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Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures has a plan to help women gain more power in tech

Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures has a plan to help women gain more power in tech
[Photo: Sean Pollock/Unsplash; Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images]

Back in October, Melinda Gates pledged to invest $1 billion toward a rather squishy goal: to boost the “power and influence” of women in the United States. Today Pivotal Ventures, Gates’s investment and incubation company, in partnership with Break Through Tech (formerly WiTNY, founded at Cornell Tech) and SecondMuse, are launching a new initiative called Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities that aims to boost female representation and leadership in tech.

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The idea, according to Renee Wittemyer, director of program strategy and investment at Pivotal Ventures, is to focus on the tech sector because it creates the products and services (and jobs) of the future. And it just makes sense to develop more robust technology hubs in places other than Silicon Valley because not everyone can afford to live there.

That’s why cities such as Chicago—the first location for the initiative—have been selected for the five-year experiment. Chicago already has a robust ecosystem of tech startups, higher education, investors, and Fortune 500 companies (because all companies are tech companies now), and so the city is particularly ripe for this opportunity.

Wittemyer says that women, and particularly women of color, “are being systemically left behind.” And, she adds, “these stats are moving at a glacial pace.”

  • Women overall hold only 26% of computing jobs.
  • African American women and Hispanic women represent 3% and 1% of tech workers respectively.
  • Women hold just 18% of computer science degrees.
  • In 2017, women founders received only 2% of VC dollars. Over the last 10 years, only 0.0006% of venture funding has gone to black female founders.

Judith Spitz, executive director of Break Through Tech, notes that GET Cities will take a collaborative approach between businesses and STEM students. For women whose socioeconomic status prevents them from taking unpaid internships, this can be a game-changer. For example, Spitz says that the results of working with the City University of New York to offer three-week “winternships” for students who were working two or three part-time jobs to fund their education were “remarkable.” Where less than 5% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds landed summer tech jobs prior to the program, now as many as 54% do, results they hope to duplicate and surpass in Chicago with additional support from the Cognizant U.S. Foundation and Verizon.

Carrie Freeman, co-CEO of SecondMuse, has long championed a collaborative approach to accelerate innovation in underserved areas. She says it’s important to understand and harness existing assets such as those available to women in Chicago. That’s why, Freeman says, GET Cities will take an open approach to measure whether the initiative is succeeding. Metrics such as the number of women in the tech workforce, the number of computer science grads, and the amount of VC funding going to female entrepreneurs will help the team understand how to proceed and shift programs if needed.

At its core, though, GET Cities is supposed to do more than just bolster the tech sector in Chicago and the other two as yet unnamed locations. “National change is accelerated when starting at the local level,” says Wittemeyer.

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