Adriana Gascoigne was eager to join the tech industry when she made her way to Silicon Valley. But she found herself all alone as the sole woman at her startup. That isolation inspired her to found Girls in Tech in 2007. The nonprofit group encourages the empowerment, engagement, and education of girls and women in technology.
She found, along the way, that women shared a lot of the same hardships and challenges in the industry. Gascoigne had to deal with sexual harassment at one company, for example, and said she didn’t find the outcome to be favorable. But she also had fun working at tech companies, including SecondMarket, ImpulseFlyer, Hi5, SGN, Jamboola, Guba, Edelman, and Ogilvy Public Relations. She’s an Intel Insider, serving as a brand and product advisor for Intel, and has served as advisor to a lot of startups. In 2009, she launched SmittenWithMittens, a nonprofit providing fair trade mittens, clothing, uniforms, and resources to orphans in developing countries.
In the meantime, Girls in Tech has grown to more than 25,000 members, with 49 chapters around the world. One of its big events — Girls in Tech Lady Pitch Night — is coming November 10 to the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco. The event hopes to draw 400 female business leaders, including many who will participate in a live pitch session, and includes star judges such as Jennifer Tejada, CEO of Keynote, and Yvonne Wassenaar, chief information officer at New Relic. The winner will get a $25,000 cash prize and office space from RocketSpace. Sponsors include some big names like Genetech, NASDAQ, H&R Block Small Business, and GoDaddy.
The event is just one of the many ways that Gascoigne hopes to even out the odds of survival — and success — for women and young girls pursuing careers in technology. We interviewed Gascoigne recently about her journey in tech, the state of women in Silicon Valley, and the growth of Girls in Tech.
Gascoigne believes that the benefit of having more women in high-tech corporations and startups is that technology will improve. To develop comprehensive, innovative and exhaustive products, teams need to focus on diversity. A diverse team incorporates unique perspectives, skills, talents, and experiences, which in turn shapes the devices we use, the infrastructure that’s all around us, and the mobile apps we download to our smartphones. We are currently missing representation and the voice of 50 percent of the world’s population, she said.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: You told a story before about how you started Girls In Tech. It often felt like you were the only woman in a tech workplace. Can you talk about the beginnings of it?
Adriana Gascoigne: I started the organization in San Francisco when I jumped in the tech industry. My background was in consumer brand marketing and advertising. I didn’t think I was going to want to work in tech. I didn’t like tech that much. But when I moved to San Francisco and fell into a great startup called Guba. Unfortunately it didn’t survive the crash. But it opened my eyes to the opportunities in technology and the startup field. So much so that I’ve been an addict ever since.
The main problem with that experience was that every day I’d go to work and I’d be the only woman. We did end up hiring a receptionist who was a woman, but then she left. Other than that, our recruitment efforts were failing. We didn’t have many initiatives internally to make the workplace and its culture appealing and comfortable for women.
The company went from an online video site providing premium content and user-generated content offerings to other types of video sites, which will remain nameless at this point. At that point obviously it didn’t align with my values, so I decided to depart.
VentureBeat: And they all became billionaires or something?
Gascoigne: And my equity would have been worth a lot—No. But I thought it was a problem for a few different reasons. It created a very one-dimensional startup culture, work culture. We had the stereotypical video game room. We had Star Trek posters. We had beer in the fridge. Just beer and water, actually. At the time I didn’t think it was that big an issue, but then more people started talking about it.
The larger issue was the fact that we weren’t doing anything about tapping into the pipeline and encouraging more women to come into the industry and not only work at startups, but challenge themselves to become executives at startups. Without that perspective, without 50 percent of the population’s voice, technology will be different.
Women communicate differently, I think. There are certain characteristics to a woman, like multitasking, problem-solving, being able to listen and cultivate certain relationships and distinguish how a relationship will benefit the longevity of the company. Now, with women running companies—I think the statistic is that they make 15 percent more revenue compared to similar companies run by men.
Speaking to women at the time, there was a huge need for this. There wasn’t a place to call home, for women to come together, share ideas, collaborate, provide sounding boards for one another, get advice from each other. We needed to know that the tech industry is for everybody and that we can also succeed, regardless of the scarcity of women in the industry.
VentureBeat: The foundations of Silicon Valley are supposed to be meritocracy and egalitarianism. Intel’s roots are there, for one instance. It seems like it shouldn’t have wound up becoming a boys’ club, and yet so much of the Silicon Valley elite has long been male-dominated. I wonder about that contradiction. Why is it that tech wound up being that way?
Gascoigne: There’s a couple of factors. Silicon Valley is fueled by finance and venture capital, which is an old boys’ network if there ever were one. Old men did create this industry. They continue to be the ones leading the charge. Some venture capital firms do enforce workplace diversity and want to hire and recruit women as partners. They want to diversify their staff and the perspectives on the portfolios the invest in.
But technology as a whole—It starts from an early age. A decreasing number of women are getting computer science and engineering degrees. It was 36 percent a decade ago and now it’s dropped to 12 percent. That’s absurd. Thinking about all of the institutions that support tech and tech majors, STEM majors, organizations like Girls In Tech, how we’re producing curricula and trying to get more women in the tech industry—It’s astounding to read these statistics showing that dramatic decrease. But men dominate the tech field because they take the majority of the engineering roles. Women have product marketing roles and some design roles. But without engineers, you don’t have products.
How do we create more parity in the sector? That’s what we’re striving to do.
VentureBeat: It seems like you and a lot of other women have your share of horror stories about the industry. We don’t necessarily need to go into those.
Gascoigne: Oh, I don’t mind. [laughs]
VentureBeat: But there’s a dilemma. We probably do want to point out that these kinds of things happen in the industry. It’s meaningful for women to go into it and change that or prevent that from happening and make this a better place for everyone. But if women hear about this, they ask, “Why would I want to go work in that kind of culture? Why would I want to work for a video game company if all I hear about is how women aren’t treated fairly?”
Gascoigne: The landscape in the tech ecosystem for women is changing. I believe that. Men are stepping up to the plate and supporting and encouraging the movement to create workplace environments that inspire innovation and productivity and help women excel and become leaders in startups and tech companies. Companies are supporting training programs and benefit programs where women are treated equally. Compensation parity is one, and just in terms of work-life balance – being able to juggle family life as well as professional life so women can climb the ladder without feeling stressed out.
I feel like that’s a great step in the right direction. I also believe that things happen not only in the tech sector, but in many sectors – in finance, in education. Just because there’s such an immense dichotomy between how many men there are in our industry as opposed to women—I think things are pointed out more. Also, our industry is hot. Technology is touching every different industry and sector that exists in the world right now. It’s a hot market that’s getting a lot of attention.
VentureBeat: Are other industries equally bad, then? But you have more opportunity in tech?
Gascoigne: Wherever there’s a challenge, there’s an opportunity. But I feel that the landscape is changing. Even though I personally was sexually harassed at a big company—The lawsuit didn’t go anywhere. It was somewhat devastating. I was very young. There was nothing I could do about it. But I have to say it was probably a blessing in disguise, because it put fuel on the fire. It gave me the energy to change this.
Things aren’t always going to be perfect, but we’re heading in the right direction. Tech corporations and startup executives and employees are taking responsibility for actions and activities in the workplace. They’re creating policies. They’re creating rules and regulations for people to follow more strictly. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in the workplace. We want to be productive and focused on the end goal. We want to feel like we can use our skills and our passions for the good of the company and for making an impact on the industry. I feel like it’s changing. I see positive movement.
There are two workplace diversity paths. One that we talk about at Girls In Tech is product dev. Another is culture – training programs, compensation parity. Are women and men treated the same when it comes to pay? A lot of times they aren’t.
VentureBeat: Are you creating a culture that welcomes more women to join the organization?
Gascoigne: And a flexible work environment. You get a 40 percent drop-off when it comes to women in middle management, because they can’t handle things like commuting and managing a team alongside a family. The family becomes the priority, because it’s usually the mother who takes charge of that part of family life. So those are the two areas we focus on as far as accountability and transparency for corporations – recruitment and product development, and then culture.
VentureBeat: As far as the pipeline goes, how do you try to convince kids, young women, that this is a great place for them to go?
Gascoigne: Girls In Tech, we have different workshops for K-12. We expose the awesomeness in the tech industry and the STEM fields. We do app-building workshops for iOS and Android. From concept to wireframing, to actually getting it built, to marketing it, we teach [girls] how to deploy their apps. Once they see something on the App Store, they’re very excited. That’s one workshop. We can expose them and get them inspired to build and design on their own.
We do business-plan-building courses as well. If they have an idea within the tech industry, a business that they want to create, we help them through that process. We have a workshop that does that. We focus on shadowing, to get them exposed to what it’s like for a woman to work in a tech company. We do more simple things, like how to use Microsoft Office, so they can be experts with different programs once they move into high school or college.
We try to make things very engaging, interactive, and interesting at a very young age. We want girls to not only learn skills, but also feel empowered and excited and curious about doing more, about venturing toward studying in college within the tech sector.
VentureBeat: Do you see this working?
Gascoigne: It’s pretty amazing, the response we get. We have five-year-olds coming to some of our workshops. But the second piece of the puzzle is bringing together the role models, the women executives, the women entrepreneurs, and other women within the field coming to mentor young girls – to talk to them, teach them, and show them you can be a well-rounded individual and still be an engineer or designer in the tech industry.
It’s very early, but it exposes them to different job paths, too. Instead of just automatically being a computer science major, you can also work in tech as a product marketer or an IP lawyer, to give some examples. There are different paths you can take and still be working within the tech industry. With workshops and mentors, we enable girls to get more intrigued and excited about the industry.
VentureBeat: Another group of people needs convincing as well – big-company CEOs, men in management jobs, men who do hiring. What works when talking to that kind of person?
Gascoigne: We ran a campaign to raise awareness in response to Microsoft’s CEO making a comment onstage about how women shouldn’t negotiate to get a raise – that they should just sit back and let things happen naturally. That’s definitely not what we believe at Girls In Tech. We think you should take the bull by the horns, learn negotiation tactics and skills, and ask for what you want when you want to.
Similarly, holding corporations and executives accountable for integrating these policies and programs—It’s going to be very important, not only for women in tech, but for women in general. Workplace diversity is a very hot topic right now. It’s very important that we address it from a recruitment standpoint. As I mentioned before, we had very few women in the company I was working for. It changed the culture and it changed the product itself. The lack of diversity was very limiting to integrating different perspectives and skills and experiences and backgrounds within product development.
VentureBeat: I interviewed the chief diversity officer at Intel last week, Roz Hudnell. She had an interesting quote she brought up from William Wulf, an engineering professor. He talked about how engineering requires creativity, just as much as any other discipline. To do it right, you have to test an idea from a lot of different perspectives. You have to have these perspectives from different people in the room as you’re doing the engineering. You might find, with a certain group of people, an engineering solution. But without enough perspectives, he said you won’t find the most elegant solution.
Gascoigne: I honestly feel that diversity equates to creativity and innovation. When you look at the scope of teams in tech corporations or little startups, if you have people who speak different languages, have lived in different countries, have different backgrounds and skill sets—It does provide that level of covering your bases, essentially. Not only do you create the optimal product, but you create a comprehensive product.
I’ve seen that at every startup I’ve worked at, and I’ve worked at many. I’ve seen it in different tech ecosystems. As I travel around the world and speak at different conferences – Asia, Europe, Africa – that’s one of the main drivers. The main question they ask is, how do we create the ecosystem Silicon Valley has created? How do we plug and play that and make it into something exactly the same out here?
VentureBeat: Hopefully the answer is not, “Start with an old boys’ club.”
Gascoigne: That’s definitely not the answer. The answer is diversity, creating an environment where it becomes natural for people to do what they’re passionate about and bring a variety of different thoughts and experiences to the table. That’s when innovation is at its best.
People in different places might find that challenging, depending on their resources, but we’re trying to provide more exposure to women all around the world. We’re a diverse organization spanning six different continents. We’re trying to build ways to collaborate from one country and one continent to another. Workplace diversity is important from a product perspective, but also from a cultural perspective — making all people feel very comfortable in an environment where they’re building new technology
VentureBeat: I always felt like Silicon Valley’s big plus was that it had engineering talent from around the world working in one place all together. More women would strengthen the Valley.
Gascoigne: I’m seeing more people from India, more Latin Americans, more Brazilians. That’s great. Being able to open up the doors and provide more work visas is obviously a very important step. But again, they’re almost all men. We need more women applying for those jobs.
We just partnered with a company called SVIP, Silicon Valley Internship Program. We’re working with a bunch of different startups to matchmake them with recent graduates from all over the world and facilitate visas so they can come and work in Silicon Valley for a year and potentially get jobs here. Or potentially go back to their home countries and build technology there.
VentureBeat: You have 25,000 people in your organization. It seems like you’ve made progress insofar as there’s a larger group of women in technology joining you. Does that make you feel better about where things could go?
Gascoigne: I’m glad we’ve grown the organization, but we have a long way to go. We have a lot of people in the network who are engaged and curious and motivated by our mission. There are a lot of volunteers helping us produce and expand our organization. Right now we’re refining our curriculum and programming. We do our boot camps and our Catalyst conference and Lady Pitch Night.
But how do we perfect this and deploy it all around the world, so as many women and girls can have access to our curriculum as possible? How do we track that? What are the metrics of success? We’re defining and redefining that, so we can see the impact we’re making on a global scale.
It’s neat to see how much Girls In Tech is in demand. Women want to feel the support. They want to know that an organization in Silicon Valley has their back and that they’re bridging the technological divide. Whatever we’re learning and building here – curriculum, programming, speakers, initiatives, campaigns – we’re able to distribute it, and they’ll be the first ones representing Girls In Tech in their city or country.
VentureBeat: What happens at your event in November this year?
Gascoigne: Lady Pitch Night is the largest women’s business competition in the world at this point. Last time we had 288 applicants spanning 26 countries, so we decided to replicate it in the United States and other parts of the world. The one in San Francisco will take place on November 10 at NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center. We’re hoping to attract 350 attendees. We have a phenomenal panel of judges. 10 finalists will pitch live for a chance to win $25,000, computers for their team, and office space for six months.
After this we hope to produce it in Dubai, Brazil, and India in 2016. We’re working hard on those events as well. But for now, as of this moment, we have 113 applicants. We hope to double that by the deadline on October 10.
VentureBeat: The past year has been unlike any other as far as women in tech and diversity topics getting in the news. We’ve had things like Gamergate and Intel’s diversity initiative. What do you think about how much awareness has been created in the last year, as well as the controversy that’s come along with it?
Gascoigne: People are speaking out. They’re leveraging their freedom of speech and having a voice when things happen. It’s fantastic, because they’re keeping corporations and people accountable for their actions. People can’t get away with things anymore, even if it’s just a blog post or a tweet or a text.
The woman who was harassed by a venture capitalist at a conference in Berlin—The whole world knew about that within 20 minutes of her tweeting about it. That made life awkward for her as well, but as she said, people have to know. People can’t get away with things like that. We’re seeing people gain more confidence to share that kind of voice and hold companies and individuals accountable. That’s a phenomenal part of how the industry has evolved.
Since the inception of Girls In Tech in 2007, it’s been great to see all the activity around women in STEM. I feel that people see the difference in what women bring to startup boards, having different perspectives. If you have a woman as a founder or CEO or executive of your startup, your company is more likely to be successful.
More organizations are popping up around this movement, and more companies that support funding women entrepreneurs. We have NCWIT providing reports and statistical analysis on what’s going on in the ecosystem. Organizations like Girls In Tech and Girls Who Code focus more on the granular, educational-type programs and curricula, helping expose girls and women to tech and helping make sure they become leaders and executives.
All the noise and excitement has led to very positive results. There’s going to be some controversy, but as we said earlier, without challenges, we won’t have opportunities. It all goes hand in hand. I see that drastically changing.
VentureBeat: It does come with these by-products like Twitter mobs and online harassment.
Gascoigne: There’s a lot of online harassment in many aspects of our lives, if you really think about it. We’re not as private anymore. Access to everyone’s data and everyone’s information and everyone’s photos—This is the world we live in, to the point where we can say good, bad, and ugly things to each other online all the time. That doesn’t mean it’s okay, but it’s more prevalent. It happens. Freedom of speech has positives and negatives. Unfortunately, unless you turn off Twitter, that’s just going to continue on.
For people out there that are on a mission and have a passion to change something for the better, continue forward. Put your horse blinders on and go for it. There are always going to be people who have something to say about what you’re working on. It’s just noise.