ReAllocate Inspires Hacking for the Social Good

Photo credit: Josh Wolf

Photo credit: Josh Wolf

With a mission to leverage technology for the force of good, the San-Francisco-based non-profit ReAllocate has organized HACKtivation for the Homeless, a weekend-long hackathon uniting techies with San Francisco’s 7000-person homeless and at-risk community.

In typical hackathon fashion, the weekend began with pitches, this time coming from local non-profits and city agencies. Participating techies joined teams that resonated with their passions and areas of expertise.

Gathering on a rainy Saturday at the Yammer HQ in the Twitter building, teams plugged away on a wide range of projects, each designed to have a lasting impact.

One group I spoke with is redesigning the website for St. Francis House, which serves the homeless elderly population. Another group, working for Larkin Street, is building an SMS-based reservation service for emergency beds, bypassing the need to check-in at the building itself. A third group, led by volunteers from Salesforce, is digitizing the Homeless Prenatal volunteer sign-up form, which they estimate will save 20 minutes per applicant.

The hackathon organizers, Kyle Stewart and Ilana Lipsett, organized a groundswell of support from across the community. Participating groups, along with those listed above, include tech organizations like General Assembly, Code for America, and Spotify, along with community-driven allies like Project Homeless Connect, St. Francis Living Room, Hospitality House, and the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation.

Silicon Valley Cracks the Glass Ceiling

Ada Lovelace may finally have reason to smile.

Groundbreaking accelerator 500 Startups recently announced the 500 Women Fund, an AngelList syndicate dedicated to funding startups led by women in entrepreneurship. 500 founder Dave McClure commented to PandoDaily, “Smart women entrepreneurs are not getting the access to capital they could.”

An estimated 25 to 30 percent of teams currently funded by 500 Startups include at least one female founder, double the US average of 13%. (500 also invests substantially in international teams, bolstered by its Geeks on a Plane initiative.)

The 500 Women syndicate is a new program designed to further encourage women to become founders, and to support them with a deep network of investors, mentors, and peers.

Meanwhile, fellow incubator YCombinator prepares its first conference focused exclusively on female founders. The incubator turned an about-face in December 2013, after comments from an interview with YCom founder Paul Graham went viral. During the interview, Graham remarked:

I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders because I would know from looking at the ones we missed. You could argue that we should do more, that we should encourage women to start startups.

Even for an industry structurally dominated by male-biased investment patterns, YCombinator stands out from the crowd: over its eight-year history, 96% of YCombinator founders have been men. It appears, however, that the tides of patriarchy may be waning. Commented PG (as he’s often known) in a subsequent essay:

More thoughtful people were willing to concede YC wasn’t biased against women, but thought we should be actively working to increase the number of female founders. As one put it, instead of being a gatekeeper, we should be a gateway…

We fund more female founders than VCs do, and we help them to overcome the bias they’ll encounter among other investors. In the current YC batch, 16 out of 68 companies, or 24%, have female founders.

I realize though that with female founders, efforts at our stage are not enough.

Pivoting from a previously laissez-faires attitude towards the gender gap, YCombinator appears ready to assume a proactive role in catalyzing social change. Complimenting his two provocative essays on the subject, Paul Graham’s wife and partner, Jessica Livingston, will soon co-host the Female Founders Conference.

Taking place March 1 at the Computer History Museum, the conference will feature an impressive series of talks from accomplished women in technology, including industry leaders Diane Green (Founder, VMWare), Julia Hartz (Co-Founder, EventBrite) and Jessica Mah (Co-Founder, InDinero).

But is it enough?

All these efforts, while commendable, overlook the growing gender gap afflicting the tech field as a whole. In 1984, for instance, 37.1% of US computer science degrees went to women; today, the same figure is 12%, less than a third of the rate three decades ago.

Women face similar discrimination at all levels of organizational leadership — only 19% of American CEOs are women, for instance — leading to the widespread, if controversial, notion of a “pink ghetto.

Reasons for such a participatory decline may vary, but the scarcity of role models — women in technology with name recognition approaching Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or, more contemporarily, Mark Zuckerberg — may likely play an inhibiting role in encouraging more women to enter the field.

Efforts by YCombinator and 500Startups may play only a minor role in reversing a long-standing sociotechnical trend, but even the longest journey begins with a single step — and in this case, it’s a step in the right direction.