Why Melinda Gates is investing $50 million to make the next Silicon Valley—starting in Chicago

January 28, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Melinda Gates is investing $50 million in creating more tech opportunities for women—outside of the industry’s usual power centers.  

The philanthropist in October pledged $1 billion towards expanding women’s power and influence over the next decade. On Tuesday, Gates’ Pivotal Ventures said that $50 million of her pledge will go towards creating “inclusive tech hubs” in Chicago and two other yet-to-be-named cities, over the next five years.

The “Gender Equality in Tech Cities” initiative will focus on increasing the percentages of women who graduate with computing degrees and who get hired into (and retained/promoted at) tech jobs; it also aims to increase the amount of venture capital invested in startups with at least one female founder. Pivotal Ventures is devoting the money to several partners, including Break Through Tech, a spinoff of a Cornell Tech initiative, which will create career development programs for students at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere; and SecondMuse, an agency that will coordinate programs around hiring women in tech and funding female entrepreneurs.

“As the tech industry continues to expand beyond Silicon Valley to other areas across the country, we have the opportunity to reimagine what the sector could look like,” Gates wrote in a LinkedIn post scheduled to publish on Tuesday morning. “If these emerging tech hubs are supported to prioritize women’s representation and inclusion as they grow, they will be better positioned to tap into the full range of local talent, while also helping create a blueprint for closing the industry’s gender gap nationwide.”

The investment supports Gates’ commitment “to fast-track women in high-impact sectors like tech and ensure that all women (not just white women or women from elite backgrounds) are able to enter and advance in these fields,” as she told Fortune in our recent “25 Ideas for 2020” package.

Pivotal created a short list of potential cities and chose Chicago for its current tech, venture, and larger-business ecosystem—as well as its “attractive cost of living,” according to Renee Wittemyer, Pivotal’s director of program strategy and investment.

“We also believe that Chicago’s rich diversity is an untapped competitive advantage,” Wittemyer said in an interview Monday. “Tech continues to have an outsize influence on society, but women, and women of color in particular are being systemically left behind.”

Pivotal plans to choose the second of its three cities within the next year, she says.

Since Gates made her $1 billion pledge in October, Pivotal Ventures has made related investments of undisclosed amounts in a Techstars accelerator focused on elder care and in a fund focused on creating more opportunities for American women to run for office. Tuesday’s announcement is the first time that Pivotal is disclosing the specific amount it is committing to a part of Gates’ gender-equality pledge.

Still, that amount—$50 million split among three cities over five years— is relatively small, as Wittemyer acknowledges: “This is just the start of what it will take, and we can’t do it alone,” she says. “We really want to use this to crowd in other funders … to help us set the example of what a vibrant and inclusive tech hub could look like.”

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