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Video Interview with Lucy Sanders, NCWIT. Lucy is CEO and Co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology and also serves as Executive-in-Residence for the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has an extensive industry background, having worked in R&D and executive positions at AT&T Bell Labs, Lucent Bell Labs, and Avaya Labs for over 20 years, where she specialized in systems-level software and solutions (multi-media communication and customer relationship management.) In 1996, Lucy was awarded the Bell Labs Fellow Award, the highest technical accomplishment bestowed at the company, and she has six patents in the communications technology area. You can find NCWIT on Twitter @NCWIT
- Could you briefly explain what NCWIT does & how it serves women & technology?
NCWIT stands for the National Center for Women in Technology. It’s quite a mouthful, an acronym. We’re a fairly young organization. We’re a little over 6 years old & we were founded by several organizations as well as the National Science Foundation to look thoughtfully & purposefully at women’s declining participation in computing. So this is a problem, as you know & perhaps some of the listeners know, girls are not taking computing in high school in large numbers. They’re not enrolled in secondary programs. They leave the technical workforce at a staggering rate by mid career & they start less than 5% of all IT companies. So we have an issue & NCWIT was founded to look into that issue. We are an organization of organizations so we have over 250 organizations & non profits at our side across the country. We do research & statistics & we also have large national awareness campaigns to make sure that people understand this issue & how alarming it is not only for acrity purposes, I think we all know that’s important, but for innovation. I think we should all be concerned that women are not helping to invent in any large numbers, the technology upon which our world depends. That’s sometimes a shocking observation.
- Yes & on that point, has your organization identified what are the main reasons that are holding women or girls back from studying technical subjects?
Well you know like a lot of complex problems there’s no one right answer, right? So there are a number of things & let’s just say this, I think young people, both boys & girls are not exposed to computing in any real rigorous way in K12. We have a growing problem in terms of instruction here in the US: if it’s even offered in a high school, if it counts towards graduation? So it’s really hard to interest more girls into computing when it’s really not being taught much across the United States. We also have a curriculum problem when we do teach it. And I’m a computer scientist so I say this with great love in my heart, we need to make it more relevant & more exciting to young people today & make sure that they see the whole creativity of study in this area. And by the time women either choose an academic or corporate career or perhaps an entrepreneurial career, by & large they are in a minority, not just a small minority but a very small minority. So our research scientists would say that’s when odd cultural things take effect.
And so I gather then this is your mission to encourage women & young girls to find this more exciting area?
Well that’s part of it. Our mission divides into, we have a curricula mission, we have an awareness mission, we have a research & statistics mission & quite frankly we have a capacity building mission with corporations & universities working with them on how they can change their culture so that those who are not in the majority sort of group if you will, are particularly innovative & contributing.
- Could you give me some figures about the percentages of women in technology compared to men?
Yes we have quite a few & I can refer people to the NCWIT website. But off the top of my head, they may not be exactly right to the digit, but this is what I carry around in my head. If you look at high school, girls taking computer science advance placement test it’s roughly 16 or 17% of those test takers are girls. So that is I think, if I remember my college board statistics correctly, that’s probably the worst gender gap of any AP test that they offer. If you look at post secondary degrees for years across the nation, especially the research institutions, you’re going to see about 12 to 13% of those degrees going to women. Then the work force as a whole, the IT work force is roughly 22 to 25% women. And then let me just say this, that I think that those statistics tell part of the story but there are others that I would like to share with you. The first being that women leave the technology work force at about 56% by mid career. So that’s a pretty staggering figure when we do get them out there, the attrition rate is pretty high. And contrary to popular belief, a large number of them are not staying home to raise children. It doesn’t mean that they’re not having children. And also in terms of the innovation role, so let’s take the work force separately for a moment & kind of dig into the creative innovation roles in computing. So for example who has inventions, who’s patenting, who’s in the lead architect roles? And by the way I think on CNN today they said Software Architect is the top job in America. I’m sad to say that we don’t have many women there. Who are indeed Vice Presidents, who are the Architects, who are the people who are doing the lead creative work & women are roughly in those positions at about 5%. Those are pretty shocking numbers! One last thing that got National Science Foundations’s attention was that women’s participation has been declining since the mid 80’s.
Yes I noticed that in that Techcrunch article today ‘Men and Women Entrepreneurs: Not That Different’ , they were mentioning that, it’s very sad! I guess you’ve got your mission cut out for you then?
Well you know I will say that I see light at the end of the tunnel. We have a lot of good hearted people who are trying hard in their organizations to do something.
- Many say that it helps a woman entrepreneur’s position if she is technical when sourcing venture capital. Do you know any percentages on that compared to non technical women entrepreneurs?
I think what I have is only supposition on my part. First of all, I have a bias that being technical helps everybody. First I’m a computer scientist so there you go! We should be in charge of everything, you know why not? So I would suppose that being technical, if you’re starting a technical company & there are only one or two of you taking that company down the road, it would probably be helpful. But here in Boulder we have a lot of entrepreneurial activity & down in Silicon Valley a while too & somewhat in Boston too. I see a whole bunch of people starting tech companies that aren’t technical. And most of them are men. So I think there probably is an advantage? I don’t have any data one way or the other.
Certainly I was a nontechnical founder when I had my business & I think the passion & love for technology carried me through. But obviously if you have a technical cofounder that helps with vcs, I think.
- Have you found that some successful women deny that there are any challenges or obstacles for women entrepreneurs? If they have achieved success they don’t want to note that there is anything broken in the system or that there ever was a glass ceiling. I ask this question because I have heard that both some women CEO’s & women venture capitalists take this position.
Well you know I wouldn’t be surprised, I’m not surprised to hear you say that! I think that it’s not uncommon & often times when you’ve really struggled one way or the other, you may deny that there is an issue. But you know I don’t really think it’s a conversation worth having, if you will. Because we know the data, show that women are not starting technical companies, there’s no question. And you know facts are friends, right? Well why is that? I don’t think we know & here’s the stuff that you might find interesting. We set out to do some early research in this area of women & tech entrepreneurship. Because we’ve heard all the anecdotes, just like everybody that’s looking at this. They’ve heard the anecdotes, they’ve seen many panels where people are disagreeing & they’re sort of binary, they’re either off or on. So we went & did a literature review & really searched the whole body of knowledge, officially you know! A researcher did all of this with the search words of ‘entrepreneur, women, technology’ whatever, right! They found 3 total research papers.
Wow, that’s astounding!
So the data are not there, if you will. (I’m trying to use data in plural because now I’m at a University, but my natural tendency is to say data in singular!) So the data is not there & so what people have are opinions. And are they valuable, sure but are they contextualized, yes! They’re contextualized to their personal path, to their personal challenges, to their personal benefits, right! And so I’ve heard some people say: ‘It wasn’t hard for me!’ And perhaps if you looked at their support system or whatever else they had, they had some natural advantages? I’ve also heard some women say ‘Well those mean vcs, they didn’t give me any money!’ But heck maybe I wouldn’t give them any money either? So I just feel like we need to dig in, accept the data & we need to see what we can do if we care about this issue.
Well that’s a very thoughtful response, thank you very much!
- In a recent interview with Cindy Gallop, IfWeRanTheWorld, she quoted Madeline Albright: ‘There’s a special place reserved in Hell for women who do not help other women.’ Could you elaborate ways that women entrepreneurs can support each other?
Oh well sure & you know I think that I’m going to broaden this a bit to women supporting technical women or encouraging girls to be technical. We know from research perspective in populations where one group is significantly over represented that encouragement, simple acts of well deserved encouragement. (So I am not advocating being fake here, right!) Well deserved encouragement helps bring more women into these areas. So for example encouraging your girl to take a computing class & helping to mentor her. Understanding that at least in high school, she may be the only one in her class or her school who is taking such a class. And also this research paper that was just mentioned in the TechCrunch article ‘Men and Women Entrepreneurs: Not That Different’ The most significant finding is that there is very little difference between male & female tech entrepreneurs. The one difference that was even statistically significant was that women were more likely to become entrepreneurs than men if they were asked in or they were encouraged.
Wow, yes I saw that & it was brilliant. Thank you so much that’s really helpful.
- What is your advice for women entrepreneurs sourcing venture capital from your experience?
Well you know we do see a number of women tech entrepreneurs because of the work that we do & I’m on a few advisory boards for venture funds helping to source technical ideas & so forth. I think there’s common wisdom that applies. First of all you really need to have a great idea. You have to be able to pitch your idea. You have to have a great sense of how it’s going to make money. What’s the exit strategy for the vc? You really have to be tight on all of that. And to go get some coaching. There are a number of good groups out there that can help you. There are a lot of well hearted vcs & entrepreneurs. It’s a great network where you can reach out & get advice & get introductions & so forth. I think for women its especially necessary to be on top of that game & have it exactly right before you go pitch to vcs. The other thing I think is probably true, although I personally have never pitched to a vc, is that you don’t want to go too soon. You need to understand the steps of capitalization. When can you bootstrap? When should you really be going after angel investing? What about friends & family? What about an NSF SBIR grant You know we have a podcast series where we talk to women who have started IT companies & they have started their companies in so many different ways.
Thank you so much for your time today Lucy. I know that you’re incredibly busy & you’ve got a lot on your plate. So I do appreciate it that you have given this time to this project.
My pleasure & thanks for your interest & everybody who watches this, thanks for your interest in these issues which are very, very important to future innovation.