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Virtual reality is the new tech frontier, but it’s still a boys’ club

We have a big opportunity right now to open the doors and make sure VR, AR and AI are more inclusive.

Drew Angerer / Getty

I’m a really big fan of AMC’s show, “Halt and Catch Fire.” It’s set back in 1983, around the time of the invention of the PC — I was still working for IBM then. This was the dawn of the PC revolution — a very big-deal moment for a nerd like myself. But even that revolutionary shift could be overshadowed by what’s going on now in virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

They’re estimating 170 million VR users by 2018. And the gold rush is under way, as startups fight to position themselves. Already, there are an estimated 690 virtual reality startups, who have brought in an average of $4.5 million in venture capital apiece. They’re building virtual limbs, self-driving cars, 3-D immersive cameras, drone technologies and wearable tech for gaming. Revenues are expected to increase fivefold, from $90 million today to more than $5 billion in 2018. By 2025, AI revenue is predicted to reach $36.8 billion worldwide.

A torrent of computer science students and tech entrepreneurs are headed into AI, VR and AR. That’s where the jobs are. But a lot of very talented women engineers and entrepreneurs find themselves swimming against the current. They face all kinds of impediments to truly advance into management positions at tech companies and get funding for their own startups. The new frontier is a boys’ club, but we have a big opportunity right now to open the doors and make sure it’s more inclusive.

The marginalization of women in the tech world overall has already become the new normal in AI, AR and VR. Some of that frat-boy look and feel (which hasn’t changed much since 1983, believe me) shows up as online harassment. Just recently, for example, a female player of QuiVr was sexually assaulted in a VR game. In retrospect, one of the guys who developed the game commented on the dangers built into the game’s structure: “How could we have overlooked something so obvious?

Yeah, well, it’s easy to overlook dangers posed for women players when there’s no woman “adult-in-the-room” to point that out.

The good news is that since it’s still relatively early in the development of VR, AR and AI, we have an opportunity to shape its online culture. Women founders and co-founders have the power, expertise and influence to play a critical role in shaping that future.

Not only can women tech leaders help ensure that games and other products aren’t weaponized for hate and harassment, but when more women are in the C-suite, profitability on the average jumps by 15 percent.

That’s what McKinsey found when it looked at tech companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity, and saw that these more diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to have higher financial returns. Another study, by First Round Capital, showed how tech companies with a woman founder performed 63 percent better than those companies with all-male founding teams.

So leveling the playing field for women in AI, AR and VR is not just the right thing to do — it’s also what’s best for the bottom line. Businesses are better-run. Products are designed to be more appealing to a broader market — men and women.

These are just some of the reasons why I’ve been working with the Women Who Tech team for a few years now. I’m a partner for their upcoming Women Startup Challenge, which will showcase and help fund the top early-stage women-led ventures across the U.S in VR, AR and AI. Investors Fred and Joanne Wilson will be matching my $25,000 cash grant to support the winning startup. Robert Scoble, Sandy Carter, Lynne Johnson and other investors and entrepreneurs will be working with us to help evaluate the startups and select the winners who will be pitching in New York City in February 2017. Applications close Dec. 12, 2016. You can find out more about that here, or pass it along to people you know.

The bottom line is that we need to actively open doors for women and encourage others in this industry to keep an eye on diversity and bring more talented women on board. We need more than a simulation, folks. We need to make leveling the playing field for women in tech a reality.

Craig Newmark is the founder of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Foundation, which helps drive peer-to-peer, grassroots civic engagement. Reach him @craignewmark.

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