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Jodi Kovitz is on a mission

The Move the Dial founder has signed up for the hardest job in tech: closing the gender gap

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Portrait of  Jodi Kovitz, CEO and founder of Move the DialJodi Kovitz is the CEO and founder of Move the Dial, an organization that aims to increase the participation and leadership of women in tech (Photograph by Katherine Holland)

In 2017, Caitlin MacGregor was looking to grow her business. Plum, a Waterloo, Ont., company that uses AI and other tools to help firms with their hiring and retention strategies, was successful yet small. To propel it forward, MacGregor needed money, and lots of it. She set an audacious goal to raise $5 million in one investment round. She knew the odds of a female CEO raising that amount were against her. She felt disconnected and unsure of how to network herself into the right rooms. Then she saw Jodi Kovitz work a stage.

Kovitz is the CEO and founder of Move the Dial, an organization that aims to increase the participation and leadership of women in tech. At Move the Dial’s first event in Toronto, MacGregor watched Kovitz speak persuasively, passionately and enthusiastically. She seemed endlessly optimistic: If powerful people shared their Rolodexes to help women in technology, Kovitz promised, influence and success would blossom. The answer to diversifying the predominately white and male industry, she said, was to help woefully underrepresented demographics build connections and gain access—to both customers and funding. MacGregor approached Kovitz and described the challenge she faced in meeting her goals on her own. “This message you are telling people,” she confessed, “I need to tap into that.” Kovitz agreed to help.

MacGregor didn’t know any Canadian women-led tech companies that had raised millions in one go. Many days, Kovitz’s belief in her was the key factor that kept MacGregor going. As the number of rejections climbed to over 100, Kovitz was in the background championing her to her contacts. She invited MacGregor to speak at an event, introduced her to new investors and quietly persuaded others to give MacGregor a second chance. In September 2019, one of those investors led a successful funding round with a cool $2 million.

Women face many barriers to success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, including lack of funding for female founders. Research has shown that entrepreneurs who are women only receive about two per cent of all venture capital funding. One study showed that when women meet with potential investors, those guarding the cash often focus on risk management, retention plans and the strength of their teams, as opposed to women’s own leadership. Men, on the other hand, are typically asked to talk about their hopes, dreams and growth plans. Women who run “hard” tech companies—which attempt to tackle big, world-changing problems by commercializing new technologies—receive even less of the funding pie, and women of colour receive less still. Having someone like Kovitz in your corner can mean the difference between your company succeeding or shuttering. 

Entrepreneurs Michele Romanow, Kovitz and Bea Arthur with a student, Wealthsimple’s Leen Li and Toronto mayor John Tory at the 2018 Move the Dial summitFrom left: entrepreneurs Michele Romanow, Kovitz and Bea Arthur with a student, Wealthsimple’s Leen Li and Toronto mayor John Tory at the 2018 Move the Dial summit (Photograph by photagonist.ca)

“It comes down to individuals making a choice to go out of their way to help other individuals,” Kovitz says. When explaining her mission, she often repeats her own origin story to highlight the life-changing actions of everyone who helped get her where she is. Kovitz calls this exchange “flowing power.” 

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” says Sabrina Fitzgerald, CPA and PwC Canada’s national tech sector leader and national managing partner for the Ottawa region. “If we’re inching our way forward, we’re at a disadvantage. We have to take leaps. That’s why it’s critical to have women in the tech sector and people like Jodi promoting it.”

Kovitz has always had a demonstrated knack for uniting people around a cause. An investment competition she created while she was in university helped inspire her brother, Michael Katchen, to found the fintech company Wealthsimple. “I’m a connector,” says Kovitz. “It’s in my bones. That’s one thing I see as my superpower.”

That superpower has propelled her social enterprise into the spotlight and convinced some of the biggest companies in Canada—including many that directly compete with each other, such as KPMG and PwC, or CIBC, TD and BMO—to pledge to “move the dial” on women in tech. What remains to be seen is how far one woman’s charisma can make it all budge.

“If we’re inching our way forward, we’re at a disadvantage. We have to take leaps.”

In September 2019, I met Kovitz in her midtown Toronto office. She’d just returned from back-to-back Move the Dial events in London and Israel, and she’d caught a cold during her travels. Her blond hair piled in a messy bun, she sat, exhausted, sipping from a steaming mug. But I never got the sense that she wasn’t fully invested in our conversation. When Kovitz focuses on you, you feel doused with inspiration, caught up in her energy.

Kovitz often speaks about manifesting good things through belief and action, and her office is a testament to this philosophy. On her desk is a sign that reads “Oprah 2020,” but Kovitz isn’t urging the media mogul to run for office—the sign is a plea to the universe to get Oprah to headline the 2020 Move the Dial summit, a day of speakers, panels and networking. (There’s no word yet on whether Lady O will grace the stage this year.) On her wall is a framed picture of a night sky, the constellations that appeared over Toronto on the evening of the first summit. Her team gave it to her. The caption reads: “To our fearless leader, with love.”

Kovitz always expected her life would contain big things. One of the first people who inspired her was her grandmother, Muriel Kovitz, who in the 1970s became the first female chancellor of the University of Calgary and the first female director of Imperial Oil. In 1977, she was also appointed to the Order of Canada. Kovitz remembers her grandmother taking her out for lunch when she was in Toronto for her Imperial board meetings. She’d always wear her Order of Canada pin and talk to Kovitz about politics and business. These outings normalized the idea that women could do big things—that they did do big things.

Those encounters also made Kovitz set an expectation for herself: she would do something big as well. After a six-year stint as a divorce lawyer and five years in business development, Kovitz began to feel like she was outgrowing her job. She became the CEO of a non-profit tech networking company called AceTech Ontario (now called Peerscale), work that brought her to an event, in Israel, where she met two female entrepreneurs who headed a successful tech fund. The women were planning a trip to the U.S. to raise money; Kovitz suggested she assist by holding an event. When they asked why, she told them she wanted to help “move the dial” for them—a phrase she’d never used before. But it resonated with her, and she kept on using it. She scheduled the event for January 16, 2017, in Toronto, and called it Move the Dial. She expected a few dozen people would attend. Around 1,000 people RSVPed. She found a bigger venue, and still turned people away at the door. She believes people came that night because something was in the air: It was five days before the Women’s March on Washington. Complacency was on its way out. 

 Kovitz and members of the Move the Dial team at their Toronto officeKovitz and members of the Move the Dial team at their Toronto office (Photograph by Katherine Holland)

According to Move the Dial’s 2017 report, “Where’s the Dial Now?,” women comprise just 13 per cent of all tech executives. More than half of Canadian tech companies have no female executives, and only five per cent have a female CEO (the number goes up to six per cent when taking into account male and female co-CEOs). Women make up five per cent of solo founders in tech, and eight per cent of the industry’s board members. Nearly three-quarters of boards have no women at all.

This is despite sustained public attention toward the lack of diversity in tech—and a vow from many companies to do better. Public diversity reports from key Silicon Valley players, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, show glacial movement. Sure, the issue is big and complicated: solving the problem is not just about hiring more women, but about changing company culture, increasing role-model visibility and shifting media representation. But it doesn’t help that horror stories of an exclusionary tech-bro culture abound. 

In recent years, many women have spoken openly about sexual harassment and racism, about being overlooked for promotions and having their work consistently undermined. In December 2019, the Arizona Board of Regents paid US$100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a University of Arizona chemistry professor who claimed she was paid less than her male counterparts—the second gender-discrimination lawsuit that the university settled that year. A Los Angeles-based video game developer, Riot Games, settled a US$10-million class-action lawsuit in 2019 over its alleged sexist culture; women at the company described a “men-first” workplace where they were routinely demeaned and passed over for promotions.

Bad experiences like these cause droves of women to leave STEM fields—even as the number of women entering STEM fields rises. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016 women made up 34 per cent of STEM grads, but just 23 per cent of science and technology workers. Only 66 per cent of women who entered university in 2010 to study STEM remained in such a program, as students or graduates, by 2015. Some studies estimate that by the time women make it to leadership levels, as few as 15 per cent who started in the field remain. These conditions are not lost on girls and young women. A recent Girl Guides of Canada report showed one-quarter of young people believed boys were better at both STEM and overall leadership—a factor that can stop girls from pursuing a career in tech. 

Kovitz is determined to flip the script. She wants the dearth of women in tech to become urgent, un-ignorable—and inspiring. She wants companies to understand that fixing their gender imbalance isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s also profitable. After all, it could be an answer to tech’s other big problem: the talent gap. In 2019, more than 67 per cent of managers said they were experiencing a hiring crunch that’s blocking innovation. This may in part be due to a rapidly shifting set of expectations for workers in a variety of fields, according to Jeanette Hill, a lead principal in member development and support at CPA Canada. 

“We want to increase the number of women CEOs in the tech sector and women tech founders receiving funding”

Hill and her team are in the research stage of developing an in-depth data and analysis management program for CPAs. “Our focus is on creating a data-literate profession that allows all accountants to support their career goals and maintain the relevance of the profession into the future,” she says. Hill adds that “we need to work on overcoming inherent biases.”

Kovitz herself admits how hard it can be to overcome bias—conscious or not—and build more diverse teams. When I spoke to her, she readily acknowledged her first hires were white women who looked just like her. It opened her eyes to how easy it is for unconscious bias to creep into hiring practices. She was mortified and hired a consultant to help her to draw attention to her blind spots.

PwC’s Fitzgerald points out that the gender gap is particularly wide when it comes to funders and investors, a problem she sees as generational. “If you think of the investors that have funded tech companies over the last 10, 20 years, they’re largely baby boomers,” she says. “This demographic of investors is heavily skewed to men, and so right there you’ve already got a smaller pool of potential investors.”

Meanwhile, decades of research shows that hiring more women leads to better problem-solving at companies and much higher profits. It’s on this potential good-news story that Kovitz likes to focus. “I invite everybody in by having a very positive, optimistic attitude and perspective,” she says. “Yes, there is a gender gap, but we have such a massive opportunity.” 

Kovitz isn’t one to name and shame; she’d rather work with companies to build more equitable workplaces. This play-nice mindset has garnered Move the Dial more than 100 corporate sponsors and more than 30 industry and community partners. The organization advises these companies on everything from inclusion initiatives to mentorship programs to attracting and retaining female employees. Under Kovitz’s direction, companies have funded a women’s tech lounge at an event, created a leadership program and invested millions in female founders. As Kovitz attempts to build these acts into an unstoppable movement, she’s adopted a mantra: Go out of your way, she tells people. Great things will happen. 

Short-term success “is difficult to boil down to numbers,” Kovitz says. “Yes, we want to increase the number of women CEOs in the tech sector and women tech founders receiving funding.” But for those improvements to become consistent, she argues, the desire to advance women in tech needs to become part of the very DNA of the sector. “That’s how we ensure that change doesn’t just become a numbers game,” she adds, but “rather it becomes a genuine shift.”

It’s this desire to do better—to engage with everyone from women of colour to powerful white men—that allows her message of equality in tech to resonate in a way that others’ may not. “It’s great to be in rooms with leaders from BMO, TD, RBC, CIBC and other companies focused on moving the dial for women in tech. We are competing to win in a completely different way that benefits society today and for future generations,” says Claudette McGowan, chief information officer at BMO. “Jodi has been an amazing connector. It’s less about where we all work and more about partnering for equity within our organizations and industries.”

The only challenge Kovitz has, Caitlin MacGregor quips, is that she’s one person. “Everybody would love to be seen by Jodi and acknowledged by her and be brought in personally,” MacGregor says. “But she can’t scale.” If she succeeds in creating an army of people who want to enact change, she won’t have to.

WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP

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