The world has many problems to solve. Billions live without reliable energy and lack adequate access to water, healthcare, and education. More people die from lack of clean water than from war. Our food system, the primary source of income for billions, must grow to meet the needs of another two billion people. Poverty is endemic. These are some of humanity’s grand challenges.
The good news is that solutions to these grand challenges are at hand. The processing power of computers has doubled, every 18 months, for more than 100 years. We are seeing exponential advances in every technology that computers touch, such as sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, and 3D printing. These technologies are also converging—and making amazing things possible. Entrepreneurs can build smartphone apps that act as medical assistants to detect disease; body sensors that monitor heart, brain and body activity; technologies to detect soil humidity and improve agriculture; and robots that serve the elderly.
Yet Silicon Valley, which could be taking the lead in ridding humanity of its ills, is focused on scoring big hits by solving small problems. The venture-capital system, which fuels the technology industry’s growth, is geared toward rolling the dice in the hope of receiving returns of five to ten times the invested capital within five to seven years. For these investors, the quickest hits usually come from building apps or games that go viral or websites that automate business processes. That is where the big money is being invested—and it is going to the boys. Women are largely left out.
The big venture-capital successes are, however, rare, so the entire system is in decline. For the last fifteen years, most venture-capital firms have produced lower returns than the stock markets have. Billions are being needlessly wasted on building mindless apps.
This creates a big opportunity for women who want to solve the world’s problems.
Women are beginning to dominate many fields in education, and are gaining an increasing share of the degrees. They now earn 61.6% of all associate’s degrees, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, and 58.5% of graduate degrees in the U.S. More women than men graduate in fields such as biology, education, health sciences, social/behavioral studies, and arts and humanities. Girls now match boys in mathematical achievement.
In building an exponential technology, education is important, and knowledge of more than one discipline provides a big advantage. Women have these advantages. As well, the success of Apple has shown that design is critical in the success of technology products. In design school, they teach that the best designs come from empathy—when the designer can feel the needs of the product’s user. Women have a big advantage here too—their maternal instincts provide them with an abundance of empathy. If you combine all of these advantages with a desire to do good, you have a powerful combination.
Through the centuries, women have rarely been given credit for their achievements, and have been discouraged from studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics because they're considered male fields. They face discrimination at all points of their careers and are shunned by venture capitalists. The companies that women start, however, tend to be more practical and sensible than those started by men. They achieve 35% higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12% higher revenue than venture-backed male-owned tech companies.
Women entrepreneurs are therefore best placed to solve humanity’s grand challenges and to better the world. We must level the playing field for women by supporting their startups and removing the hurdles that are thrown in their way. Parents must inspire their daughters to step forth and take their rightful role in the innovation economy.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Stanford University and a director of research at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. This is an excerpt from his upcoming book Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology—which was crowd written by hundreds of women. You can follow Vivek on twitter: @wadhwa.