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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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The Discussion About The Lack of Women In Tech

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The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today.  Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.

Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.

Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business).  Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.)  The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.

Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).

For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial.  As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

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I had an amazing day on Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I attended the Bank of America Technology Stars of the Future awards ceremony for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.  If you’ve been following along on this blog, you know that I’m chairman of NCWIT (the National Center for Women & Information Technology).  I’m proud of a lot of things that NCWIT does, but after attending the Aspirations in Computing awards I think it has moved to the top of my list.

We gave awards to 2^5 (32) young women (all in high school) for their computing-related achievements.  At the awards ceremony Lucy Sanders (NCWIT’s CEO) and I read out descriptions of the accomplishments of each winner.  They are remarkable young women doing awesome things with computers, especially around robotics and research.  Bank of America – who sponsors the awards – was a gracious host, put on a delightful event, and awarded each winner $500 and a laptop (most of which were opened and up and running before the evening was over.)

I got to Charlotte midday on Friday.  After hiding in my hotel room for a few hours grinding through email and phone calls, I went out to dinner at Mac’s Speed Shop with Lucy and Ruthe Farmer (the excellent NCWIT staffer who runs the entire awards program) – we had beers and BBQ (veggie BBQ for me) and managed to avoid the bikers.  I crashed hard and slept 12 hours, waking up in time for the intro lunch with the award winners and their parents.  At lunch, I sat at a few different tables, met the young women, and heard a few stories.

After lunch, Bank of America did a full afternoon of show and tell for the attendees at their innovation labs.  I went for a three hour run in Charlotte – basically heading south for 90 minutes and then turning around.  It was a perfect day (60 degrees and sunny) and I got a good feel for a bunch of Charlotte’s neighborhoods.  During the run, I pondered how incredible the young women were that I’d met.  The cliché “these kids are our future” definitely applies and whenever I encounter young people like this it gives me a renewed sense of hope and optimism.

When I got back to the hotel, I called Amy and asked if she’d be game for us to add on to the award and give each winner a $1,000 scholarship for college from our foundation.  Not surprisingly Amy agreed and, as part of the award ceremony, each winner got this as a special bonus award.

Among the seniors that I met, one was going to Wellesley (where Amy went to school) and five have been accepted to MIT (two have committed; the other three cornered me to talk about my views on MIT).  Stanford, Caltech, Columbia, and a bunch of other schools were well represented.  I’m pretty sure that every one of the winners is planning to go to college, although a few have several years to go before they have to decide as there was one freshman winner, a few sophomores, and a number of juniors.

I invoked my superpower Sunday morning and slept the entire flight home, partly as a result of recovering from my Saturday run.  A day later I’m still thinking about the great things all these young women did and the incredible futures they have in front of them.

Finally, a huge thanks to Bank of America for their ongoing support of NCWIT and these awards.

Things Women Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Indian Entrepreneurs

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I’m extremely impressed with Vivek Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch.  He’s been blogging periodically for them since last fall and has shown that he’s willing to take on difficult, controversial, and complicated issues and discuss them in data driven and systematic ways.

Recently, Vivek wrote a post titled Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem that resulted from a research project he did with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (I’m chairman).  I thought the post was excellent.  The comments, however, were really enlightening to me.  The amount of anger and hostility, especially irrational attacks, surprised me.  Well – I guess it only surprised me a little – it mostly disappointed me.

After that article, Vivek sent me an email with the following questions “why did you originally get involved with NCWIT” and “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”.  The first one was easy – I pointed him at a post I wrote in September 2005 titled Why the NCWIT Board Chair is a ManI then spent some time thinking  and emailing with Lucy Sanders *the CEO of NCWIT), about what we have learned to address the question of “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”  My goal was to boil my answer down into a very simple set of suggestions, as NCWIT has several programs in their Entrepreneurial Alliance that address this problem.  In my experience, a simple answer is much better than a complex one, especially for people who haven’t yet thought hard about the problem but are interested in it.

I came up with two specific things that I’ve learned over the past five years and have incorporated into my brain:

1. We simply need more technical women in the software industry.  If there were more, there would be more starting software and Internet companies.

2. Existing entrepreneurs and VCs can help a lot by encouraging women to become entrepreneurs and then supporting them when they take the plunge.   It turns out that the simple act of encouragement (from parents, teachers, peers) is hugely impactful across the entire education and entrepreneurial pipeline so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is also important in the startup phase.

At some level it’s that simple.  The implementation and execution of these two (related) concepts is really difficult.  So, when I read Vivek’s post this morning titled A Fix for Discrimination: Follow the Indian Trails I realized he had once again totally nailed it.  The example of how Indian entrepreneurs, first as individuals, and then through TiE, became a force in entrepreneurship through the US and the world, is a great one.  And it’s an excellent analogy for women (and other groups that feel discrimination in the entrepreneur ecosystem.)

Once again, the early comments were disappointing in their anger and hostility.  However, given some of the stuff I’ve heard over the past five years through my involvement in NCWIT, they weren’t a surprise to me this time.

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.

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