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Microsoft’s Gretchen O’Hara. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

A Microsoft-backed accelerator program for women-led cloud startups is about to go global.

Microsoft, Women in Cloud and Ideagen announced Wednesday at the GeekWire Cloud Summit that they are teaming up on the expansion of the Microsoft Cloud Accelerator Program for women-led companies to eight additional countries and two more U.S. cities. The accelerator’s first cohort was in Seattle, and it plans to launch programs Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Kenya, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. This fall, the program will also launch in Chicago and New York City.

RELATED: How this woman’s journey to becoming a startup CEO illustrates tech industry’s gender issues

The accelerator provides women-led cloud startups with access to Microsoft technology tools, mentorship from executives, networking opportunities and more. Getting inside Microsoft’s massive network of partners and customers opens the door for the startups to land new customers as they are building products.

“At the end of the day, if we’re not getting them set up to succeed from a technology perspective, if we’re not allowing women access to cloud and AI technology of the future and we’re not giving them access to capital and they’re not able to get the corporate contracts, those businesses go under,” said Gretchen O’Hara, vice president for go-to-market strategy of One Commercial Partner at Microsoft and a co-founder of Women in Cloud.

So far, 30 startups have gone through the accelerator, including 12 based in the Seattle area. Through what Microsoft called a “multi-million-dollar, multi-year investment,” the program aims to generate $1 billion in cloud opportunity for more than 1,000 women-led tech companies. The goal is to play a part in reversing trends that hold women back in the technology industry.

The accelerator is run by Women in Cloud, a Seattle-based organization founded two years ago by a group of women tech executives who wanted to help women-led businesses get resources to succeed in the cloud computing world. Microsoft is providing an undisclosed amount of financial support and offering its huge network of resources, including its global sales machine and expertise in the cloud. Ideagen, which brings together big companies, nonprofits and other groups to find creative solutions to big problems, also supports the program.

From left to right: Chaitra Vedullapalli, Jill Angelo, Kristen Miller and Mary H. Lines discuss the Women in Cloud Accelerator at an event on Microsoft’s campus. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

At an event on the Microsoft campus earlier this week, O’Hara illustrated the challenges women in tech face, from the beginning of their career to founding startups. O’Hara cited stats saying that while women make up 57 percent of undergraduate degrees, they account for only 18 percent of computer science degrees. And while 40 percent of new businesses are women-owned, only 20 percent of C-Suite leaders are women, and only 3 percent are women of color.

Another stat: Only 1 percent of women tech entrepreneurs win corporate contracts. That figure is important in the cloud world because winning those big customers is the lifeblood for companies; it’s why big cloud players such as Amazon and Microsoft are always bragging about their customer wins. Reversing that figure is a primary goal of the program.

“If we’re not helping them actually build a sustainable business over time, then we’re just pouring investment in the top and we’re not actually seeing growth out of the bottom,” O’Hara said.

Led by CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has made diversity and inclusion an important part of its culture. However, the company has warts of its own in those areas, including several discrimination lawsuits in recent years. A group of women employees at Microsoft recently shared experiences of harassment at the company in an email thread that got the attention of senior leadership and affected change to the company’s HR policies as a result.

Microsoft publishes its diversity figures, and while the numbers show the company is moving toward more varied representation, it still has a long way to go. As of last June, Microsoft had a roughly 80/20 male to female ratio in technical roles and leadership.

O’Hara acknowledged that the technology industry as a whole and Microsoft are on a “journey” to tackle diversity. That includes finding talent coming out of the military, retraining people from other fields and establishing a stronger presence in early education to encourage women and minorities to go into or remain in STEM programs.

“When we can start to build the right talent pool in our technical base, they attract more of the same in that technical base,” O’Hara said. “And so our goal is to continue to shift the numbers through the new hiring and training externally as well.”

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