Merici Vinton, CEO of women in tech network Ada’s List, didn’t have a typical route into the technology sector - she got here via her passion for politics. It was this lifelong passion that saw Vinton join the Barack Obama campaign in 2008, and end up as part of the Obama New Media team. She explains:
I wasn’t a developer, but there was a lot of HTML. I went from talking to people and convincing them to vote to convincing them to vote online and volunteer. When Obama was elected, I moved to DC to bring that change. I set up the digital team, the tech team for a new government agency called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) with Elizabeth Warren.
The CFPB was set up to offer financial protections for the most vulnerable in society, such as people on a predatory student loan, or those not getting support from their mortgage or credit card providers.
The tech projects Vinton worked on under Obama were built on the key principles of open source and in-house wherever possible, and agile development. At the time in US Federal Government circles, Vinton says this was all unheard of:
What’s cool about the government work is the scale, everything that you do, it’s super important to have incredibly diverse teams because you’re building services and technology that are used by the most vulnerable.
Fast forward to today and Vinton lives in London with her British husband. Her move to the UK was the catalyst for Ada’s List, an email-based community for women and those who identify as women working in technology and digital. Named for computing industry pioneer Ada Lovelace, it was set up by Vinton and here three co-founders in 2013, launching appropriately enough on Ada Lovelace Day itself.
She had been a member of groups like Ada’s List when she was working in US government, but found there was nothing similar in place in the UK:
I didn’t know the scene, the people, the companies, who was hiring, and fundamentally I didn’t know 7,000 women who may or may not have my back.
Ada’s List currently has over 7,000 worldwide members, who all get the opportunity to share job listings, announce conference panels and calls for submissions, get informal mentoring and share details of tech-related events. Vinton adds:
It’s providing a safe space to ask questions and get advice. Lots of women come to recruit or to find jobs themselves. Essentially it’s about being around other women. People want to connect and support each other. 7,000 women a day open their doors to strangers. I view that as kind of like infrastructure, the pipes for the tech scene.
The group has grown organically through word of mouth - there has never been a push for recruitment - with members at all levels of their careers across different sectors. Currently around 1,000 members identify as board members, roughly a third have over 15 years of experience, and 40% are just starting out; between 350 to 1,400 of these women engage with Ada’s List every day. Vinton explains:
We seeded it with invites to 25 people. It was very slow to take off at first. There are some cultural differences in the way that Americans communicate over reply-all email and non-Americans communicate over reply-all email.
When it started out, the network was more tech-heavy, with developers and data scientists. It has expanded to be more women who work around technology, and now counts designers, project managers, journalists, lawyers and content strategists among its members. However, Ada’s List curates conversations so there are still set spaces for developers, for women of colour, for New York or London, or for jobs.
Ada’s List is now planning to launch a new channel specifically targeting women on boards. Vinton says:
They have said to us, 'We want a separate space to connect', so we’re taking applications to launch a board channel for women who are currently members of boards, be it corporate, their own startup, non-profit or government.
Its first iteration is a space for these women to talk peer to peer about the challenges they’re facing and the opportunities to plot how they want to change the world. Over time, that will become frameworks or recommendations for all members of that channel about what they can take with them to boards. At its most basic level, there’s some copy and paste language for diversity and inclusion strategy around hiring an executive hire – a checklist, so that we can take those values of inclusivity, of transparency.
While Ada’s List is free for individuals signing up, it has just launched a paid-for partners program, aimed at medium to large sized companies that want to enhance or kickstart their women in tech strategies. Vinton says signing up as a partner offers three specific benefits for businesses: the recruitment of a diverse set of candidates into tech vacancies; a pipeline of mentors for their employees; and being aligned to an organization like Ada’s List.
Vinton adds that her goal is to partner with organizations Ada’s List members would want to work for, and seek out the types of places they would be proud to partner with. It’s early days for the program, which launched in October, but so far green energy firm Bulb has signed up, while Vinton is in talks with three other potential partners.
While enthused about the prospect of partnering with like-minded organizations, Vinton rues the missed opportunity the tech sector had when it comes to equality:
I know a lot of women who’ve dropped out of technology because of the culture. What’s sad about the whole tech scene is it’s new and exciting and there was all this opportunity to create such a great impact. But we took some of the worst practices from the old world and applied them to the new world. We had an opportunity to really build something new, with power structures that benefit everyone. I don’t think that a lot of people have really changed the structures around them enough to actually change how things work.
When it comes to one aspect that could still make a difference, Vinton cites a personal commitment by investors to only fund diverse start-ups - if they start demanding better from the market, then more diverse teams will follow that.
With Ada’s List’s new channel for women at board level and inviting partners into the community, there are still opportunities for companies and individuals to make a difference for women in technology, even if we’ve missed the chance to build equality in from scratch.