She has given seed financing to numerous successful start-ups including Pure Software (founded by Netflix’s Reed Hastings), AdForce and Selectica.
Ms. MacLean, who continues to invest in early-stage companies and mentor entrepreneurs, is now chairwoman of Coraid, which designs and manufactures data storage products. She is also a Stanford professor, teaching graduate students in the department of management, science, and engineering. Recently, she discussed her early motivation to get an education, the advantages of being a woman in technology, and why a technical career offers the best path to changing the world. A condensed version of the conversation follows.
Q. Why were you so focused on getting a college scholarship?
Ms. MacLean: I was one of 10 children. While the issue was financial, it went beyond that. My dad, who had views typical for the era, thought women went to college just to get their M.R.S. degree. And he thought that if I had college debt — a negative dowry — no one would want to marry me. In his view, he had four sons who had to go to college. So, when I was 8, he told me I’d have to get a scholarship if I wanted to go.
Q. How did you get interested in technology?
Ms. MacLean: I never said, ‘Gee, I want a career in tech.’ But I saw that I did well in math, and I was economically motivated. That’s where the jobs were.
Q. Technology is often described as a field that’s inhospitable to women. Has that been your experience?
Ms. MacLean: When I entered the industry, it was burgeoning. Though being a woman was a novelty, it was growing so fast the opportunity was there, just as the opportunity was there for women during World War II. Tech is a true meritocracy. Either you have the goods or you don’t. There’s less concern with gender, race, color and creed. I really truly believe that, despite data on the dearth of women in technology, tech doesn’t have a barrier up to women. In fact, if anything, women who are technically prepared have an advantage.
Q. What’s that?
Ms. MacLean: In my class, I require the students to form teams to do a four-person project. I don’t assign the teams. I’ve noticed the guys seek the women out as teammates. I think the women are particularly good at bringing the team together and at presenting, which are extremely important skills when developing a product. Female engineers are also sought after. Women make up half the population, and companies want user interfaces that appeal to all buyers. In addition to generally being more collaborative, women have an intuitive sense of usability that leads to better products.
Q. So, what explains the discouraging statistics on women in tech?
Ms. MacLean: If more women prepared themselves academically for tech jobs, they’d get hired. Just like more doctors are women because more women have entered medical school. Women need to take advantage of technology courses at the university level, and not all major in communications or fashion design. It’s not that those things aren’t worthwhile if you like them, but your career opportunities will be greater in I.T., including those in green tech and medical tech. If women don’t get the required technical skills, they won’t be positioned to move into core, general management roles with technology companies. C.E.O.’s don’t come from H.R. They come out of product development and marketing.
Q. You mentioned that no more than 20 percent of the students in your Technology Venture Formation course at Stanford are female, and that most of those women are foreign. What accounts for the scarcity of women in the United States?
Ms. MacLean: In China, India and to some degree Russia, bright women are seeking technological educations. In emerging economies, the whole country has identified technology as the way out, the train to get on. There’s a competitive, lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to bringing the country into the 21st century, and there’s testing at every educational level to identify talent. But in the U.S., we feel we’ve already made it. There are too many other options for women.
Q. What would get more women to choose careers in technology?
Ms. MacLean: We need to get girls interested in computing by first grade. By fifth grade, it’s game over. Computing has an image crisis. A boy geek subculture has grown up around gaming that involves violence. It’s not something little girls aspire to. It’s not about lack of educational opportunities for women. Smart girls graduate from high school with straight A’s, go to college, and find themselves surrounded by guys who’ve been hacking for 10 years. So they’re way behind. They get discouraged, and go into law or medicine.
Q. What’s the solution?
Ms. MacLean: At both the educational level and the business level, we have to come up with games and contests that appeal to first- and second-grade girls. Not car and war games. Let them design games that change the world, or save the planet.
Q. Can tech really save the planet?
Ms. MacLean: Whether you care about solving terrorism, curing cancer, or any other problem, tech can solve it. It’s not just tech for tech’s sake