BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

BBC Letter from Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Sexism in Silicon Valley

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Are women in Silicon Valley tech doomed? Do they need to “lean in” more? 

After Ellen Pao lost her discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins last week, some said the discussion was closed. On the contrary, her case has spotlighted an important issue and sparked a lively conversation about the dearth of women in Silicon Valley tech companies and what can be done about it. 

I was invited to share a Letter from Silicon Valley with the BBC about Sexism in Silicon Valley.  It aired this week on the BBC World Service program BBC Business Daily.


The program was hosted by Manuela Saragosa and included a report by Gianna Palmer about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. My Letter from Silicon Valley starts at 07:00.

Saragosa: There is a perception that women are still not being treated as equals in the tech industry in the US. It all came to a head in Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case against her former employer KPCB, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. She lost her case last week but despite that, it’s highlighted concerns about the lack of diversity in the tech sector in the U.S. So just how bad is it? Over to our commentator, Alison van Diggelen in Silicon Valley…

van Diggelen:

“Women in Silicon Valley tech are doomed!”

That’s one of the comments I heard at a recent gathering of female executives here in Silicon Valley. It came from a manager who’s spent 20 years working in tech human resources. She and her colleagues described the double standard they’ve witnessed at tech firms: women being passed over for promotion, paid less than men and treated as second class citizens.

Last year, major tech companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn published their diversity figures, which underline the sad fact that – at best – 15% of their tech engineering teams are female. The number of women choosing to study computer science is now half of what it was in the ‘80s.

It’s hard to find a woman in Silicon Valley tech who hasn’t experienced some biased treatment at work, because of her sex. Women are expected to be agreeable, generous collaborators, and always look good. One female executive talked about traditional expectations: “We’re supposed to be at home, nuzzling newborns,” she said.

Alison van Diggelen at London's BBC studio

Why does all this matter?

Gender imbalance in tech is a problem for everyone and it needs to be tackled for three vital reasons: innovation, competitive advantage and the bottom line.

1. Studies show, the more diverse your team, the more innovative it is. Since Silicon Valley’s whole modus operandi is innovation and inventing the future, making tech teams more diverse should be a no brainer.

2.Given tech companies are making products for a diverse world population, the more teams are representative of their market, the more chance it’ll make consumer-pleasing products and gain a competitive advantage.

3. There’s a correlation between the number of female executives and success rates of companies. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that companies with the highest representation of women in their top management achieved better financial performance than other companies.

As Hillary Clinton said at a recent Silicon Valley conference,

“Inclusivity is more than a buzzword, it’s a recipe for 21st century success.”

The fact that companies are “coming out” about their diversity stats, and acknowledging there’s a problem, is a great first step.

But much more should be done.

Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute recently announced a partnership to support female tech students at college and increase the number of women joining the tech ranks.

The pipeline issue is crucial. Encouraging more women to choose computer science at college will help reverse current trends. Megan Smith, America’s Chief Technology Officer is right when she says mandatory computer science needs to start in second grade.

But it’s going to take strong leadership within companies to bolster these efforts and provide an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to women and gives them the respect and opportunities they deserve.

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner says that with two young daughters, gender imbalance is now a personal matter for him. He and other SV leaders must commit to real change for the long term.

No. Women in Silicon Valley tech are not doomed.

I remain hopeful that the valley will mature and get beyond this ugly adolescent phase…

For the BBC World Service in Silicon Valley, this is Alison van Diggelen



Many thanks to all the wise women who contributed to this Letter from Silicon Valley. I hope the conversation will continue and the issue of bias (both conscious and unconscious) and gender discrimination will be tackled head on.

To read more on this topic at Fresh Dialogues, click here



Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

Heidi Roizen: Entrepreneurship, Mentors & Relationships

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Heidi Roizen has been on both sides of the entrepreneur funding divide, so her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is particularly potent. She’s an operating partner at venture capitalists DFJ, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford University and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Last month, I interviewed Roizen at the Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley. That interview led to many more questions about what it takes to succeed, especially the need to build meaningful relationships. Here’s our deeper exploration:

van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?

Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets.  For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained.  Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.)   They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop.  They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there.  Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.

van Diggelen:  Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.

Heidi Roizen Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level.  I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships.  I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships.  I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party!  But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection.  For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning. 

As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together.  That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.

van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?

Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here.  In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!)  then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship.  From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction. 

In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’  I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.

van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?

Roizen: Almost running out of money many times.  Microsoft entering our market.  Shipping a product with a lot of bugs.  Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors.  In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences.  They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences!  There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on.  And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.

van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?

Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years.  I do think the valley is changing in a few ways.  For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling.  We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy.  I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!

Explore more Inspiring Women at Fresh Dialogues

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Diane von Furstenberg: Why Fear is Not an Option

Cisco’s CTO Padmasree Warrior: 7 Secrets of Success

BBC Dialogues: Hillary Clinton & Women In Tech

BBC Dialogues: Hillary Clinton & Women In Tech

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Hillary Clinton came to Silicon Valley last week and the women-in-tech community gave her a warm welcome. Her message of inclusivity, diversity and wage equality in Silicon Valley earned a standing ovation from the gathering of over 5,000 women from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. On Friday, I reported on Hillary’s speech and the drive to increase the number of women in tech for the BBC World Service programme, Business Matters. It starts at 37:10 on the BBC podcast and below.


Here is a transcript of my conversation with BBC host, Dominic Laurie. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Laurie:  Alison…you’ve been at a conference…the Lead On Watermark Conference in Silicon Valley, part of the drive to achieve more diversity in the tech industry. The thing is, when I think of some of the big tech companies that have really made global success, there is quite a lot of diversity in those companies, so what’s the problem?

van Diggelen: Well, the problem is: the stats are not echoing what you just said. 11% of executives in Silicon Valley are women, 20% of software developers overall are women. You’re in the minority if you’re a woman in tech.

Laurie: Are you talking about gender diversity, rather than ethnic diversity?

Kimberly Bryant Black Girls Code Fresh Dialogues interview Feb 2015van Diggelen: Ethnic diversity is even worse. The stats for Google are: 1% of their employee workforce is black…17% is female, 83% male. So yes, it’s pretty dire.

At this conference, the energy was high. It was electrifying actually. 5000 female executives gathered in Silicon Valley, from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. We had keynotes including Hillary Clinton, Diane von Furstenberg, Jill Abramson, Brene Brown, as well as tech luminaries like Renee James of Intel…I have a clip from Hillary’s speech where she outlined the challenges women face in the tech industry and why this is important for the wider economy, to get more women in tech.

Clinton: Inclusivity is more than a buzz word or a box to check. It is a recipe for success in the 21st Century. Bringing different perspectives and life experiences into corporate offices, engineering labs and venture funds is likely to bring fresh ideas and higher revenues. And in our increasingly multicultural country, in our increasingly interdependent world, building a more diverse talent pool can’t be just a nice to do for business, it has to be a must do.

It is still shocking: the numbers are sobering…just 11% of executives in Silicon Valley and only about 20% of software developers overall are women. One recent report on the gender pay gap in the valley found that a woman with a bachelor’s degree here tends to make 60% less than a man with the same degree. We’re going backwards in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward.

Laurie: She’s quite a talker isn’t she? Very eloquent woman, Hillary Clinton. Alison I guess the problem is…you listed some very eminent women who were talking, and I guess inspiring people in the conference, but do some people feel that those women are so high achieving that perhaps they’re out of reach? Did you manage to speak to more “normal” people who’ve made it in tech?


Marlene Williamson CEO Watermark Fresh Dialogues interview Feb 2015

van Diggelen: Yes, I spoke to a number of women in tech.* I spoke to the CEO of Watermark, Marlene Williamson and she emphasized the need for women to do it (Lead On) for themselves, do it for other women. That’s how we get economies of scale, that’s how you build your power base. I also spoke with Kimberly Bryant who feels so strongly about this that she wants to help create a pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs and in particular, young black girls. Her nonprofit is called Black Girls Code and her whole mission is to get more black girls from (age) 7-17 exposed to computer science, get them into classes, get them into summer camps and feed the pipeline for young entrepreneurs going into tech. Ones who’re female and ready to change the world…like Zuckerberg.

Bryant: We think there’s a huge need for creating this pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs that are women. But one of my personal goals is: I really want to see a girl or woman leading a major tech company like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, or Apple….I think that having a women at the head of a tech company, a founder of a tech company of that level would do so much to really change the whole image of the whole industry being male dominated. This movement for diversity and inclusion is not just a good thing to do, I think it’s the right thing to do, (from a social equity and as a business imperative…to remain competitive.)

Laurie: I took a look at Kimberly’s website. It’s quite a cool website: Black Girls Code. Lots of interesting information…

van Diggelen: She’s doing a lot of good work and she’s actually bringing it to London…they’re hoping to seed a chapter in London this summer.

Laurie: Maybe we could have a chat to her…

Thank you so much Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues.


*Check back soon for my next report from the Watermark Lead On Conference, including interviews with Vicky Pynchon of SheNegotiates, Millennial Kate Brunkhorst of DCR Workforce and Laura Chicurel of Nextinit.


The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

The Dream That Helped a 13-year-old Girl Survive The Holocaust

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Seventy years ago today, the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated. Irene Weiss is one of those survivors. She was 13 years old when she was captured in Czechoslovakia, her long blond braids shaved off and her family killed in the gas chambers. Weiss sat down with me to share her inspirational story. Remarkably, it was her vivid daydreams that helped her stay alive. Listen to our conversation here:

“There will never be any hate or discrimination after this, because we will tell the world what happened: This is what a 13-year-old was daydreaming about,” she told me.

Irene shared some powerful descriptions of her time at Auschwitz. Here are some excerpts of our conversation.

On the sights and sounds:

“At night we could hear the steam engine, which makes a lot of hissing noise. We’d hear the whistle of the train arriving. Then we could hear the hum of human beings, a huge hum of sounds. And then I’d look up the road and see them coming: a huge column of women and children and elderly moving toward the gate of the gas chamber…. You could see flames, like the whole forest was burning…. The screams were blood curdling. I would stuff my fingers in my ears. I couldn’t stand it.”

On how she dealt with the pain:

“I cannot say to you that all I wanted to do is die. No! I pushed that out of my immediate grief. It was like a stone — you know, without feeling. It’s the way we deal with death…. We grieve and find a way to distance ourselves from the real, painful part of grief. You have to do that; otherwise you have to stop living, or you cry all the time … or commit suicide. Some did…. It was quite easy, by just touching the electrified fence.”

On never crying:

Holocaust survivor, Irene Weiss at 13 years oldWeiss has never let herself cry about her experiences, even to this day, despite having her beautiful braids of long, blond hair shaved off; being told by her fellow prisoners that the rest of her family had been killed (they just pointed to the chimneys); and finding a shawl belonging to her late aunt as she sorted through the mountains of prisoners’ belongings.

I asked her if she ever cries for joy, for example when she saw her children getting married.

“Well I do experience great joy from my children, endless joy,” she said. “Like all parents, it’s mixed with a little bit of fear that it should last and nothing should spoil it.”

One day soon there will be no more survivors who can tell us their story, which is all the more reason to listen closely and learn from brave women like Irene Weiss. What would it take to make her daydream a reality?

To find out more about Irene Weiss’ remarkable story, go to the Holocaust Museum site.

This interview was part of the Let’s Never Forget Series honoring author Arnost Lustig.



Fear Is Not An Option

Fear Is Not An Option

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Diane von Furstenberg says that the greatest gift she’s ever been given was the lesson that fear is not an option.

With 2015 off to a fearful start in Paris and its impact reverberating globally, especially within Jewish communities, it’s a lesson worth exploring.

I sat down with von Furstenberg, Queen of the Wrap Dress and the DVF brand, and found a down-to-earth woman with a powerful story that resonates far beyond the world of fashion.

As a small child, von Furstenberg learned her lesson in a rather brutal way from her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“She’d lock me in a closet and wait til I stopped being afraid,” says von Furstenberg.

Her mother experienced atrocities at Auschwitz and her challenging life shaped von Furstenberg’s to this day.

“Fear is not an option is everything: fear of flying, living, confronting the truth…fear of anything,” says von Furstenberg, who has made some courageous choices in her personal and business life, as chronicled in her new book “The Woman I Wanted To Be.”

She recounts the many periods of self doubt and challenges she faced as her career soared then flopped, rose again from the ashes, battled to stay relevant and then triumphed in China and globally, ensuring DVF a place in the design history books. She’s done it all: married (and divorced) a prince, been painted by Andy Warhol, made front page of Newsweek, survived cancer, faced bankruptcy and become a doting grandmother.

In a conversation with Maria Shriver the day before our interview, she urged women to be hard on themselves. I asked her what she meant by that. Although some journalists claim she’s impossible to interview, DVF answered my question directly.

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” says von Furstenberg. “See yourself for what you really are…for the good and the bad, whatever. Once you have accepted that, then you can also begin to like yourself.”

Along with Tina Brown and Sally Field, von Furstenberg is part of Vital Voices, a network that supports female community and business leaders around the world, both politically and financially.


The interview took place at The Foreign Cinema in San Francisco on November 20, 2014. Many thanks to Julian Guthrie and Martin Muller for the invitation.

Check out our archives of Fresh Dialogues interviews with inspiring women like Meryl Streep, Maureen Dowd and Belva Davis.

BBC Report: Tech Women Flock to Silicon Valley “Mecca”

BBC Report: Tech Women Flock to Silicon Valley “Mecca”

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:

BBC Tech Tent logoTech 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.”

Serah Kahiu Think Different Fresh DialoguesWe 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)”

The way to Silicon Valley, Los Altos Museum, Fresh Dialogues(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.Asal Ibrahim interviewed by Alison van Diggelen Fresh Dialogues Oct 2014

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