Melinda Gates’ nonprofit launches $50M initiative to increase representation of women in tech hubs

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Melinda Gates speaking at the University of Washington in December 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Melinda Gates is launching another initiative to turn the tide for women in tech.

Pivotal Ventures, a Seattle-based philanthropic group founded by Gates, announced a $50 million project Tuesday designed to transform tech hubs into more inclusive places for women.

The Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities initiative will focus on increasing the number of women working in tech in three cities over the next five years. Pivotal Ventures revealed Chicago as the pioneer city and plans to announce the remaining two regions over the next few years.

When Microsoft recruited Gates in 1987, she was the only woman hired among her male-dominated class of MBAs. But despite being in the minority, it was, in some ways, the heyday for women in tech. In 1985, women comprised 37 percent of computer science graduates.

But today that number has slumped to 18 percent.

“Like a lot of people, I assumed things would get better for women in computer science,” Gates wrote in a 2018 article. “But in many ways, they didn’t. In fact, in the past two decades, the gender gap has gotten worse.”

Gates considered leaving Microsoft, faced with a hyper-masculine culture and few female peers. But she stayed, ultimately marrying Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and becoming a philanthropic magnate.

“As the tech industry continues to expand beyond Silicon Valley to other areas across the country, we have the opportunity to reimagine what the sector could look like,” Gates said in a LinkedIn post Tuesday. “If these emerging tech hubs are supported to prioritize women’s representation and inclusion as they grow, they will be better positioned to tap into the full range of local talent, while also helping create a blueprint for closing the industry’s gender gap nationwide.”

The funding will create diversity programs in academia, the private sector, venture capital, and other components of the tech pipeline in each city, according to Pivotal Ventures.

For example, Pivotal Ventures is partnering with a new program called Break Through Tech, which works to increase the number of women graduating from American universities with computing degrees. Break Through Tech will start by targeting the University of Illinois at Chicago.

SecondMuse, an organization that helps build innovation ecosystems, will work with GET Cities to align startups, investors, and other stakeholders in Chicago. SecondMuse plans to develop shared diversity goals and help find funding for women entrepreneurs as part of the initiative.

GET Cities will work with additional nonprofits and diversity-focused organizations in each region.

Gates launched Pivotal Ventures in 2015 as a vehicle to pursue philanthropic projects and other investments that don’t fit the charter of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The nonprofit builds on her work as a leading advocate for family planning and access to contraceptives, as well as maternal and newborn health. Gates published a book in 2019 documenting the systemic and societal challenges that continue to face women around the world.

Last October, Gates announced plans to spend $1 billion on programs that advance gender equity in the United States. The GET Cities project is part of that initiative.

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