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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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We Need More Female IT Leaders

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Vivek Wadhwa has a strong article in BusinessWeek today titled Addressing the Dearth of Female EntrepreneursHe makes the argument that “There are too few women running high-tech companies; that’s too bad, considering evidence shows female-led businesses outperform those run by men” and concludes “[I] hope that when I revisit this topic in subsequent years the percentage of women launching IT companies rivals the percentage of women going into law, medicine, and higher education. The outcome would benefit us all.”

Vivek worked with the National Center for Women & Information Technology – an organization that I’ve been chairman of for five years – to analyze data on the background and motivations of 549 successful entrepreneurs that he had previously published research on in the article Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and MotivationOnly 8% of the sample was female and there were some very interesting conclusions from it that Vivek summarizes in his BusinessWeek article.

The fundamental assertion that Vivek makes – that the dearth of female entrepreneurs is a societal issue – is consistent with the ideas I’ve developed around this over the past five years of my involvement with NCWIT.  My assertion around the importance of this issue is simple – in the US we need more women involved in computer science, IT, and entrepreneurship to maintain our country’s long term leadership position in innovation.

When I sit in a room, like I did last night at the Colorado Open Angel Forum (which was spectacular), and see only one woman out of about 30 people, this issue is just reinforced.  It’s not that the event wasn’t open to women, or that we filtered against women, it was just that very few applied.  As we like to say at NCWIT, “it’s a pipeline issue.”  As a society and a country we’ve got to start working today to get more women into the pipeline for 20 years from now.

While there will always be people who say this is a gender equality issue (and come out either for or against this dynamic as a result), I think they are missing the real issue.  This is about innovation, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship. I’m glad Vivek highlights this issue and am especially proud of all the work that NCWIT is doing.

Help Reform Computer Science Education

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’m Chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  In five years, NCWIT has become a prominent national organization helping encourage, inspire, advocate, and educate women (and girls) to get involved in computer science based on the following belief:

“We believe that inspiring more women to choose careers in IT isn’t about parity; it’s a compelling issue of innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability. In a global economy, gender diversity in IT means a larger and more competitive workforce; in a world dependent on innovation, it means the ability to design technology that is as broad and creative as the people it serves.”

One of the disheartening things I’ve learned in the past few years from my involved in NCWIT is the abysmal state of computer science in K-12 in the United States.  It’s just awful – I’ve looked at some of the curriculum, the AP test, and some of the courseware and it’s so bad it makes me want to crawl under my desk and curl up in a ball.  Here are a few scary facts for you:

  • More than 1.6 million students took Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 2009, but barely 1% of the AP exams taken were in computer science.
  • The portion of high schools offering rigorous computer science courses fell from 40% in 2005 to 27% in 2009.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that nearly one million information technology jobs will be added to our workforce by 2016, but U.S. universities will produce only half the computing graduates needed to fill the new jobs.

As one of its major initiatives, NCWIT is taking on reforming computer science education.  Help us out by making a tax deductable donation to NCWIT for our DC Campaign.  And help us spread the word – our friends at Google (great supporters of NCWIT) have sponsored an all expenses-paid trip to Australia to meet with the Google Wave team and have lunch in the Google Sydney office (ok – and three nights for two people) for anyone that forwards this message on.

Call for Applications for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

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I spent the morning at an NCWIT (National Center of Women & Information Technology) board meeting where I’ve been chairman for the last few years.  NCWIT’s mission is to increase women’s participation in IT.  We focus across the entire pipeline (K-12, higher ed, industry, academic, and entrepreneurial communities) and – in addition to having a number of our own programs – work hard to leverage the efforts of other organizations around the country.  We’ve got a superb board of directors and executive advisory council and an incredible staff which I’m especially proud of.  For a quick overview, take a look at the Fact Sheet and the FAQ.

In today’s board meeting we spent a lot of time talking about computer science among high school kids, especially girls.  The stats are depressing and unambiguously point to a massive shortfall of computer scientists in the US in the next decade.  Having spent some time discussing the current AP Computer Science curriculum with some people I consider experts, it’s clear that it sucks and probably hurts the cause of educating kids in computer science more than it helps.  There is uniform agreement that AP Computer Science (and high school computer science in general) needs massive reform, but the time frame is painfully slow (2014 before the new AP Computer Science curriculum is deployed.) 

All is not gloom and doom for high school kids.  When I think about my experience with “computing” in high school, it involved an Apple II computer and a TRS-80, along with a bunch of BASIC programming.  My 300 baud modem with acoustic coupler (eventually upgraded to 1200 baud) gave me access to BBS’s which I explored the nooks and crannies of endlessly.  When I got to college, I learned the joy of Unix and DEC-20’s (did you know the DEC-20 was a 36-bit computer – go figure.)  The experience today of “computing” is radically different and integrated into the “life flow” of most kids so that the leap to “computer science” from “computing” is not an unnatural one.

Two years ago the Bank of America (one of NCWIT’s investment partners) and NCWIT created the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.  The video about the award is awesomely inspiring and the award has served to begin creating a real community of young women engaged in computer science.

The award recognizes high-school level girls for their computing-related achievements and interests.  All US high school young women (grades 9-12) are invited to apply.  Awardees are selected for their demonstrated, outstanding aptitude and interest in information technology/computing; solid leadership ability; good academic history; and plans for post-secondary education.

Each qualified national awardee will receive $500 in cash, a laptop computer, provided by Bank of America, a trip to attend the Bank of America Technology Showcase and Awards Ceremony, March 27, 2010, held in Charlotte, North Carolina, and an engraved award for both the student and the student’s school.

As of this afternoon we’ve received 450 applications in the first week that applications were open.  If you are the parent of a high school girl who is interested or involved in Computer Science, please spread the word.  Applications are open until November 15th.

NCWIT Board Evolution

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I’ve been involved in helping start a number of non-profits.  One of them – National Center for Women & Information Technology – has surpassed my wildest expectations.  Lucy Sanders and her team have done an awesome job of building a coalition of over 170 prominent corporations, academic institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits working to improve U.S. innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability by increasing women’s participation in IT.

I’ve been chairman of NCWIT since its early days.  As with most of the non-profits I’ve been involved in helping start, the board of directors evolves over time.  Unlike for-profit companies, each stage feels like a step function as you add new board members who bring a new set of capabilities, range, and diversity to the board.

Stage 1 for NCWIT’s board was a group of early board members who simply helped get things going.  There was a lot of evangelism for NCWIT, a lot of ad hoc help, and plenty of ambiguity about roles and responsibilities.  The board members were extremely enthusiastic and supportive – we wouldn’t have made much progress without them.

Stage 2 for NCWIT’s board was an effort to build some formality into the board.  We included several members from our larger investment partners, a handful of folks that played specific functional roles, and began to organize around a set of board committees.  Some of these committees were effective; some weren’t.  The consistency of board communication increased and while there was still plenty of ad hoc activity, in general things were more organized. 

Stage 3 for NCWIT’s board has just been launched.  We just announced the appointment of eight new board members.

  • Thaddeus Arroyo, Chief Information Officer, AT&T Services, Inc.
  • Phillip Bond, President and Chief Executive Officer, Information Technology Association of America (ITAA)
  • Dr. Rodney Brooks, Founder, Heartland Robotics, Inc. and iRobot Corp., and the Panasonic Professor of Robotics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Lisa Brummel, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Microsoft
  • Carol Mosely, Senior Vice President of Information Systems, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
  • Nancy Phillips, Chief Operating Officer and Co-founder, ViaWest
  • Merle Waterman, Chief Financial Officer, OneRiot
  • Emily White, Senior Director, Asia Pacific and Latin America Online Sales and Operations, Google

It’s an incredible set of people that cross the boundaries between entrepreneurship, academia, and established technology companies.  They are joining a well established board that has a great working tempo.  I’m really psyched about the next stage of NCWIT.

Being A Doer Is How You Change Things

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A few weeks ago, my friend Alan Shimel connected me with Jennifer Leggio.  Jennifer is the Director of Strategic Communications at Fortinet and an active blogger in – among other things – security and communication.  Alan suggested to Jennifer that she might be interested in the work we have been doing at the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

I remember the conversation fondly because I was sitting on the floor upstairs at Oblong’s office in LA while a bunch of people ran around downstairs looking at some cool stuff that Oblong was presenting to one of their customers.  Oblong had recently moved in to their new office and there was a noticeable lack of comfortable surfaces or devices to sit on (or in) upstairs.  The floor had to make do.  It was actually pretty clean and comfortable.

Jennifer asked a bunch of hard questions.  We had a great conversation.  I connected her with Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, and they talked.  Jennifer got her mind around how to engage in the problem NCWIT is addressing and Women in IT – Be A Change Agent (Part One) is the post she wrote kicking off her thoughts and actions.

I appear to have said at least one memorable thing during our conversation:

“The most impactful people tend to be the doers in the organization. We can’t rely solely on entrepreneurs, who may have very little time, to make change happen. Anyone with a strong voice can be a role model. It’s easier to get started when you’re a leader but real change happens when you build momentum across a much broader spectrum.”

Jennifer riffed nicely on this and came up with a number of actionable things for doers to do which she enumerated in Women in IT – Be A Change Agent (Part One).

Jennifer – great stuff on many levels.

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