Rachel Roy/UN Women

The U.N. Women Global Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship Industry Forum 2017 took place last week at the SAP Leonardo Center in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Hosted in collaboration with U.N. Women, SAP Next-Gen (an innovation community for SAP Leonardo, SAP’s digital innovation system) and SAP University Alliances (SAP’s program fueling its latest technologies into teaching), the event brought together key executives and thought leaders to discuss how innovation, technology and entrepreneurship can be leveraged to advance gender equality and women’s economic empowerment on a global scale.

Reflecting on the event, host Ann Rosenberg, senior vice president and global head of SAP Next-Gen, expressed how the platform is crucial. “This event will launch a movement where people from across the private sector, academia and non-profit institutions can join together to make the innovation market work better for women and girls, enabling them to develop the innovation mind-set, technology skills and entrepreneurial networks that will have an impact on the lives of women and girls all over the world,” she said.

“To capitalize on the 21st-century innovation economy, women and girls need greater opportunities for STEM skills education, including on digital technologies such as blockchain. They also need education on innovation methodologies such as design thinking, and they need connections to start-up networks, where they can develop entrepreneurship skills,” Rosenberg specified. She explained that a key focus of the forum was the acceleration of achieving the U.N. Global Goals, including its fourth pillar: quality education.

SAP’s chief marketing officer and event keynote speaker, Alicia Tillman agreed. “I’m most looking forward to seeing the amount of collaboration that this event will fuel — collaboration is needed to drive change and increase the number of women in STEM positions,” she commented. Referencing pay gaps, under-representation in leadership positions and lack of funding, she remarked that raising awareness about these issues is pivotal.

“These are not issues we hear about every day, and so it’s important that we bring members of the community together to give this injustice the attention it deserves,” Tillman continued. “This can only happen when we speak up and get involved.”

Special guest Rachel Roy, who has demonstrated her passion for women’s empowerment through her Kindness Is Always Fashionable entrepreneurial philanthropic platform, spoke at the event about social entrepreneurship. Prior to the forum, she said that she hoped the event would help others empower women and girls whose voices are not always heard otherwise.

“Women are disrupters and leaders; the more women we have in these fields, the more risk takers we will have in our current tech revolution. In order to have more women in these fields, it’s important that the education starts at a younger age so that girls learn to be entrepreneurial and develop their tech skills,” Roy said. “My goal is for females to become our next generation of business leaders, dreamers, strategists and change-makers.”

And, according to Roy, more women in leadership roles and technology can be the catalyst for additional change, growth and innovation at retail. “Technology plays a large role in the retail experience, specifically digitally, and women drive consumer purchases, so they’re inevitably intertwined,” she explained.

Also becoming increasingly intertwined are the worlds of design (which has a large female presence) and technology (traditionally male-dominated.) “I see the two colliding and converging daily,” confirmed Roy. “Technology has a huge influence on design today and the gap between the two is shrinking.”

In regard to the tech skills she looks for when hiring employees to work on her namesake brand, Roy confided that she keeps an eye out for out-of-the-box thinking — so encouraging young women to leverage their creativity is key. During a chat presented at the event, Roy also reminded the audience that “purpose and profit” don’t need to conflict with each other; they can instead go “hand in hand.”

Panelist Ben Zelinsky, partner at PwC — a firm which has invested in female empowerment initiatives — explained that it is vital that all sectors involved (public, private, and academic) come together to collaborate on resolving these core issues.

“We need to continue to draw attention to male involvement and provide valuable peer mentorship opportunities. Schools need to encourage and develop women’s interest in pursuing more science, technology, engineering, math and entrepreneurial degrees. The private sector needs to continue to grow its mentorship and professional growth programs, as well as offer new and different opportunities that promote flexibility,” he said. “The public sector should continue to offer new social and environmental means of engagement.” Gender equality is not a one-dimensional issue, he continued, so solutions need to be both holistic and flexible.

Zelinsky added that it is a misconception that women’s equality is just a women’s issue. “It’s a much larger social issue that affects everyone, regardless of gender. We forget this far too often when talking about gender issues, and I hope people walk away understanding that we’re all in this together.”

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