Today's hottest tech companies were founded by men born between 1981 and 1984 — here's why

  • Men born between 1981 and 1984 are highly overrepresented at the top of the tech world.
  • There are a number of factors to explain the pattern, beginning with the introduction of the PC in the mid-1980s.
  • Sexism in the tech world has made it harder for women to advance and young girls to be inspired.

Creating a billion-dollar company isn't the only thing the founders of Reddit, Quora, Dropbox, Venmo, Airbnb, Instagram, Palantir, Pinterest, Lyft, Wish, Sofi, and Facebook have in common.

The 17 people who make up that list also happen to be men who were born within three years of each other, between 1981 and 1984.

The question of why, exactly, seven of the top 10 billion-dollar-plus unicorns, along with a handful of publicly traded titans, were all launched by guys who could have been in the same high school class doesn't come with just one answer. But there are clear events throughout history that offer clues.

Going back to the 1970s

The arc of the early-30s techie actually began in the 1970s, with the prior generation of computer programmers, according to technology consultant Tim Bajarin. "The Bill Gateses of the world were actually the precursor to this," Bajarin told Business Insider.

People like Gates and Steve Jobs began working in the 1970s, alongside lesser-known luminaries like Mitch Kapor of Lotus and Fred Gibbons of Software Publishing. They mostly worked on mainframes and mini-computers, and they spent thousands of hours doing so. When the first personal computer debuted in 1975, these small-time programmers were poised to strike it rich.

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15 accurate predictions Bill Gates made in 1999
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15 accurate predictions Bill Gates made in 1999

No. 1: Price comparison sites

Gates' prediction: "Automated price comparison services will be developed, allowing people to see prices across multiple websites, making it effortless to find the cheapest product for all industries."

What we see now: You can easily search for a product on Google or Amazon and get different prices of the same product. Sites like NexTag and PriceGrabber are built specifically for price comparisons.

No. 2: Mobile devices

Gates' prediction: "People will carry around small devices that allow them to constantly stay in touch and do electronic business from wherever they are. They will be able to check the news, see flights they have booked, get information from financial markets, and do just about anything else on these devices."

What we see now: Smartphones, and now smartwatches, do all of this. 

No. 3: Instant payments and financing online, better healthcare through the web

Gates' prediction: "People will pay their bills, take care of their finances, and communicate with their doctors over the internet."

What we see now: Tech hasn't been able to change healthcare like Uber changed transportation, but there are sites like ZocDoc that makes finding a doctor and scheduling easier. There's also startups like One Medical and Forward, which are trying to change what the doctor's office is like by offering monthly memberships for online and data-driven healthcare. You can also now borrow money online through sites like Lending Club and easily make payments through sites like PayPal and Venmo.

(FatCamera via Getty Images)

No. 4: Personal assistants and the Internet of Things

Gates' prediction: "'Personal companions' will be developed. They will connect and sync all your devices in a smart way, whether they are at home or in the office, and allow them to exchange data. The device will check your email or notifications, and present the information that you need. When you go to the store, you can tell it what recipes you want to prepare, and it will generate a list of ingredients that you need to pick up. It will inform all the devices that you use of your purchases and schedule, allowing them to automatically adjust to what you’re doing."

What we see now: Google Now, a smart assistant that runs on mobile devices, is starting to head in this direction. Meanwhile, smart devices like Nest collect data on your daily routines and automatically adjust the house temperature. There's also a wave of voice-controlled devices, like Amazon's Echo and the Google Home, that you can ask to read your email to you or guide you through recipes as you cook.

REUTERS/George Frey (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY)

No. 5: Online home-monitoring

Gates' prediction: "Constant video feeds of your house will become common, which inform you when somebody visits while you are not home."

What we see now: Google already bought Dropcam, the maker of a home surveillance camera, for $555 million in 2014. But that was just the beginning. Ring makes a smart doorbell camera that can let you see who is at your door. There's even cameras like the PetCube that let you control a laser so you can play with your pets while you're away.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

No. 6: Social media

Gates' prediction: "Private websites for your friends and family will be common, allowing you to chat and plan for events."

What we see now: Two billion people already use Facebook to see what their friends are doing and plan events. There's also Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger alongside an explosion of other smaller social networks that more than cover this prediction.

No. 7: Automated promotional offers

Gates' prediction: "Software that knows when you've booked a trip and uses that information to suggest activities at the local destination. It suggests activities, discounts, offers, and cheaper prices for all the things that you want to take part in."

What we see now: Travel sites like Expedia and Kayak offer deals based on past purchase data. Google and Facebook ads can offer promotional ads based on the user's location and interests. Airbnb, which lets people stay in homes rather than hotels, started to offer specialized trips at the destination so you can live like a local too.

No. 8: Live sports discussion sites

Gates' prediction: "While watching a sports competition on television, services will allow you to discuss what is going on live, and enter contest where you vote on who you think will win."

What we see now: A bunch of social media sites allow this, with Twitter being the clear leader (and even streaming some games). You can also leave comments in real time on sports sites like ESPN.

REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY MEDIA)

No. 9: Smart advertising

Gates' prediction: "Devices will have smart advertising. They will know your purchasing trends, and will display advertisements that are tailored toward your preferences."

What we see now: Just look at the ads you see on Facebook or Google. Most online advertising services have this feature, where advertisers can target users based on click history, personal interest, purchasing patterns.

(CarmenMurillo via Getty Images)

No. 10: Links to sites during live TV

Gates' prediction: "Television broadcast will include links to relevant websites and content that complement what you are watching."

What we see now: Almost every commercial these days has a call out to go to a website, follow the business on Twitter, or even a scan a QR code to add them on Snapchat. It's more rare to see a broadcast without a website linked at all.

(EzumeImages via Getty Images)

No. 11: Online discussion boards

Gates' prediction: "Residents of cities and countries will be able to have internet-based discussions concerning issues that affect them, such as local politics, city planning, or safety."

What we see now: Most news sites have comment sections where people can have live discussions, while many sites have forums where people can ask and respond to certain questions. Twitter and Facebook played roles in political revolutions in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia as well as the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

(AOL)

No. 12: Interest-based online sites

Gates' prediction: "Online communities will not be influenced by your location, but rather, your interest."

What we see now: All kinds of news sites and online communities focus on single topics. Many news sites expand to separate verticals, offering more in-depth coverage on a given topic. Reddit is a great example of a website that's divided into different "subreddits" that focus only on interests rather than who you know or where you are.

(AOL, Roberto Baldwin)

No. 13: Project-management software

Gates' prediction: "Project managers looking to put a team together will be able to go online, describe the project, and receive recommendations for available people who would fit their requirements."

What we see now: Tons of workflow software in the enterprise space is revolutionizing how you recruit, form teams, and assign work to others.

No. 14: Online recruiting

Gates' prediction: "Similarly, people looking for work will be able to find employment opportunities online by declaring their interest, needs, and specialized skills."

What we see now: Sites like LinkedIn allow users to upload résumés and find jobs based on individual interest and needs. Recruiters can search based on their specialized skills.

(seewhatmitchsee via Getty Images)

No. 15: Business community software

Gates' prediction: "Companies will be able to bid on jobs, whether they are looking for a construction project, a movie production, or an advertising campaign. This will be efficient for both big companies that want to outsource work that they don't usually face, businesses looking for new clients, and corporations that don't have a go-to provider for the said service."

What we see now: Many enterprise softwares are focused on the social aspect of it, so users can reach out to other businesses and start a conversation that could lead to bigger projects directly within their apps. There's also been the rise of gig economy and sites like Upwork easily connect big businesses to work they're looking to outsource to freelance designers, writers, or engineers.

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As Malcolm Gladwell noted of this tech generation in his book 2008 "Outliers," they came of age in a special time. If they were slightly older, they would have left college to work for a large corporation, like IBM, and their career would have been set in stone. On the other hand, if they were born after the window, the wave would have already passed them by.

What's important about the latest generation is that they were born right when the PC was becoming available to the masses, in the early 1980s, which meant that many grew up with one in their home.

"That was huge," Bajarin said. "They already knew how a PC works, and in a lot of their cases they had PCs in their homes because their parents had PCs in their homes; whereas the generation before them, the production of digital technology was more of a product in the toy category."

The gender gap persists

However, the PC wasn't marketed to everyone across the board. In 2014, NPR used data from the National Science Foundation, American Bar Association, and American Association of Medical Colleges to show that computing companies stopped marketing their machines to girls around 1984.

It's had dramatic effects on female representation in computer science fields to this day. Women earn 57% of all undergraduate degrees but only 18% of all computer and information science degrees.

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10 richest women in the world of 2017
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10 richest women in the world of 2017

Former No. 1. Liliane Bettencourt

Net worth: $39.3B

Origin of wealth: L'Oreal

Via Forbes

Current No.1 Alice Walton

Net worth: $34.3B

Origin of wealth: Wal-Mart

Via Forbes

2. Jacqueline Mars

Net worth: $27.2B

Origin of wealth: Candy

Via Forbes

3. Maria Franca Fissolo

Net worth: $25.3B

Origin of wealth: Nutella, chocolates

Via Forbes

4. Susanne Klatten

Net worth: $20.5B

Origin of wealth: BMW, pharmaceuticals

Via Forbes

5. Laurene Powell Jobs

Net worth: $20.2B

Origin of wealth: Apple, Disney

Via Forbes

6. Gina Rinehart

Net worth: $14.5B

Origin of wealth: Mining

Via Forbes

7. Abigail Johnson

Net worth: $14.4B

Origin of wealth: Money management

Via Forbes

8. Iris Fontbona

Net worth: $13.1B

Origin of wealth: Mining

Via Forbes

9. Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken

Net worth: $12.7B

Origin of wealth: Heineken

Via Forbes

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Underrepresentation is only the start, though. Sexism and sexual harassment scandals have plagued the industry for decades. Women also have a much harder time earning venture capital money. One study found that even if there was just one woman on a company's executive team, the company tended to receive less funding.

A recent manifesto written by a now ex-Google staffer that criticized the company's emphasis on diversity is only the latest example of how women can be dissuaded from staying in the tech world.

The factors come together

It wasn't all boys who used the first PCs — rather, those from predominantly affluent areas. In 1981, the average PC cost $1,565, or about $4,100 in 2016 dollars. And if you wanted to buy the first Macintosh when it came out in 1984, you had to fork over $2,495, or nearly $5,700 today.

Sam Altman, the 32-year-old president of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's largest startup accelerator, said growing up in St. Louis he had a Mac LC II at home, but most of his hacking took place on his elementary school's Mac IIGS. He would spend hours writing simple programs — a luxury kids living in poorer areas, with poorer schools, wouldn't necessarily have.

The mobile explosion was starting to take off. And the opportunity was very large.

"You could write a program to print all the prime numbers, and come back to school the next morning and the computer's run all night, and it's gotten to like to prime number a million-something," he told Business Insider. "And you think it's so cool."

When the dot-com bubble formed in the late 1990s, the kids writing these simple programs were now in their late teens. And since the internet's transformation was on display for all to see, through news media and the internet itself, these teens had a front-row seat, says Paul Saffo, a Stanford consulting professor and technology forecaster. This visibility, Saffo claims, is ultimately what separated the new tech generation from the old.

"During the dot-com bubble, when so many people are starting companies, you say to yourself, 'Well, that's not an aberration,'" which is how many viewed Gates' and Jobs' rise to prominence, he told Business Insider. Instead people said, "That's a career track."

That mixture — years of preparation as a kid combined with a budding tech landscape on the verge of tectonic change — ended up sending a slew of young tech geeks into a field that would write history books.

"The mobile explosion was starting to take off," Tim Bajarin said. "And the opportunity was very large."

Finding the next big thing

Not all of today's most prominent tech founders are in their 30s. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is 46. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is 53. Likewise, a number of younger founders born after that early 1980s wave are rising to the top. Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, the cofounders of Snap, are 27 and 29, respectively.

Nor did every founder between 33 and 36 launch their company at the same time. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in his college dorm in 2004, for example, while John Zimmer didn't cofound Lyft until 2012.

More important are the experiences they had growing up, and the relationships they formed to technology at the time. Altman says he grew to have such a fascination with computer programming specifically because he could write simple code that would print out strings of prime numbers. It didn't matter he wasn't creating super-smart apps — the seeds of inspiration were getting planted at the right time, with tech that was sufficiently hackable.

"If you give a kid an iPad today, they'll have a great time," Altman said. "But if you want to go make an app for an iPad it's a lot of work. A 7-year-old is not going to figure that out for him- or herself."

According to Saffo, the same wave Gates and Jobs rode and which resurfaced for Zuckerberg and many others is poised to happen a third time in the field of genomics. He said technologies like CRISPR, a gene editing tool, are ripe for innovation in the coming decade.

Altman, however, said to look at whatever the smartest kids in the best universities are talking about, and ignore the hype. "Because everybody says that," he said, "I expect that it's wrong."

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