How Do We Rethink…? Can the Leaders of Tomorrow Solve the Problems of Today?

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on April 24th, 2017.

The Kairos Global Summit just concluded in New York City, and I was honored to participate in this year’s event by posing a question to the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. I was one of 43 to do so, including legends like Sir Ronald Cohen (APEX, Impact Investing), Esther Wojcicki (Journalist), and John Scully (Apple), as well as newer rock stars like MelanieWhelan (Soul Cycle) and Casey Neistat (Filmmaker and more). The event was set up like a reverse Shark Tank of sorts, and we were each given just three minutes to pitch. Three.

Some background on Kairos. The Kairos Society was founded eight years ago to bring together the leaders of tomorrow and put them to work solving the problems of today. Kairos recruits its Fellows from over 100 of the top universities in the world across 50 different countries, and asks these future leaders to rethink the current status quo. How can technology be used to disrupt or improve existing industries? How can entrepreneurs tackle the world’s most pressing issues? What would happen if tomorrow’s leaders started working on those issues now? Since its formation, Kairos Fellows have gone on to found companies such as Frenome, Periscope, and Digital Genius, and collectively these companies have raised over $600 million in capital. Pretty impressive.

As an event junkie there were so many things that made this one so special, but what was the top one? Might it have been the helicopter ride to the Rockefeller Estate for the opening dinner? Seeing some of the coolest new AI technologies out there? (Soul Machines) Meeting the cofounder of Siri? Having a dance party on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on the last night? Although all of that was amazing, what truly made this event so special was spending time with the awesome young entrepreneurs. Simply put, they blew my mind. I have to admit that I have been feeling a little depressed lately about the future of the planet, but these young people gave me so much hope. I have never been at an event that was so intergenerational. Truly intergenerational. It was no ‘celebrity in the corner’ type event where the audience and the speakers were treated like two different classes of people. It was exactly the opposite, and so it should be.

In preparing for the summit, I had to come up with only one problem that I could present to these young entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders. Sadly, the list of problems facing our world today is a depressingly long one. Some that initially came to mind were income inequality, sexual assault, addiction, affordable health care, the current refugee crisis, and climate change, but I thought that these might be covered by the other presenters given the line-up, and in fact they pretty much were. I also wanted to pick something that might also be more in the entrepreneur’s self interest. So this is the one I chose.

How do we rethink………how to fill the unfilled computer science jobs now, and in to the future?

According to Code.org there are currently over 523,000 unfilled tech jobs in the United States alone. In just three years, the US could be facing a shortage of up to 2 million workers in this vitally important sector. This is a problem at so many levels. Both existing companies and start-ups cannot operate at capacity if they cannot find talent. In addition, the cost of acquiring and retaining that talent is higher than it would be if there were more qualified workers available. Employment in computer science and engineering has been growing at twice the rate of the national average, and these are attractive jobs that generally provide higher pay, better benefits, and are more resilient in economic downturns. At the macro level this lack of skilled workers creates a drag on the GDP.

Not only do we not have enough computer scientists, math majors, and engineers, but we really, really, really do not have enough female ones. So in addition to asking the Kairos Fellows to rethink the unfilled tech jobs, I wanted them to add a gender lens to the problem. Why so few females and what could be done about it? During my preparation for the summit I found these depressing statistics. During the academic school year of 1984-1985, women represented 37% of all computer science undergraduate students. Today, that number is down to 18%. Please read those two lines again. In high schools across the US, boys outnumber girls 4:1 in AP Computer Science exams, and in Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming, not a single girl took the AP Computer Science examination in 2014.

The lack of girls studying in the areas of STEM is not a new problem, and in fact it has received a lot of attention. There are a variety of programs in the works to address this issue, but we need lots more fresh ideas to create the scale of impact we need to address the PIPELINE issue. If you know of any current programs working on this, please feel free to share them in the comment section.

The problem does not stop there. Not only are females not choosing to study STEM, but when they do have the needed requirements and enter the field, they may not stay. This issue is often called the ‘brain drain’ or ‘opting out’. As a former Wall Street trader I know a thing or two about being a female in an underrepresented work environment, but overall the financial sector ranks way better than tech when it comes to gender representation. Morgan Stanley just released a major study called More Gender Diverse Tech Companies Generate Higher Relative Returns, and in it they rank sectors on multiple gender dimensions including representation, empowerment, pay equity, diversity policies, and work/life balance programs. Tech came out as “one of the lease diverse sectors”. They go on to say that “given that Tech is a relatively new and growing sector, it is surprising that it ranks particularly poorly on gender representation across all ranks within firms, probably the result of structural issues that make take a long time to resolve.” Furthermore, “sectors that rank lower than Tech on representation metrics tend to be older, slower growing, and more traditional sectors that carry a historical legacy of poor diversity. Those sectors (such as Energy, Utilities, Industrials, and Materials) often require manual labor and/or long stretches of time in remote places, and thus in the past were inherently biased towards men and towards the status quo. As a newer, innovative, rapidly growing sector, Tech should not share this kind of bias, making it a bit of an anomaly.” They then go on to suggest that tech companies with high levels of gender diversity actually perform better, which is one of the many reasons why this matters.

The format of the Kairos Global Summit was such that all that there was time for was to pitch a problem. There wasn’t the opportunity to discuss potential solutions, but the Kairos Fellows will be invited to do just that. If you feel so inclined to offer a potential solution to the problem, please do so. And if you have not already seen CODE: Debugging the Gender Gapfind out where you can watch it here.ComputerScience.org also has some amazing resources.

As to the challenges offered up by the other 40+ leaders? That will be a subject for a future post.

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