Melinda French Gates wants to revolutionize the technology industry, starting with Silicon Valley.
The billionaire philanthropist told fortune this week that the goal of her venture capital firm, Pivotal Ventures, is not simply to attract more women to big companies. Instead, she wants to help foster an entirely new community of female-led startups that can thrive independently of Silicon Valley.
“Recreating Silicon Valley or changing it would be incredibly difficult,” French Gates said. “But when you start fresh and new, if you start with a model in this perspective, then I don’t think you’re going to replicate the old one that we had in Silicon Valley.”
For French Gates, who has a net worth of $6.3 billion as of Wednesday afternoon, which begins by funding projects that aim to reform the way women in technology move up the career ladder, improving their access to opportunities and influence over decision-making. The idea is that a broader and more equal range of voices in a boardroom equates to more ideas, which improves technology, French Gates added.
French Gates committed $1 billion of his own money to Pivotal in 2019, four years after launching the company. Since then, Pivotal has donated and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in more than 150 for-profit and non-profit organizations.
Those include multiple women-led venture capital firms, startup accelerators and educational programs designed to teach skills from leadership a machine learning and artificial intelligence. In early 2020, Pivotal invested $50 million in the Gender Equality in Technology (GET) Cities initiative to increase opportunities for women in emerging innovation hubs, like Chicago.
French Gates has been outspoken about the need for more diverse, female tech leaders for years. In 2018, she told him CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that technology “became a boy’s network pretty soon.”
“Women are so underrepresented in the US tech industry, and yet technology is ubiquitous — it’s changing our lives,” French Gates said. “Women should be able to bring their big ideas forward, not just sit at the table… to help change society.”
At that time, only 2.3% of venture capital funding went to women-led companies. A year later, it reached 2.6%, but fell again during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, financing in companies led by women was around 2%, the lowest percentage since 2016, according to PitchBook.
When French Gates was hired as a product manager at Microsoft in 1987, she was the only woman in her hiring class, she wrote in her 2019 book. “The Elevation Moment: How Women’s Empowerment Changes the World.” She loved the job, but she almost quit after two years because the culture was “so brazen, argumentative and competitive,” she added.
She told Fortune that the key to achieving fairness is having more women and people of color at the helm of technology companies, opening the door to more creativity, products and innovations in technology.
“[Pivotal is] about how we can move women and people of color forward faster in America,” French Gates said. “For me, this really comes down to looking at key areas: technology, finance, media, politics. You get more capital in those four industries and you will change the whole society.”
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