Billionaire Melinda Gates is hoping to increase the number of women working in tech – starting with Chicago. A new initiative from her investment firm will spend $50 million to jumpstart the women-in-tech initiative in the Windy City and two other markets.
The American philanthropist and businesswoman has a reported net worth of $70 billion and is the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charitable organization.
In October 2019, she pledged to commit $1 billion towards gender equality and expanding women’s power and influence in the US over the next ten years. In an essay published in Time magazine, Gates said that men's domination in business and government is "frustrating – even heartbreaking." She highlighted how in 2018, there were more men named James running Fortune 500 companies than there were women.
Now Gates has announced a new GET (Gender Equality in Tech) Cities initiative through her investment and incubation firm, Pivotal Ventures, featuring a $50 million five-year plan to accelerate women’s leadership and representation in the tech sector. It will contribute to her aims to dismantle barriers in women’s professional advancement, including the imbalance of caregiving responsibilities, sexual harassment and discrimination, and harmful gender norms.
Sharing her goals on Twitter last week, Gates wrote, "How do we make Silicon Valley more inclusive? Maybe the answer is to start somewhere else."
The GET Cities Initiative will focus on Chicago for its "growing tech sector, strong academic institutions, and vibrant entrepreneurial and venture ecosystem," and announced several local partners that it is teaming up with to support gender inclusivity in Chicago’s tech community, including the University of Illinois and P33, an initiative from Penny Pritzker and Co Chair Chris Gladwin to make Chicago a "tier 1 tech hub."
Chicago is a good starting point. According to Chicago Blend, a venture capitalist-led organization, women in the city hold just 9.8% of startup board seats and only 19% of executive-level roles at startup companies. With the help of Gates’ GET Cities Initiative and other women-in-tech programs – such as tech hub 1871 and VC firm Chingona Ventures – more women can be empowered to pursue and retain a tech career in the city and beyond.
Gates’ organization added that they plan to partner with more local businesses in the future and will meet with them over the next few months to form a "tangible action plan." Two other US cities will also be chosen alongside Chicago, but are yet to be confirmed.
Renee Wittemyer, Director of Program Strategy and Investment at Pivotal Ventures, stated: "By building pathways for women in key industries, such as technology and entrepreneurship, together we can accelerate women’s power and influence and create greater innovation and economic opportunity for more people."
"We designed GET Cities to be an innovative approach that brings city-based stakeholders together to collaborate on a replicable model and accelerate the pace of change for women in tech nationally. It’s our goal to create the space for companies, investors, and innovative thinkers to bring ideas that will make this a reality."
In recent years a spotlight has been placed on representation issues in the technology industry and major US companies have responded with increased transparency – Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, for example, have been releasing diversity reports since 2014.
In the first year, the percentage of men holding tech jobs in each of these companies was 80% or higher and as of 2019, the lowest figures had only fallen to 77%. It’s evidence that there’s still a considerable amount of work to be done to foster better diversity within American and international technology companies. Gates’ significant pledge calls attention to the weight of the issue and the need to alleviate it.
A lack of inclusion, after all, has been proven to not only affect employment but also the actual design of the goods and services that the industry creates. Facial and voice recognition, for instance, are notoriously poor at responding to women due to biased data. A more diverse workforce will amount to better products that are fit for a broader range of customers and this, in turn, will reap more rewards for businesses.
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The conference will be taking place on May 4-5, 2020 at the Santa Clara Convention Center and will address diversity issues within the US and the global tech industry, while equipping women with the tools they need to leverage their career.
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