Melinda French Gates wants Silicon Valley alternative for women

Melinda French Gates wants to disrupt the tech industry, starting in Silicon Valley.

The billionaire philanthropist told Fortune this week that the goal of her venture capital firm, Pivotal Ventures, isn’t just about getting more women into big companies. Instead, she wants to help nurture an entirely new community of women-led startups that can thrive independently of Silicon Valley.

“Recreating or changing Silicon Valley would be incredibly difficult,” French Gates said. “But if you start fresh and new, if you start with a model in that 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, the idea is that a broader and fairer range of voices in a boardroom means more ideas, which improves technology, French Gates added.

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French Gates committed $1 billion of its own money to Pivotal in 2019, four years after the company was founded. Since then, Pivotal has given hundreds of millions of dollars and invested in more than 150 for-profit and non-profit organizations.

These include several female-led venture capital firms, startup accelerators, and educational programs designed to teach skills ranging from leadership to machine learning and artificial intelligence. In early 2020, Pivotal invested $50 million in the Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities initiative to improve opportunities for women in emerging innovation hubs like Chicago.

For years, French Gates has insisted on the call for more female and diverse technology leaders. In 2018, she told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that tech “became a boy’s network very early on.”

“Women are so underrepresented in the technology sector in the United States, and yet technology is everywhere – it’s changing our lives,” said French Gates. “Women need to be able to voice their great ideas, not just sit around the table… to change society.”

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Back then, only 2.3% of VC funding went to women-led companies. A year later it reached 2.6% but fell again during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, funding at women-owned businesses was 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 Moment of the Lift: How Women’s Empowerment is Changing the World.” She loved the work but almost quit after two years because the culture was “so brash, so argumentative and competitive,” she added.

She told Fortune that the key to achieving justice is having more women and people of color at the top of tech companies, which opens the door to more creativity, products and innovation in technology.

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“[Pivotal is] about how we can advance women and people of color faster in the United States,” French Gates said. “For me, it really comes down to looking at key areas: technology, finance, media, politics. You will get more justice in these four branches and you will change the whole of society.”

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