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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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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.

Startup Phenomenon: Women – Event in Boulder – 9/3

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SP-Women-Banner

As many of you know, mentoring women in startups and STEM careers is important to me, so I’m very pleased to be a part of the Startup Phenomenon: Women program, a one-day event in Macky Auditorium at CU-Boulder.

The speaking line-up for the day is really outstanding. It includes author Amanda Steinberg, founder and CEO of DailyWorth; Margaret Neale, management professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business; and Michele Weslander Quaid, chief technology officer (federal) and innovation evangelist at Google. If you’d like to see all the speakers scheduled, you can check out the website.

We’ll be covering topics of interest to entrepreneurs like startup financing, mentoring by and for women entrepreneurs, alternative business models and resources available for women-led businesses.

The conference is open to the public, and and a line-up like this doesn’t come along every day. Tickets start at $25 for students and $100 for the general public. I’m looking forward to an informative and inspiring day, and I hope you’ll consider attending.

Dilbert on Cultural Fit

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I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?

You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.

Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:

-      Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?

-      Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?

-      Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?

-      Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.

Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.

Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.

I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.

Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.

Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.

If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.

Simply Awesome Leadership in Computer Science Education

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I woke up this morning to a post from Fred Wilson titled The Academy For Software Engineering. In it Fred announced a new initiative in New York City called The Academy For Software Engineering. Fred, and his friend Mike Zamansky (a teacher at Stuyvesant High School) helped create this with the support of Mayor Bloomberg’s office and Fred and his wife Joanne are providing initial financial support for the project. If successful, it will have a profound impact on computer science education in the New York public high school system.

Fred’s looking for additional support. I haven’t talked to Amy yet about magnitude, but I’ve already committed via Fred’s blog and sent him a note separately. If you are interested in education in general and computer science / software education in high school in particular, I’d strongly encourage you to reach out as well.

I’ve been working on this general problem (dramatically improving computer science education, both in K-12 and college) for a while through my work at the National Center for Women & Information Technology. More than ever I believe we have a massive education pipeline problem – whether you call it computer science or software engineering or something else. There are several fundamental problems, starting with the curriculum and lack of teachers, but including a total miss on approach and positioning. I expect efforts like The Academy For Software Engineering to take this on directly.

I’m involved in the nascent stages of two projects in Boulder going by the code names “CodeStars” and “The Software School.” I’m excited about each of them and Fred’s initiative and leadership just pumped up my energy by a notch.

Fred / Joanne / Mike (who I don’t know) – thank you! And Mayor Bloomberg – we need a lot more politicians like you who speak their mind and get things done.

Three Early Lessons From My Dad

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Last night I had the pleasure of talking at a dinner at Emily White’s house. Emily is on the board of the National Center of Women & Information Technology with me, is ex-Google, currently at Facebook, and with her husband Brian are amazing hosts. We had a fascinating group of NCWIT board members as well as a bunch of local entrepreneurs and members of the bay area entrepreneurial ecosystem who had a connection either to Emily or to me. The environment, food, and evening was delightful, and I led a discussion about a wide variety of topics after doing a 30 minute space jam in answer to Emily’s lead off question of “So Brad, what’s on your mind?”

We covered a lot of stuff around entrepreneurship, creators, the magic of doing things, the importance of asking “why”, and my belief that we are in the midst of a massive societal behavior shift. One of the questions that a long time friend asked was something like “My daughter is in high school and worries about the path she needs to be on to make sure when she gets out of college that she gets a good job. If you were me, what would you tell her?”

I don’t have kids so I don’t really feel qualified to answer this from a parents perspective, but I answered it with a story of three key things my dad said to me between the ages of 10 and 17 that had a profound impact on what I’ve done and how I live my life.

Age 10: You can do anything you want: My dad is a doctor. He came home for dinner every night but would often go back to the hospital in the evening (and on weekend) to do rounds and visit patients. Until I was 10 I’d often go with him. I loved hanging out with him, would bring a book, and plop down at the nurses station and read while I waited for him to go about his business. At 10, I decided I had no interest in being a doctor. I didn’t like the way hospitals smelled, I didn’t like the noise and the chaos, and I lost interest in all the doctors I was meeting. I remember telling my dad that I didn’t want to be a doctor. I blurted it out – think of a very nervous 10 year old just spitting out “Dad – I don’t want to be a doctor.” I remember my dad looking me in the eye and saying very clearly, “Brad – that’s ok – you can do anything you want to do.”

Age 13: We didn’t want to discourage you so we were supportive: When I was 10 – 13 I was a serious tennis play. I played all the time and was on the Texas junior tennis circuit. I was pretty good – consistently getting to the quarterfinals in singles and occasionally the semifinals. When I turned 13 I bought a computer for my bar mitzvah. I also hit puberty and discovered girls. I lost interest in tennis. Recently I was talking to dad about this and wondered what he thought at the time. He said that he and my mom were supportive of my tennis, but were relieved when I decided to quit playing. They were sick of schlepping me around Highway 80 and other places in Texas to spend the whole weekend watching me play, scream and yell, throw my racket, and then mope when I eventually lost. He said “I didn’t want to discourage you, so we were supportive, but we were relieved when you went down a different path.”

Age 17: Give it a year: My first two months at MIT were awful. I was homesick – all my friends, including my girlfriend, had gone to UT Austin. I got a 20 on my first physics test and went in my room for an hour and cried. I was completely overwhelmed by Cambridge and Boston – the people, the dirt, and the hustle of the city. The fraternity I lived in was filthy. The early winter chill startled me. And I thought Dallas, where I grew up, was the greatest place on early. My parents came and visited me in mid-October for a weekend. We were walking around on a crisp fall day in Concord, MA when I told them I hated MIT and wanted to drop out and go to UT with all of my friends. We talked to for a while – with my parents mostly listening – and then my dad said “You’ve only been here two months. Give it a year. If you still hate it after a year, switch to UT. But give it enough time to really understand it.” I ended up staying at MIT, getting two degrees, dropping out of a PhD program (I finally got to achieve my desire to drop out), and – while many of my days at MIT were brutal, I ended up loving the experience and treasure the impact it has had on my life.

I’m really lucky to have parents who have been awesome and incredibly supportive of me. When I reflect on the things that shaped the path I’ve taken, it was often short little one liners like these at a critical moment. My dad was just magical with his timing and his message. I can only hope I can be as good as he is.

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