Bizarro World, And How Women Will Save Mankind

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Though venture capitalists in Silicon Valley shun women entrepreneurs — who are usually modest and trying to build socially and financially responsible startups — women are forming their own support networks. Women 2.0 is the best of these.

By Vivek Wadhwa (VP, Singularity University)

At the Women 2.0 “The Next Billion” conference last week, I started my talk by saying that the event reminded me of the Seinfeld episode Bizarro World. That is the chapter of my favorite TV series in which everything is the opposite of what you expect - just as Bizarro, the polar opposite ofSuperman, is evil rather than good.

In the room in San Francisco were 1000 women entrepreneurs – including many blacks and Hispanics. They were humble, confident, assertive, and determined to change the world. They weren’t bullshitting about creating billion-dollar businesses through silly social-media apps or through giving things away; they were focused on practical, profitable, sensible startups. They were helping each other and providing encouragement to fight harder in a male-dominated technology industry.

That is the opposite of what you always see at Silicon Valley conferences – where practically all of the speakers and majority of attendees are male and arrogance rules the day. Indeed, the shocking reality is that fewer than 10% of tech companies are started by women and you don’t find many women on the boards or executive management teams of companies such as Apple. It’s even worse for blacks and Hispanics – they constitute hardly 1.5% and 4.7%, respectively, of the Valley’s tech population. Sadly, things are getting worse for these groups.

My message to the audience was the same one I have spoken and written before – that women should let the boys have their social media, while they save the world.

As I explained, the pessimists who claim that innovation is dead and that mankind is doomed are dead wrong. This is the most innovative decade in human history.

Just as in computing, in which processing power is growing exponentially while prices drop, similar advances are happening in an assortment of fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials. When you combine technologies from different fields, such as computing and medicine or 3D printing and nanomaterials, you gain the ability to create revolutionary advances – the next trillion-dollar industries.

The costs of these technologies have dropped to the point where entrepreneurs don’t need to invest millions of dollars to create breakthroughs; these can often be funded by maxing out credit cards and borrowing from friends and family. This is making it possible for small startups to solve humanity’s grand challenges – including energy, education, water, food, and health.

In these rapidly evolving fields, the young male college dropouts who excel at social-media app-building have no advantage. Those with experience and education – particularly in fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – have the edge, because they can work across disciplines and see the big picture.

Women are primed to lead, in this new era.

Girls now match boys in mathematical achievement. In the U.S., 140 women enroll in higher education for every 100 men. Women earn more than 50% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and nearly 50% of all doctorates. Women’s participation in business and MBA programs has grown more than fivefold since the 1970s, and the number of engineering degrees granted to women has grown almost tenfold.

So, though venture capitalists in Silicon Valley shun women entrepreneurs – who are usually modest and trying to build socially and financially responsible startups – women are forming their own support networks. Women 2.0 is the best of these. I have witnessed the growth of this network from a small group of a few dozen women to a powerhouse of thousands in a short three years.

My team at Stanford Law School and Duke University, with the help of Lesa Mitchell of Kauffman Foundation, has been surveying women in tech to learn their advantages and obstacles. We just wrapped up a survey of more than 500 women founders. A preliminary analysis reflects what I observed at the Women 2.0 conference: women are becoming more confident and assertive; they are helping each other.

Whereas my previous interviews with women had shown them to have been lacking the mentorship and support that men had, the new research seems to show much greater confidence and support. My research team is still working on analyzing the results of the study, but it seems that things are changing for the better – at least in Silicon Valley. Now we need to replicate this magic world wide, to enable women everywhere to become entrepreneurs and better their communities.

This post was originally posted on LinkedIn. Photo credit: The Volcano Club.

Women 2.0 readers: How will we enable women everywhere to become entrepreneurs?

About the guest blogger: Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity. In roles at Stanford, Duke, and Emory universities, he lectures in class on subjects such as entrepreneurship and public policy, helps prepare students for the real world, and leads groundbreaking research projects. He is an advisor to several governments; mentors entrepreneurs; and is a regular columnist for The Washington Post and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Follow him on Twitter at @wadhwa.