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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Foundry Women’s Exec Summit

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A few weeks ago we had a summit for the women execs in our portfolio. About 40 women attended. Overall we identified about 70 women in our portfolio in leadership positions, which I estimate is about 15% of the exec positions in our portfolio.

The event was organized by three of the women – Joanne Lord (until recently CMO at BigDoor, now at Porch), Nicole Glaros (Techstars Boulder Managing Director), and Terry Morreale (NCWIT Associate Director). Like many of our internal summits, the agenda was organically developed and the event was a lightly structured, high engagement day. It was an all female event until 4pm, when I joined for a 75 minute fireside chat followed by a nice dinner at Pizzeria Locale.

This morning I’m heading over the NCWIT annual employee retreat and participating in the first session, which is a retrospective on the past year and current state of NCWIT. I’ve been chair of NCWIT for nine years and am amazed and what Lucy Sanders and the organization has achieved. Personally, I’ve learned an incredible amount about the issues surrounding women in technology and have a handle on what I think are root causes of the challenges as well as long term solutions.

Last night I gave a talk at Galvanize on failure for Startup Summer, one of the Startup Colorado programs. About 10% of the people in the room were women. After almost 90 minutes of talk and Q&A, the last question was an awesome one about the women in the room and what we could do to encourage more engagement by and with women in the startup scene.

About a year ago, we realized that none of our active companies had a female CEO. Today, three of the 58 do: Moz (Sarah Bird), littleBits (Ayah Bdeir), and Nix Hydra (Lina Chen). If you are looking for a percentage on that, it’s 5%.

5%, 10%, and 15% are low numbers. But at least we are looking at them, measuring them, talking about gender dynamics in tech, and taking action around it.

Resources for Girls Learning to Code

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This morning littleBits released their Space Kit. I’ve been on the board of littleBits since last year and am just in awe of what the team, led by Ayah Bdeir, is cranking out. Ayah is an example of an amazing female entrepreneur and CEO. I first met her via Joanne Wilson who wrote about here here. I hope to work with her for a long time.

Seeing the launch inspired me to go dig up a list of resourced for girls learning to code. Ever since I first got involved in National Center for Women & Information Technology, I’ve been deep in the problem of underrepresentation of women in computer science and entrepreneurship. Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NWCIT, has taught me a huge amount about this and I’ve worked closely with her as chair of the organization to try to make a difference around this issue.

I regularly get asked for resources for girls who are interested in learning how to write software. Following is a list curated by Lucy.

While many of these apply to boys as well, it’s a great list if you have a daughter who is interested in learning more about coding. It’s by no means comprehensive – if you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

Girl and Women Specific

Concepts

Learn to Code

Intro to Computer Science

NCWIT Awards for Aspirations in Computing

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Several years ago on a Saturday I found myself at Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte. I was attending the second National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) Awards for Aspirations in Computing event. I had gone for a three hour run early in the morning on a beautiful spring day in Charlotte and my mind was wandering all over the place.

As I entered the ballroom for the event, I encountered 32 young high school women and their parents. I wandered around and talked to most of the young women. They had a range of backgrounds, came from a bunch of different geographies, and were a mix of ethnicities. But they all had one thing in common – they loved computers.

As I got to know a few of them better, I learned that they did things like lead their First Robotics team. Write software for local businesses. Help out on systems for their schools and local governments. Hack on open source projects.

I was absolutely and completely blown away. And inspired. These young women were completely net native. They were from all over the place. They had a wide variety of teenage girl interests. But they were all fascinated with, and extremely competent with, computing. As much – or more – than I was in high school, and I spent an enormous amount of time with my head in my Apple ][.

On the spot, I called Amy and asked her if we could give each young woman a $1,000 scholarship in addition to the award they were getting. Amy said yes and Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, announced it shortly thereafter. The scholarship was given to each Aspirations in Computing winner when they entered college as a freshman.

At this point, 100% of the women have gotten their scholarship. Many have already graduated. It’s incredibly rewarding to look at the list of schools, and the accomplishments, of these young women.

So Amy and I decided to do this again. We are giving another $1,000 scholarship to each winner of this year’s NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award. There are going to be 35 this year, so that’s a $35,000 gift to NCWIT. Hopefully that will encourage some additional young women to apply.

I’ve been chair of NCWIT for a number of years and I am very proud of what the organization has done to encourage women at a young age to get involved or continue pursuing STEM fields. Each year, NCWIT selects a set of high school girls that show remarkable promise in the fields of computing or IT and recognizes them for their aptitude, leadership, and academics. This award also creates an environment for those students to succeed in college by offering them scholarships, internship opportunities, and much more. The business community and the academic community, nationally, have really come together to make the awards substantial and impactful. I encourage you to jump in and help out, and here are a few ways how:

  • If you’re a young women, who’s applicable for this award, apply!
  • If you’re not, tell a young women you know, or a few, about this award. The knowledge that there are people rooting for them to succeed in STEM fields can have a powerful effect. Here’s an easy way to encourage a student to apply.
  • Offer a scholarship or host an award.
  • Start a conversation about NCWIT and the work the organization is doing. What we need is more discourse around the issue of inequality in computing and IT. Bring it up at dinner. Start a discussion with your daughter, niece, or friend about it. Learn more about it.

These awards are a few steps in the right direction but there’s always more work to be done. If you have thoughts about how to get more young women in this generation into innovation field, I would love to hear them!

The application for the NCWIT Awards for Aspirations in Computing is open until October 31, 2013. Apply here.

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing – Applications Are Open

Comments (7)

Last week I was called out on a blog titled Stop Squawking; Embody The Change. In it, Nilofer Merchant (the writer) asserts that while my writing about the lack women in tech / entrepreneurship / computer science is useful, it doesn’t have much impact. Nilofer says:

“Those posts are all “Yeahness”; maybe they are helping educate the few people on this earth who haven’t read the research, statistics that says that diversity of opinions improves the performance of any workgroup. Perhaps they counteract the “women just want to have babies” or “women don’t take risks” posts out there.”

She goes on to make a call to action for me and a few others, saying:

“If Mark, or Fred, or Brad wanted to actually see things change, they have to be willing to be changed. They have to have their networks changed. They cannot stay in their current circles, talking to the same people they already talk with, and then imagine they will run into more women to invest in. They cannot expect things to change by asking “boy, I wish things would change”. That’s a gesture. A politically correct gesture, sure, and maybe it gives the warm fuzzies, but accomplishes little else. It is certainly not embodying the necessary change. To move from impossible and unattainable to possible and attainable is more than chopping off a few letters. It means we need to embody the change.”

I agree strongly with Nilofer that we need to embody the change. Since I don’t agree that all I do is write about the issue, I left a comment with a few examples of the things that I actually do, rather than just write about, to address this issue.

One of the things I do is chair the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  It is well documented that there is a significant gender imbalance in IT. Only 18% of computer and information science degrees were awarded to women in 2009 (11% at major research universities), though 57% of college degrees are awarded to women (source: NCWIT By the Numbers 2009.) One of the things I’m especially proud of is the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.

The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is designed to reverse this trend by identifying, recognizing and supporting young women interested in and aspiring to pursue a major in computing. It was created in 2007 and has grown to a combined National and Affiliate program with local awards serving 22 states in 2011. To date NCWIT has recognized 855 young women and plans to grow the award program to a reach of 10,000 young women and recognize 1,000 award recipients annually. I wrote about my experience attending the 2010 awards and spending time with the winners, including the college scholarship that Amy and I decided to give each winner in the spur of the moment.

The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is much more than an award program. Recipients are provided long-term support for their interests in computing through peer networking, mentorship, scholarships and access to opportunities. Applications are now open to any high school young women residing in the US. Please encourage all the young women you know to apply before the end of October.

LEGO, Sexism, and Stereotype Threat

Comments (38)

I love LEGOs. So, when I saw the page yesterday of the new LEGO Minifigures (sent to me by Lucy Sanders, the CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology) I threw up a little in my mouth.

Like me, Lucy is a LEGO enthusiast, but she was not happy to see how women (or minorities) were represented in the LEGO Minifigures sets. Sure, there is a female snowboarder, a female tennis player, and a lifeguard, but the rest of the female Minifigures are a hula dancer, pop star, cheerleader, witch, and nurse. And that’s it. While I have nothing against nurses, entertainers, or athletes, these mini-figures are perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes about both women and men.

At NCWIT (where I am the Chair of the board) we’re grappling with the problem of how to attract, retain, and promote girls and women in technical education paths and careers. Many K-12 teachers who want to introduce their students (girls and boys) to computing and engineering use LEGO products like Mindstorms and Technics and LEGO energetically markets their products for this purpose. That’s a good thing.

However the ridiculous Minifigures perpetuate standardized, simplified, and damaging conceptions of acceptable pursuits for women. Such perceptions have contributed to keeping women away from many types of jobs, including computing. These are not harmless toys – they are sending messages to girls and boys about where they belong on a daily basis. If you doubt the serious impact of this exposure, I encourage you to learn more about stereotype threat, especially the work of Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.

At NCWIT we’re working hard to make computing, technology, and business more inclusive. C’mon, LEGO. Your products are a great avenue for educating our young people, but your Minifigures are stuck in the past. Get rid of them.

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