Last night in Portland, Oregon, the National Center for Women in Information Technology presented Kim Polese with the NCWIT Symons Innovator Award. The award is given annually to an outstanding woman who has successfully built and funded an IT company, in honor of the late Jeannette Symons, founder of Industrious Kid, Zhone Technologies, and Ascend Communications.

Listed in 1997 as one of Time Magazine's "25 Most Influential Americans," Polese has had a long career in Silicon Valley as the CEO of SpikeSource, the co-founder of Marimba, and the original product manager of Java at Sun Microsystems.

As the CEO of SpikeSource, Polese has been responsible for guiding the company's vision: to make open source safe for the enterprise. Polese sees open source as accelerating innovation and helping "software get better faster." Open source, Polese argues, democratizes software and fosters collaboration, the latter of which is becoming more and more important in the tech and business world.

But while women comprise roughly a quarter of those who work in IT, they make up only 1.5% of those who work in open source. In her acceptance speech last night, Polese remarked that women's underrepresentation in the field - seen in both declining enrollment numbers in computer science degrees as well as in employment figures in the industry - is a threat both to the future of innovation and the future of our economy.

Echoing the work of NCWIT to encourage young girls to pursue careers in technology, Polese contends that the key is to get girls interested in computer science early, and to support them in their endeavors throughout their academic and professional careers. "We have enough egos in IT," said Polese, arguing that women entrepreneurs and technologists bring important, but perhaps under-recognized, skills to the table - namely, patience, understanding, and collaboration.

Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of NCWIT, said that in choosing to honor Polese with the Symons Innovator Award, the organization had selected someone who was truly an inspiration to women entrepreneurs and computer scientists. Sanders remarked last night that Polese's work on Java not only "brought the Internet alive," but by giving the product away for free, introduced a "new business model" for software distribution. Polese added that one of the things a skillful entrepreneur must do is to be able to balance creating new technologies with the economic sensibility to find the right business model and the right timing to bring those technologies to market.

Announcing her resignation today as the CEO of SpikeSource, Polese wouldn't say what her next project would be, but she did say that she enjoys working with tech companies in their early stages, noting that it's a period of great creativity and excitement.