Poornima Vijayashanker

Women in Technology: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech From Colleges to the Board Room


There’s been a lot of debate and controversy around the lack of women and minorities being represented in tech companies, from entry level to the C-suite and board room.

However, what isn’t showcased is how there is sisterhood within tech, where women are helping each other out and enacting change at every level from schools to the board room.

To talk about how women are investing and encouraging each other, I’ve invited Samantha Walravens, the co-author of the new book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech.

If you’re a woman, minority, or male ally, you’ll learn from Samantha how:

  • women like Maria Klawe at Harvey Mudd have tripled the number of women graduating with computer science degrees;
  • women are connecting female founders to female angel investors and influencers to grow their startups; and
  • corporations are changing and disrupting the dynamics of the boardroom.

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Women in Technology: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech From Colleges to the Board Room Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to another episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker, I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer.

In this show, I invite innovators in tech, and together we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building tech products and companies.

One of the most heated topics today is the lack of women and minorities represented in tech; from entry level, to the C suite, to the board room. While we all know this is already a problem, in today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about some of the solutions, and showing how there are companies and organizations enacting these solutions.

And to help us out, I’ve invited Samantha Walravens, who is the coauthor of the latest book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside The Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech. Thanks so much for joining us today, Samantha.

Samantha Walravens: Thanks for having me!

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, it’s wonderful.

Let’s start by talking about why you and your co-author, Heather Cabot, decided to write this book.

Sharing the Unspoken Narrative of Women in Technology

Samantha Walravens: The inspiration for this book was a conversation I had about three years ago with a friend of mine, who’s been in Silicon Valley for 20 years. She’s a woman, she’s the VP of sales in business development, and she’s worked in a number of tech startups, and we were having coffee, and she said, “Sam, I cannot tell you what just happened in my performance group review, it was last week, and my manager commented on what I was wearing, the color of my dresses, the jewelry I wore, and he told me that I was too aggressive, and too bossy, and I needed to tone it down a bit.” Meanwhile, she is the head of sales, and she was rocking her number out of the park. So she said, “Sam, you’ve got to write something.” She knew I was a journalist. She said, “You’ve got to write something and you have to talk about this kind of discrimination and this kind of sexism in Silicon Valley.”

Mind you this is before the Newsweek article came out, “What does Silicon Valley really think of women,” people were discussing women in technology, but it really was not a top of mind—and so I started to do a little digging, and researching and interviewing women. And what I found was, yes, there’s sexism, there is harassment, there’s discrimination, there’s unconscious bias, it’s there, it’s a problem we need to talk about it and deal with it.

But there was another narrative, another discussion that wasn’t being told, which was: these women want to talk about the companies they were building, the technologies they were creating, the women who are supporting them and helping them along the way in their careers. There was this whole other narrative that was missing from the conversation that was happening in the national news media about sexism in Silicon Valley.

And I thought, “we have to discuss this.” So, Heather Cabot, who’s my coauthor, was in New York, I’m in San Francisco, we talked, and she said, “Sam, I’ve been researching this topic,” it was kind of a coincidence, it was like one of those weird moments of weird fate. And she said, “I’ve been researching this topic, let’s work together.” So we put our heads together and we just started digging into the topic, and it’s been three years now, and finally the book is coming out!

The Sisterhood That is Supporting Women in Tech in Silicon Valley and Beyond

Poornima Vijayashanker: So one thing I experienced early on in my career, and it keeps me motivated, is the women who inspired me. So, early on, when I was a college student in engineering school, I had a professor, and she had twins, and she was doing her research, and she was teaching, and she was leading the department, and I thought, “If she could do it, I could do it.” And as I was reading the book, I noticed the theme of the sisterhood kind of coming up again and again.

Tell us how you discovered this theme as you started writing or as you were doing your research.

Samantha Walravens: Of course. Well, I too had a mentor back in my Silicon Valley days when I worked for a software startup during the dotcom boom in 1998 to about 2003, so I saw the dotcom boom and the bust happen, I was living through it, our company went public, stock went to 130, then went down to two, so I lived and breathed the dotcom boom and bust.

My manager/boss at that point was Carol Carpenter, who has since gone on to become—she was the CEO, actually CMO of ClearSlide and then CEO of ElasticBox, so she’s a prominent woman in Silicon Valley, and she really pulled me up. She really, when I was lacking confidence, and I thought, “I can’t do this,” I’d just had my baby, my first baby, we were going public, and I thought, “I can’t do this, this is crazy.” We’re working 24/7 and I have a newborn at home. She was the one who said, “Sam, you can do it, you can do it.” And having that kind of mentorship and that kind of woman who was going through it herself pulling me up, really encouraged me.

So as we were researching the book, we started noticing these pockets around the startup universe, women who were supporting each other, investing in each other, encouraging each other in their careers and inspiring the next generation of girls and young women to pursue technology and continue their careers in technology.

Encouraging the Next Generation of Women to Consider Careers in Tech

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, that’s great. I think you’re absolutely right, that is a narrative that’s missing from the media and more women need to know that that’s out there as well, so that they don’t feel like all there is is just what the media portrays.

Now, the first place that you write about change happening is at the primary school up to the high school level, so walk us through what that looks like.

Samantha Walravens: Well, fortunately, before Obama left office, he did create an initiative, a $4 billion initiative called “Computer Science for All” that is encouraging and putting funds towards creating computer science curriculum in schools throughout the country. I was so excited to read about Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, in the Chicago public schools now, computer science is a requirement for all high schools in Chicago. So I think we’re going to see more of that.

When you look at the numbers, though, we still have a long way to go, cause 25% of high schools in the U.S. offer computer science, I think it’s like 22% of girls, of students taking the computer science AP exam are girls, so we still have a long way to go.

What we noticed, though, it’s sort of this grassroots movement of women who are encouraging the younger generations to start building, to start creating, to start coding. For example, we start our book talking about Debbie Sterling, who’s the founder and the CEO of Goldie Blocks, and she’s got this great—I have two little girls, we have it at home, it’s a great toy that encourages girls to build, and there’s a really fun, positive role model, Goldie, who builds a spinning machine and she has all these sorts of engineering—you wouldn’t even know it’s engineering, it’s really just building Ferris wheels and building merry-go-rounds and all these fun things, along with the story, talking about Goldie and her friends, and how she’s building these different fun games and amusement park rides. We have that in our household.

These are the kinds of things that women are doing to try to inspire the next generation. There is a woman in our book who started a company called Bitcode, she’s actually working with the public schools to get them to use video to teach girls how to code. So if you have kids you know that they’re on video, they’re on YouTube, and they’re really tech savvy. I have four kids, they can get around YouTube, and iMovie, and they’re all over it. So, this tool is used in the public schools, to teach coding, using videos, to make it fun.

How Colleges Are Changing the Ratio of Women Graduating with Computer Science Degrees

Poornima Vijayashanker: It’s great, yeah, it’s good to see these grassroots efforts, so that even if there is kind of a gap in terms of change for public schools or the school system in general, there’s ways in which parents and teachers can supplement that.

So, the next place in which a lot of women and minorities drop off is at the college level, tell us who’s working on changing that.

Samantha Walravens: Well, we had the most amazing experience at Grace Hopper in 2015. I believe you were there, and Heather and I, my coauthor and I went, and just to see, I think it was 12,000 women there in computing, and it is a true celebration. And to see the enthusiasm and the excitement and the bonding between these young women, it was so encouraging.

When you look at specific colleges, there’s a lot being done to encourage more women in to pursue technology and computer science. I met with Maria Klawe, who’s the president of Harvey Mudd, and wow! What a firecracker she is, she skateboards around campus, she’s just a really fun, wonderful woman, and she implemented a program along with her colleagues a few years ago, where there are two tracks for computer science, so as a freshman you can take the gold track or the black track.

The gold track is for students who have not had any computer science experience in high school; the black track is for students who’ve had some experience. So, by doing this, the students who have not had experience don’t feel so impostered, they don’t have the confidence cause no one’s had this experience, so they get through this year and I spoke to a couple of students who have taken these classes, and they say that by the end of the year, everyone’s pretty much at the same level.

So, she, Maria Klawe, and her team has tripled the number of women graduating with computer science degrees at Harvey Mudd in the past ten years, and the number is, I hate to throw in all these numbers, cause they get little mind boggling at times, but 55% of the computer science graduates at Harvey Mudd are now women.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s great, it’s a nice change to—the numbers go up.

Samantha Walravens: There’s also Stanford. Another example of what’s going on to encourage women to pursue computer science is Stanford University, of course a top institution, but they have a Women in Tech group called She++, which was started by Ayna Agarwal, and who was not even a computer science major by the way, but she started this group to encourage women and they had a Gala, every year, which gathers all the women in technology, not just Stanford. What they do is they go out into the communities and they take on high school students in different communities around the country and they support these young high school girls to start programs in their communities. For example, I live out in Marin County, and there is a girl who started a robotics happy schooler box program in Marin City, which is an underserved community in Marin County, and she runs this afterschool program in Marin City.

So all of these girls around the country who are starting these programs through She++ gather together for this gala, and I am telling you, if you could be there to see these college women, these high school girls who came, they were dressed to the nines, they were glamorous, I mean, talk about debunking the myths and breaking stereotypes about what a woman in tech looks like, I mean, we could have been in an LA nightclub, not to sound like—but they were so beautiful and wonderful and smart and excited to talk about their programs, and they were so excited to be in technology. And again, this is why Heather and I said, “This is a story that no one sees,” you don’t see this kind of enthusiasm around technology, you see, “Oh, it’s so hard, numbers are dropping, it’s all doom and gloom.” And so we really wanted to tell that other story.

The Angel Investors and Others Who Are Supporting Female Founders

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. That brings us back to industry, and I know there’s a lot going on at the corporate level, as well as startups. I’m of course partial to startups, so let’s start there and talk about how the ecosystem is changing for women and minorities.

Samantha Walravens: There’s a lot of momentum behind supporting female founders. For example, there are accelerator programs like the Women Startup Lab, which is down here at Menlo Park; there’s MergeLane, which is in Colorado; there’s The Refinery in Connecticut. These programs focus on female founders, and really giving them the tools, the skills they need to grow their company into a venture, fundable company. And they give the tools to learn how to pitch venture capitalists, and we all know the venture capital world is very male dominated.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, it is a challenge. I know I’ve had my fair share of doing the fundraising.

So, there’s a very common problem around women and minorities getting up and pitching their business to VCs, either male VCs not getting their idea, or they don’t think it’s a big enough market, or there’s a lot of unconscious bias around it, so how are women getting their training to get over all of that?

Samantha Walravens: Well, you’ve started a company, so you know what it’s like. The founders that we’ve met, that I’ve met in my journey with this book, are so passionate about their idea. But you can have an idea, and it’s not going to go anywhere—you have to have the product market fit, you have to test the idea, you have to build your team out—and so these programs are really teaching women what they need to do to get to that level, to actually pitch to investors. But when you look at the numbers, I think it’s 10% of the venture funding, globally, goes to female founders—it’s still a really small percentage.

We’ve also noticed that there’s women who are angels. So angel investors who fund companies at the early stages—for example, Joanne Wilson, aka Gotham Gal, who has a tremendous momentum in New York City, who has invested in a number of really great companies; Caren Maio, Nestio, Shanna Tellerman, Modsy—she finds these women, who have ideas that are big, that are scalable, and she nurtures them, and she’s like the fairy godmother to these women. And there are other women that we talk about, we’d had to read the book to learn about all of them, but there are women who really take these female founders under their wing and support them on their journey.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I think it’s great that there are women like Joanne Wilson out there. Do you have a sense of how many companies she’s invested in?

Samantha Walravens: Joanne Wilson has invested in around a hundred companies, and they’re doing fantastic. One of them, Shanna Tellerman, started the company Modsy, which is an immersive, 3D environment for home décor, home design, and she told us that she created this project called “The Pinnacle Project,” at Park City, Utah, and it was Wednesday through Sunday, I think. And she invited Joanne, and Susan Lyne, and a bunch of angel investors, as well as a number of female founders, to come gather, network, ski, and have fun, and she said it was funny, because all the women were thinking, “We should be home, we should be working, we should be with the kids, we have so much to do,” and she said she had to tell and remind people that, “This is what the guys do. They have a boys call and they pick off and it’s all about business, whereas women don’t have that sense of, “Let’s go out to ski, or golf,” and that kind of networking, so it was an example of this pinnacle project, which is going to happen recurring every year, of, “OK, women, we can get together, have fun together, network, introduce each other to investors and influencers, and have fun while we’re doing it. It’s OK.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. That’s fantastic. And I think another thing you had mentioned pipeline ventures, or pipeline angels?

Samantha Walravens: Pipeline angels, yes, yes. Natalia Oberti Noguera is a force of nature and she started this angel investing group for women and I went through it and Heather went through it. I did it in San Francisco, Heather did it in New York, and basically it’s a training, it’s a bootcamp or a training program for women who are credited investors, to learn how to invest in female and minority-led companies. So it walked us through the process of how do you set evaluation on a company, what do you look for in a startup that you’re investing in, what kind of traits you want to look for in the team, what’s going to make this a good investment. So it trains women to invest as angels, and then you actually make an investment at the end.

We made an investment in a great startup—which I believe is still hush hush, underground at this point—but I believe we made a great investment and we’re following the course of these early stage female founders, and it’s really her goal to change the face of angel investing, to increase the amount of money going towards these early stage female founders.

Poornima Vijayashanker: As we were doing research for your book and when I was reading it, I noticed that there was some astonishing findings, like only 11 companies that were founded by African-American women have received funding over a million dollars. So walk us through who is working to change this.

Samantha Walravens: Well, that number has actually increased, it’s now 13 companies that have received more than a million dollars, but the numbers are still really low. One woman who is really on top of this problem is Kathryn Finney, who is the founder of DigitalUndivided, which is an organization whose main purpose is to increase the number of women, minorities in the tech world, latino women, and black women founders, and she just recently launched an accelerator, in Atlanta, Georgia, called the Big Innovation Center, and I think their first cohort is gathering this year to help skill up and prepare these minority founders to raise money.

How Tech Companies Are Growing Up and Changing the Nature of Work

Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s switch gears, and talk about corporations. We previously had Lisen Stromberg on the show, talking about the changes that were happening for parents—what have you seen?

Samantha Walravens: Well, what we’ve noticed is that Silicon Valley is growing up. They are trading in their ping-pong tables and foosball tables for nursing rooms, which is inspiring to see. When I started out, I had my Medela Pump in Style in a cold bathroom out of the courtyard of our startup, so it wasn’t pretty, but we spent a day at Eventbrite not too long ago, and Julia Hartz, who’s now the CEO of Eventbrite, it’s very focused on woman, developing women in leadership positions and allowing for work-life balance. And I say that word, “work-life balance,” a term that is loaded, what she’s trying to do with that company is focus on the whole person, not just the employee self.

For example, they have a program called “Take the time you need.” So if you need time to care for a child or to care for an adult, you can work from home, you can take time off, so she’s really interested in her employees, and telling her employees, “You can do what you need to do, so you can live a life and you can be an employee.”

And she also tells the women who are having babies at her company, she says, “You know what? You can get through the first six to nine months,” it gets a lot easier, because a lot of women when they have their babies early on, they think, “I can’t leave this poor creature alone with a daycare with a babysitter,” and she says, “If you can just get through that”—she’s got two little girls herself—”If you can just get through that time, stick with it, come back, and we will support you while you’re doing it,” which is fantastic.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You also showcase companies like Power to Fly. Walk us through what Power to Fly is.

Samantha Walravens: Yeah, Power to Fly was started by Milena Berry and Katharine Zaleski. Katharine actually wrote an article apologizing to all the mothers out there. Before she had children, she was a little bit judgemental of mothers taking time off and having to leave work early, and then she had her first baby and she thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is really hard,” so she and Milena got together and started this company, Power to Fly, which connects women with remote and flexible job positions, so they can actually care for their family and pursue careers in technology. The great thing about technology is that it can be done remotely. Especially if you’re in coding, you don’t have to be in an office 24/7, so Power to Fly works on that.

Another great program is Tina Lee started a program called MotherCoders, and she’s based in San Francisco, a fabulous woman, her program retrains mothers in tech skills, so they can go off and they can—either they’ve taken time off or they have background in some other field, they can skill up in technology, and go out and get the tremendous amount of jobs that are available in technology as they get back to work.

Disrupting the Boardroom

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, that brings us to the boardroom, so walk us through what changes are happening there.

Samantha Walravens: The number of women holding board seats in our country is still very, very low, I think the number is 18% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies are held by women. So we still have a long way to go.

One real pioneer in this area is a woman, her name is Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, she’s fabulous, she is the CEO and founder of a company called Joyus, a tech company, and she, a few years ago penned an article called “Tech Women Choose Possibility.” And she really wanted to profile the women in Silicon Valley, in the startup world, who are doing great things, just founding great companies. There was a lot of positive response to that article, and so she created an organization called #choosepossibility.

Part of that organization is a group called, or an initiative called “The Boardlist.” And basically it’s a matchmaking tool that matches qualified, board-ready women with startup, tech companies, looking to fill board seats with women, so she made that happen, and they placed three women on the board, which it seems like it’s very low, but what they’re doing is they’re connecting the VCs and the startup companies with these women, and a lot more placements have been made not directly through the platform, but just through the connections that have been made on this platform.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK, great, so it’s good to know that there is some change happening at the board level as well.

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Samantha, I know our viewers out there are going to enjoy reading your book, Geek Girl Rising. And for our viewers who are women, minority, and allies, is there anything else you would like to share with them in terms of resources?

Samantha Walravens: Yeah. I would love to see everybody come to our website. We have a gazillion resources on how you can join the digital revolution, just take a peek.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for tuning in today and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please be sure to share it with your friends, your teammates, your boss, and everyone so that they get to benefit from all the great resources, and subscribe to our channel to receive the next episode.

Ciao for now!

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