Why Girls in Tech had to close | Adriana Gascoigne interview

The Girls in Tech nonprofit women’s tech community closed its doors after 17 years. Founder Adriana Gascoigne announced the somber news amid “sadness and devastation.”

I wrote about the closing and interviewed Gascoigne afterward. And I told her that 17 years was a good run, but it’s a shame the organization didn’t survive.

She started the group in 2007 and it took off with a message of empowerment for women in tech, who have been an underrepresented group in the male-dominated tech industry.

Gascoigne said the decision was not made lightly. The group reached more than 250,000 individuals across 35 chapters in 30 countries on six continents. It was founded in Silicon Valley, but Gascoigne relocated the group to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2022 during the pandemic.

Lil Snack & GamesBeat

GamesBeat is excited to partner with Lil Snack to have customized games just for our audience! We know as gamers ourselves, this is an exciting way to engage through play with the GamesBeat content you have already come to love. Start playing games now!

Since the beginning of the organization, I interviewed her numerous times about the group’s mission and goals, and how it rose to greater relevance in fighting the “toxic culture” of Silicon Valley. Gascoigne said she was inspired after facing isolation at tech companies, often as the only woman, and after a sexual harassment incident where she felt her allegations were ignored.

The group’s programs included a mentorship program, hackathons, coding bootcamps, the Girls in Tech Conference, a startup challenge, global classroom, podcast, blog, jobs board, and shop. The group organized thousands of in-person and virtual events, producing educational and engaging content. Gascoigne wrote a book about her experience. I recall fondly taking my daughter to a Girls in Tech Catalyst event and introducing her to Gascoigne.

In our interview, Gascoigne said that the financial pressure on major tech companies led them to cut funding for Girls in Tech. As the situation got worse, Gascoigne tried to restore the funding for the nonprofit. But she also found that companies were under political pressure to reduce their efforts in diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI).

In her newsletter this week, Gascoigne said, “Though Girls in Tech is closing its doors, the movement we started must and will continue. I encourage each of you to carry on the fight to eliminate the gender gap in tech. Our mission will live on in other forms, driven by the same passion and commitment that have always defined us. I will miss you all deeply. Thank you for being a part of this incredible journey.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Adriana Gascoigne is founder and CEO of Girls in Tech.

GamesBeat: It’s good to chat with you again. I’m sorry it had to be under these circumstances.

Adriana Gascoigne: It’s pretty sad. It’s unfortunate given that it’s not just Girls in Tech, but other organizations as well that are impacted. It’s a sad state of affairs any way you look at it. It’s a labor of love, and it grew and grew. I felt that it was something needed within the community. Obviously it was impacting me personally. I’m glad other people felt the same way. It’s just a tragedy that we weren’t able to get funding. That’s the main thing, the main reason we had to close our doors.

It’s been drying up since 2023, but even before then, since COVID. We’ve been experiencing challenges raising funds, whether through grants or corporate sponsorships or major gift donors. People started holding on to their dollars a lot more tightly. Primarily corporate sponsorships, where we got the majority of our funding–companies are just focused on cost containment. That’s a trend we’re seeing across many different tech companies. Whether it’s a reorg or budget cuts or layoffs, folks were just not investing in partnerships with non-profits like Girls in Tech.

That’s a massive tragedy, because it’s exactly when women need more support, when there are tumultuous times in the industry. We need more career development support, job opportunities, mentorship. But it’s very challenging for us to get that funding.

GamesBeat: There’s always a danger that causes like diversity suffer when it comes time to scale back and deal with budget cuts. I was looking back at some of the early stories I did on Girls in Tech. What do you think about starting up all those years ago? What comes to mind?

Gascoigne: It’s something I look back at as a labor of love, turning into a full time job, turning into a movement. It grew so fast, primarily because there was such a demand. I do feel that women around the world in the tech industry need a support community, a support network, a place they can learn and grow and educate themselves. But more important, just interact and network with other women in this space, whether they want to collaborate or build a business or share an idea or hold an event. We needed that support community to help us build the confidence we needed to become leaders within the tech space.

Since 2007, obviously a lot has changed. It’s a more level playing field than it was back in the day. But we just scratched the surface. There’s a long way to go until we hit that–even a satisfactory point of equality within the industry. I see more women applying for jobs in tech, in STEM, but I don’t see women in leadership roles, especially BIPOC women, which obviously needs to change. You can’t be what you can’t see. I truly believe in that.

Girls in Tech believes women can find a home in tech.
Girls in Tech believes women can find a home in tech.

It’s just such a disparity in terms of capital for female founders. It’s been decreasing significantly since COVID, and it was already pretty bad back in the day. It was about 2.5% percent of all VC capital going to female founders, and now it’s less than 2% in the U.S., which is tragic. We need to shift that and support female founders with more access to capital.

GamesBeat: You talked about that sense of feeling alone that got you to start the organization.

Gascoigne: Just experiencing many not-so-tasteful things in the work environment. Whether it was sexual harassment, the way I was communicated with, just being left out of certain projects and opportunities–random things. I put it in my book. I was doing product marketing for a startup, and this guy in the bullpen thought I was talking too loudly, so he threw a water bottle at my head and said, “Shut the F up.” Stuff like that happened in the startup world in those days. I thought it was par for the course. Eventually I said, “Nope, I can’t deal with this anymore.” That was the impetus to start the organization and provide a network for women going through the same things in the startup world.

Everything was catered to that brogrammer culture. They wanted to attract those 25- to 35-year-old engineers, white dudes in hoodies, to come and work at their companies. A lot of them didn’t have any kind of training in social etiquette, or the ability to communicate with our gender very well. It was challenging. It was very misogynistic. I feel like it’s evolved a bit, but there’s such a long way to go in terms of supporting women in the industry, getting women to become leaders, managers, directors, executives within tech startups and companies.

GamesBeat: The women that you met along the way shared your point of view. Do people share a lot of similar stories with you?

Girls in Tech has moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
Girls in Tech has moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

Gascoigne: They do. Women in my network, definitely. I put a lot of them in my book. Some people–it didn’t happen to everyone. I know some people who said, “Well, it didn’t happen to me that way.” Some people are lucky. But I did talk to many women, many people who experienced–just being alienated, isolated, and treated differently based on their gender.

The solution isn’t just a training program or a workshop or guidelines or policies that executives put into place. I think it has a lot more to do with culture, a lead by example culture. The first 10 employees, and specifically the executives, the leadership and founders, have to instill. They have to lead by example and make sure that the people they hire embrace those values, so the culture is positive and productive and supportive. People feel safe and welcome. Anybody, regardless of their background, should feel welcome.

GamesBeat: As you grew fast, did you find that women were already there working in tech, or that Girls in Tech was drawing them in?

Gascoigne: Women were already there. The first event in San Francisco, we had more than 200 women in tech. It was at a club called Slide, next to the Ruby Skye. It was February 2007. A friend, Jonathan Abrams, who later became a board member, was part owner of the club. That was where the magic happened. We had more than 200 women attending – designers, developers, product people, marketers. I was floored at how many people showed up, and how many women in tech existed in San Francisco.

That was the impetus for me to–it was very encouraging the conversations that were had. Almost infectious. It excited me. It was thrilling to see so many women who were so passionate about the tech industry, who wanted to thrive and advance their skills and climb up the ladder or launch their own businesses. They needed a support network. That’s what got me to go from a small networking event to launching an organization. That was the night.

It seems like so long ago. I guess it was. So much has happened since then.

GamesBeat: Was there a way that the organization–I know it was a non-profit, but was there something about it that helped it take off and have enough funding to grow? Did something start working at the very beginning on that financial front?

Girls in Tech did an event in Nashville.
Girls in Tech recently did an event in Nashville.

Gascoigne: I did it as a “hobby.” I worked to make sure it was successful and produced events and engaged our attendees, but it wasn’t until we did an event in Phoenix, Arizona. We had a couple of people helping Girls in Tech with producing a conference. They pulled out, but we were still stuck with a contract with a hotel. I had a full-time job, so I couldn’t manage the production or help out. I was working at a very demanding startup. I tried to negotiate my way out of it. I even flew to Phoenix to connect with the GM of the hotel. Obviously I thought I could pull the heartstrings because we were a non-profit. Nothing worked.

I had to quit my job. I was working at a company called RxMatch. I started looking for sponsorships full time. I believe it was a $90,000 bill. I did not have that much money, not even close. I knew I had to quit my job and start looking for sponsorships. It was a very stressful time in my life. But not only was I able to find sponsors to cover that bill, I was able to get twice that much. It built a lot of confidence in my strength and my ability to ask for money to support the community, and it opened my eyes to the fact that companies wanted to support Girls in Tech.

GamesBeat: Was there a peak or a heyday for Girls in Tech as an organization, in terms of size and the support coming from the industry?

Gascoigne: It was probably right before COVID. In 2019 we were still in San Francisco. There was so much going on, so much activity with tech companies and startups and incubators and accelerators. A lot of awesome media outlets and new organizations popping up to help different marginalized and underrepresented groups in tech. There was a lot of excitement, a lot of traction, a lot of opportunities.

That’s when Girls in Tech was able to shine and execute on all its premier events. We did our Catalyst conference. Thousands of people came to the conference in downtown San Francisco. I think we had about 4,000 attendees. Top notch speakers, phenomenal leaders, from astronauts to authors to tech execs. It was a great diversity of speakers. We even had Mayim Bialik, the actress from Big Bang Theory.

We did several bootcamps. We did a hackathon with ESPN. The bootcamps were always excellent, whether it was Python coding or product design. We had a lot of UX designers in our community. We also did a lot of leadership training, power skills training. Those were really well-attended and in high demand. We had our global classroom, which was our e-learning platform. We taught a lot of security courses on that platform. We had a digital creator fair as well. Just a great variety of top notch programs. It was always sold out. Great traction. People had wonderful feedback.

We also did some big fundraising events. We had our gala at City Hall in San Francisco, which was sold out. We were able to raise a good amount of funding. We had a live auction. Phenomenal memories of the events we produced, the chapter programs. We did a chapter retreat where women from all over the world got together in Lyon, France. All of our directors from around the world. We did workshops and got to know each other and bond and talk about Girls in Tech, what works, what hadn’t been working. Just connecting for the greater good, encouraging each other to expand our horizons and brainstorm on ways we could improve Girls in Tech, and improve ourselves as leaders.

GamesBeat: We had the #MeToo crisis come along. I don’t know what kind of time that was for the organization. Did that make what you were doing seem more relevant?

girls in tech
A scene from 2015’s Girls in Tech female startup pitch competition.

Gascoigne: It created a lot more awareness. Not just in tech, but many other industries as well. What the movement did very well is hold a lot of people accountable. You can’t get away with bad behavior anymore. We’ll talk about it. Social media will help us amplify our voice. It was eye-opening, because we knew a lot of these people. I got some phone calls from reporters. I had mixed feelings, for sure.

GamesBeat: It feels like at that time the organization would have gotten more support, but it sounds like that didn’t necessarily change.

Gascoigne: The #MeToo movement–because it became so widespread, with so many people involved and participating and sharing what was happening to them, it underscored–I don’t want to say validated, but I think that’s the word. It validated what we were doing. We’re a marginalized community of women in tech. We need this support network so we can excel and deal with the issues we’re facing. Whether through leadership training or a support community to share what was happening at your company, your startup, or whether it was trying to help support career development–I think the movement did support that. It did help.

The pendulum has just been swinging back and forth. The BLM movement, for example, while people think it probably helped Girls in Tech, it actually didn’t. Obviously supporting marginalized groups and BIPOC communities is important, but a lot of the corporate sponsors ended up taking their funds and supporting organizations that target the black community. Even though Girls in Tech supports the black community around the world, they would still take their dollars and support other organizations. That’s something that happened all of a sudden.

But then you had the DEI backlash, and that’s hit us really hard. That, honestly, led to the demise of Girls in Tech. I truly believe in diversity and inclusion in the tech space. I believe that we create better products and services in tech with diverse teams. It’s not just racial diversity. People think of that as a primary way to define diversity, but it’s not. It’s diversity of thought. It’s diversity of background, diversity of expertise, diversity of where you’ve lived in the world, what languages you speak, what you like to eat for breakfast. You have to think about the gamut of what makes people unique.

adriana 3
Adriana Gascoigne, head of Girls in Tech, tried to get girls in the tech pipeline.

As consumers, as people who use technology–the technologies we use have to be suitable for all of us. If you have diverse people building these products and services, you’ll have more opportunities to build unique use cases for all people, not just one target demographic.

GamesBeat: It definitely doesn’t seem like the job is finished. There’s still a torch for someone to carry.

Gascoigne: I agree. We had so much work left to do. That’s why it’s tragic and sad. We had a lot of active chapters and teams on the ground. People wanted to support us. But in the U.S., the corporate funders, the corporate sponsors, which we primarily got funding from–the DEI divisions, which were either under HR or social impact or CSR, the funds were drying up.

I think they were drying up because a lot of companies realized that their DEI practices or strategies were just not working. They’re trying to diversify the workforce, but there’s no retention. If there’s no retention, if you’re spending all this money and not achieving or maintaining that diverse workforce–Girls in Tech was always put in the DEI bucket. Unfortunately, as a result, we weren’t able to continue accessing those funds. All the DEI executives were getting fired and the DEI divisions were dissolving. DEI resources and practices and technologies were dissolving as a result.

GamesBeat: Pivoting during the pandemic, did you have much success with virtual events and the like?

Gascoigne: We did. As you said, we did a lot of virtual events. Everything was digital. We were able to do all of our events online, basically. Our conference was virtual, our digital career fair. Our global classroom was always virtual, our e-learning platform. We taught our bootcamps virtually as well. We built out our managing director intranet for more integrated, seamless communication with our chapters around the world. There was a lot going on, but we transitioned quite easily.

To be honest, it saved the organization a lot of money. As we all know, in-person productions are very expensive. But Girls in Tech has always buil–the foundation of what we do was always in-person. It was very difficult. Everyone had to go online. After a couple of years we started reintroducing the in-person events, bootcamps or hackathons or whatever it was, but our production costs went back up. Specifically around the conference, which is expensive to produce.

We adapted nicely. We wanted to do more of a hybrid approach to our programming. That’s true to our values, true to our nature. That was in high demand for our members as well. But we were ramping up these more costly productions just as the funding was ramping down.

GamesBeat: You moved to Nashville. Was that a difficult transition?

girls in tech 3
Girls in Tech event in 2015.

Gascoigne: Nashville was a very good transition. The tech community here is growing fast. Everyone’s very supportive. Our conference here was sold out. All the major institutions came out to support, like Vanderbilt and Belmont and Tennessee State and Lipscomb. All the major media outlets, the Nashville Business Journal, the Tennessean, NBC, ABC, CBS. They all came out to support, because they were excited that an organization like Girls in Tech was coming to the community and bringing programming, providing job opportunities for people. We had high hopes for our new home here in Nashville.

It was also very cost-effective. Not just personally, but professionally things are significantly cheaper here than they are in the bay area. There were like-minded organizations that came out to support. Leadership here is very collaborative, not competitive. I made a lot of phenomenal relationships with leaders. From that perspective, it was awesome. I don’t think companies by any means froze their dollars because of the move to Nashville. It was more about what types of programs you can produce and where you can produce them. We’re a global organization. If you fund us and you want to do an event in Boston or in Nepal or in Paris, we have teams on the ground to execute on that. That was never an issue.

GamesBeat: How did you finally make the decision to close?

Gascoigne: To be honest–things were drying up. We had five of our partner renewals, companies that supported us year over year, just pull out all at the same time. We were in negotiations and developing proposals and solidifying agreements. To have five recurring corporate sponsors pull out all at the same time–that’s a jolt to the system. That caused a lot of stress that week.

We continued to do our corporate sponsor outreach, our grant outreach, reaching out to major gift donors, doing online campaigns. Just simultaneously, they were all drying up. None of our fundraising strategies were successful. It was strange. This had never happened to the organization. It’s been very traumatizing, I guess. We’re trying so hard. Everyone’s working long hours and rolling up their sleeves and putting grit into their everyday tasks to achieve successful outcomes, but anything and everything we tried was just not working.

We were going month to month at a certain point–five months of runway turned into three months of runway turned into two months of runway. Eventually we knew that if we didn’t get money in the door ASAP–you need a month to close down. A lot of people don’t think about how much money it takes to close down a business. I didn’t want to file for bankruptcy. I wanted to do things the right way and make sure my employees were taken care of, that they had severance and benefits and whatnot. You just can’t exist hoping and praying that money will come in this month or next month. You can’t operate a business month to month, especially when you’re trying to produce programs and take care of operations and cover payroll. It’s just not sustainable to operate that way.

girls in tech winners
Girls in Tech event in 2017.

We waited until the very last minute. We have no regrets. We tried our hardest. Everyone put their heart and soul into their roles and tried to keep us alive. Unfortunately we couldn’t succeed. That’s okay. The legacy will live on in other forms. I believe the spirit of Girls in Tech will live on.

GamesBeat: I think you can look at 17 years as a success.

Gascoigne: I do. I have so many great memories. It will take me a while to digest everything. But any time I think of Girls in Tech, it’s very positive, happy, wonderful thoughts, wonderful memories. We had our trials and tribulations over the years, but overall it’s been a beautiful experience. The people I met through the organization are unmatched. Some of the most wonderful people in the world.

GamesBeat: Have you figured out what you want to do next?

Gascoigne: I have some ideas percolating, some conversations going. I’m taking a bit of a breather, not a long one, to see what calls out to me, where my place is in this next chapter.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top