What's Missing in the Future of Work?

“Brigadoon:” where entrepreneurs and thought leaders gather to discuss emerging issues shaping commerce and culture.

In late February, I joined an invite-only, word of mouth community of leaders looking to learn from others. I spent a few days unplugged in the mountains of Sundance, Utah with limited cell signal, plenty of nature, and stimulating dialogue ranging from the luxury art market, to the Chinese economy, and overcoming tragedy. As the youngest attendee and only woman of color in attendance, I shared a 30-min talk entitled, “Mind the Gap:What’s Missing in the Future of Work?” Since Brigadoon is an intentionally low-tech engagement, below is a rough transcript of my remarks:

My name is Deloris and I have a “bag of data” (a pun referencing the morning’s remarks by Tanya Meck, Partner and Managing Director at Global Strategy Group).

But really, one of my many hats is that of a researcher. And as an Inclusive Innovation Fellow at Georgetown Law’s Tech Institute, I research entrepreneurial ecosystem development while also heading strategy and operations at BEACON: The D.C. Women Founders Initiative. I am also a founder myself, of a social impact consultancy - AXL (aksel).  Though formally trained in law and policy, I have since aligned myself with systems that move with a bit more efficiency and innovation….leading me to entrepreneurship. First as an entrepreneur myself, then as intrapreneur within tech-enabled, mission-driven startups, and presently as an “ecosystem builder,” which I’ll cover in more detail later.

This is my first Brigadoon, to which I thank Marc for his lovely invitation. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I confirmed, but I have since been inspired, uplifted, and challenged by the remarks of my fellow participants and speakers - and I’ve also met some pretty amazing people who I otherwise may have not crossed paths.

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In our time together, I’d like to discuss the future of work. Specifically, I want to deconstruct your thoughts on work: who’s performing that work, who’s investing in that work, and what we all should do about it. In answering “What’s Missing in the Future of Work,” I advocate for a perception shift that could elevate our economy to its truest, most productive form.

As a bit of a roadmap, I’ll discuss the dominant frames of reference currently surrounding “future of work” debates, and pose that you think about what role you play (or could play) in grappling with some of these issues and addressing some of these concerns.

Speaking of, let’s begin with a bit of roleplay.

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I’d like to take us back to yesterday. To Michael Rivera’s conversation around founders, startups and managing change. Michael asked us to participate in an activity much like the one he gives his students on the first day of class.

Michael asked us to name as many founders of name-brand companies who have both started as and remained CEOs. We all shouted “Bezos,” “Jobs,” and “Musk.”

Some fit the bill, others didn’t.

But what we didn’t shout were the names of women.

No one shouted “Blakely,” for Sarah Blakely -  the founder and still CEO of Spanx: a $400 million shapewear company. Or, “Howyrd,” for Janice Byrant Howyrd, the founder and still CEO of ACT-1 Group: the largest privately-held woman-owned workforce solutions company. Or even “Busque,” for Leah Busque: the founder of TaskRabbit who remained CEO for the first nine years of her company’s development.

Not one woman’s name was put forth by this audience.  

This is what’s missing in the future of work: women. And particularly, women’s entrepreneurship.

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But before we dive into why and how things are missing - let’s first discuss are we now. The  concerns over the future of work today generally center around three themes:

1)  The Tech Factor.  According to the World Economic Forum, virtual reality, machine learning, cloud computing, and other technologies will be adapted by well over 50% of the world’s largest companies in the next three years. Systems of streamlined automation are set to replace redundant roles and significantly transform the make-up, productivity and activity of the existing workforce.

2)  The Training Factor. By 2020, at least 54% of the world’s workforce will need re-skilling or upskilling in order to meet industries’ changing demands. Ironically, current efforts are not even focused on the groups most at-risk. In fact, the roles with the highest likelihood of disruption are 3x less likely to receive the training they need. Women, people of color and low-wage workers are most at risk for this disruption.

3)  The Talent Factor. Companies are encouraged to adopt “augmentation strategies” that complement human talents with automation in order to create a new equilibrium in the division of labor. [This is similar to the IBM Watson/Call Center case that Dan Owen discussed].

A fourth and “missing” factor is the “future of work” for women, and particularly women entrepreneurs. It is an added solution becoming a movement among the oft excluded but radically powerful 50% of our labor force and humanity.

I’ve named this, “The Opportunity Factor.

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It is women who will carry much of the collateral burden caused by worker displacement, as, on average, they perform more routine tasks most prone to automation. But at the same time we expect changes to the workforce to disproportionately impact women, we’ve also witnessed a rise in women’s entrepreneurship which, if properly supported, could make better economic sense for all.

Long-standing gender gaps in pay, opportunity and access can only be exacerbated under our current scope. When we think about the historically uncompensated value of women to the economy, vis-a-vis our new and important efforts to build value and provide solutions - - we, the women, can no longer be overlooked or ignored.

We’re at a turning point in history where connectivity and technology have catalyzed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Thus, we have the chance to reinvent our economy and economic system with a lens toward inclusion - a methodology we have yet to truly test, let alone address.

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So, what would or could this lens look like? How could an inclusive approach to the future of work be implemented in practice?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) expects that, at least in the short-term, the impact on overall job loss will be offset by job gains. But even in the most immediate transition, job gains will be actualized through roles that change in quality, location, form and permanency of our traditional labor marketplace.

These economists also anticipate that job gains will result from the surge of the “gig economy.” WEF expects a substantial rise in contractors, project-based consultants and freelancers as provisional in the short-term but structural in the long-term as an adaptive approach to new technologies.

But what is missing in this discussion is who will actually fill these new roles.

While the new technological revolution seeks to expand the capacity and productivity of the existing workforce, a parallel revolution rooted in The Opportunity Factor could uncover both economic prosperity and social advancement of those most vulnerable to inequity in the Fourth Industrial Age.

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LinkedIn estimates that by 2020, 43% of workers in America’s labor market will work as  independent contractors or freelancers. According to Harvard University, the number of women in the gig economy has steadily outpaced men since 2005. These work relationships help retain women in the workforce through added flexibility and have aided career transitions even for aging populations. McKinsey’s 2016 Global Independent Work Survey projects that the independent workforce will grow from 68 million to 129 million in the U.S. alone.

Women deserve a piece of that pie.

A recent study of 2,000 female gig workers in the U.S. revealed that most women in the gig economy operate as professional freelancers (43%). While Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit are seen as platforms for the “gig economy,” women-owned companies have been part of the “gig economy” for quite some time. 90% of women-owned companies function as sole-proprietors and concentrate in the professional, scientific and technical services sector. And while there is debate around whether a “freelancer” is an “entrepreneur,” this is a theoretical one and subject for a separate Brigadoon talk.

There is remarkable promise that the upward surge in entrepreneurial spirit among women, if given equitable access, can provide a growing alternative and even safety net in the formation of a new economy of displaced workers, as well as an existing economy of untapped opportunity -- presently restricted only by barriers to growth.

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So, what do these barriers look like?

It was only 30 years ago that in order to get a business loan, I would have to secure a male relative as a co-signer.

Yet today, there are over 12 million women-owned firms, employing over 9 million people and generating over $1 trillion in revenue.

The number of women-owned businesses has increased 30x since 1972. Now, 4 out of every 10 businesses is owned by a woman.

Our interest in entrepreneurship has also increased exponentially -  in 2018 alone, women started 1,800 net new companies per day. Uniquely, and perhaps little known, women of color form the majority of new women-owned businesses launched each day.

But those businesses start small and stay small - and, as previously mentioned, are primarily sole-proprietorships.

Though accounting for 50% of the U.S. population and 40% of business owners, we account for only 20% of employer businesses, 12% of sales and 15% of employment. Men, contrarily, own 60% of all businesses and comprise 79% of sales and 73% of employment. This gap only widens among women of intersectional identities (African-American, Latina, Native American, LGBTQ, disabled groups, etc.). For example, if revenues generated by minority women-owned firms matched those currently generated by all women-owned businesses, they would add four million new jobs and $1.2 trillion in revenues to the U.S. economy.

But why is there such a discrepancy?


Women founders cite access to capital as their primary challenge. And it’s not that capital isn’t available, it’s that women aren’t receiving it.

According to the Kauffman Foundation, the current demographics of America’s entrepreneurs look nothing like our country’s actual composition. As 80% white and 65% male, entrepreneurship today is largely defined by the outcomes of racial, gender and social advantage, with layers peeling back only in recent years. As uncovered by Morgan Stanley, a higher perception of risk among investors, a lack of access to diverse entrepreneurs, and a lack of familiarity to their markets and models is largely to blame for an investment discrepancy totaling four trillion dollars of untapped economic potential.

We are missing out on something big for the future of our national and global economy.

Women entrepreneurs are a rising tide among the formation of the most innovative economic opportunities. And we, as a societym, are prepared to shift barriers and prejudice - giving way for women to have fair shot not only as “gap-fillers” but as fixtures in the new economy.

Equitably treated, women-owned businesses may provide the “missing link” to what is missing in the future of work.

But this is possible only if we act intentionally.


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What does it mean to act intentionally? It means we become “ecosystem builders.”

And if you’re wondering if what I’m spewing is just a bunch of buzzwords --here’s what I mean. Have you ever seen Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?

Queer Eye is an American television series that takes a group of queer experts and transforms the life and confidence of (typically) cis-gendered, heterosexual men. The “interventionists” are experts in fashion, lifestyle management, interior design, culinary arts and more - and their expertise corrects and manages the dysfunction of their subject -- ultimately improving the lives and confidence of subjects through makeovers, life transformations and advice.

Now, imagine that instead of renovating the life of a cis-gendered, heterosexual male in middle America, you work to reimagine and reconstruct systems built by them.

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As an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder, I work to design and redesign systems that are supportive of all entrepreneurs, particularly women.

In the entrepreneurial ecosystem model used by the National Women’s Business Council, at the intersection of the seven domains or “inputs” of capital, community building, policy, resources, human capital, innovation, and market access lies the best support for women-owned companies. These relational forms of support are required to supply the missing links to markets, social and financial capital that are so critical to business success.

The Global Gender Gap will take more than 100 years to close. In North America, that number is 167. Despite this, ensuring the full development and appropriate deployment of half of the world’s top talent pool is not always at highest priority of governments and corporations that are poised to make these changes.

And it should be.

The Future of Work is about more than AI. And research proves that both soft skills and experiential learning will hold equal importance in work preparedness. While expanding our view of necessary skill-sets, we must also reimagine our intentions in building an inclusive workforce.

We must determine ways to maximize the potential of our existing, diversely-skilled and trained workforce, while empowering new entrants with opportunities that rectify past inequalities rather than exacerbate them.

We are not working from ground zero, rather a equitable deficit that, with intentionality, we can collectively correct.

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Note: Remarks were followed by ~25 minutes of Q&A which delved more deeply into BEACON’s methodology of inclusive ecosystem development, as well as the need to support “startups” and “small businesses” with differing strategies based on founder’s goals and drivers for self-employment/entrepreneurship.



D Wilson