Jodi Kovitz uses all of her tools—enthusiasm, inflection, honesty, insight and a constant swirl of hand movement—to tell the backstory of #movethedial, her social enterprise to help women succeed in the tech industry. As origin stories go, it’s more elaborate, and engaging, than something concocted by Marvel, a tale of resilience, serendipity and perpetual optimism. The key moment, the story’s turning point, came after Kovitz became CEO of AceTech Ontario. That non-profit (later called Peerscale) was focused on the career development of softwareas-a-service executives, who Kovitz noticed were predominantly middle-aged men.
So in January of 2017, when she hosted a Toronto event for a group of women entrepreneurs she’d met in Israel, Kovitz expected perhaps 30 attendees. Instead, thanks to social media, she got 1,000. That event grew into what she calls a “movement.” At a time when only 5% of Canadian tech companies have a woman CEO and the gender pay gap is stuck wide—not to mention troubles at companies like Uber and WeWork illustrating the toxicity of some male-dominated workplaces—Kovitz remains positive. She’d rather encourage change than complain. What she’s fighting for is more good news.
Why focus on tech?
It's an industry that has a massive gap, and it is our future. All companies will rely on technology. So it's really important that we bring more diversity of thought into the industry.
Why are there so few women in tech right now?
Role modelling, to me, is one of the key reasons. You can only be what you can see, and you haven’t historically seen many women as tech icons. And the pipeline has been a huge challenge: getting girls interested and curious about pursuing STEM (1) careers. We have to change the perception for girls, that it’s not just for boys to do coding. That means we have to expose girls to tech in a different way at times, and expose girls to career options and role models. When you don’t see women at the top, it makes you think you can’t be successful. So you don’t go into it. That causes the pipeline problem, and it goes in a circle. (2)
And what’s the inherent problem of having so few women in tech?
I sort of see it as a three-fold problem. One, the moral imperative is absolutely clear: equality of opportunity, bottom line. On top of that, look at Canada. We are trying to compete globally through our tech talent and our homegrown tech companies for the future of our economy. I don’t see how we can win globally leaving out 50% of the population. Last, and most important, is the fact that if you leave a disproportionate amount of women-identified people out of the actual design and building of the tech, and making the strategic decisions, you will not be designing technology that is relevant for all. (3)
How would you describe what you do—are you a consulting firm?
We offer some consulting services in partnership with experts who do that work. We offer corporate partnerships with companies that work with us to advance what they have to do in this space. They fund our work through sponsorships or partnership dollars, and we execute with them against the goals they’re trying to achieve. We do some bespoke events so they can attract talent and engage them in our events.
You also do research.
We’re doing a project right now on the retention-of-women-in-tech problem. We interviewed 25 tech leaders to understand, once we have the women-identified people, how do we keep them and engage them. (4) And that will be a novel piece of research we think is part of solving the problem. And the last piece is, we’ve been building our app, #movethedial Connect.
One of our insights has been the need to build a mentoring program driven by smart data, so companies can get metrics on how their investment is moving the dial. But you need—my brother raised $100 million. (5) I don’t have that kind of funding. So our plan is to bring it to the community when we’re in a position to do that at scale.
Are you a non-profit or a for-profit organization?
We are a social enterprise.
What does that mean?
We are not a registered nonprofit. The way that all started was as a program through MaRS. Jeff Fettes, an entrepreneur in Winnipeg, saw me speak. And he said, “You have so much passion for this, I believe in you.” And I said, “I can’t do this full time. I have a daughter. I’m a single mother.” Like, that’s really scary. He said, “Figure out how you could hire some people and how you can fund this work enough that you can do things.” And that’s what I did. I found a way to build an organization that has enabled me to bring in enough revenue to hire 20 people, and build this into something that can be sustainable and relevant for the long term. My vision is that the organization will make, ultimately, enough revenues that I can start a non-profit arm that will focus on youth.
Does #movethedial try to address male toxicity in the workplace?
No. Our specific work is focused on bringing more women into the industry, engaging and growing them in those roles. That piece of work around toxicity and sexual harassment is just not a specific focus of what our own work is.
But toxicity in male-dominated workplaces is part of the reason women don’t go into those workplaces, isn’t that true?
Shouldn’t that be an element of what you’re doing?
If the question is, does #movethedial have a program that specifically addresses toxic things, like sexual harassment specifically? I don’t believe that I personally have the expertise to deliver those programs. We work with PhDs in inclusive design to do all sorts of programming around understanding unconscious bias. We do deep dives on the research. How are individuals in the company feeling about the culture? Is it toxic? Is it healthy? Is it not? What’s the sense of belonging that people feel, and what are the gaps in terms of numbers, but also sentiment?
Do you perceive any differences in Canada versus, say, Silicon Valley?
It’s hard to generalize, but some of the women I’ve met who are leaders in the Valley seem to be more cynical than some of the women I’ve met here. We started to do some work in Japan, and in Israel and London, and all of those markets are different. The women I met in the U.K. are extremely optimistic and really have rallied together as a community.
Sarah Lahav, the CEO of SysAid Technologies, wrote an article recently that basically said, if you want women to feel more welcome in tech, stop using the term “women in tech.” She feels the phrase is inherently marginalizing. What’s your reaction to that idea?
It’s interesting. I talk a lot about “women-identified” because I think gender fluidity is in a place where, if you do this work, you can’t just talk about women who were born women or who look like women to the outside world. But I don’t share her perspective that it’s marginalizing to say we need to work together to advance people who identify as women in the industry. That is a focus of my work. I’ve certainly come across people who share her opinion—who sort of say, “We’re just tech leaders.” But I do think it’s really important to focus on the fact that there is a massive gap.
What’s your approach to engaging with companies? Do you wait for them to come to you, or do you reach out to them?
We've been lucky that it's been mostly inbound, because it means, to me, that the community's excited about the work and wants to engage. I get inbound all the time, through all my social channels and my email. I spoke at the Elevate Tech Festival recently, and I got tons of emails afterwards: “We'd love to explore working with you, loved your message, how can we get involved?” And then we bring them in. They meet with our team and try to get engaged that way.
Do you feel like you’re moving the dial? What evidence do you have that you’re having an effect?
We’ve seen a shift in consciousness with a lot of the partners we’re working with, where this has moved from “something we think we need to do” to a strategic priority for the business. We’re seeing the women-identified people in tech feeling more engaged, feeling more valued. (6) We’re all about partnership. We fund our work through engaging with partners who are serious and want to solve this problem. They’re seeing the impact of that. They’re all renewing their partnerships. That, to us, demonstrates that they’re getting value out of the work we’re doing. TD renewed as a title sponsor. They’re also a founding partner, along with CIBC, WealthSimple, League and BMO.
They’re almost all financial companies.
We work with lots of companies, and many technology companies. Shopify, for example, came on for this year, along with a whole bunch of other tech companies. The funding is different in startups than it is in large organizations. To their credit, in order to fund this work, the companies that have had the ability to fund it have stepped up. And we’re grateful for that. But we have the chief diversity officer for Microsoft opening our summit in November, and the global head of diversity for Airbnb is speaking. We have Salesforce really engaged (7) and lots of these larger technology companies that are engaging.
Last year, you wanted 10,000 women in tech to tell their stories in video. What was the response?
Yeah, that was one of those bold, ambitious goals, and it didn’t happen in one year. But I’m working really hard at it, and I’m optimistic it will happen through how we’re going to be scaling it with the technology. We’ve told 160 stories at events, but we’ve also told many more stories through our blog and through how people engage in our social media. And I’m still at it, and I’m confident we’ll achieve our goal.
If a young woman told you she wanted a career in tech, what’s one piece of advice you would give her?
I would say, go all in. Stay in. And build your network early and always. The opportunities are about having humans that believe in you, will teach you, will champion you, and building your own network is going to be absolutely critical to your success in this industry. So, start doing that, and don’t stop.
Trevor Cole is the award-winning author of five books, including The Whisky King, a non-fiction account of Canada’s most infamous mobster bootlegger.
1. Though women made up 56% of Canadian university grads in 2010, they earn only 29.6% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees.
3. There are plenty of examples of male-dominated AI teams producing algorithms that were biased against women. “Who’s going to be taking care of our elderly two generations from now? It’s going to be AI,” Melinda Gates said in 2016. “But do you want all males in their early 20s and 30s creating the AI that’s going to take care of you when you’re older?”
5. Kovitz’s brother, Michael Katchen (yes, the one on our cover), is the founder and CEO of WealthSimple
6. #movethedial says its campaign to generate nominations of female founders to C100, a San Francisco-based association of Canadian global tech leaders, boosted the number of those nominations by 400%.
7. In 2015, Salesforce chief personnel officer Cindy Robbins alerted CEO Marc Benioff that female employees were systemically paid less than male ones. He dedicated US$6 million to correct that discrepancy, and salary gaps by gender and ethnicity across the company.