In college, Washington State Sen. Patty Kuderer decided to take a programming class.
She said she was excited about technology and created a simple program for the course, which she tried to print and hand in to her professor. But there was a problem: Her program had a flaw in it that caused it to loop endlessly, which meant the printer spit out page after wasted page of code. Kuderer said she asked for help from others in the college’s computer science lab, who were all men, but no one would help her. One man, she recalled, finally turned to her and said: “You don’t belong here.”
“The atmosphere in there was very hostile toward me. It was very intimidating for an 18-year-old,” she said. “I quit the class.”
Kuderer, now a Democratic state senator representing the state’s 48th District, including the tech hub of Bellevue, recalled the story to an audience of about 1,000 people during Saturday’s Women in Cloud Summit on the Microsoft campus in Redmond.
Instead of a developer or tech executive, Kuderer became an employment discrimination attorney, which was its own kind of justice.
“I ended up suing companies that employ guys like that,” she said with a grin. The audience of mostly women broke into applause and cheered.
The Women in Cloud Summit, now in its second year, aims to create more women tech leaders in an industry where they are still woefully scarce. Only 5 percent of tech leaders are women and just 2 percent of all venture capital funding goes to women-owned tech ventures, Kuderer said. GeekWire reported this week that, of the 200 companies on the GeekWire 200, our ranking of the top Pacific Northwest tech startups, 16 are led by women, or 8 percent.
This year’s Summit, which was sponsored by Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and others, was far bigger than the first, with nearly three times the number of attendees and about 60 speakers on the schedule. It was also more passionate and strident in tone, coming more than a year after the “Me Too” movement revealed sexual misconduct perpetrated by men against women in workplaces, and just four months after Justice Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court following allegations that he sexually assaulted a young woman in high school.
Gavriella Schuster, the Microsoft corporate vice president who oversees the company’s partner channel, projected a photo on a screen showing a single woman in a business meeting surrounded by men. “Does this picture look normal to you?” she asked. The audience laughed.
“As a matter of fact, we’re going backwards,” she said, explaining that 36 percent of all tech jobs were held by women in 1991. That number is only 25 percent today, she said.
Schuster said she recently tallied the genders of business associates she met with over a two-day period. She said she met with 21 men and four women.
“That has to change,” she said. “We cannot let the next generation down.”
The research firm IDC says spending on cloud infrastructure alone will surpass $300 billion by next year. Organizers of Saturday’s summit said the opportunity skyrockets into the trillions when factoring in augmented reality, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other frontiers.
The women at Saturday’s conference want a piece of the action. Lectures and workshops at the summit included how-tos on raising capital, securing board positions, content marketing and winning customers with cloud, AI, the Internet of Things and Blockchain technologies.
Thai Lee, the co-founder, president and CEO of SHI International, billed as the largest woman-owned company in the U.S., explained during a keynote speech how she became convinced she needed to start her own business because her limited language skills left her afraid to join another company.
“I was scared,” she said. “I felt totally inadequate.”
Lee, who was the first Korean American woman to graduate Harvard Business School and is one of only 18 self-made woman billionaires in the U.S., advised young women entrepreneurs not to despair if they can’t find venture capital. Organic growth “gives a company a certain amount of discipline,” she said.
Lee also suggested the women “delay going public as long as possible” so they can stay in control of their enterprises.
“It’s going to be a very scary time,” she said. “Believe in yourself.”
A cornerstone of the annual conference is a six-month business accelerator that provides women entrepreneurs with cloud technology, mentoring and access to sales networks. Twelve women-owned businesses graduated from the Women in Cloud Accelerator’s first class in October. The accelerator will begin accepting applications for its second class later this year, organizers said.
M.H. Lines, the CEO of Kirkland, Wash.-based Automaton, which provides tools to optimize marketing, advertising and sales tech software stacks, said her company probably wouldn’t exist without the accelerator. “We knew what product we wanted to build. I was a founder and still struggling with confidence,” said Lines, who took part in the accelerator’s first class, during an interview.
Without the coaching and access to cloud technology, “I probably wouldn’t have done it,” she said of launching Automaton. “I don’t think that’s an overstatement at all.”