We have the money to change the world. What's standing in the way?
- What does it actually take to drive large-scale change? Co-Impact founder and CEO Olivia Leland argues that it takes more than money, voting in elections, and supporting your favorite nonprofit. Solving complex global issues takes philanthropy in concert with community advocacy, support from businesses, innovation, an organized vision, and a plan to execute it.
- Leland has identified three areas that need to be addressed before real and meaningful change can happen. To effectively provide support, we must listen to the people who are already doing the work, rather than trying to start from scratch; make it easier for groups, government, and others to collaborate; and change our mindsets to think more long-term so that we can scale impact in ways that matter.
- Through supporting educational programs like Pratham and its Teaching at the Right Level model, Co-Impact has seen how these collaborative strategies can be employed to successfully tackle a complex problem like child literacy.
These thought leaders, founders, and entrepreneurs are propelling the kind of future we want to be a part of.
- The tech industry may be dominated by men in terms of numbers, but there are lots of brilliant women in leadership positions that are changing the landscape.
- The women on this list are founders of companies dedicated to teaching girls to code, innovators in the fields of AI, VR, and machine learning, leading tech writers and podcasters, and CEOs of companies like YouTube and Project Include.
- This list is by no means all-encompassing. There are many more influential women in tech that you should seek out and follow.
Statistics on the number of women in tech careers reveal a hard truth: the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by one gender. In a 2018 study, women made up only about 25% of the United States' tech workforce and those women often earn less than their male colleagues.
So in celebration of the small yet powerful tribe of women who are moving tech forward, we've compiled a list of some of the top thought leaders, founders, influencers, and CEOs in the industry. This collection of innovators and entrepreneurs runs some of the world's biggest tech companies and most promising startups, but most importantly, they're propelling the kind of future we want to be a part of.
Although there are many, many more tech leaders we could have included on this list, this group was selected based on their following and sphere of influence in the world today.
10 women in tech you should be following
Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code
Reshma Saujani is a New York Times bestselling author and the brains behind the famous TED Talk, "Teach girls bravery, not perfection." The daughter of refugees graduated from Harvard University and Yale Law School. In 2010, she became the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress.
"When I lost, I wanted to continue to make a difference," Saujani told Adweek. "I figured the best way that I could do that is by creating opportunities for girls." Two years later, she started the nonprofit, Girls Who Code, aimed at increasing the number of women in the computer science field. Follow Saujani for inspiring and informational tweets geared toward women in tech.
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
Topping virtually every list of female tech CEOs is Susan Wojcicki. Google's sixteenth employee and initial marketing manager, Wojcicki contributed to the development of Google Images and AdSense as she rose up the ranks. The Silicon Valley native and mother of five eventually suggested the acquisition of YouTube, and became its CEO in 2014.
"Tech is an incredible force that will change our world in ways we can't anticipate. If that force is only 20 to 30% women, that is a problem," Wojcicki has said. We love the bold stance she takes against gender discrimination in her op-ed pieces, which include this must-read: "How To Break up the Silicon Valley Boys' Club."
Ellen K. Pao, co-founder and CEO of Project Include
Photo by Helena Price
We couldn't create a list of the top women in tech without including Ellen K. Pao. Pao served as the CEO of Reddit prior to co-founding Project Include – a nonprofit focused on improving diversity in the tech industry. She often speaks publicly on issues like sexism in Silicon Valley.
Pao entered the public spotlight in 2012, when she filed a $16 million lawsuit against her former employer, a venture capital firm, for gender discrimination. Despite ultimately losing the case, Pao stirred up much-needed conversations in the tech world and detailed her experience in her memoir, "Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change."
Danah Boyd, founder and president of Data & Society
Source: personaldemocracy / Flickr
A nationally recognized scholar and thought leader, Danah Boyd founded her own research institute to address the ethical and legal implications of emerging technologies. She also currently serves as a partner researcher for Microsoft.
Boyd studied at Brown, MIT, and Berkeley. She attributes the fact that she survived high school to a misogynistic classmate who once told her that girls couldn't "do science." From then on, she was determined to prove him wrong. Today, her work includes countless thought-provoking publications on topics such as accountability in machine learning and media manipulation.
Kimberly Bryant, founder and CEO of Black Girls Code
Source: nrkbeta / Flickr
Kimberly Bryant used her 401(k) to start Black Girls Code in 2011. The struggle to find a diverse computer programming course for her daughter in the Bay Area inspired the nonprofit, which now has the mission of teaching a million girls of color how to code by the year 2040.
Having studied electrical engineering in college, Bryant said, "I didn't want my daughter to feel culturally isolated in the pursuit of her studies as I had as a young girl. I didn't want her to give up on her passions just because she didn't see anyone else like her in the classroom."
Among a long list of other well-deserved accolades, Bryant was named a Champion of Change by the White House and received the Ingenuity Award in Social Progress from the Smithsonian Institute.
Kate Crawford, co-founder of the AI Now Institute
Source: re:publica / Flickr
Kate Crawford is an Australian author and thought leader on the social impacts of AI and machine learning – something we should all be paying more attention to. Her argument for banning the use of facial recognition technology, at least for now, is very compelling.
She wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Today's AI is extraordinarily powerful when it comes to detecting patterns but lacks social and contextual awareness. It's a minor issue when it comes to targeted Instagram advertising but a far more serious one if AI is deciding who gets a job, what political news you read or who gets out of jail."
Crawford helped pioneer the AI Now Institute, a research institute at NYU, and serves as a senior researcher at Microsoft. Fun fact: she co-founded a record label and was previously part of an electronic music duo that released three albums.
Dr. Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford's Human-Centered AI Institute
Source: ITU Pictures / Flickr
A pioneer of artificial intelligence with an impressive Twitter following, Dr. Fei-Fei Li is another one of today's most influential women in technology. Dr. Li was born in Beijing, China and moved to the U.S. with her mother when she was 16. She studied physics at Princeton and went on to receive a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Caltech.
The Stanford professor co-founded AI4ALL, a nonprofit aimed at improving diversity in the field of AI. But she's most known for her work on the ImageNet project, a database of over 15 million images. In layman's terms, the database helped "train" the first computer to recognize and understand what's in a picture. In her TED Talk on the project, Dr. Li stated, "Little by little, we're giving sight to the machines. First, we teach them to see. Then, they help us to see better."
Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security
Image courtesy of Threatpost Inc.
While her childhood friends played with Barbie dolls, Katie Moussouris spent most of her time learning how to program on a Commodore 64 that her mom gave her in the third grade. She was the first female in her high school to take AP Computer Science, and around that time she developed an interest in hacking.
Moussouris chose to use her hacking chops for good and eventually became a pioneer of cybersecurity. She now helps businesses and government agencies defend themselves against digital threats. Her portfolio includes work for the U.S. Department of Defense and Microsoft. But the real reason she made it on our list of the top women in tech? One of her life goals is "to help make the internet safer for everyone." For that, we thank you, Katie.
Cathy Hackl, host of Future Insiders Podcast
Image credit: Cathy Hackl
Next on our list of the top women in tech is Cathy Hackl. Hackl is best known for being one of LinkedIn's Top Tech Voices and the host of the Future Insiders podcast, where she keeps listeners in the know about emerging technologies that could change the world as we know it, such as 6G and smart contact lenses.
Hackl is also a world-renowned speaker and influencer who tweets often about all things tech, with a focus on augmented and virtual reality. As if she couldn't get any cooler, she's the brains behind the world's first holographic press release, and has worked with brands like UPS and HTC on how to best leverage AR and VR technologies.
Joanna Stern, senior tech columnist at The Wall Street Journal
Image credit: The Wall Street Journal
Joanna Stern is an award-winning journalist with a refreshing take on consumer technology, best known for her column at The Wall Street Journal. Stern was a founding member of The Verge who built their product review program from the ground up. You may have seen her discussing the latest tech news on CNBC.
Why we love her? Articles like this one that offer her bold perspective and helpful advice on the smartest ways to use modern tech. In it, she advises consumers to ditch Google Chrome, calling the popular web browser: "RAM hoovering, battery draining and privacy disregarding." Follow Stern on Twitter to stay informed (and entertained – she's quite hilarious).
After combing through the top tech companies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations, we've selected each of these female powerhouses because of their contributions to the fields of AI, virtual reality, cybersecurity, and others, as well as their work to advance the inclusion of women in tech. Above all, these uber-talented and inspiring leaders give us hope for a better tomorrow.
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
She pioneered a line of hair care and beauty products for people of color early in the 20th century, and the recent Netflix series "Self Made" details the story of this talented innovator and the challenges she overcame on the way to her success.
To accomplish her goals, she had to face overwhelming uncertainties. How would she finance her business? Would her partnerships fail? Would her products sell? Would ruthless competition and racism get in her way? Madame Walker's future was far from certain when she began her journey, but that did not dissuade her.
It is tempting to think that innovators are a breed apart or perhaps lucky to be in the right place and time. But research shows this is not the case. So what characteristics do innovators like Madam Walker have that lead them to the seemingly serendipitous moment? What makes for a successful innovator or entrepreneur?
I am a researcher and professor who studies strategy and entrepreneurship. I am also myself an entrepreneur, angel investor and board member for startups and innovative firms. Pop culture might have you believe it is a tolerance for or even an obsession with risk that makes great innovators. But in fact, research has for decades demonstrated that innovators and entrepreneurs are no more risk-taking than the average person.
Generally, innovators are much more comfortable making decisions under conditions of uncertainty than the average person. Additionally, innovators tend to have a set of skills that allows them to better navigate this uncertainty. My experience and research has shown that not only are these abilities effective, but they can also be learned and practiced and anyone can improve their innovation skills.
What is risk? What is uncertainty?
Risk is when the factors determining success or failure are out of your control but the odds of success are known – a game of dice, for example. You can't control whether a 2 or a 12 is rolled, but you know the odds.
Uncertainty is when the factors determining success or failure are not necessarily out of your control, but are simply unknown. It is accepting a challenge to play a game that you do not completely know the rules of. Innovators tend to be more willing to venture into the unknown, and therefore are more likely to engage in ambitious projects even when outcomes and probabilities are a mystery.
Interestingly, risk and uncertainty appear to trigger activity in different parts of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed researchers to discover that risk analysis is a largely rational and calculation-driven process, but uncertainty triggers the ancient fight-or-flight part of the brain. This research would suggest that experienced innovators are better able to maintain their analytical capabilities in spite of the adrenaline and instinctual response that arises when confronting uncertainty.
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
Skills of innovation can be learned
The chemical response to risk and uncertainty may be hardwired in our brains, but that doesn't mean you are either born an innovator or not. Innovative capacity can be learned.
Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and the late Clay Christensen spent years investigating the characteristics of successful innovators and broadly divide the skills of innovation into two categories: delivery skills and discovery skills.
Delivery skills include quantitative analysis, planning, detail-oriented implementation and disciplined execution. These are certainly essential characteristics for success in many occupations, but for innovation, discovery must come before delivery.
Discovery skills are the ones more involved in developing ideas and managing uncertain situations. The most notable are:
- The ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas and contexts.
- A tendency to question assumptions and the status quo.
- A habit of looking at what is contributing to a problem before rushing to a solution.
- The frequent use of systematic experimentation to prove hypotheses about cause and effect.
- The ability to network and broaden a set of relationships, even without an intentional purpose.
Like any skills, these can be learned and cultivated through a combination of guidance, practice and experience. By asking the right questions, being observant or mindful, experimenting and networking with the right supporters, innovators will be more likely to identify opportunity and succeed.
My colleagues' and my own research and experience are summed up in our book "The Titanic Effect." We describe the PEP model of successful entrepreneurs and innovators. It stands for passion, experience and persistence.
Successful innovators are passionate about the problem they are solving and share this passion with friends and family, potential customers, supporters and other stakeholders.
Innovators also tend to have personal experience with the problem they are solving, and this yields valuable insight and firsthand knowledge.
Finally, innovation takes persistence. As Walker experienced, growing a business – even with proven products – does not happen overnight. It takes someone willing to push the boulder uphill to make it happen, and often, the more disruptive the innovation, the longer society may take to embrace it. Madam Walker amply personifies the PEP model.
Innovation now and in the future
During this pandemic, many people might be inclined to batten down the hatches, tighten their belts and ride things out by sticking to what they already know.
But uncertainty and change create opportunity and a need for innovation. The pandemic has created or exacerbated many problems that are ripe for innovative solutions.
Practices that were until recently on the fringe of acceptance – such as telehealth, food or grocery delivery, e-sports and online education – are now being accepted by mainstream society. As with anything relatively new, there is lots of room for radical improvement.
Now is not the time to put blinders on and close your eyes to uncertainty. If you build your discovery skills, you are more likely to create opportunity and persist through uncertainty. Like Walker, anyone can cultivate the abilities to navigate uncertainty and create positive change. Innovators are not a breed apart.
Less than 1% of all venture capital funding in the US is given to Black entrepreneurs. Now is the time for that to change.
- Abner Mason, CEO and founder of health care startup ConsejoSano, is calling for all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses.
- Currently, Black entrepreneurs receive less than 1% of all venture capital funding.
- The 13% target reflects the percentage of Black Americans and is a nod to the 13th Amendment.
The murder of George Floyd has brought America to a much-needed reckoning on the racism in American society. Young people are marching, white people are reading, and churches are preaching about ways we as people can transform the way we treat Black people. Notably, many business leaders are pledging to end racism. But once the marching ends what will be different in America?
As a Black business leader, this newfound desire to address America's original sin is a breath of fresh air in the midst of this pandemic. But I wonder how long this new zeal to change will last and, more importantly, what practical steps and sacrifices will be made to make the promise to end racism real.
Here is one practical solution that all investors can take to make their promise real. I'm calling on all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge now to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses. I suggest 13 as a target to both reflect the percentage of Black Americans and a nod to the 13th Amendment. I'm reaching out to friends in the social impact space to help me set up the organization that will monitor this.
Here is one practical solution that all investors can take to make their promise real. I'm calling on all venture capital firms in the United States to pledge now to invest 13% of their funds in African American businesses.
My life reflects both America at its best in terms of ending racism and at its worst.
As an African American CEO of the health care startup ConsejoSano, I've focused on using technology to connect low-income and multi-cultural people to care in our health care system where their needs are often overlooked. Also, I've lived a blessed life. I grew up in an integrated public school in North Carolina where my parents and church taught me never to judge a book by its cover. They taught me that not all white people were motivated by racism and to seek out white allies in my life path.
This advice paid off. I found my way out of NC to a prep school in New England where I was one of seven Black students out of three hundred. I then made my way to Harvard College where Black students were less than five percent of my freshman class of thousands. I faced a choice that most young Black men of my generation made: Will I define myself solely by my race or pretty much ignore my race, ignoring racists, and look for allies? I chose the allies path.
After a short stint in the management consulting field, I found myself working in state government in the MA Department of Transportation where I learned a powerful truth about life—good intentions are not enough. No one cared that we had good intentions to get buses to passengers, we had to get the buses out to waiting passengers. Visible results, not intentions mattered. This lesson speaks to me today when I consider America's response to racism.
I went on to advise three governors and launched a nonprofit to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, helping to created what later would be called the PEPFAR program. What I learned through this entire career path was that I could pretty much sense and ignore racists and seek good white people at every level. These were my survival techniques.
This strategy hit a wall when I entered the venture capital arena launching a health tech company where I was asking wealthy white men to invest in the leadership of a Black man. In the more than 40 pitches I made to create our Series A, I encountered 99% white male investors who were blunt saying they were not investing in my product or projections; they would be investing in me. I could no longer follow my life strategy of ignoring investors with racist views. I was pitching the 1% of the 1% who lived lifestyles and had social worlds completely different from my own. We both could sense the cultural and lifestyle disconnect. Following my pitches I heard comments such as, 'I'm not comfortable with you being in charge,' or 'I'd imagine you being good at sales,' or 'Let's keep you as Chief Evangelist or something like that.'
What became clear to me was that uber-wealthy white men could imagine a Black leader as a minister not as a CEO. In my conversations with other Black startup leaders, I realized I was not alone. Then I looked at the data which confirmed my experience. I found only 1% of venture capital-funded startup founders are Black. Ultimately, I did find investors who believed in me and my product and I was successful in gaining my Series A through white male investors who cared.
Today, I'm no longer a young Black man navigating the corridors of white power, but even as a successful entrepreneur I'm still facing the greatest degree of discrimination I've ever encountered in my life. Corporations posting 'Black Lives Matter' is nice, but as I learned in my job in transportation, the young Black entrepreneurs can no longer praise good intentions. They need results.
If America is serious about the desire to end racism, Black Americans are going to have to follow the lead of Langston Hughes who famously said, "I will not take 'but' for an answer."
Big Think co-founder and CEO Victoria Brown breaks down the process of transitioning from founder to boss in her new book, Digital Goddess.
- In her forthcoming book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur, Big Think's founder and CEO, Victoria Montgomery Brown, discusses the challenges of transitioning from founder to boss.
- Part of the problem is that women may think they need to act like men in order to be successful.
- Brown offers four pieces of solid advice to not only survive but thrive on the way to becoming a CEO.
One of the hardest challenges in business might be transitioning from founder to CEO. This transition is especially difficult when you're a woman, writes Big Think's co-founder and CEO, Victoria Montgomery Brown, in her upcoming book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur.
Women are categorized differently than men in nearly every facet of business and life. In the chapter, "Boss Not B*tch," Brown calls out the stark differences in perception. Entrepreneurs are considered creative, innovative, and pioneering, while CEOs are powerful, controlling, and established. These labels are often attributed to the same person, however. How do we find a fairer representation, especially when contemplating the role of a female CEO?
Part of the problem, Brown writes, is that women think they need to act like men in order to be successful.
"I think that when women are insecure about their own leadership capacities or are convinced that to lead, they need to act like men, they inadvertently become their own worst selves. I've certainly fallen into that trap."
Brown spends the rest of the chapter describing how not to fall into that trap. Below are four methods to implement on the road to success.
Credit: Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images
Nurture your business
As Brown writes, women tend to be nurturers—a positive attribute for growing a business. In fact, female-led private tech startups have a 35 percent higher return on investment than male-led companies. That fact could at least in part be due to a nurturing attitude.
Not that Brown always toed that line. She originally adopted a command and control attitude—the wrong approach. She thought it was what she was supposed to do. Modern businesses adopt a militarized language, one quite suited to the male competitive temperament.
Rising above competition doesn't require a slaughter. Some people are better at jiu jitsu than taekwondo; both have a place. Brown believes command and control might work in the short term, but she's not convinced it's a sustainable approach.
"A business is not an army, and the concept of 'controlling' them will not get the best out of people."
In nurturing Big Think, Brown hired employees who shared the values of the company. As Simon Sinek recommends, she started with why, then found workers dedicated to that why. In the process, she found the best means for growing people's talent, not sticking them into a box and hoping they succeed.
Communicate openly and effectively
"Creating silos will kill you."
Companies that separate departments end up with groups of self-interested individuals. Self-interested workers inevitably follow a punishment and reward system. This is the reality experienced at many modern companies.
Brown points to research published in Harvard Business Review that found 95 percent of a company's employees don't understand the company's strategy. If you don't know your company's why (or how they're going to accomplish it), your daily workload is going to feel hollow.
Lack of communication is the nail in the coffin of startups. As Brown writes:
"If individuals are being rewarded solely on their own performance, they are motivated to take or use as much of the resources as they can, possibly to the detriment of the entire organism."
Communication is everything. Language is the coordination technology that helped humans collaborate and rise to the top of the animal kingdom. Keeping communication lines open is the key to survival on the savannah and in the conference room.
Tethered to communication is location. We might be temporarily working from home right now, but humans are social creatures. We need to share space. Office design matters.
Big Think's original office was rented in a shared space. Everyone was scattered: a desk here, a table there. This workflow created a lot of miscommunication within groups and especially between departments.
When transitioning into their current offices, Big Think cofounders Brown and Peter Hopkins claimed the conference room, which was separated by glass doors from the rest of the crew. The team was united, but this single partition created its own problems.
"They were less likely to come and talk with us because it seemed more formal."
Employees also felt awkward asking to use the conference room for meetings given the fact that Brown and Hopkins were usually inside. While Brown was initially disturbed by the suggestion of joining the rest of the team, she realized it was the proper strategy.
"I've found that people, whether employees or partners, clients or our experts, respect the CEO or founder when they get down in the dirt."
Brown also realized that the concept of being "in charge" is stupid. She advises making yourself available for everyone in the organization. Don't be walled off and unapproachable. Even interns have a stake in your company. Understanding that is essential for long-term success.
"The better you relate, the better you will communicate, but if you are separate you cannot actually relate."
Flexibility is key
As PayPal cofounder Reid Hoffman details in Blitzscaling, the company had to change its "always free" model to "ACH always free." Credit card fees were eating up their bank account. PayPal famously iterated numerous times before finding success. If they hadn't, Hoffman admits the company wouldn't have lasted.
Brown had a similar experience with Big Think. The website originally relied on sponsorship and advertising. A few years in, they pivoted to creating products for the corporate and educational space. Then they pivoted again.
As she writes, a company's mission might not change, but the strategies for achieving it will.
"Repeating something that worked in the past will often lead to failure."
In life and business, flexibility is key. Kodak famously lost out on the digital camera market. Jeff Bezos asked Duracell to white label batteries for Amazon. When the battery giant scoffed at the notion, Bezos found another company to do it—and it now owns 98 percent of the market.
Thankfully, Big Think is still here. That's in large part thanks to Brown watching cultural and business trends and course correcting when necessary. She admits it's never easy. By staying involved with your team, getting dirty with them, and nurturing the talent around you, you're more likely to succeed.
Most importantly, you can do it on your own terms, not those predetermined by a male-dominated business world.
Video bonus: 8 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way So Other Entrepreneurs Don't Have To
Get an exclusive online course with Big Think founder Victoria Montgomery Brown, only when you preorder the new book Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur.