Erin McKean and inclusive entrepreneurship

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrating the achievements of women in science and technology.  There are all kinds of ways to be a scientist or a technologist, and just in the fields of computing and information technology I can think of a number of first-class inventors, investigators, developers, teachers, and integrators who are women.

When it comes to entrepreneurs, though, the list of women who come to my mind gets much shorter.  And that’s unfortunate, because in computing and information technology, as in many other technical fields, entrepreneurs play a major role in bringing the fruits of technology to the world at large.   If you mention Steve and SteveBill and Paul, or Larry and Sergey, lots of people will know who you’re talking about, and also know the stories of the companies they founded and their world-changing products.  Women tech-company founders, though, have not been so noticeable.  Jessica Livingston, one of the founders of the tech-startup catalyst Y Combinator, reports that nearly all of their applicants have Y chromosomes; only about 7 percent have been women. And in mid-2008, the San Jose Mercury News reported that there were no female CEOs in the top 150 Silicon Valley companies.

Despite these discouraging statistics, you can find women pioneering new technological businesses.  One who I find particularly notable (and not just because the woman technologist closest to me works for her) is Erin McKean, co-founder and CEO of Wordnik, a company that’s reinventing the dictionary for the Internet age. If you watch this 15-minute video of a 2007 TED talk, or just read the About and FAQ pages at Wordnik and play around with the site some, you’ll pick up the general ideas.   There are a few aspects of her venture that I think are worth special note:

Rethinking the familiar. Dictionaries have been around in print for centuries, and even computerized dictionaries have existed for decades.  But as Erin makes clear in the TED video, once you have the Internet, and lots of data and computing power, you can discard many of the limitations of prior conceptions of the dictionaries, and do lots of interesting new things.  You can include all the words in a language, not just the ones that pass some sort of notability test.  You can show examples from a huge array of  formal, informal, and ephemeral sources.  You can do statistical analysis to track word usage over different times, places, and genres.  In short, you can make a reference that meets a known need in new and useful ways.

Risk-taking. It’s a truism that startups are risky ventures.   You spend years of your life working long hours, often with low pay and few benefits at the start, for a project that may make you rich, but statistically is more likely to come to nothing.   And some believe that online dictionaries, in particular, may be obsolete, and vulnerable to the same sorts of disruptive markets that blew the encylopedia business to bits.  But thus far, Erin’s risk-taking seem to be paying off; the site was named one of PC Magazine’s Top 100 products of 2009 (one of only a few websites to be included in their list), and it continues to attract funding even in the midst of a severe recession.

Inclusion. One of the key distinguishing features of Wordnik, alluded to above, is its inclusiveness.  By collecting all the words and examples that it can, from a wide variety of sources, it stands out from other dictionaries.  And along with the usual definitions, pronunciations, and example sentences for words, Wordnik also brings in many other unconventional sources — Flickr photo streams, Scrabble scoring references, and user tags and comments, to name a few– to enhance understanding and enjoyment of words.  It remains to be seen which of these sources will prove most useful or popular in the long run, but openness to new information and ideas is often a crucial part of inventing and improving new technologies.   It also helps ventures evaluate and adapt their technologies and their business models, so that they can thrive rather than perish under changing conditions.

Inviting collaboration. If inclusiveness is important to you, it’s not enough just to wait for things to come to you; you need to go out and invite people to work with you.  The Wordnik site does this to a certain extent by design, encouraging people to contribute notes, tags, lists of favorite words, and other information.  (Our 7-year-old daughter was an ardent contributor of Pokemon character names and pronunciations during the site’s alpha test.)  More recently, Wordnik has partnered with the Internet Archive and a variety of publishers and publishing sites to develop Smartwords, a forthcoming open standard for querying and embedding word information on demand as people read online, or communicate via social software.  Erin and her collaborators hope that this will extend the reach of Wordnik’s services into many more contexts than just “going to look up a word in the dictionary”.

While the details above are specific to Wordnik, the four basic qualities they embody — rethinking the familiar, risk-taking, inclusion, and inviting collaboration — have general applicability, and are especially worth consideration on Ada Lovelace Day.  The low numbers quoted earlier for women tech founders and CEOs suggests to me that women may not always be seriously considered (by themselves or others) for those roles.  Thinking in terms of the qualities I’ve mentioned makes it easier to envision women in those positions.  These are also qualities that can help both men and women take a more entrepreneurial approach to the technologies (and the libraries) they develop, so that they can have a lasting, positive effect on the world.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.