Teaching tech changes lives
This alum-led startup aims to empower women around the world with tech skills to transform their lives.
By Kennedy Byrne
In unprecedented times when the world is going through massive digital transformation, not everyone is being brought along on the journey.
Women — a largely marginalized group — are getting left behind, especially in developing countries.
This is what inspired Microsoft alum Kate Gromova to launch Women in Digital Transformation in September of 2020.
“It’s a huge loss…there is so much opportunity to integrate women,” said Kate, who grew up in Russia.
The women-owned startup aims to empower women around the globe and bridge the gender digital divide. Kate and her team work with various nonprofits, governments and private-sector groups to ensure the advancement of women in the digital sector.
Kate, who has worked in the digital development sector at World Bank Group since 2018, didn’t think all companies were doing it right. She saw many organizations claiming to support women’s initiatives in tech but nothing practical was being done.
She felt as though women were an “afterthought” when it came to development activities. Donating to the cause was just another thing to do without actually evaluating the effectiveness of the dollars and programs.
“It’s more like, ok, so we need to do something for women just to check the gender inclusion box,” said Kate of her frustrations.
There had to be a better way.
That’s why Women in Digital Transformation, based in Washington D.C., has created its own approaches and strategies to help other organizations maximize their impact in developing countries. The team even plans to soon launch a tool to measure the digital gender divide.
WinDt takes what Kate calls a “life-style approach,” which means its focused on enhancing women’s lives from preschool to retirement, really evaluating circumstances and needs based on their age and the country they live in.
Digital inclusion isn’t linear and needs change throughout one’s life. There is no one approach to take when trying to bridge the digital divide.
As consultants, Kate and her team are truly able to take a tailored approach to individual situations.
They typically start with a country assessment to gauge what life is like for women in the area. Currently, the company mostly has projects in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
WinDt partners with local governments and IT markets to teach women in those regions how to use and apply available technology.
They also work with women-owned enterprises to help them adopt advanced technology for their businesses. Kate said women are more hesitant than men to explore new technology.
WinDt also partners with universities. They’re creating new courses to encourage more women to aspire to careers in tech.
For many women in developing countries, learning how to use technology can be a life-altering skill. Kate said for many women, the only way they could possibly work is if it’s from home.
Kate was able to witness this first-hand when she traveled to Uzbekistan with her co-founder, Reyn Anderson, last year to conduct a digital ecosystem country assessment for USAID, one of their partners.
“It’s one thing to know it intellectually and it’s another thing to get out into the regions in the countryside and really see the divide there is,” said Reyn of their trip to Uzbekistan.
Kate agreed. “I think the more that we are on the ground, the more we can feel what is really needed.”
Kate and Reyn were walking in the streets and got turned around and couldn’t find where they were supposed to go.
A young woman with her child and husband noticed that the two women were lost.
The woman approached them and started speaking in English. She handed her child to her husband and started to walk them towards where they needed to go.
While on their walk, they got to hear her story. She had been a part of an arranged marriage and moved to a completely different town where she didn’t know anyone or the language — a common story for many women in the area.
The young woman explained how she felt so trapped. During the pandemic, her family needed money. She taught herself how to do a data entry job so she could earn some money from home while taking care of her child.
It solidified to Kate that by providing this opportunity for even more women, their lives could be completely transformed.
“The only way for her to have something in life was through this technology,” said Kate. “For a lot of women, sometimes that’s the only opportunity.”
Teaching someone how to utilize technology can completely flip the trajectory of their life, and open doors to so many more opportunities.
Kate referenced the ICT gender paradox, which shows the trend that countries with the lowest levels of gender equality have the most women pursuing tech-related careers. Again, for many it’s the only option.
“It’s hard to imagine any place where anybody can feel that it’s right to exclude women on any basis from all of life’s opportunities,” Reyn said.
Kate wants to open the doors for even more women and said she’s using her corporate experience to bring change to the development sector.
Kate first joined Microsoft Russia in 2003. She started working on anti-piracy licensing. She said it was an exciting time to be involved in that sector and the entire experience was a complete learning curve for her.
“For me it was almost like a business school,” said Kate of her five years at the company. “I still joke with my colleagues that I have an Excel spreadsheet mind.”
Working at Microsoft was Kate’s first job out of college, and one she feels lucky to have had. She thinks whoever starts their career there is set for knowing how to run a business after—whether it be at another company or their own business.
Kate hopes to grow the company moving forward and expand reach with more partners and support. The startup also plans to conduct research and collect data on the issue to share with others.
“If women get the same equal opportunities as men, and all women everywhere can do everything that men can do — can you imagine how it would change the world?” Kate said.