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Why Melinda Gates Is Betting $50 Million That Chicago Is The Next Silicon Valley for Women

I'm still not sure billionaires should exist. But if they do, I think they should invest lots of money in righting some of the gender-based inequalities that capitalism—you know, that system that let them become billionaires in the first place—supports. Like systematically locking women out of tech jobs and VC funding for startups.


Therefore, I'm very much into Melinda Gates pledging $1 billion towards "expanding women's power and influence" over the next decade, starting with a $50 million investment in Chicago and two yet-to-be-disclosed cities to develop inclusive tech hubs and support women in tech.

Specific areas of investment will include:

  • Partnering with Break Through Tech to increase the number of women graduating from American universities with computer science degrees, starting with the University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Working with SecondMuse to align startups and investors focused on funding women entrepreneurs

Pivotal Ventures, Gates's company focused on finding innovative solutions to problems affecting U.S. women and families, launched the Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities project this week, highlighting some strong-emotion-inducing statistics on their new website:

  • We are still 208 years away from gender equality in the U.S. (cue: rage)
  • The percentage of women getting computing degrees actually decreased through the early 2000s, resulting in a 2011 low of 16% and not growing past 19% since (cue: frustration)
  • Achieving gender equality in tech would be worth $320-390 billion dollars in total market value (cue: hope, followed by me breaking my piggy bank and sending its contents to all the women in Computer Science 101)

Chicago was chosen as the first GET City because of its developing tech and VC scene, and its pool of diverse talent, said Pivotal Ventures.

Gates's investment purposefully focuses on metropolitan hubs outside of the top five tech cities—Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego—and comes in the form of money invested in local efforts and encouragement for other funders to follow suit.

While the next two cities won't be announced for a while, Pivotal Ventures did share their rubric, which includes:

  • current and future sources of diverse talent to computing degree programs and industry
  • access to capital
  • strength of local business and employer community
  • and the regulatory and political environment

I'm taking bets on what cities will be next. Maybe Detroit, another affordable, diverse Midwestern city with its own share of startup buzz? Denver or Salt Lake City, western hubs with lots of tech investment? Atlanta, mecca of talented new grads and creativity?

We'll have to wait and see.

For now, Pivotal Ventures will keep building infrastructure in Chicago and learning what works well and doesn't, moving quickly as they go. Gates shared in a Time op-ed at the end of last year that she wanted to build on the #MeToo movement before it became a thing of the past:

"Here's what keeps me up at night: I imagine waking up one morning to find that the country has moved on. That the media has stopped reporting on systemic inequalities. That diversity remains something companies talk about instead of prioritizing. That all of this energy and attention has amounted to a temporary swell instead of a sea change.

There is too much at stake to allow that to happen. Too many people—women and men—have worked too hard to get us this far. And there are too many possible solutions we haven't tried yet.

That's why, over the next ten years, I am committing $1 billion to expanding women's power and influence in the United States."

This first $50 million investment is part of Gates's overall pledge, which will go towards creating more pipelines for women in tech and other major sectors like media and public office; fighting barriers to women's professional advancement like sexual harassment and insufficient childcare options; and putting pressure on companies and organizations in need of reform by providing more data on the experiences of women and especially women of color.

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Which cities do you think should be next? Let us know in the comments!

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