’s doing is mandating that large companies reveal their diversity statistics. Someone I interviewed there -Elizabeth Handover – called it a “shaming and blaming” strategy. In other words: release your figures and the shame upon you will incentive you to get more women into positions of power…But as in India, there is a big cultural pressure in Japan for women to stay at home, especially if they’ve had children.
Anu Anand: You’re in the heart of Silicon Valley. Would you say that women have achieved parity in the high tech workforce?
Alison van Diggelen: No, not at all. Women make up only 30% of these tech companies, and then tech jobs within that are only between 12% and 18%. We have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction…
Justin Rowlatt: In India we see very rapid growth, an economy growing at 7%. In a society growing that quickly, surely inequality is less of an issue?
Thomas Piketty: Inequality is an even bigger problem in emerging countries. One important lesson from my historical study of inequality is that it took very big shocks, major shocks – World War I, Wold War II, the Great Depression, the Bolshevik Revolution for the Western elites to accept the kind of social, and fiscal reforms which brought a reduction in inequality and increased economic growth….
The big risk here in India like in other parts of the world, is that extreme inequality tends to lead to sometimes violence, some politicians to try to exploit…that’s why it’s so important to have more transparency about the complex relationship between caste and income and wealth; and address it through adequate reservation systems, adequate social policy…
Anu Anand: Let’s turn to Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues in San Francisco and Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics here in Delhi….Women are bearing the burden of growing inequality?
Jayati Ghosh: The proportion of women who get any kind of income from working (in India) is only about 2%. About 90% of women are working and they’re really engaged in unpaid work. Policies and processes don’t even bother to recognize this work so they don’t do anything to reduce it…for e.g. piped water, which would reduce the burden of going to fetch it. Piketty is right: India is one of the higher inequality countries in the world…the elite in India… holds on to most of the assets, grabs the natural resources, concentrates the wealth and shapes policies to make more of this…This leads to violence.
Anu Anand: Alison, inequality in the US has been growing too. It’s certainly a big point of debate at the moment, especially with the presidential candidates sparring with each other?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely, it’s a huge issue here. The inequality is the highest today since the 1930’s. The surprise popularity of Bernie Sanders – who has made inequality and poverty one of his number one issues – he calls it “The Great Moral Issue of our Time”…He came from nowhere – it’s to do with his message resonating that income inequality affects us all. A lot of people thought Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination in the bag. Sanders has really grasped on that and he’s riding on inequality and really giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money for this Democratic nomination.
Anu Anand: Do you see a world in which we’re not going to have to talk about inequality? Both india and America are very market driven economies?
Alison van Diggelen: I think inequality is rife here however, two studies in 2015 confirmed that people – both rich and poor alike – still believe in a brighter future. It may be misguided, but there is that aspirational idea and the class system in my experience – especially in Silicon Valley full of inspiring entrepreneurs – is less prevalent than I experienced growing up in Britain, where you’re encouraged to stay in the class you’re born. For example, when I was offered a place at Cambridge University, my father, a working-class union man from Glasgow asked me: what do you want to go there for? Aren’t the universities in Scotland good enough? There was that “stay in your place” attitude that I broke away from.
Check back soon for a report on online education and its potential to help close the income divide by increasing access to education and tech jobs.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
LinkedIn Cofounder and tech investor extraordinaire, Reid Hoffman delivered some compelling entrepreneurial insights to an intimate group in Silicon Valley last week. It earned him a few more stars for his “visionary” reputation; however his insights on the drive to get more women in tech fell far short of expectations. See below…
The gathering was an elegant SVForum affair, led by CEO Adiba Barney.
Here’s some of Hoffman’s valuable wisdom for entrepreneurs:
1. Don’t keep your big idea a secret
According to Hoffman, if you don’t share your startup idea with people who can help you, it’s “a massive recipe for failure.”
2. Mine your network
As Hoffman emphasizes in his latest book The Alliance, “An externally networked workforce is critical to an innovative company.” What he means by this is:
a. nurture your wider network (give and take advice) and be active on social media
b. encourage your employees to do likewise
c. seek wisdom from the smartest people you know outside your company
Hoffman illustrated this with an anecdote about his “odd couple” alliance with PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, whom he initially considered “to the right of Attila the Hun” and who considered Hoffman a communist.
3. Don’t rush the IPO
Hoffman underlined that IPOs aren’t the holy grail they once were, thanks to late stage investors with large cash infusions. IPOs must make sense strategically for your startup.
“The key question for any company is how an IPO can help you build your company into something that may be around for decades or hundreds of years and help to transform the industry they are in,” says Hoffman.
This fits with what Elon Musk told me when I asked him about a SpaceX IPO. He pointed out that there are major disadvantages to going public, especially if your business has very long term goals (like going to Mars!)
And now on to the subject of the dismally low number of women in Silicon Valley’s tech companies. Latest figures show only 25% of LinkedIn’s leadership is female, the number is even lower for women holding tech positions (17%).
Since Hoffman prides himself as a public intellectual, I asked him what LinkedIn is doing to increase the number of women in tech; and what the academic case is for doing so. Frankly, I thought he’d cite one of the many studies which show the positive correlation between the number of women executives and company success.
Here’s his response:
“Women on average are much more diligent than men and much more capable of learning a set of different things, so having them deeply engaged in technology, creating the future is important. And then there’s obviously the full ramp of sensibilities for how products should work…how those human ecosystems should work. So I think it behooves…the world is much better off… with having an industry that isn’t – as it’s historically been – very balanced on the male side, but to be trending toward a more evenly balanced industry. There are various initiatives – the Lean In one is just the most recent.” Reid Hoffman
He’s referring to the announcement on February 8th that LeanIn.org, Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute have created a partnership to expand Lean In Circles on college campuses. Reid Hoffman and the LinkedIn team deserve some praise for their involvement, but that’s it? I didn’t get the feeling that this topic is high on Hoffman’s agenda, or that he cares that much about it.
Here’s my vision: I’d like to see Mr Hoffman use his profound intellect and growing visionary platform to inspire more action and help get more women into the tech field.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Silicon Valley is well known as the global hub of innovative technology. Can four weeks immersed in its unique ecosystem help inspire a new generation of global tech leaders? That’s the hope behind a program called Tech Women, launched by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and now sponsored by the State Department.
Last month, over seventy tech women from Africa and the Middle East made a month-long visit to Silicon Valley. I met with several of them to explore what they learned, and how they plan to leverage technology to tackle their countries’ challenges when they return home.
A version of this story aired on BBC’s Tech Tent on Nov. 14, 2014. Listen to the podcast below: @20.00
Here is the full length transcript:
Tech Tent Host, Rory Cellan-Jones: One interesting aspect of the tech revolution is that women are playing a bigger role in the developing world than in places like the U.S. and U.K. Over 70 women from Africa and the Middle Easter have just wrapped up a month long visit to Silicon Valley, with the aim of picking up ideas for the technology they can use to tackle their country’s challenges when they return home. Alison van Diggelen met two of them…
Alison van Diggelen: They are two women with ambitious missions. They’ve got the tech savvy and now, after a month building connections and wisdom in Silicon Valley, they’re eager to launch their dreams back home.
Meet Asal Ibrahim who wants to bring massive deployment of solar power to Jordan; and Serah Kahiu from Kenya who wants to jumpstart the science and tech economy in Africa by developing a network of science museums and labs across the entire continent.
Both have lofty goals, but they talk with such conviction and enthusiasm, it’s hard not to believe that these young women will change the world, at least their little corner of it.
I start by asking Kahiu about the current state of technology in Kenya.
Kahiu: “I use mobile technology in Kenya, it’s HUGE. It’s like magic because you can do transactions, money transactions on your mobile. You can pay someone from wherever in a country: school fees, bills. That one has revolutionized life in Kenya.”
She explains how Facebook is a vital tech tool for small businesses in Kenya.
Kahiu: “You can use your phone for Internet. That has really sparked business because you can advertise your product on Facebook, get someone to pay you through M-pesa and then put stuff on a public transport system and it’s transported to your client. That has made it so easy for people like farmers. You cut out the middleman. The farmer gets all the profit. This is huge, especially for women. The majority of small scale farmers in Kenya are women, so that has improved standards of living for many women in rural areas.”
We discuss her grand vision of creating a network of hands-on science and tech centers across Africa, starting in Juja, Kenya, a university town she describes as having “the same vibe as Silicon Valley.”
Kahiu: “We need to embrace more technology because 60% of Africans and youth in Kenya are under 35. We have a bulge of youth who’re not employed. Science and technology is the last frontier for job creation. We must prepare people for that. We import 80% of whatever we’re using. Why do we import? Why not make it in Kenya?
“If the governments of Africa invest in science and technology and put it on its pedestal as an accelerator of development, youth are encouraged to understand science better, and more importantly, to start companies.”
van Diggelen: “So you feel it needs an entrepreneurship spirit kick-started?”
Kahiu: “Yes, kick-started! There’s a need for that entrepreneurship. They’re learning theory, theory, theory.”
van Diggelen: “So commercializing these ideas?”
Kahiu: “It’s very hard…That’s what I want to do. I’ll sit in the gap between the education system and the industry and help people to see the possibilities that there are in science, technology, engineering and math.”
“Every Kenyan child that is being born deserves to know and understand technology. We don’t have a choice. If the world is accelerating the way it is doing, we’ll be left so far behind, we won’t even see the dust. I’m serious.”
“Science and technology should answer your problems. So, I meet people where they are and then we walk together …People care about drinking water, safer roads and availability of healthy foods for their kids. So these are their needs. So I’ll walk with my people from that point and we’ll walk towards particle physics…flying to the moon, or Mars…who knows? (laughter)”
(This interview took place at the Los Altos History Museum, which is currently featuring an interactive Silicon Valley exhibit, now through April 2015)
Asal Ibrahim is a 24 year-old student from Amman, Jordan. She’s been working at a (Vista Solar) solar company in Silicon Valley, soaking up the “can do” attitude.
Ibrahim is enthusiastic about the state of technology in Jordan today, but admits there are many opportunities for improvement.
I asked her how Silicon Valley’s tech obsessed culture compares to that of Jordan.
Ibrahim: “It’s very similar. Everyone is obsessed with technology: holding a smart phone, interacting on social media, using it in almost every aspect of life. On an infrastructure level it needs to be improved: transportation, education is employing technology a lot…we need to improve it way more.
“You can find anything from high tech schools to poor schools in Jordan. We have schools that are winning international competitions like Intel Science Fair or Microsoft Imagine Cup and compete worldwide with their Robotech, with their programming skills, website software. Some schools are more advanced than some universities in Jordan. We’re still lacking equipped labs for example, not only technological advances like IT, but also scientific labs.
“Jordanians are very into technology. They can contribute a lot if they get the chance. We have a lot of international companies that have offices in Jordan, and employ large amount of engineers, like Microsoft, Sony, Yahoo.”
Ibrahim’s goal is to encourage the massive deployment of solar power in Jordan, but she faces an uphill struggle.
“It’s not easy to push this kind of alternate power and challenge the big oil companies. We have to combine all the manpower we have, all the technology, knowledge, NGOs, advocates, to make this happen. It’s a dream that needs to be worked on at a national level.”
Ibrahim was part of a public private partnership that brought 200 Mega Watts of solar power online this year, but she’s determined to keep up the momentum.
“97% of our energy is imported, so if any of surrounding countries that provide us with oil or electricity have bad political situations, which is the case most of the times, we will be out of energy. Renewables are now 2% of energy share. It’s mostly oil now.”
So how has Ibrahim’s month in Silicon Valley inspired her?
“The most special spirit of Silicon Valley is how diverse it is. Having people from all over the world working for the state of technology, for the sake of entrepreneuring, for the sake of innovating, creating new things. How excited people are on the train in the morning – they feel happy, on a mission to accomplish…it has reached me.”
She’s learned an important lesson from her month in Silicon Valley:
Ibrahim: “No idea is bad. If you have a single idea, whether it’s a website, app, any innovation you think can change the face of technology, you should pursue this, because an idea dies if you don’t pursue it.
“It’s all inspiring to me. Everything is possible if you have the persistence and determination to make it happen. The Jordanian culture encourages girls and boys, men to study equally; they’re very encouraged to pursue careers in STEM, to pursue technological and scientific degrees. Being in a male dominated environment in technological companies, can be a bit frightening for girls and women…there is no challenge if you show confidence and if you have a dream to pursue, no one will stand in your way.”
Check back soon for my interview with Sierra Leone’s Fatmata Kamara who wants to bring solar power to rural areas of her country to improve the livelihood of rural communities and help in the fight against Ebola.
Find out about more inspiring women at Fresh Dialogues
Just back from WITI‘S 14th annual Women and Tech Summit in Silicon Valley (Oct 12-15th) and the potent energy is still with me. There is something incredibly empowering and energizing about gathering hundreds of go-getting women in a conference hall. Wish you could bottle that energy.
WITI’S motto is “no woman stands alone” and just how apt this is, given the current financial meltdown and shaky economic climate. We had senior executives announcing their personal emails from the podium, others inviting young entrepreneurs to get in touch after their talks, a real feeling of “let me help you get where you want to get sista.”
From the impressive keynotes of Cathleen Benko, Vice Chairman at Deloitte LLP and Sandy Carter, VP at IBM; the success strategies of Life Coach Kathleen Hill to the Clean Tech investment experts like Laurie Yoler and Marianne Wu, each one inspired and energized a packed auditorium.
I had the opportunity to interview several outstanding panel members for Fresh Dialogues, including LinkedIn’s April Kelly, GrowthPoint Technology Partner’s Laurie Yoler (who’s been involved with Tesla Motors from the early days) and Mary Vincent of Green Solutions. Check back soon to hear their take on the current financial crisis, how to leverage Web 2.0 to help your business, and one woman’s leap from Sun Microsystems to entrepreneurship and how global warming helped inspire that leap.