BBC Dialogues: Silicon Valley Startup Makes College Breakthroughs

BBC Dialogues: Silicon Valley Startup Makes College Breakthroughs

(Photo: Thanks to Breakthrough Silicon Valley, Nahom Zeratsion (left) got a scholarship for Bellarmine College Preparatory and will be attending San Jose State University this Fall)

In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to focus on the bright stars of tech and innovation. But what about those people who don’t feature on the home page of TechCrunch and can barely afford their rent? Today, Silicon Valley’s income inequality is jaw-dropping; average incomes of the top 5% of households are about 30 times higher than the average incomes of the bottom 20% ($500,000 vs $15,000). One startup has a long-term vision and is successfully breaking the cycle of poverty in some Silicon Valley neighborhoods by helping low income students get a college education.

Here are the stats from Breakthrough Silicon Valley:

80% of students are first in their family to attend college

62% of students live in gang-impacted neighborhoods

And yet, 96% of these students get into 4-year colleges, 4% into community colleges.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Melissa Johns, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley to find out how she and her team achieve such impressive stats, and how their program has a ripple effect on the wider community. Although the majority of the nonprofit’s revenue comes from the tech community, its limited budget means the team can only reach a few hundred students every year. With a proven and successful platform like this, imagine what could be done if tech juggernauts like Google, Apple and Cisco stepped up to help scale this program?

The BBC World Service was curious to explore this less glamorous – and yet inspiring – side of Silicon Valley and aired my interview on Business Matters.

Here’s the podcast

 

And here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

The BBC’s Roger Hearing: Alison, you’ve been looking at the people who work in Silicon Valley…and income inequality in the area?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, there’s a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Silicon Valley. It’s quite stunning. Last week, I interviewed the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley. It’s a nonprofit that’s helping low income students break out of poverty by getting a college education. That’s the ticket to success in Silicon Valley and beyond. Melissa Johns runs the six year program: tutoring, mentoring and college counseling and her team has impressive statistics (see above). I talked to Melissa  about the many shortcomings of California’s public education system. She told me that on average there’s only one college counselor for every 700 students in California’s public high schools. That’s one thing she would like to fix.

Melissa Johns: I don’t know how we’re going to do the things we need to – to fill the STEM pipeline of future engineers or Silicon Valley is going to crumble. We need to find more women for leadership positions in our Fortune 500 companies. How are we going to achieve all that when the vast majority of our population is left behind because they’re attending schools that are under resourced and they have college dreams with no real connection to a college counselor who can help them walk through the very complex process?

Roger Hearing: But Alison, I gather that there’s a huge number of dropouts there in Silicon Valley high schools?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, there’s a lot of talk here about the dropout crisis. East San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley has dropout rates as high as 30% in some communities and the majority of that are students who complete high school but don’t meet the minimum level of credits to graduate. But the good news is: there are a number of nonprofits working to have an impact, and these Breakthrough students are having an enormous impact on their communities. It’s like the multiplier effect in economics. Here’s Melissa Johns (below) explaining The Ripple Effect.

Melissa Johns, Breakthrough Silicon ValleyMelissa Johns: When I look at the tremendous obstacles a student has to overcome to become the first in their family to graduate from college. There’s a huge amount of culture shock… but also there’s a lot of fighting that impostor syndrome…I’m so impressed by students who can fight all of that inner talk that tells them they can’t do it and persevere. So they can then have an economic future that they can be proud of and excited about because they get to choose a career and not just a job. They start a positive ripple effect for any younger siblings, any neighbors, any cousins, who look at what their achievement is and say: well if she did it, I can do it too! The expectations that change in a family, in a community are amazingly impressive.

Roger Hearing: Alison, what’s interesting about this is the area we’re talking about, Silicon Valley: massive high tech businesses. Are they willing, interested in employing people from these kind of communities and trying to take advantage of the education they’ve got?

Keep listening to hear more about:

Diversity in Silicon Valley

How the Singapore education system compares

The challenge of social mobility: How Breakthrough kids are choosing careers, not just jobs, and breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

Find out more about Silicon Valley nonprofits bridging the college gap:

City Year (uses Americorps, a government funded program to work in schools),

College Track (largely funded by Laurene Powell, the widow of Steve Jobs)

KIPP (a national charter school network)

Downtown College Prep school in San Jose, and in Palo Alto

Broadway High School – continuation school for at risk youth – with vocational focus

SV Community Foundation – assembles donations from many sources, gives ~$2M annually to education programs/schools.

Read more from Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

Please Note: Links to all my BBC contributions on Fresh Dialogues are to my personal portfolio of audio and text. Copyright of my BBC broadcast works remain with the BBC.

BBC Dialogues: How Mark Zuckerberg Can Help Women in Tech

BBC Dialogues: How Mark Zuckerberg Can Help Women in Tech

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Sometimes I wonder if anyone is actually listening to my late night conversations with London on the BBC World Service. Well, I just found out that, YES they are. And some listeners are even sharing these conversation with influential people.

This summer, my producer told me that my conversation with the BBC’s Fergus Nicoll was used for “training purposes” at the BBC’s headquarters in London. We were discussing my interview with Instagram’s COO Marne Levine and how male champions can really help women succeed in business.

Curious? I was too.

Here’s a link to the featured clip at the BBC and a shorter (90 second) version below:

 

Biz Matters clip re male champs like Zuckerberg July 14 2016 jpg

 

From the BBC’s Business Matters feature:

Instagram’s Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine is mentored by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – a beneficial relationship given their similar career paths. Alison van Diggelen, from the Fresh Dialogues initiative that focuses on inspirational women and business innovation, describes how women can really benefit when they have male champions too and challenges Mark Zuckerberg to ‘step up.’

Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Alison van Diggelen: One thing that female entrepreneurs in positions of leadership have told me that will help, is for women to have male champions. People like Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai have to step up and be champions of women and make it easy for their teams to not just attract, but retain women. Offering childcare on-site is a large part of that…

Bay Area Womens Summit 2016 action poster

 

Fergus Nicoll: So making sure that the onus is not always on female executives to have female mentees?

Alison van Diggelen: Yes, absolutely. It has to be shared. One of the things that was repeated time and time again at the Bay Area Women’s Summit, where I interviewed Marne Levine (COO of Instagram), is that the United States doesn’t have universal paid family leave. Quite a few companies in Silicon Valley are offering it (often in paltry amounts, by European standards), but it needs to be federally mandated in order for the U.S. to remain globally competitive. That was one of the messages that came over loud and clear.

It’s well accepted here (in Silicon Valley), the advantages of diversity: having males and females on the team can increase the bottom line, creativity, innovation and meeting the needs of this diverse clientele. That’s well proven, but these companies are having to step up and try harder to attract and retain these women.

Find out more about inspiring women in business:

TaskRabbit’s CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot is one of the few black, female CEOs in tech. What is she doing for women and diversity in tech?

Meet some of the top women in tech in our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown Philpot w Alison van Diggelen for BBC WS interview

BBC Report: TaskRabbit CEO Shares Tips on Pivoting, Diversity

BBC Report: TaskRabbit CEO Shares Tips on Pivoting, Diversity

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

What’s it like to be a black female CEO in Silicon Valley? How should you handle a powerful backlash when your company does a major pivot? I explored both issues with TaskRabbit CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot and my interview aired last night on the BBC World Service program Business Matters.

BBC host Roger Hearing, Seoul Bureau Chief for the Economist Stephanie Studer and I had a lively conversation about the gig economy, as well as fashion fumbles (like cargo shorts) and cool alternatives (like utility kilts).

Listen to the podcast at the BBC (Episode titled: Bank of England Lowers Interest Rates): TaskRabbit segment begins at 26:46

Or listen to the TaskRabbit segment below:

 

Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity)

Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking into something that is a strange concept: the gig economy. Tell us, what is the gig economy?

Alison van Diggelen: It’s been borrowed from the music industry, Roger. Workers who work in the gig economy don’t have regular full time work, but work in “gigs” like at Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Etsy, Upwork and TaskRabbit. I’ve been speaking with Stacy Brown-Philpot. She’s the CEO of TaskRabbit. It’s a website and app that matches job seekers with jobs – like house cleaning, shopping, delivery and handyman jobs.

It was founded in 2008 and was one of the first companies in the gig economy. Stacy told me how the company launched its international operation in London in 2012, and it did a pivot. It changed its “bidding for a job” model to a “direct hire” approach. This was a huge success in London but when they tried it back in the United States, they faced a severe backlash from contractors here. Yet, they stuck to their guns and last year the business grew 400%.

I first asked Stacy what advice she would give to other businesses about staying the course, when they try to pivot and face similar challenges.

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Know exactly what it is that you are focused on and don’t lose track of that. Stay laser-ly focused on what that goal is…despite the noise that comes into the market place, stay focused and believe more than anyone else and you can get there.

Alison van Diggelen: There are a lot of critics of the on-demand economy saying that it doesn’t offer a living wage, benefits to workers…this whole “Uber issue” of independent contractors not employees…Can you give me your perspective?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Our Taskers are independent contractors – they can work in a flexible way and that is the No.1 reason why they stay. We have a very low churn: 10%. The flexibility that we’re able to offer our Taskers is unparalleled and necessary.

What needs to happen is that the regulations and policy has to change…to support the sharing economy. When you look at structures we’re working under…these were created in the 1900’s and they no longer apply…we need something that adapts to the technology-enabled businesses that we operate under today.

Alison van Diggelen:  What specifically would you like to see as far as regulation change?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: One of the tradeoffs we face is the ability to offer training and more transferable skills to our taskers…We’d love to see regulations evolve to support that. We’d also love to see opportunities to access healthcare and retirement.

We empowered this community to create a social safety net for Taskers who really want the flexibility to work in a meaningful way, so we have a responsibility to also partner with them to do other things like have health care and retirement savings.

Alison van Diggelen: Let’s talk about diversity – you’re a rare person, you’re black… you’re a female CEO in Silicon Valley. Talk about the pros and cons of that.

Stacy Brown-Philpot: The pro is that I stand out…whenever I walk into a room and try to meet somebody…I say: trust me, you’ll find me…you’ll see who I am. (laughter)

But the con is that I stand out. Sometimes I look around and wish there were more people who look like me. At TaskRabbit over 58% of our staff are women, we have 11% African Americans – It’s a stated goal to increase those numbers. I feel a responsibility – just to feel more welcome wherever I go – to increase those numbers, and encourage everybody in our industry  – not just for the sharing economy – but the tech industry overall to do the same.

Alison van Diggelen: What specifically do you do?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: We have goals around targets that we measure in hiring, so whenever we bring someone in that we want to hire, we want to make sure that population of people we’re interviewing is a diverse population of people. We also do things culturally in terms of our off-sites and events to make sure everybody can bring their whole selves to work because many of our new hires come from referrals….if you feel you can bring your whole self to work and bring someone who’s different and they be a great candidate for the company.  (Brown Philpot also told me TaskRabbit has teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus to help increase the company’s diversity.)

Alison van Diggelen: Talk about your wildest dreams for where TaskRabbit can be in 5-10 years?

Stacy Brown-Philpot: Task Rabbit should exist everywhere in the world. We’re creating everyday work for everyday people – this is a phenomenon that is global and so I want to be global as a company.  Millions of families are time starved, countless people are looking to find work, and they’re looking for an opportunity for growth and creating a meaningful income. That’s an economic responsibility that we take seriously. We’re shaping the future of work.

Roger Hearing: Does it change the future of work? These kinds of companies: Uber, Etsy etc?

Alison van Diggelen: There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence… and according to the US Census, the gig economy was the fastest growing employment sector last year. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40% of American workers will be these independent contractors – it’s currently about 30% – and this will have knock-on effects. Here in the U.S. we don’t have a national health service so these people working these gig economy jobs don’t have health benefits through their employment, so there are things that will have to change.

Roger Hearing: It hasn’t all been roses, as you alluded to in the interview. There was a revolt against TaskRabbit. Tell us more about that…

Alison van Diggelen: They originally had a bidding process and the Taskers felt they had more control that way. After trying out this new on-demand service they got a huge backlash. They learned a lot of lessons -one of which was: you can’t overdo the communications. A lot of people didn’t understand the changes.  Stacy Brown Philpot worked previously at Google for almost 10 years and she used her product experience there to stay the course. She recalled when a new version of Gmail came out, people hated it and hated Google for introducing it…People are opposed to change she found.

In the end, they’re saying the Taskers benefited and TaskRabbit benefited and it was a win win. It was a vocal minority who opposed the change.

***

Continue listening for more discussion…

The Economist’s Stephanie Studer explains why Uber was effectively banned in South Korea and why gig economy companies like TaskRabbit may face cultural and other challenges if they try to launch in the region. We also discussed trust and safety issues; and what TaskRabbit is doing to ensure Taskers are trustworthy and reliable.

And finally, Roger Hearing explored the business fashion trends in London, Silicon Valley and Seoul and was surprised to learn about the popularity of the utility kilt here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Modern Utility Kilts

Find out more

Meet more strong female leaders like Instagram COO Marne Levine and Wholly H2O’s Elizabeth Dougherty from our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

BBC Dialogues: Why Is Instagram Growing, While Twitter Plateaus?

BBC Dialogues: Why Is Instagram Growing, While Twitter Plateaus?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Instagram recently announced it had reached a big milestone: half a billion users. The BBC asked me to interview the company’s COO, Marne Levine to explore the company’s appeal and find out why video – and new products like Boomerang – are helping fuel that growth.

“We’re certainly marching towards a billion…and even beyond a billion. Today, video is exploding on Instagram… In the last six months, consumption increased by more than 40%…Sometimes people want sight, sound and motion to tell their stories. ” Instagram COO, Marne Levine

Listen to the Instagram interview and discussion below or at the BBC’s Business Matter’s podcast (Instagram segment starts at 26:40 on BBC podcast).

.

Here’s a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

BBC host, Fergus Nicholl: Do you use Instagram? A new study says that half the Fortune 500 companies use it for marketing. Alison, you’ve been talking to a bigwig at the company about its recent announcement that it’s reached the magic number of half a billion users?

Alison van Diggelen: That’s right. I interviewed Marne Levine. Instagram is very well known as a place where youth congregate, especially teenagers…they use it to reach their friends and share cool things…a lot of these users are women. But they’re not the only ones making up this figure of half a billion users. I asked Marne how entrepreneurs are using Instagram to attract more business…

Marne Levine:  There are so many different stories of small businesses, big businesses that have grown through the Instagram community. A woman named Isha Yuba in Germany – has “Art Youth Society.” She started by designing a bracelet, she posted a photo of it. Somebody inquired and suddenly she has a thriving business. She has turned her passion into livelihood. A lot of businesses have started to advertise on Instagram. We now have more than 200,000 advertisers…the vast majority of those are small businesses.

Alison van Diggelen: You’ve added about 100 million users in about 9 months.  Obviously the next milestone would be one billion…Any ideas when that might happen?

Bay Area Women's Summit panel, photo by Alison van DiggelenMarne Levine: We’re certainly marching towards a billion…and even beyond a billion. When we have more people on the platform, it really benefits the Instagram community – we get a wide range of perspectives, new windows into different things that are happening around the world.

Those could be big events like the Olympics…that’s probably how I’m going to experience the Olympics, through Instagram. Lots of people are sharing ordinary moments, epic moments and everything in between.

Alison van Diggelen: Why do you think Instagram is doing so much better than Twitter, that seems to have plateaued?

Marne Levine: We’re constantly trying to thinking about: what would add value to the community? We listen to feedback, continue to innovate so people can tell their stories in different ways. When Instagram started it was really all about photos. Today video is exploding on Instagram… In the last 6 months, consumption increased by  more than 40%.

Sometimes people want “sight sound and motion” to tell their stories. Sometimes it’s not necessarily just a straight video….I don’t know whether you know Boomerang? Cool little looping videos that take ordinary moments and turn them into fun and delightful moments.

Alison van Diggelen: You posted one of your son going up and down the stairs?

Marne Levine: I did!  Somebody once said this to me and this is how I now think about it: Motion is the new filter.

Alison van Diggelen: Your CEO persuaded the Pope to go on Instagram. Tell us about that…

Marne Levine: The Pope is looking to inspire lots of people. What he told our CEO, is that a lot of times….people will show him an image to get over the language barrier…Images are the most powerful way to connect, because they transcend borders, language, cultures, generations. You look at the image and instantly connect. He understood that there’s a new global language of images. In this case 500 million people are contributing to that new global language of images – it could be images that are documenting the plight of refugees… images of hope and opportunity. That can be really inspiring…

(End of interview)

Fergus Nicholl: She could be VP for sales, as well as COO. She does a pretty fantastic job of selling…But just to zoom in on one of the questions I thought was very sharp: this question of plateauing.

You were talking about Twitter, and people might also think about Snapchat…I wonder whether Instagram is doing really well just because it’s in vogue.  Maybe, in a year’s time there’ll be something else?

Alison van Diggelen: I think that’s the constant challenge of Silicon Valley companies, of social media companies in general. They have to keep innovating. They can’t just put out this cool platform and assume that people will come to it. She talked about how they listen to feedback…because not everyone loves Instagram. They recently changed their algorithm to make (the feed) not just strictly reverse chronological order and that caused push-back from certain users, so she underlined how they try to listen to their users and please as many users as possible.

They’ve also launched “business profiles” to allow businesses, like the entrepreneur mentioned, to get the word out and reach their target audience. And of course, over 50% of the users are in this very sought after demographic of under 35-years old. So it’s a great way for companies, business and media outlets to reach this young demographic.

Continue listening to our discussion on the BBC podcast (Starts at 33:00):

What can be done to increase the number of women in business?

How has Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg influenced Marne Levine?

The interview took place at the Bay Area Women’s Summit on June 21st. The Women’s Foundation partnered with the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland to host the event.

Find out more

Re Brexit: BBC Dialogues: What does it mean for the United States, globalization and Hillary Clinton? 

More BBC Reports at Fresh Dialogues: Re Tesla, Solar Impulse, Code for America and Mexicans in Silicon Valley, etc.

Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

BBC Dialogues: What Does Brexit Mean For Globalization, Hillary Clinton?

BBC Dialogues: What Does Brexit Mean For Globalization, Hillary Clinton?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

As the seismic impact of Britains’s vote to leave the European Union rocks the political and financial world, the long term impact is still unclear. But it’s likely that the creation of a new political divide could have incessant repercussions around the world. What does it mean for globalization, and for U.S. presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton?

I was invited to take part in a live discussion on the BBC World Service last night with Simon Long, Banyan columnist for The Economist in Singapore; and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of Economics21 in New York.

I see Brexit as part of a larger trend: a widespread shift to nationalism and anti-globalization. It could be the beginning of the end of capitalism as we know it – the majority of Britons have voted against the status quo. Globalization is NOT working for them. In the US, it’s a big wake up call to establishment politics here. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party need to take note.

BBC host, Fergus Nicholl led a lively discussion on the pros and cons of the Brexit vote. Here is a transcript of the globalization discussion (edited for length and clarity). Listen to the entire podcast at the BBC (Globalization focus starts at 38:38) or below:

Robert Hormats (former Under Secretary for Economic Growth for President Obama and Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates) explained the U.S perspective:

Robert Hormats: We have a great stake in the global economic system…the global economy has a big effect on our own economy, as it does on other countries’ economies and if we give up that leadership or turn inward, it will hurt our economy…

Laura Trevelyan (BBC Correspondent, Washington D.C.): What can be done to restore economic stability?

Robert Hormats: I think it’s very important that political leaders try to help people who do not feel that they’ve benefited from globalization or from technology, to feel more included, to listen to those people. If these people feel more confident about their own lives, they’ll feel more confident about the global economy…We need to make sure the global economic system works effectively and that is now in jeopardy.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth: I’m fully in favor of globalization, but it doesn’t have to mean that Brussels can control what kind of vacuum cleaner you can buy…The EU has become too intrusive. And that’s why the majority of people voted to leave… not having to do with globalization but intrusion in everyday life…

Fergus Nicholl: Simon, take us into Asia with this issue of globalization…

Simon Long: It’s not just that people are uncomfortable with globalization, they’re uncomfortable with some of the byproducts: increased inequality, entrenched elites making decisions for them. And in that context this (Brexit) vote has resonated in some parts of Asia as a revolt against doing what you’re told is best for you. It’s a phenomenon one’s seen in elections in Indonesia in 2014…in the Philippines with the election of Rodrigo Duterte on an explicitly anti-elite, anti-establishment platform.  It’s part of an anti-globalization trend…a general revolt by the people who feel excluded from the elites.

Fergus Nicholl: Alison, you’ve got friends and family back home in Scotland. I wonder how they’ve been reacting over the last few days…

Alison van Diggelen: It looks to me like another referendum on Scottish independence is almost inevitable. I’ve heard anecdotally that some Scots who voted “No” to independence in 2014 are now inclined to vote “Yes” – they don’t want to be part of what they see as an isolationist, xenophobic “little England” mentality.

I see Brexit as part of a larger trend: a widespread shift to nationalism and anti-globalization. It could be the beginning of the end of capitalism as we know it – the majority of Britons have voted against the status quo. Globalization is NOT working for them. In the US, it’s a big wake up call to establishment politics here. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party need to take note of it and start doing more to address the people who’re not benefiting from globalization and doing something to help them.

Fergus Nicholl: Simon, that’s a very bleak message: a sense of fundamental danger to the global financial system?

Simon Long: I think it’s justified. What we have seen is a big step back to the international order of the past 40-50 years. It does reflect a sense of resentment, not just in the UK, against the EU, but felt around the world, against the current economic system. If one looks at pioneering trade agreements, for example, The Trans-Pacific Partnership, it’s hard to find any country where that’s a popular idea: people think it’s either nothing to do with them or is against their interest.  The popular mood has disassociated itself from what governments are doing in globalization.

Read lots more BBC Dialogues and reports from Fresh Dialogues

Politics: Mexicans in Silicon Valley Respond to Trump’s Vitriol

Tech: How to Get More Women in Tech?

 

BBC Report: How to Get More Women in Tech?

BBC Report: How to Get More Women in Tech?

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Why aren’t more women in tech? That was the main topic for discussion yesterday on BBC’s Business Matters. I shared my report from Google’s I/O conference, where almost one in four attendees were women. The Women Techmakers team managed to increase female attendance from 8% in 2013 to 23% this year. How did they do it and what can other companies learn from their strategy?

Listen to the podcast at the BBC World Service (Women discussion starts at 26:40) or use the clip below:

Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

BBC Host, Roger Hearing: Have you thought how many women there are in the new high tech industries? Not enough is the general verdict. Have a quick listen to this:

Google CEO, Sundar Pichai: Welcome to Google I/O and welcome to Shoreline. It feels really nice and different up here. We’ve been doing it for many many years in Moscone and in fact we’ve been doing I/O for 10 years, but I feel we’re at a pivotal moment in terms of where we’re going as a company…. There are over 7,000 of you joining in person today.

BBC Host, Roger Hearing: That was the boss of Google, Sundar Pichai, opening a recent conference held near the tech giant’s headquarters in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. Alison, you were at that conference. Tell us more about it….

Alison van Diggelen: Google I/O is the annual Google developers’ conference. I/O stands for Input/Output and Innovation in the Open. It attracts thousands of developers from around the world who use Google’s open platforms, such as Android and Chrome, to build apps for your smartphone, smartwatch, or computer.

Google has been battling to increase the number of women in its tech teams, and I was pleased to see a decent number of women making presentations on the keynote stage. The company managed to triple the number of women attending the conference by partnering with other tech organizations like the Anita Borg Institute, Women Who Code and Hackbright academy.

At the conference, I spoke to Natalie Villalobos. She’s Google’s Head of Global Programs for “Women Techmakers.” I began by asking her WHY Google is seeking more women in tech…

Natalie Villalobos: We need everyone to contribute to make the most innovative technology. The more diverse voices we have, contributing, participating, and building the technology, the better technology we’re going to have…We always need more diverse voices at the table: for women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities because the people building the tech should be as diverse as the people that the technology serves.

Alison van Diggelen: You went from 8% female attendance in 2013 to 23% this year, almost a quarter today. How did you do that?

Natalie Villalobos: ‘What could only Google do?‘ is a big rallying cry of my work and it was partnering with community organizations, locally, nationally and internationally to bring women to the conference, by providing travel grants, access to tickets and so we wanted to create these lasting partnerships…And one of the things we worked really hard at is how can we really engage women across the spectrum? We welcome all types of women: whether you identify as non-gender binary, women of color, Latinas…Also geographic diversity: We have women from South Africa, Taiwan, Tunisia, China…a lot are coming here to the U.S. for the first time for Google I/O.

Winnie Chen, Nancy Hang, Android auto team at Google IO 2016, Photo by Alison van DiggelenAlison van Diggelen: What makes you special, is it just deep pockets? (Google has earmarked $150M this year for its diversity programs)

Natalie Villalobos: We’re really looking at how we can engage and meet developers, designers and entrepreneurs wherever they are. Diversity and inclusion in the tech industry is not just in the United States. There are people all over the world who want to be here in this industry who can’t move to Silicon Valley. How can we meet them where they are and share our new platforms, our technologies?

People who can’t come to Mountain View can join a local extendedI/O event – I believe we have over 400. Our biggest this year is in Sri Lanka with over 2000 attendees. It’s about reshaping the industry and supporting people where they are.

Roger Hearing: Alison, we’ve heard this a lot before…there aren’t enough women involved in the high tech industry. But it doesn’t seem to get any better.

Alison van Diggelen: It seems to be moving in the right direction but it’s very slow going. I actually had the chance to speak with Sundar Pichai and he said that this is a long long road. He’s talking about 10 years, 15 years before they can get close to equality. It’s a pipeline issue, it’s a role model issue. There are inherent biases in companies that make it more difficult for women to get into tech companies and thrive in tech companies. He did point out an encouraging fact that at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, the most popular major is no longer Biology but Computer Science.  So anecdotal evidence like that says that perhaps we’re reaching a critical mass, perhaps a turning point, where women can feel at home in that geeky, computer science world.

Roger Hearing: Let me posit that maybe that’s because it’s Stanford…it’s California. Simon, let me come to you (in Singapore) In the high tech world where you are….where some of the most cutting edge stuff is going on. Are there many women involved?

Simon Long, The Economist: I’m struck when I visit multinationals (in Singapore) like Google and local startups how dominated they are by the young…and men. Alison put her finger on one of the main problems: who’s studying what at university? Who has the right skills? There are these ingrained prejudices…people recruit people like themselves.

Ellie Powers, Google interview by Alison van Diggelen for BBC Report May 2016Alison van Diggelen: The pipeline issue is not the whole excuse.  I did speak with Ellie Powers, a product manager at Google and she was on the keynote stage. It’s a lazy excuse, she says, “if you’re looking for gold, it’s rarer, you have to look a bit harder” and you have to figure out how find and connect with people outside your network. She put a challenge out there to Google and beyond for any company looking for women, in order to make a better team.

Roger Hearing: Perhaps the women are not there, they don’t want to do it? Is it a cultural bias?

Alison van Diggelen: I think there is a bias…there’s the stereotype of the geeky coder, but I think that’s changing. After being at that conference for an entire day, and seeing that one in four of the attendees were women. It was different from other tech conferences I’ve been at where if feels more like 10%.

Unconscious bias training will help. I think role models like Ellie Powers, up there on stage, wearing a dress, talking tech, being geeky…that will help get more young women to say, maybe coding is for me, maybe computer science is for me?

Roger Hearing: Simon, does it matter what the gender balance is?

Simon Long: I think it probably does…if everyone had equal access to do what they’re good at, the world would be a better place. As Alison says, if the problem is not just a pipeline one… If there are biases inhibiting women from doing as well as they might, then we’re all losing out.

Roger Hearing: If women were involved in designing the Apple Mac, would it be different, better?

Alison van Diggelen: Natalie’s point is relevant here: if your end product is for the world – 50% of which is women – you have to include women in the process. By attracting a more diverse employees base, you’ll get a better workforce. I talked with Steven Levy, a well-known tech author and he said, the days when a credible company can have an all-male conference or panel are just “way over” – it’s about sending a message to all people that they’re welcome. It’s about getting a better workforce and building better products. That’s the bottom line.

Read more about women in tech in Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series

And find out more about The Anita Borg Institute