Diva Tech Talk interviewed Catherine Tabor, CEO and Founder of Sparkfly, a cloud-based offer management solutions company maximizing customer acquisition by connecting real-time behavior with online and in-store sales. Catherine’s father was a physics professor, and she visited his university classes as a child. “I was mesmerized as he used math to solve real problems. I am a believer in technology solving problems, not just ‘tech for the sake of tech’.”
That was demonstrated when, as a Georgia State University undergraduate, Catherine was recruited by The Coca-Cola Company to manage their employee discount program. “I grew it to manage 1 million employees, nationally, with companies like Delta Airlines, Suntrust Bank. It was a bulletin board, where companies would list offers.” Employees would visit, use coupon codes, and make purchases. But the system did not allow for customers to redeem personalized offers at physical locations nor enable merchants to get accurate data. The resulting challenge was “how could we layer technology on top of antiquated POS systems, and make them do innovative things.” Catherine began by convincing POS providers “that there was a gap.” Her first integration success was with Radiant Systems, in Atlanta, (eventually acquired by the venerable NCR). Radiant “embraced my concept; agreed to integrate my platform; and then got acquired by NCR. By the nature of ‘being included in the fold’, it enabled build out, and networking.” After competing with larger, better-funded companies, “in 2017, we signed a contract with Chipotle.” Adoption of the SparkFly platform became the basis of Chipotle’s core digitalization transformation.
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted SparkFly, as it has many businesses. Fortunately, SparkFly’s platform pushes greater levels of digital participation/presence leading to stabilization. Catherine instituted a weekly “all-hands” phone call so that her team continuously feels close. “I tell them all the time: I cannot promise you good news, but I promise that I will always tell you the truth.”
Key leadership nuggets from Catherine Tabor include:
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Michelle Accardi, President and Chief Revenue Officer at Star2Star Communications, a global VoIP telecommunications vendor. Headquartered in Sarasota, Florida, Star2Star offers proprietary, hybrid unified voice and data communications solutions, in “the cloud.”
A well-known aphorism is: “Life is what happens, after we make other plans.” Michelle’s original aspiration was to be a Broadway star. Discovering that Manhattan was an exorbitant place to live, she took her first job in sales and “wound up, really liking it!” In karmic fashion, the CFO of a small technology company was at the front desk when a young Michelle cold-called with her resume. Infresco Corporation, (a joint venture with CA Technologies/Computer Associates), was “willing to take a risk” on her. “When I got there, I was so intrigued.” The company was creating “interesting technology” to convert “green screen” mainframe applications and databases and “make them look like really beautiful Websites.” Very soon, “I was doing things I had never done, before,” like creating Access databases. Her boss counseled her to reconsider becoming an attorney. “You have a natural aptitude for technology and people.” She took his advice and “never looked back.”
Within one year, CA Technologies merged Infresco into the larger corporation. Michelle began her upward CA trajectory. “They were starting a reference program at CA and needed someone who knew all the (Infresco) customers. I was recommended.” CA offered Michelle a $25,000 bonus to make the customers referenceable. She misunderstood CA’s timeline for this, and beat it by a dramatic 11 months, enabling 200 customers to become referenceable in slightly more than a month vs. the year CA had forecasted. Within 6 months, she was managing a customer reference team in North America and, in a year, managing that globally. This was followed by stints in field marketing, product marketing, and sales enablement. All catapulted her into successively more important roles.
Along the way, Michelle gained valuable insights. In field marketing, she noted how much was learned by “getting close to the customer.” In sales enablement she implemented “fun projects to motivate people.” She eventually became Vice President for digital transformation, “the biggest ‘leap’ because this was when digital marketing was starting, and I was asked to take on a technology team, lead web design, architecture, and IT team. I learned a lot about ‘agile’ as a methodology.”
“Technology is always going to change,” said Michelle. Her mantra is “drop in with both feet.” Moving to Star2Star is a full circle story. The company was co-founded by Norm Worthington, who was the co-founder of Infresco. “It was Kismet,” she said. She started as the company’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Actually, I was marketing employee #2. My job was to build a team and strategy. We built every piece of content, and the Website; and recruited a great team.” She became Chief Operating Officer, mandated to drive operational systems’ excellence, and then President and Chief Revenue Officer. “It has been really challenging to learn different aspects of running a technology company, driving it to the next level.” She describes the broad offerings of Star2Star. “We offer so much: collaboration, contact center, text messaging, workflow integration of communications into every business process you can think of, mobile applications, text-based alerting, desktop communications as a service, and more.” Michelle noted “we also have the only desktop solutions certified to work in a Citrix environment. We help you with your entire network.” Star2Star offers an optimized SD-WAN service to ensure call quality, essential when people are working from home. “We have proprietary technology that allows us to do things that our competitors can’t.” Industry analysts have noticed. Gartner, has recognized Star2Star for six years as a Magic Quadrant leader in unified communications. Michelle, herself, has been named a channel leader for the last six years by CRN.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated Star2Star growth. In response to the crisis, Michelle is justifiably proud of the company’s stellar customer-focused philosophy. All company employees moved into a work-from-home environment, using Star2Star’s own technology. “Then we went to our base of customers.” Star2Star helped each customer deploy effective remote working scenarios and created innovative payment programs to support customers. “Communication is the lifeblood of any business. We didn’t want to be the bill that put any of our smaller companies over the edge.” Star2Star has also used this period to diversify even further. “We moved into digital transformation projects for customers in the restaurant and retail spaces, who needed curbside pickup applications.” Star2Star provided those. “Doctors’ offices needed testing.” Star2Star provided that. Many customers needed enhanced employee alerting systems. Star2Star provided them. For a nonprofit customer, and other health facilities, Star2Star provided text alert services.
Michelle acknowledges that being a woman has only minimally affected her career. She and her husband juggle a large family of 6 children. Her husband serves as the “stay-at-home” parent, and “I see a lot of ‘reverse sexism’,” which is a challenge,” she says. But she exults that “women are built to adapt” and feels capable of taking on many increasing responsibilities. If Michelle has a regret it is that “I should have gone into entrepreneurship” at her career advent. “I think balance is a fallacy,” opines Michelle. “Do things that you love, with people you like. And just have perseverance. Nothing is going to be perfect, anywhere.” Michelle’s essential advice is succinct. “Feel the fear and do it, anyway.” Seize opportunities; make the most of them. “You really have nothing to lose.”
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on SoundCloud, Stitcher, or your favorite podcasting channel and provide an online review.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed cybersecurity expert, author, keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and entrepreneur, Sandra Estok. Creator of the international book series, Happily Ever Cyber, Sandra founded her own company: Way2Protect LLC, after an extensive corporate career.
Originally from Venezuela, at age 11, Sandra and family were evicted from her childhood home. They found refuge in a shack. “It had one window, one door, and no water or bathroom inside,” she recalled. She felt ostracized from other children in the neighborhood, who lived in more conventional conditions. When she tried to join their neighborhood volleyball game, “one of the kids said ‘you’re never going to make it; you’re a loser.’“ Bruised, emotionally and physically, Sandra was grateful for a teacher’s inspiration: “Happiness is a choice. No matter what, you can choose happiness.” She went on to master volleyball and life by choosing to become highly proficient at whatever she tackled, knowing that “whatever you put your mind to, you can achieve.”
“Technology was, somehow, in my veins,” said Sandra. When she graduated from high school at 16, with no money for college, she enrolled in a government secretarial training program that led to an internship at the Heinz Company. There she rotated through departments including information technology. She enrolled in night school, in a tech certification program, that led to full completion of college, and graduating as a systems’ engineer. “Throughout my journey, I moved from company to company” (Kraft Foods, the Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo and SC Johnson), “in tech-related roles, building all kinds of things.” SC Johnson, where she worked for a total of 19 years, transferred her to Wisconsin. “It was my dream,” to live in the United States.
Sandra’s success secrets? “I was able to apply what I was learning at school to my jobs” and built a “connected” fabric between her academic and work lives. She also accepted new challenges readily. Her hard work, focus, appetite for new technology created exciting opportunities along the way. Sandra advises ambitious tech women to anticipate the newest trends and evaluate them in terms of skills you must acquire. Then acquire those skills and “success will find you.”
Her final role, before leaving SC Johnson, was reporting to it’s Chief Information Security Officer, as Director, Global Information Security Business Operations. Sandra developed and coordinated overall worldwide security business functions for SC Johnson on every continent. Her leadership advice is: “Always walk the talk. Don’t try to evangelize with words. Do it with your actions.”
In her transition to the U.S. with her working visa, Sandra underwent a watershed experience. Returning from Colombia, she was detained. Her passport was temporarily revoked. A smuggler from China had appropriated personal information and had been smuggling women into the USA using her identity! Two weeks later, returning from a European trip, she was detained again. Each time she traveled internationally, before she became a full-fledged U.S. citizen, Sandra had to prove her identity incessantly. “That negative experience ‘connected the dots’ and is driving me today. Identity theft and cybercrime can happen to anyone!” Sandra’s gift for making complex tech concepts comprehensible to non-technical people, coupled with passion to make a much greater impact, outside of a single corporation, led her to become a startup founder. “Leaving the corporate world is a big decision,” Sandra acknowledged. “But I say…just go for it!” Like her 11-year old self, longing to play volleyball with kids who were rejecting her, she relied on internal fortitude, focus, faith, and fearlessness to make the leap. To transition, Sandra became a consultant in the first year of founding her company, which helped her evolve to the “entrepreneurship mindset” while maintaining cash flow.
An outgrowth of consulting is Sandra’s first book: HAPPILY EVER CYBER: Protecting Yourself Against Hackers, Scammers and CyberMonsters. Through the stories she tells, it is clear cybercrime can affect anyone, at any age or walk of life. But if you understand cybersecurity basics, on a non-tech level, you will be galvanized to take action to protect what matters most to you. Her book encapsulates a very timely, scary subject and transforms it to be both non-threatening and empowering. “It helps you pinpoint what is most important to you, that you most want to protect. You can take measures to protect it.” An extension of the book is a foundation she envisions to help orphaned and foster children. “There are 153 million orphans in the world. And we have a global shortage of cybersecurity talent. So many kids can find their way through technology.”
Sandra exhorts listeners to always remember you are the architect of your own life. And you can build anything. She advises you to find a mentor, in the space in which you want to operate. Then cultivate coaches who can guide you to become better in any area you want to tackle. Above all, marry the clarity in your mind with the feelings in your heart. “Don’t worry about the 'how.' Just get clear on the ‘why’ and act on it.” Her final advice? “Practice gratitude in everything you do in your life.”
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on SoundCloud, Stitcher, or your favorite podcasting channel and provide an online review.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Amelia Ransom, Senior Director, Diversity and Engagement at Avalara, a tech company that ensures global tax compliance is done right. Amelia is dedicated to “trying to solve a problem that the world has not solved. It is not for the faint of heart.”
“I didn’t plan to be in diversity and inclusion,” Amelia said. She started in sales, moved to management and eventually was tapped to be the regional Diversity Director. “That role was pivotal for me. I felt like I was using my skills, knowledge and background to help make the company better.” After seven years in that role she moved into store management and later lead all the diversity initiatives for the company. Amelia emphasized that it takes the full gamut of business proficiencies to tackle employee engagement, diversity and inclusion. Her diversity and inclusion skills have been self-taught, through reading, face-to-face management challenges, and trial and error. “You have to learn when to use your own voice, and when to pull back and amplify everyone else’s.” The role demands that she be “constantly willing to learn, shift and change as the community needs shift and change.”
Amelia believes a key component of successful programs depend on noticing repetitive patterns coupled with “knowing what’s going on outside of the walls, in the world,” according to Amelia. “You have to be part of society. You have to be asking constant questions.” To gain top-level support, Amelia critiques her own proposals and then goes to her “naysayers” to shoot holes in an idea. By the time she gets to ultimate decision-makers, she has bullet-proofed any concept.
Amelia joined Avalara in 2018, where she supports ERG’s (Employee Resource Groups) who she sees as “a conduit to deeper engagement, a tool to drive more community,” beginning with a prototype woman-oriented global ERG, to “show everyone what could be.” . This was quickly followed by three other groups: Ujima (for African Americans), Veterans of Avalara, and the Prism Group, geared toward LGBTQIA individuals. “They have been very instrumental in driving more inclusion, more voices, and more ‘safe space’ for those voices,” said Amelia.
Avalara measures the success of its inclusion programs through raw data, anecdotal feedback, the level of engagement of various populations, as well as metrics around recruiting pools and populations. Amelia’s goal is that diversity and inclusion are “deep and rooted in the DNA” of Avalara, connected to “Avalara’s goal -- to be involved in every tax transaction in the world.” That implies reaching and engaging every possible permutation of population in the world, too.
Amelia’s personal practices for developing as a leader include 30 minutes each day to read about something she knows nothing about, and retaining mentors “who will tell me the absolute truth.” For her last birthday, she asked people to give her the link to a book that changed their life, so that she could “drive deeper relationships.” She loves to travel and bring those experiences back to others. In her community life, she serves on the boards of Seattle’s Goodwill Foundation, Seattle’s Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, homeless advocacy nonprofit Building Changes, the Institute for Sustainable Diversity and Inclusion, and the advisory board of the Seattle chapter of ALPFA (Association of Latino Professionals For America). “My job is to amplify the voices of the marginalized, and underrepresented.”
In Amelia’s view, “the biggest threat to the planet, and business, is the untapped potential in people’s minds.” She believes in plumbing that potential deeply. “I don’t have time to make people comfortable,” Amelia said. Instead she wants to inspire everyone to think, engage, evolve into their greatest potential, and “have seats at the table, which makes all of us better.” Amelia noted that diversity and inclusion leadership can feel lonely, at times. When Amelia feels that, this quote of Presidential Medal of Honor recipient, famed poet Maya Angelou, gives her strength: “I go forth alone. I stand as ten thousand.”
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher and provide an online review.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Dr. Nicki Washington, author, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Winthrop University, founder at Washington Consulting LLC and passionate advocate for women of color, in technology. Winthrop University featured her work.
“I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina,” site of world-class universities and home to Research Triangle Park. Her mother was a 32-year IBM programmer, and father was a K through 12 educator and administrator. “I was surrounded by black men and women who were educators, engineers, college professors, business leaders, attorneys, doctors and more: a network doing inspiring things in science and math.” Her mother purchased a new computer every few years and Dr. Washington assembled each one. Her mother “introduced me to programming opportunities,” Pascal and Basic, then more advanced languages. At Johnson C. Smith University, Dr. Washington’s path changed when an influential professor convinced her to concentrate on computer science. Dr. Dorothy Cawser Yancy, University President, nominated her for the David and Lucille Packard fellowship, a $100,000 5-year grant for students to pursue STEM doctorates, including annual week-long symposiums, with professional workshops and “honest safe spaces” for sharing. Dr. Washington graduated as undergraduate valedictorian and won the award. “My trajectory changed from there.”
Dr. Washington became “a black woman in a program where only one other person looked like me” pursuing masters/doctoral degrees at North Carolina State University. “I suffered from ‘impostor syndrome;’ and would lean on my community,” since her campus was 20 minutes from her childhood home. She often had to “armor up” every day and was fortunate to gain an empathetic advisor, Dr. Harry Perros, with whom she had “real talks” about struggles as a black woman in a post-graduate computer science program. She won another fellowship in her graduate school: NASA’s Harriet G. Jenkins award, giving monetary support and other unique experiences tailored to graduates from historically black colleges/universities.
Dr. Washington shared advice for programmers, technologists, application developers. “When you reach a roadblock, take a break and step away. Sometimes you are so engrossed, you cannot see high levels.” She decried students’ misconceptions that they must “know everything” and advised “be unafraid to ask for help.” When faced with bias, she said: “It is not you. You are not the first. You will not be the last. Take up space without losing yourself in the process. Maintain a level of self-care.” Dr. Washington’s message is “until there is a major shift in the narrative, we are going to see major challenges. Find the tribe who can get you through.”
Dr. Washington is now doing appreciable research in cultural competence in computing citing insufficiencies on the university level. Approximately 85% of university computing faculty are Caucasian or Asian, not serving as full role models. “We lose students in the middle ground, between K through 12 and careers.” She noted that while undergraduate curriculum emphasizes technology skills, it does not emphasize cultural competence. “We see, every day, technology announcements that are biased,” as a result. She cited self-driving car and healthcare database applications as two examples where “people developing them are not recognizing biases.” Dr. Washington proposes a long-overdue revolution: required assessment for cultural competence in computing. “I am trying to force a conversation around cultural competence for all computer science students before graduation,” beginning with a required 3-credit course called Race, Gender, Class and Computing. Her aspiration is a country-wide movement on computing cultural competency, using the right role models, “people who live, eat and breathe this for a living.”
During nine years at Howard University, Dr. Washington partnered with Google to bring a middle school course to 300 Howard University’s Middle School students; then co-championed an Exploring Computer Science program to bring computer science to Washington DC public high schools. She helped establish the first Google In Residence program at Howard which “expanded to other historically black universities including Fisk, Morehouse College, Spellman and Hampton.” Since relocating to Winthrop, Dr. Washington is working with Code.org to develop the nationwide framework for K through 12 computer science curriculum “as a blueprint in every state, so every student has access to computer science at every step.” She served as lead writer on South Carolina state’s K through 12 computer science and digital literacy standards and through Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., leads college prep workshops for students and parents.
Dr. Washington’s book: UNAPOLOGETICALLY DOPE, “speaks to every black woman and girl who needs to know there was someone just like them who went through the same things.” She speaks to computer science departments across the country on her research. Dr. Washington’s key advice for women tech leaders, especially women of color, is: “Be unafraid to ‘take up space’ and own your narrative. Be intentional with everything you do. Recognize it’s always bigger than you. It’s not just happening to you. Make sure your intention is the best possible.”
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on SoundCloud, Stitcher, or your favorite podcasting channel and provide an online review.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Sunitha Vinnakota, tech/IT security leader for General Motors Company, a trailblazer in automotive solutions for almost a century. Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, global GM employs over 180,000 people; serves customers on 6 continents across 23 time zones in 70 languages; and focuses on pushing the limits of automotive engineering, while maintaining stewardship of the world’s environmental resources. Currently #10 on the Fortune 500 list, GM is the largest U.S. automotive manufacturer, and is led by Mary Barra, the first female CEO of a major automotive company. Sunitha brought 25-plus years of evolving technology skills, intellectual curiosity coupled with drive, and broad business acumen.
Sunitha was always interested in technology, encouraged by her mechanical engineer father who urged her to “look at the science all around you.” One of two siblings, growing up near Hyderabad, India, she was fascinated by the logic underlying every invention, tool, process, in her life. All her close male relatives were engineers. Sunitha said, “from childhood, I wanted to do something different from everyone else.” That fascination led her to concentrate on math, physics and computer science. She completed a bachelor’s degree in computer science and master’s degree in computer applications at Osmania University. During university days, Sunitha instructed high school students in math and physics. She moved to teaching Unix at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science; and was offered a professorship at Osmania. However, Sunitha turned down university life in favor of working on the development of SAT and ACT tests, for 11th/12th graders, at Indotronix International.
Following her 2000 marriage, Sunitha migrated to Michigan. During that first year, she worked part-time, teaching Java and C# programming, on the weekends. After receiving her H1B visa, she became a Java consultant and developer at Chrysler Corporation, now FCA Group Intl. She then moved to GM as a consultant and systems analyst, deployed by TAC Automotive Group. After the birth of her first daughter, Sunitha took a leave of absence. Then she chose Ford Motor Company, the fifth largest automotive company in the world, where she was a systems analyst and then a business analyst over the next six years. In 2013, Sunitha moved back to General Motors full-time, as a senior business analyst in vehicle ordering and management systems. She mastered that before moving over to learn ecommerce, in-depth. “It was completely new. We were developing an e-commerce application.” After that achievement, she became a “quality evangelist” maintaining the integrity of IT applications in global sales and marketing working with 1100 people across the globe. Then, in 2018, she began to work on cybersecurity for GM, worldwide. She now leads security compliance for 230-plus applications, globally. One of Sunitha’s mantras is that everyone must “stay abreast of the latest technologies today” since data is rapidly exploding. Her job encompasses the breadth of GM technology from the “C suite to application owners to the grassroots” and focuses on ensuring that “GM customers know their information is safe with us.”
Sunitha characterized her major strengths as intellectual curiosity, ambition, learning agility, and passion. “Whatever I do, I dive in deep,” she said. She wants her stakeholders to say: “I have given this job to Sunitha. It gets done. I can sleep!” Sunitha was honored by a 2019 IT All Stars Women of Color Award for her work in improving GM application quality by 49% in less than 8 months, achieving 95% in standard compliance in record time.
Sunitha’s method of tackling subtle sexism in work situations has always been to “double down.” She increased her skill sets and made a case for traveling, performing at levels above and beyond what is required. Her greatest fear is “not staying abreast of technology. I want to be indispensable.” Sunitha’s words of wisdom for women leaders in technology are: “Don’t be hesitant to explore and learn. It’s ok to fear, and fail, but don’t let it stop you. Don’t be afraid to ask someone” for help or guidance and “don’t be in your comfort zone for long.” Sunitha has benefited from family mentors: her mother, her father and her mother-in-law, who she admires for having overcome many significant obstacles. Since she loves to teach, Sunitha often works with college “mentees” who she urges to explore every opportunity. She also is a big believer in developing strong self-respect, and in pragmatically rewarding yourself for achievements. “Don’t just buy a tech gadget;” ensure that you fully understand the gadget’s use/application and then “feel proud” of yourself.
In her community life, Sunitha kicked off the internship program for the Michigan Council of Women In Technology Foundation, and is on the technology advisory board for Canton Michigan high schools. Additionally, on weekends, she teaches business analysis skills online for women. Through that, “I have changed 16 women’s lives, so far,” she stated, because “life is too short; let’s take advantage of it. Don’t give the remote control” away.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Linda Rose, merger and acquisitions advisor at RoseBiz Inc., and author of GET ACQUIRED FOR MILLIONS --- offering wisdom and a practical roadmap to business owners interested in divestiture. Linda has owned four companies and has served hundreds of others.
In 7th grade, Linda knew she wanted to become a CPA, after visiting with family friends in that field, who had an idyllic lifestyle. Fortunately, her PSAT’s pinpointed strong math proficiency. She graduated with a bachelors and a master’s in accountancy from San Diego State University and spent four years at Arthur Andersen “working on very esoteric tax applications and issues.” Since her future husband was in the running for a partnership, and there were strict firm policies on fraternization, “I left and went to work for a customer of the firm.” Then, many life circumstances converged simultaneously. Linda got pregnant; laid off; and became a Southern California homeowner, an expensive proposition. “I found myself implementing an accounting package for a company that needed assistance. That’s what got me into tech!” Once in the technology field, “I never looked back. I didn’t aspire to have my own business, but I did like what I was doing.” She recruited others as independent contractors, and after several years incorporated. “I really liked the work, and the flexibility it gave me as a mom. And I hired a lot of other moms.” Then, Linda got “the growth bug,” and began hiring other experts. Her clients spurred her to diversify into staffing, and data center hosting. “For ten years, I had three companies at three separate locations. That forced me to hire very capable people, to delegate, to not have the businesses centered around me.” Linda’s epiphany was “I loved the flexibility and the control that having my own company afforded me.” Beginning in her 40’s, Linda took five years to self-reflect, analyze markets/trends, make hard decisions, and architect a plan. She sold her staffing company; then the others, including her final 2017 divestiture of RoseASP, a Microsoft channel partner and MS dynamics hosting company, “which I sold for millions.”
“I was at a crossroads.” Inspired by the self-discovery odyssey in WILD, Linda trekked 40 miles around Mount Hood and then took a 6-week 500 mile hike of the Pacific Crest trail. She concluded “I had this knowledge of selling three companies and buying another company. And I wanted to put that knowledge into the book.” Linda took 18 months to write her book, aimed toward an underserved niche: smaller companies, in technology channels, “written from the owner’s viewpoint. It’s a book that prepares you for the process” of selling your business.
Linda shared some wisdom for women in leadership roles. Her advice included:
Linda’s own “brand” is centered on “always about being fair, ethical, and servicing my customer --- doing what’s right for the customer and doing what’s right for the employee. It’s important to decide what you stand for.” One of her recent insights is that “each of us has our own ‘glass ceiling’ “and most of the time, it is lower in our minds than it should be, when viewed objectively. “So, it is important we break through our own limiting beliefs first” before tackling big challenges. During her 500-mile trek, Linda said: “I raised my own personal glass ceiling.” She faced bears, rocky trails, boulders, and other frightening challenges. She overcame them, and found a renewed, exhilarating empowerment, and new paths, including her specialty of consulting on mergers and acquisitions.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Jeanine Heck, Vice President, AI at Comcast, the world’s second largest broadcasting and cable television company; the U.S. largest pay television, cable TV and home internet service provider; and third largest home telephone supplier in the U.S.
As a child, Jeanine sometimes felt like “the lone soldier” as a female “mathlete,” consistently drawn to numbers, and science. “I loved things that had to do with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Engineering popped up” as she chose a college major. “I loved programming.” As an undergraduate, she felt fortunate to graduate with her BSE from the University of Pennsylvania, which also housed Wharton. “I got a really good, well-rounded perspective on both tech and business.”
Post-graduation Jeanine spent six years at Gemini Systems (now EssexTec), serving the New York Stock Exchange, first as a programmer. Then “my main responsibilities, over time, shifted. I raised my hand pretty often to become one of the people who decided what we were building: a business analyst role.” One watershed project was a Java-based visual tool/system that helped monitor and regulate the behavior of individual NYSE traders. “I liked all the technical challenges. But I didn’t have a passion for the financial markets,” Jeanine admitted. With a “career switcher mindset,” Jeanine entered Columbia University to get her MBA, and “discovered that I missed technology.” She landed two internships, first at Google in advertising sales and then at NBC, where she worked on an online Web video player. “In both jobs, I was not on the software team, but craving to be.” The good news was “I found an industry that I loved: the digital media industry.”
Jeanine honed in on getting a role at Comcast. “It was more of a humble culture, which stood out in the media industry” and a great opportunity for her to return to Philadelphia. Her first role was as a product manager for TV Planner, “the first time we brought together all content in one place.” With 1.5 million unique users, “when you have that kind of scale, you see amazing trends, patterns and data insights.” Jeanine became impassioned about data discovery and “I have built a career, on that, since then. “ One of the key products that Jeanine managed is Comcast’s Voice Remote, “the most loved” of Comcast products “synonymous with our brand.”
Shifting into team leadership, directing 70 employees, has been “a little bit bittersweet for me,” Jeanine admitted. But she has enjoyed mentoring team members, sharing her experience, leading and learning from “the brilliant people” on her teams. Jeanine’s immediate Comcast goals include “developing products that people become attached to” like the successful Voice Remote. She is on a quest to find “the next big product that will take us to the next level of love from our customers.” She has tasked her team to discover “brilliant products” to bring to market. The biggest impact that Jeanine sees in AI developments has been in productivity, and quality. “It (AI) helps you do things more efficiently.”
Jeanine’s success-oriented qualities are optimism, collaborative inclination and urgency married to agility: “One of my philosophies is ‘no day but today.’ If we have an idea, I am constantly thinking about how we get that out to customers, sooner.” Jeanine has spent introspection on the essential role of women in business. Personally, she has inculcated wisdom from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and concentrated on being taken seriously as an executive. She has also stayed open to feedback in her evolution, going so far as to assess her vocal presence and presentation skills to achieve “gravitas” as a leader. Jeanine has also become a devotee of Brene Brown. “I think she has the right idea. She talks about being a wholehearted person: being comfortable, taking risks and being vulnerable.” To achieve family balance, she works on putting down her phone, and assiduously listening to her 4 kids.
In her community life, Jeanine works with two different high schools to encourage young people to consider technology as part of their life paths: her alma mater, St. Hubert’s in Philadelphia and Lower Merion High School. “The fulfilling part for me is that you show them: you can do this, too, and it opens their minds to the possibilities.”
Jeanine’s pragmatic advice to women aspiring to lead is three-fold.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Liz Armbruester, SVP, Global Compliance, at Avalara, which helps businesses get tax compliance right. Avalara partners with ERP providers, accounting, e-commerce and financial systems companies, to deliver cloud-based tax compliance solutions, for all transactions. Headquartered in Seattle, WA, Avalara was founded in 2004; went public in 2018; and has offices across the world
From her early years, Liz was a multitasker. “I thrive on doing more than one thing at a time.” Her early aptitudes were in science, and math. From Villanova University, she transferred to the University of Arizona. Originally planning to be a doctor, Liz graduated with a major in molecular/cellular biology. It was during this formative college period that she learned “how impactful my instinct was and to listen and trust it.” This was a life-long lesson Liz applied many times, even with her own son, who made a similar decision in 2019 to transfer universities in pursuit of his dreams.
Liz decided against medical school but “easily got jobs in the medical field.” Working with physicians, she “kept finding my way to the front office. Application software was coming to the fore.” Liz grasped an “opportunity to do something different.” She migrated to semiconductor provider, Zilog where she spent eight years. Then Liz moved to Vubiquity, a content distribution tech company, owned by tech media giant Amdocs. Vubiquity connects content owners to video providers, so that entertainment can be delivered to consumers on any screen. At both Zilog and Vubiquity, Liz wore multiple hats; worked on innovative projects; and often operated in between highly technical development teams and customers “as a translator” of requirements.
Liz left Vubiquity, six years later, as Vice President of Operations, and Procurement, because she found herself “not showing up for dinner...which was not ok.” Moving from Vubiquity to Avalara, Liz made it clear that balance was key. Yet she committed to “operate, and scale like hell” to empower Avalara’s aggressive evolution. Liz accepted the challenge, to again “be the translator” between the vision, the partners who build/deliver solutions, and “an infinite number of customers.” Avalara teams, “are just brilliant and bring together all of the pieces; and cohesively work together” as the company’s client base has expanded. “Our finish line changes all the time,” Liz explained, because taxing authorities’ rules are ever-changing.
Liz believes that transition to collaborative teamwork leadership is particularly hard for talented STEM experts. Often, she noted “one day, I am a ‘fixer’ and the next day, I have to be a ‘facilitator,’ and that transformation can be kind of tough. You can’t do it, all. You have to let go; let others.” Key to that is teaching, mentoring and inspiring colleagues and teammates. Avalara is also highly committed to a positive “intentional culture” including diversity in its ranks. Liz praised Amelia Ransom, the company’s Senior Director of Engagement and Diversity, “who has really raised the bar for us.” Working on D/I initiatives has been eye-opening and allowed Liz to empower diversity transition, including all of Avalara leadership “locking arms. It isn’t a project; it doesn’t have a beginning and an end and has shifted our perspective. I have seen hiring practices change,” said Liz. “I have seen the transparency with which we talk about bias radically change.”
Liz would encourage anyone, at any career stage, to continuously “take a step back and look at the bigger picture” as it relates to “what you do, what you like to do, and what you're passionate about” in a disciplined fashion. “What are the things about what you do that make you successful?” Knowing your intrinsic aptitudes and how they apply to any challenge, is vital to personal progress. “Don’t just think about the tactical things you are doing. Take a step back and think about your skills, your unique characteristics.” Then apply them to your future goals. “It opens up and reframes your possibilities!”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Liz Siver, former Microsoft executive for the U.S. Central Region, now General Manager for NeoPollard Interactive, a breakthrough company, leading transformation of state lottery systems online.
Liz credited her “network: the people I knew and encountered” for introducing her to technology. She attended the University of Dayton, graduating with a degree in English. “I kept it simple. It was hard to identify all opportunities, so I took a generic path.” Liz worked her way through college. Among other assignments, she worked for Girl Scouts of Western Ohio; government of Montgomery County in Ohio; Berry Yellow Pages; and the university in a fund-raising role. Post-graduation, Liz entered fund development, at Hospice of Michigan, largest state provider of care to those facing end-of-life challenges. “Whether it was grant-writing, special event planning or working with donors, it was an array of interesting experiences.” After 5 years, “my network came to me,” alerting her to an opportunity as an event manager for the launch of The Somerset Collection in Southeast Michigan. She worked for Forbes Properties managing that massive development and hired The Disney Company to implement the mall launch.
Through more networking Liz moved to her next challenge, as a marketing manager at Deloitte, a global professional services organization, providing audit, tax, consulting, enterprise risk and financial advisory services to companies, worldwide. “I spent the majority of my time on the audit side of the house, driving business development,” she said. After 3 years at Deloitte, “my network came to me again,” Liz said. A PR firm worked with both Deloitte and Microsoft and connected Liz to one of the largest technology companies, of the 21st century. Two decades ago, “Microsoft had 23,000 employees, and now the company has 170,000 employees,” marveled Liz. “I went from learning technology to embracing and selling what the potential of technology could be. Fun times!”
Liz’s Microsoft tenure spanned 18 years, and 11 different roles. “The theme was learning, developing; and always be networking, keeping your eye out on the next potential opportunity to learn and grow.” She spent a lot of time on the road and jumped at any chance to lead teams or projects with diverse teams, as many as 100 people. She also spearheaded the development of the Central Region’s Microsoft Women’s Leadership organization. Liz “had the privilege” of spending time with (then-CEO) Steve Ballmer, “who always had a passion” for Detroit, and Southeast Michigan. “He was a visionary. That vision became really broad.”
Liz loved and learned from tenure at Microsoft. But, when she considered transitioning, “we had sold all states on ‘the cloud’. At my age, and career point, I thought ‘I have more to give. ‘What I wanted to do was to learn something new. And if I had the privilege of trying to transform an industry, wouldn’t that be exciting?!” In a year of self-discovery, Liz said “the opportunity presented itself to run a joint venture.” She assumed the management of NeoPollard Interactive, with a parent company in Tel Aviv and Michigan-based HQ in Lansing. NeoPollard is 50% owned by Israel-based NeoGames and a Winnipeg, Canada company in the lottery industry for decades. “They have gaming legacy and deep relationships, globally, in the lottery industry.” The company, “born online” and currently employing 82, works with state lotteries to move into the cloud; and “then provides services to be successful.” In current mobile device-dominant environments, NeoPollard is trying to “help state lotteries build an additional opportunity for people to play the lottery” outside of traditional “cash and carry retail environments.” What inspires Liz is “the money from state lotteries goes to all the great causes” funded within each individual state. In addition to doing good, “the fun part is transformation” ---- the opportunity to marry technology passion with belief in what technology can do for humanity. While NeoPollard has dominant market share, they are only currently in four of 50 U.S. states. “I am excited about being on the front end of the industry.”
Over her career, Liz has developed leadership philosophies. One is “be authentic. You can’t be anything better than yourself.” Also “my responsibility as a leader is figuring out how I make others great.” In defining personal strengths, Liz says that “defining a business opportunity and its challenges, and then understanding how to address those challenges with the right people, partnerships and solutions” is one of her personal attributes. She strives to “be present” at all times.
Throughout her career, Liz feels fortunate that “networking with other women exposed me to interesting people, interesting thoughts; and I like to ‘lean in’ to help people get support.” For Liz, “it is not about work/life balance, it is about work/life blend.” The mother of twin daughters, Liz wants her daughters to be open-minded and “able to think through an opportunity, weigh the risk and reward of things, and realize the importance of just getting out there, and making an impact.”
One of Liz’s favorite axioms is “attitude is altitude.” According to her, “how you show up every day, in your personal life, or your professional life is incredibly important to the people you touch.” For Liz, the best approach to every situation is “a super-positive attitude and open-mindedness.” This is particularly important in driving innovation because “many people are not where you are.” She also is clear that it is “important to say: I don’t know everything.” She fears the day that she would ever become risk averse. “I would say to my ‘younger self’, take more risks! Open doors can present closed doors which then present other open doors. You need to have some grit.” Knowing all this, Liz places emphasis on “the ability to recruit other people” to “the cause” who have appropriate skills, appetite for innovation, drive and agility. Liz also places strong value on empathy, in colleagues and her children, and spends time supporting the development of that in both. “We’re too harsh, today, in passing judgement. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and should be supporting each other.”
Liz was raised in a tradition of “giving back.” She is Vice President of her teenage girls’ high school sports organization; sits on different committees in her church parish; and is co-chairing South Oakland Shelter’s efforts to house the homeless, through her church. “Your words and your actions mean everything,” said Liz. “Always give back.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Sireesha Mandava, CIO and VP of Innovation at Greenpath Financial Wellness, a nationwide nonprofit with a mission to empower people to lead financially healthy lives, and realize their unique dreams, at all stages of life. With a family legacy of social justice, Sireesha was born near Hyderabad, India. “My grandfather was a great activist, who gave up everything he had for the village he grew up in,” she explained. He passed away in his 40’s, and exhorted Sireesha’s grandmother to empower their children. “I don’t care if you even feed them but make sure the girls are educated,” he declared. Sireesha felt inspired by her aunts, so she matriculated at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in Pilani, India. She graduated with an electrical and electonics engineering degree; but took all electives in programming; and performed her senior year internship at a company where she became proficient in Oracle databases.
Sireesha’s first post-university job was supposed to be in electronics engineering at a New Delhi, India company but they needed her Oracle experience. Several years later she moved to TGK, another Indian company, whose innovations included a new variation of SAP software called “i-SAP” an ERP system. I learned so much there,” and also met her husband at TGK. Confiding in the company’s managing director that she was going to leave, he referred her to Metamor Global Solutions, with a position in Detroit, Michigan. Her soon-to-be husband simultaneously moved to Detroit and “a year later we got married.”
Sireesha took a job in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for Triad Guaranty Insurance for less than a year but came back to Michigan for a position at NSF International. With a mission to improve global human health, non-profit NSF develops public health standards and certification programs to protect global water and food supplies, consumer products, and environment. Starting as a Project Manager, Sireesha developed her NSF career over 18 years. While there, Sireesha enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where she obtained her MBA, which “gave me a 10-year acceleration” in career evolution. Promoted to Business Applications Manager, and Director of Business Applications, her team “built this wonderful application” which they pitched as a global spin-off, that morphed into an NSF subsidiary (NSF TraQtion). This gave Sireesha “the ride of my life, doing everything as an entrepreneur.”
Having fun running that new NSF division, Sireesha was approached by Kristen Holt, CEO at Greenpath, to take a “culture walk” at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Southeast Michigan. “The culture of ‘human centered design’ thinking, putting people in the center” is part of Greenpath’s organizational evolution. The staff showed clients “a path to get out of crisis and achieve their dreams.” Greenpath offers financial education, counseling and aid to people in dire circumstances, and serves 200,000 households annually, with free counseling “I want to make the most impact.” So Sireesha was hooked on Greenpath’s BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to “remix the American dream so that it works for everyone, because everybody deserves a chance to attain dreams.” As a financial organization, “everything runs on technology” and Sireesha’s team of 28 IT professionals ensures internal technology always works. Her vision includes “technology as a differentiating factor” in everything that Greenpath accomplishes. This includes a significant investment in mobile applications for clients so “they can engage in self-service, see their progress, and be encouraged.” One of her other technology investments is current tech solutions, to enable the services team to operate at highest efficiency.
The personal traits that have marked her success include courage, flexibility and intellectual agility. Sireesha’s Greenpath colleagues have pointed out she possesses a rare “multidimensional thinking capability, applied to problem-solving” complemented by a propensity for strategy and results-orientation. She also counsels young people to make career and education choices through SAT and ACT coaching for high schoolers. Sireesha’s greatest fear is that she will “accept mediocrity.” So, she picks a handful of meaningful activities (work, church, mentoring/coaching) and focuses on those.
In the greater global community, Sireesha strives to make an important impact by supporting another non-profit founded by her husband and herself in 2005. It is Sphoorthi (which means “inspiration” in Sanskrit). Completely funded by them, this nonprofit is focused on providing food, clothing and education for underprivileged youngsters in Vizag, India. “It is my husband’s dream, but his dream is actually bigger,” Sireesha said. “We have helped 125 kids, thus far. Our goal is to have an orphanage, and a senior citizens home, together. We want to bring them together so seniors’ experience will help the kids. The kids, in turn, will rejuvenate the seniors.” Their plans include the orphanage, a holistic health center, a school, and a senior center, centralized together in a single positive community, powered by sustainable energy.
Sireesha’s counsel to striving women and girls includes some practical advice. “The way you portray yourself is exactly how others will see you; network, network, network.” And “always make it a point to make a difference for someone other than yourself.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Teri Takai, former CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense; former CIO for both the state of California and state of Michigan; and automotive industry technology executive. Today, Teri is the Executive Director for The Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic.
Teri’s parents grew up on the U.S. West Coast where “in World War II, Japanese-Americans were interned in (concentration) camps.” Her mother and father were fortunate. The University of Michigan entered the camps to help. “If you could get security clearance, you could (with $25 and one suitcase) take a train to Ann Arbor and get a job.” Wistfully, Teri said: “My dad wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. but didn’t feel that as a Japanese American, he could, so he decided to go into civil engineering.” However, the concentration camp, and move, disrupted his plan. Instead, he became a draftsman in the automotive industry, working for small automotive suppliers.
“I wasn’t interested in technology, at first, but I was good at math. It was the problem-solving,” Teri said. Valedictorian of her high school, she matriculated at the University of Michigan as a math major. A friend of her mother suggested she pursue computer programming. Teri devised an individualized curriculum of statistics, industrial engineering and more. Graduating with strong Fortran skills, she joined a small division of Ford Motor Company, focused on tractors, and developed a fascination for “the way technology impacted the business.” This inspired her to go back to school for a Ford-financed MBA. Teri worked in engineering, manufacturing and traveled internationally, staying for a decade, and enjoying promotions, many of which involved people management.
Teri feels fortunate that, prior to “diversity” being acknowledged as integral to progressive workplaces, she had a Ford boss who supported her taking a formal leave of absence to move to Germany, along with her husband, who was transferred as an engineer --- before Ford had a formal policy for working spouses. The leadership lesson Teri frequently shares is “what we need to do is follow our belief systems. Do what is right.”
At the end of 10 years in the tractor division, Teri got the opportunity to move to the mainstream side of Ford, as part of a consulting team working to build Ford Latin America. This opened her eyes to how people, from different cultures, might view her, as a colleague/leader. Teri did that job for 5 years, and then moved to a Ford thinktank directed to meeting the competitive threat of GM’s innovative Saturn division. “I am pretty good at getting things done. I am not necessarily your leader for ‘big picture’ strategies. I am focused on how you organize, bring people together and deliver a product.” As part of Ford’s software development, Teri worked on complex internal ERP and administration systems, a large supply chain initiative (CMMS), and then moved to the assembly division, managing plant floor systems. Then Ford gave her an overseas assignment, in the United Kingdom, where she led the development of a global purchasing system, which involved the expansion of a European-based purchasing system all over the world. Then Teri came back to the U.S. to Ford Credit, for a large system launch. Then she moved back into leading CMMS. Teri completed her 30 year career at Ford involved in the acquisition of Land Rover, and Volvo, and then in strategic planning. “My time at Ford was about delivery.”
Teri took a two-year position at EDS, because “I felt the wave of the future was not going to be big, internal IT organizations.” She learned the technology services business and had the chance to work directly with GM. Soon she was approached to join Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Michigan cabinet. She became CIO and Director of the Michigan Department of Information Technology. “The governor said to me, now is the time for giving back, for public service,” Teri said. “I am forever grateful to her for that.” Teri inherited a single precedent-setting government organization that centralized all information technology staff for the state. She and Governor Granholm were “great colleagues; I understood her strategic planning initiative, and what she wanted to do.” Teri came to a deep understanding about the collaborative nature of government, and how to effect lasting change. She stayed for 5 years, then was approached by the State of California, which had been without a CIO for over 5 years. “Governor Schwarzenegger, at the time, had gotten advice, from tech companies, that California needed a CIO,” she said. She became that CIO, and created the Office of the CIO from scratch, fully operational, in a 3-year timeframe, simultaneously with the state’s budget crisis. While the learning curve was challenging, Teri grew through it, and “a number of women reached out to me, there; influential women in Sacramento.”
Toward the end of three years in California, “a friend of mine had become President Obama’s Chief Information Officer. He called and asked me to interview for Chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense.” Despite a lack of federal government experience, she was offered the job. “It was the hardest, most stressful, job I ever had. You have a role that is accountable to all men and women in uniform. Everything thing DoD did, for security and protection, was based on technology.” She worked for four different Cabinet Secretaries for Defense in her 3-year tenure interacting with other members of the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (“amazing leaders”).
Having left the Federal Government, Teri is now leading the Center for Digital Government, a division of eRepublic. “The overall role is to link technology companies with state and local government.” Teri personally guides key programs. “We do surveys, so cities, states and counties can compare themselves to each other, and get rankings/grades. We share best practices and celebrate!” Teri also provides advisory services for technology companies, in government and works with cybersecurity start-ups, to bring tech to the market.
Teri strongly believes her unique background, and skills, emanate from both success and failures. “Sprinkled through the good stuff was a lot of learning, mistakes, and setbacks. I learned, later in life than I should have, the importance of collaboration. It takes time to understand how important all the different viewpoints are.” Teri defines ultimate happiness as “having a mission in life and giving back.” Her advice to other evolving women leaders is: “Be patient with yourself, as you are going through your career.” Teri is proud that colleagues have called her “a survivor” because she learned from every obstacle. “Believe in yourself. Stay the course. Keep moving ahead.” And finally, “follow your intuition; do what feels right.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Noramay Cadena, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at MiLA (Make in LA) Capital, an early stage venture fund, in Los Angeles. Launched in 2015, it is a “high touch” VC, founded on two major beliefs: hardware technology can be brought to market more frugally; and LA is an ideal place to do it.
Born in Colima, Mexico, Noramay emigrated to California’s San Fernando Valley. “My parents worked in factories,” she said. “I didn’t quite know where I wanted to be, or what I could be” until “I was tapped on the shoulder by a returning high school alumnus.” He inspired Noramay to matriculate to MIT to earn her BS in Mechanical Engineering. Later, as she worked at The Boeing Company, she obtained her MIT MS in Systems Engineering, and MBA in Business. “It not only changed my life but changed the course for my parents and my siblings.”
“When I got to college, I met lots of other women, like me, who had been tapped on the shoulder,” Noramay shared. Further inspired, she co-created The Latinas in STEM Foundation. “It is still active, inspiring and empowering young (Latina) women,” supplying programs, scholarships, bilingual content and role models for them, their parents and communities.
At the end of her Boeing tenure, Noramay “realized there were forces that I couldn’t control, and I was not going to grow any further” there. Fortunately,“the experience of Latinas in STEM, scaling, and building community,” instigated co-founding MiLA which finds “smart people around the world; invests in them; and builds community around them to make them successful.” Since it launched, MiLA has invested in 19 companies; sponsored five accelerator cohorts; and is raising its second capital investment fund. Looking forward, MiLA is exploring its ability to help supply chains networks become more efficient. The fund is very “hands-on” working daily with prospective founders to overcome challenges. Noramay is proud that over 33% of MiLA’s companies have female CEOs and is focused on high opportunity verticals including mobility, health, food tech, and “manufacturing 4.0.” A key value of MiLA is to help with “de-risking the solution and building a capital-efficient corporation to enable the team to attract investment.” Noramay has high expectations. “I want our fund to be seen as the primary source of deal flow for Series A investors,” over the next 3 years.
“I have been on the receiving end of incredible mentorship.” When Noramay was offered her MIT scholarship, a woman at Boeing read about it, and extended an internship at the company. “She became my mentor throughout my full 10-year tenure at Boeing.” Another mentor of hers (“a geek”) advised her to examine her career inflection point “as a system” noting when “the inputs no longer affect the outputs.”
Noramay ‘s personal strength emanates from circles, friends, and family. As the new mother of two-year old “I really rely on groups like ‘Moms In Tech’ for support, and my ‘WhatsApp’ chat strings with my girlfriends.” Noramay’s first daughter is a rising senior in college, and her mother said “it’s about resilience, character and grit. I see it in her. She has an incredible compassion and sense of service for others.”
Noramay’s key advice for other women is: “Clear your closets.” Divest “the baggage” that does not contribute to positive momentum (“the experiences of parents, or past relationships”). “It’s important that we power through and clear what we are carrying so that we’re not unconsciously perpetuating” unproductive behavior. “Recognize there might be something in your past that makes you more vulnerable” to being manipulated; face it and get rid of it.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed the dynamic Michelle Greene, Vice President of Information Technology at Masco Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of home improvement and construction products. An $8.5 billion conglomerate, comprising more than 20 companies, Masco operates nearly 60 manufacturing facilities in the United States and over 20 in other parts of the world.
Michelle was raised in Valdosta, Georgia. “My mother believed that, due to my close relationship with my aunt, I might be a school teacher.” But “what I recognized quickly was my ability to lead” so she obtained her business bachelor’s degree at Valdosta State University, and a masters’ degree in higher education and information sciences from Florida State University. She entered the workforce as a business analyst at Mellon Bank, in Pittsburgh, Pa. After two years, she migrated to Raleigh, North Carolina for another analyst position at Sony Ericsson a global leader in mobile communications. Michelle progressed from business analyst to project manager, and then a Sony Ericsson global program manager position. “I went to Sweden on a short-term assignment,” Michelle said. That assignment doubled in duration, helping Michelle recognize “my own ability to make it work, wherever I am. If the opportunity and the job is good, I will figure the rest out!” She shepherded the formerly outsourced data center back inside the corporation. Then Michelle moved to a service management job back in the states, then the global management of Sony’s network services, and to her final Sony Ericsson job, Director of Business Infrastructure worldwide. In that role, Michelle directed an annual budget of $70 million; managed all global infrastructure resources on three continents; and led global outsourcing, partners and suppliers for information technology. “My reputation preceded me. I was someone who could get things done. I was a bit of a ‘turnaround’ person.”
Within a year of her return to the states, “The CIO for Sony-Ericsson (Colin Boyd) who previously moved to Johnson Controls” was instrumental in recruiting her to that larger company. Michelle stayed with Johnson Controls for nine years, first working in their Buildings Division in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; then heading up the Automotive Electronics and Interiors Division in Holland, Michigan. Then she moved back to headquarters as Vice President of Business Partnership, for the entire enterprise. Michelle credited her mentors for inspiring and empowering her. “I have had some very good coaches, along the way.” When Masco reached out to recruit her, “I had people I could go to” who provided advice. Following mentors’ advice, in 2018, Michelle joined Masco, in her current role.
“I’ve made it my practice, when I take over a new team, to do one-on-ones with every member, so I can understand. I can meet you, where you are.” She emphasized that her mission is to offer “authentic and strong leadership” in her current role, and all future roles. “I feel like we don’t have enough leaders in IT. I have the ability to effect change because of my leadership style.” Michelle noted that her personal strengths include authenticity, being a life-long student of leadership best practices, and wielding “influence without authority” in order to “get things done.”
Michelle’s primary rule is “take chances.” She is a strong believer in clear communication. “I am finding, day-today, our biggest source of issues is you did not have a conversation with someone, or you did not take the time to be effective in the way you were getting across your message.” Her future plans include extending the information technology organization throughout the larger global organization, not just at headquarters. “We don’t always leverage and maximize our spending, our licensing, our approach, our solutions.”
Along the way, when she experienced gender or race bias, Michelle candidly said: “I recognized, I cannot wear it on my sleeve. That’s their problem; not mine.” Her key pieces of advice when contending with prejudices are: “Don’t take it personally. And don’t give away your power. Don’t let it define you.”
Michelle recommended a book by Carla Harris called EXPECT TO WIN, which outlines ten proven strategies for thriving at work. Michelle also enthused about Marshall Goldsmith’s WHAT GOT YOU HERE WON’T GET YOU THERE, which exhorts leaders to examine the small “transactional flaws” that can keep high-performing individuals from reaching the next pinnacle . “We do need to make adjustments” along the way, according to Michelle. Key success tips Michelle offers to girls and women are: “Understand WHY you are doing something. Know yourself. Be true to yourself.” Don’t give in to limits nor allow barriers to success. Find the balance between “sharing too much” personal information and being authentic and personable. Cultivate empathy. And the earlier you get a mentor, the better it will be for your career development.
In her volunteer life, Michelle sits on the board of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Goodwill and PEARLS for TEEN GIRLS, a unique leadership development program serving middle schoolers and high school girls. She also just joined the board of Michigan’s DPTV, viewer-supported public television in Southeast Michigan.
The elements of Michelle’s joy include: “great career and great wine!” She also stressed that “failure, for me, is not an option. I keep it in the back of my mind, to keep me grounded. But I am not allowing it to be an option.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana, a leading work management platform that helps teams organize, track, and manage work. (Dustin Moskovitz, aco-founder of Facebook, is also co-founder of Asana). Sonja’s mission is setting standards to drive inclusivity and equity in the workplace. As a first generation transplant to the United States, she immigrated from The West Indies. “I am the mother of a 4-year old boy,” Sonja said. “I am bringing up a child in this society. How can what I do, today, impact his life, and shape his opportunities for the future?”
Growing up in The Republic of Trinidad/Tobago, Sonja did not have aspirational limits placed on her. Growing up “we had really structured expectations of what were ‘cool’ jobs.” Sonja became an attorney, with a bachelor’s of law degree from The University of the West Indies in Barbados, and a graduate degree from The Hugh Wooding Law School. She worked at both the Ministry of Legal Affairs/Office of the Attorney General and the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. Now she is adamant that “Inclusion includes thinking about all the opportunities; ensuring that everyone has access; not being confined to what society says you should be doing.”
Sonja’s transition from law to tech was prompted by her move to the U.S. that was originally planned as a two-year stint. “But I got the option to work at a company called Yahoo.” There she implemented project management and legal internal consulting. When Yahoo established a human rights program, Sonja played a significant role. That led to working with Yahoo’s corporate policymaking for diversity and inclusion. From Yahoo, Sonja moved to Facebook as the company’s Global Diversity Program Manager and then to Asana as Head of Diversity and Inclusion.
To empower Asana’s diversity, she focused on two strategic pillars: recruiting and employee evaluation and growth. She stressed that “the culture is really supportive” and that neither pillar can exist without the other; diverse recruitment and nurturing culture must work in tandem. She works closely with the company’s University Recruiting team, and targets events that attract diverse attendees. To enhance existing culture, she is working on a variety of supportive initiatives like ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) for internal communities “making space for the community, and space for allies to learn more…”. There are three: Asana Women, Asana Gradient (for people of color), and Asana Team Rainbow (for LGBTQ employees). Each group autonomously sets its objectives, but all three are aligned, overall, to the greater Asana mission.
One practical approach that Asana initiated to support inclusion is the Asana Real Talk series where people engage in honest, authentic discussions about overcoming challenges, communicating purpose and driving change, individually and in the greater world/workplace. Sonja also does an onboarding session with all Asana team members emphasizing how vital inclusion is to the company. Asana’s liberal Family Leave policy is an example of progress. Sonia proudly exclaimed: “The beauty of Asana is that it is really transparent. People are not shy to ask questions.” Sonja’s leadership is enabled through wielding influence. “Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Be honest. People want clarity on an objective --- possible issues, risks involved, and probable results.” For candidates, she advised “You have power. It can be as easy as asking: ‘You say you do diversity and inclusion; what are the actions you have taken?’ ”
For companies initially adopting diversity and inclusion programs, Sonja recommended a company-wide engagement survey with questions about “belonging” to gauge employee’s perspectives. “Think of it as an audit to see where you are.” She also pointed to mundane vital questions a company can ask: “What is our restroom situation? Should we have ‘all gender’ restrooms? Are we thinking about ‘mother’s rooms’?” For recruiting, in companies without a dedicated diversity expert, she suggested: “You should be thinking about interview skills and training.” To measure success, Sonja said: “At Asana, we look at it as we would look at any other objective, in terms of both qualitative and quantitative data. What’s our new hire rate? How is it mapping to goals? Through surveys, tracking employee engagement and sense of belonging in terms of the overall company, and in terms of how specific groups are doing, and the intersectionality of groups.” The intersectionality data can offer “very different pictures.”
To keep momentum, Sonja and Asana do numerous things including monthly All Hands meetings, use a companywide Slack and Asana to consistently share diversity data, and hold “Office Hours” and Ask Me Anything sessions dedicated to inclusion/culture. In addition to the Asana Real Talk series, Sonja is proud of the recent apprenticeship program the company launched, AsanaUp. “We were really thoughtful and intentional about widening that funnel of great candidates coming from non-traditional backgrounds.” The AsanaUP apprenticeship welcomes those without university computer science degrees (with other degrees, from coding schools, or parents returning to the workforce) to join the company for 6-9 months to work alongside software engineers.
Sonja characterized herself as “an eternal optimist.” In her view, “everyone can make a difference. Children are the future, and they have no limits.” She exclaimed: “There are people out there, who don’t have access to the opportunities,” she said. “I plan to be working on lengthening that pipeline. This has to be done with really great partners like Grace Hopper Celebration conference”. “We forget that this is new and uncomfortable for a lot of people: to talk about race or gender or any of the other identities that people possess. Getting people to a place of comfort is how you change things!” Everyone much develop “a real sense of empathy; people might look different than you, might sound different, but we are all trying to do the same thing.” And the most important thing she would like to do is “remind people of their own power and their own worth. It makes a difference in what you can achieve!”
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher and provide an online review.
Chloe is a passionate supporter of women in technology, with an extensive social media brand following, and “non-traditional background,” since she “grew up doing musical theater in all shapes and forms.” Chloe’s father is a director/playwright. Her mother is a theatrical costume designer and graphics designer. “So, I grew up in a trunk!” She had little exposure to tech. “I had blinders on. I just knew that I wanted to be an actress.” After performing arts high school, Chloe matriculated at San Francisco University for a bachelors’ degree in theater performance. “I booked my first starring role, playing Kira in Xanadu,” a San Francisco stage production. Reality brought Chloe up short when “they handed me $500 for three to four months of rehearsal.” She addressed cash flow through “bizarre 9-to-5 jobs to support my nights/weekends in theater.” She took numerous retail jobs, then landed an Account Executive position at (pre-IPO) Yelp. She became fascinated by the startup, tech environment, but “was terrible at sales.” She “stumbled into other tech roles” including Zirtual, the first virtual personal assistant company. There she met Ben Parr, (then editor-at-large of Matchable), who co-founded VC fund The Dominate Group. Ben has gone on to be a columnist at Inc., a sought after speaker, and philanthropist.
During this discovery period, Chloe was unhappy, from a deficit of free time combined with minimal personal autonomy. Then she attended a Google-sponsored talk focused on girls interested in programming. It inspired her to find a bootcamp for coders (“these can be life-changing”). She chose “HackBright Academy, since it was all women. It felt very empowering.” Hackbright’s message, to the male-dominated programming world, is “change the ratio!” Initially, Chloe suffered from “Impostor Syndrome” which she thinks is more pervasive in technology than other field. A key to making progress, at the bootcamp, was to adjust learning style from simply reading about concepts to reading AND doing. “I had to think of it like choreography,” she said. Her tenure at the focused camp culminated in a project: a social media application that rigorously timed postings to achieve optimal exposure, no matter your time zone. As she prepared for “Demo Night,” Chloe’s revelation was that “building the app was hard; talking about it was not. I had always viewed my theater degree as a setback but I use my theater degree, every day, as an engineer, and doing public speaking.”
Initially interviewing for junior engineering roles, Chloe experienced “a significant change” when she “pivoted my brand to be more ‘developer relations’.” Her blend of speaking, performing, and communications merged with newly minted programming skills. She was hired by start-up Code Fresh, specializing in Docker innovation. After a year, Chloe left Code Fresh to join Sentry.io, a company focused on error-tracking for developers working in open source. She lauded the company’s culture. “You wanted to go to work, every day. The people were so fun and cool.” There, she reveled in creative, fun projects. Through that work, she collaborated with Microsoft, who gave her “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” At Microsoft, Chloe currently works with the cloud-based Azure platform. Most recently, she concentrated on cognitive services, infusing applications, websites and bots with intelligent algorithms to interpret in natural language. “I built an app that analyzes images of Cosplay Mario Kart characters to determine their mood and emotions. 95% of my demos are funny, quirky or solve a unique problem. I try to have fun elements in everything I do.”
Chloe shared classic advice. “Treat people like humans. As they say in The Book of Mormon, let’s just be really nice to everyone. It’s not that hard.” When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable (like code not working) Chloe advised: “Take a walk and come back with the solution.” She also counseled people to take breaks to achieve higher productivity. And “ask for help!” She cited Twitter as a rich source of feedback and advice. Chloe is amazed by the generosity of experts in the tech industry. “People are willing to help. This community is welcoming and warm.”
Chloe has evolved to revel in her differences. “I do not look like an engineer. And I fully embrace that,” she said, discussing the male, middle-aged technocrat stereotype. “I think it educates people” when she is the keynote speaker at a tech conference. In 2017, she wrote an article matter-of-factly describing how it feels to be a sole woman at a tech conference. It went viral because it allowed others to empathize without judgement. To protect herself, from Internet intrusion, she wryly said “I am very sharp, and witty, on Twitter. Anyone who comes at me, publicly, will get destroyed by my awesome jokes!” More pragmatically, she is building a bot to respond to inappropriate DM’s.
In terms of job-hunting, Chloe urged women to be selective. “Work at a place you are comfortable.” She cited “red flags” like a company uncomfortable with negotiation; or a company displaying paucity of women leaders in the interview process. Positively, she expressed appreciation for companies who cultivate sensitivity to diversity issues. She also cited Ru Paul’s advice to “silence your inner saboteur” and proceed with confidence. Chloe noted the industry is missing the mark by not considering those with degrees that are not technical. “If you are going to claim you are a diverse company, be open to hiring people from bootcamps! Put your money where your mouth is.”
As an evangelist for Microsoft, Chloe measures success by “folks approaching me and telling me that the work I am doing changed something fundamental for them. At the end of the day, if I have affected one person, or opened eyes to something new, that is success for me!” For other women in the field, she urged “be authentically you. Don’t feel like you must act like one of the guys. We need more ideas, and diverse thoughts.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Linda Cureton, veteran U.S. government tech leader, turned entrepreneur. Linda “was always fascinated with numbers.” Facetiously she recalled doing a math as a youngster to compute how old she would be in 2000. “I remember coming up with the age --- 41.” She thought: “Oh my God. I’ll be dead. I better hurry up and do things!”
Linda has had many chances to “do things” (BIG THINGS), although she resisted technology in early life. Originally aimed toward Washington D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Linda wanted to take calculus in 12th grade so matriculated at Howard University, instead, as a senior in high school in an advanced calculus program. She began university as a pre-med major, (“I hated it”) until a mentor counseled her. “You will be successful if you do what you love and enjoy.” Linda switched her major to mathematics. “I wanted to do pure math, but the counselor insisted I take computer classes.” As she began to take programming classes (IBM Assembler, Fortran, etc.), “I really enjoyed them.” After graduation, she interviewed at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA). “That’s how I got into technology,” she said. At the time, it felt like “punishment.” Clearly, that feeling dramatically changed.
Linda was a mathematician/programmer for 2 years at NASA, then moved to the U.S. Navy, working in the weapons systems development program, to become a program manager in undersea warfare. “After 6 months, I realized I didn’t like it, at all” so she moved to become a systems programmer at the Seattle naval base. Post-divorce, Linda moved to Maryland to become a systems programmer at the U.S. Department of Justice. She was at DOJ for 16 years, in a variety of technology management jobs and eventually became Deputy Director of the DOJ Data Center. Then she began applying for senior executive positions in government. “I was told I was not qualified,” she said. She recognized a need to focus on building coalitions, and whole organizations, “from dirt, from the ground up.” Engaging in that developed “executive acumen.” She went to the U.S. Department of Energy as Associate Chief Information Officer for operations for several years. “I was the only African-American career executive in the department, and the only black female; it felt very lonely.” But, from that experience she grew immensely.
Subsequently, Linda became Deputy Assistant Director of Science and Technology and then Deputy CIO for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), as a female executive in a male-dominated agency where she “built a very strong team.” Following that, she spent 8 years, again at NASA – first as CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, then as CIO for the entire NASA agency. (“My boss’s boss was President Barack Obama! The buck stops there.”) At NASA, she spent most of her time “debugging” the nationwide agency and bolstering it.
In evaluating her government career, Linda admitted “I was a pretty terrible programmer, but I was good at debugging.” She still considers that a major strength: the ability to find the “bugs” in an organization and solve them. Linda had no formal mentors in her career but learned “the best way to have a mentor is to be a mentor,” and mentors can be found outside of your organization. While at DOE, feeling isolated, Linda reached out to Gloria Parker, the first African-American female working at a Cabinet level, as the CIO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gloria generously shared invaluable advice about how to effectively serve as a CIO. They have remained friends to this day.
After retiring from NASA, Linda founded Muse Technologies, branded to reflect the concept of “goddesses of inspiration.” She wrote a book: THE LEADERSHIP MUSE , about things in the physical and spiritual world from which she drew leadership inspiration (“from hummingbirds to owls to notions about numbers and infinity and music…” and more.) In Linda’s eyes, “the job of leadership is so difficult, and impossible, it takes divine inspiration, sometimes, to get through it.” Her company supports Federal executives who need change support, supplying them with innovative problem-solving, process support, strategic planning, project/program management, technology recommendations and “soft skills” training for staff.
Linda expressed gratitude for the setbacks and disappointments she experienced over the years. “They have made me what I am, today.” Her greatest joy comes from contemplating “the vastness of the world we live in, God’s creation. It gives me a chance to decompress….to understand more about my purpose in life.” Conversely, Linda’s biggest fear is potential failure, which “I have pivoted to have the courage to succeed.” Having recently seen “Hidden Figures,” (about African-American women overcoming discrimination to strongly contribute to the U.S. space program), Linda left the theater “annoyed” because so many people were rejoicing, thinking that 1965 barriers faced by the film’s protagonists no longer existed. “Dude,” she said. “That was so last week. Maybe they don’t give you the trash to take out, but I had my share of more ‘nuanced’ attitudes!”
On work-life balance, Linda commented: “Life is not 50/50. It is 100/100. I am 100% who I am all the time.” Three of her career lessons for women are: you can cry, but keep on moving; don’t apologize for being a woman – use female advantages to succeed: and never sell out; “it’s better to quit a job than do something you think is wrong.” In her community life, Linda gives back by being an active board member for the DC Youth Orchestra for K-12 children and a newly-formed regional group called Pink Architecture, convening tech women to share insights, knowledge and support.
Make sure to check us out on online at www.divatechtalk.com, on Twitter @divatechtalks, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/divatechtalk. And please listen to us on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Stitcher and provide an online review.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Tarsha McCormick, NA Head of Diversity and Inclusion, for Thoughtworks, a global software consulting company, driving a socially, economically fair and moral world, by bettering humanity through software. The company has won multiple awards as a top company for women in technology. “For us, diversity and inclusion are about righting some societal ‘wrongs’ – particularly as it relates to race, gender, and sexual orientation.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Tarsha is the youngest of seven children. Her parents emanated from southern United States in the 1930’s and “faced a lot of segregation in the ‘Jim Crowe’ South. Statistically speaking the odds were against me.” Tarsha inadvertently entered the technology industry but is “impassioned about diversity and inclusion in the space.” Her journey is an example of “just because it isn’t your plan, doesn’t mean it isn’t your destiny.”
Tarsha was a social worker for the State of Illinois specializing in child welfare. With a political science undergraduate degree from Illinois State University, and master’s degree from Keller Graduate School of Management at DeVry University, she carved out a path in human resources, working for Hewitt, then joining Thoughtworks almost twenty years ago. There, she has “had the opportunity to wear many hats, roles from recruiter to generalist to benefits manager to HR manager.”
Thoughtworks established the People Division in Atlanta, Georgia and Tasha moved to the role of Human Resource Business Partner, there, responsible for The Americas in 2010. “We started having some of those tough conversations about inclusion, at Thoughtworks, that some employers shy away from --- privilege, and sexism, and race in America,” she said. In 2015 she became the company’s first Head of Diversity and Inclusion. This promotion allowed Tarsha to create a diversity strategic plan and overall vision. “I was the first person in the role. I felt a little overwhelmed!” Thoughtworks was “probably at the forefront” of diversity work in the tech space, which has led the company to honors including being named a leading company for women in technology at the Grace Hopper 2018 Celebration of Women in Tech.
For recruiting, “talent doesn’t have a face or a background,” said Tarsha. “We don’t care if you are self-taught, went to a bootcamp, or the more traditional route of a 4-year university. If you have aptitude, attitude and experience, then Thoughtworks can be a home for you.” Thoughtworks has significantly expanded sources for talent. “We look for candidates outside the computer science department,” as an example, when conducting college recruiting. They also attend tech conferences, visit schools without computer science curricula, historically black colleges and universities, community colleges, and more. Tarsha stressed that it is important to closely examine your recruiting process; “are you mitigating bias in the process?”
Diversity does not stop with recruitment of people with different backgrounds, creeds/races/colors/ages/belief systems/socio-economic statuses. Equally important is “inclusion.” At Thoughtworks, the company has created a place where “people feel they have a voice; that they matter.” The team has re-architected learning/development, benefits, communication methods/content and channels, and methods of promoting high potential employees, in new, more inclusive ways.
Thoughtworks mantra is “once you learn more about a person, their background, their situation, it will hopefully broaden your perspective. You can empathize and sympathize.” To institutionalize best diversity practices, the company has established employee-led resource groups for women’s interests, LGBTQ interests, and African Americans. There is a consistent feedback mechanism to gauge employee needs. Prior to any major policy roll-out, interest groups are polled. “An example of that is when we rolled out a policy for gender transitioning on the job,” Tarsha said. “We hired an outside expert to come in and do training, not only for our leadership team, but all our employees. We had appropriate groups review the policy. We created the preferred pronoun buttons. We take them to our career fairs and have available in all our offices. We want to be sure we are being respectful of people, and how they self-identify.” To measure the success of its programs, Thoughtworks administers a diversity survey annually, and deploys “Measures of Success” --- a benchmark tracking. For companies motivated to establish diversity programs, Tarsha shared advice. As a first step, any company should start with holistic assessment, to identify areas for enhancement, gaps, and priorities. Then map back to strategic goals, and methodically, progress from step to step.
For individuals looking for new roles, Tarsha recommends asking questions about a company they are considering, including what diversity policies are; the backgrounds of leaders; leadership development opportunities, and how candidates are selected; the average tenure for an employee. Also try to speak with other employees about their experience. Tarsha emphasizes that this work cannot be done in a vacuum. “I can create the vision, and the initiatives. But it takes all of us to live it and breathe it every day; and make people feel welcome and included.” Tarsha wholeheartedly agrees with Diva Tech Talk. “One person can’t do everything. But everyone can do something!”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Gail Bernard, Director of Sales, Americas for Cybernoor, a leading provider of Oracle platform solutions. In Gail’s childhood, she was fascinated by science and attended the University of Washington where she entered pre-med. “I saw technology, originally, as enabling medicine,” she said but additionally “I saw we could use technology to solve business problems, life problems.” She migrated to management information systems and transferred to the University of Michigan, to complete her BBA in MIS. During two internships at Chrysler Corporation. she managed the personal computer rollout for the entire company. Then she began working at Chrysler, full-time, after graduation as a systems analyst in their product development group. Her team produced a complicated engineering BOM (Bill of Materials). “I got to work with amazing, brilliant people!”
After Chrysler, Gail moved to consulting and gained in-depth experience in inventory and supply chain technology deployment. Then she moved into technology consulting sales to “deliver the breadth and depth of services” required by a number of very large Michigan clients. “Being around diverse groups of people taught me how to conduct myself in any given scenario,” Gail said. Gail then migrated to founding and leading the Detroit-based office of Interactive Business Systems, when their full portfolio of products/services expanded into Michigan.
While Gail enjoyed the sales and consulting work, she became intellectually restless. She also underwent a bout with breast cancer, and “realized that having healthcare choices, in retirement, was big.” So, she decided to get her PMP certification, passing her exam on the first round. That led Gail to her next career chapter as the Project Management Officer (PMO) for the U.S. District Court, Eastern Division, in Michigan ---- one of the largest consolidated court systems in the U.S. Prior to her tenure, the court “no had created the point of service, but we were able to digitize the probation and pre-trial functions so that we ended up with the lowest recidivism rates of offenders, in the nation.”
Now Gail has returned to a consulting role at Cybernoor, which is “new to Michigan.” Its founder, Ahmed Alomari , was the Vice President of Application Development at Oracle Corporation but left a decade ago to create an improved portfolio of products and services, founded on Oracle platforms. What most excites Gail, in her role of driving sales throughout North America, is the fact that Cybernoor is a leader in full, organic digital transformation for large organizations.
Gail’s career success stems from her intellectual agility, the propensity to move/evolve at the speed of disruptive change, and constant quest for greater meaning in her work, which truly motivates her. To stay joyous, she fully recognizes and basks in the glow of small and large accomplishments. “I don’t necessarily separate my professional life and my personal life,” she said. Having faced a significant health challenge, when she triumphed over cancer, she has only two fears today: physical heights, and failure! She also gives back, regularly, to others dealing with that disease by “being a buddy” when she finds someone who needs support.
Gail’s leadership lessons included: “Don’t take shortcuts. Accept that males and females are different. Lean into it! Celebrate it and pull the best out of it.” And “Empower, rather than command.” She also counseled to live in the moment and understand that life’s goal “is not a destination, it is a process.” Seizing the day, she giggled: “I say live your life like you stole it!”
Diva Tech Talk was honored to interview Shuchi Sharma, Global Head and VP, Gender Equality & Intelligence, SAP, the software giant that creates enterprise software to manage operations and customer relations for Fortune 500 companies all over the world.
Shuchi never intended to enter software. “I studied chemistry, with the aim of being a doctor,” she said “because it explains the ‘why’ behind everything. But I excelled in economics. I combined science and economics and got a degree in public health.” She obtained her bachelors of science at the College of William and Mary, and her masters of public health at the University of Michigan. “I took courses in maternal and children’s health and HIV policy,” Shuchi said. “I knew that I wanted to focus on women’s issues, in some form.”
She began in management consulting working for The Advisory Board, among others. “I worked with technology for many years. Then I had an opportunity to move overseas to Germany.” She worked, in Heidelberg, for SAS, a leader in software analytics, running software consulting across eastern, central and northern Europe. “That was great fun.” However, “women were not really helping each other. I saw opportunities missed. I thought ‘what can I do about this?’ “ What Shuchi did, in her personal time, was create The Heidelberg International Professional Women’s Forum (HIP), to bring together women to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and develop skills to enhance success. “I spent five years, building and leading that organization. It made me realize that this is what I would like my life to be about.” Among HIP ongoing results were “people finding new opportunities; people starting businesses; people developing new friendships that carried great impact to their lives; creating new ventures they never thought they could achieve.” There were many new partnerships and businesses, and significant events including “a big summit to fuel entrepreneurship in the community.” Shuchi is still amazed at “the multiplier effect that something like this can have on lives.”
In 2008, Shuchi left SAS to join SAP, to grow the consulting business in northern and southern Europe and the USSR. “I have been at SAP for 10 years. Now in my fourth role, I feel so blessed,” she said. “I started in business consulting, and after I had my second daughter, I wasn’t ready to travel.” Shuchi was lucky. Her empathetic boss asked her to build a marketing organization. Over the subsequent 5 years, she built a marketing function for business consulting. Then she was asked to lead a digital transformation team in North America for SAP’s Success Factors, delivering dramatic improvement in the way companies handle their workforces. She had great fun helping customers use design thinking to envision the state of their workforces 5 years in the future. In her volunteer life, Shuchi became a salary coach for AAUW’s SmartStart Program, and worked with organizations like Moms Rising. “I stayed very involved in women’s topics.” She then evolved into her current position “changing the mix of gender in the organization and creating that very inclusive culture --- a strategic transformation. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring my skills and interests together.”
Shuchi is determined to deliver on SAP’s mandate: “to ensure that we, as an organization, can meet our target of having 30% of women in leadership by 2022.” She tackled leadership in process-oriented fashion. “First we look at data, to see where we are, where we have to go, and how we are going to get there.” SAP has amassed internal data on their own enterprise analytics platform and use dashboards that track many areas: gender, early talent benchmarks, diversity and inclusion categories, and more. The analytics tools “help us slice and dice the data by so many different dimensions.” Using it, Shuchi’s team drives the revamp of corporate processes and organizations that have implicit bias. “We use data to have discussions with Level 1 managers” to encourage individual plans to reach the 30% goal.
Shuchi’s team has worked on projects including re-certification of SAP under the IMF’s EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality). “It is very robust analysis that involves data, review of policies and practices, an employee survey, and a third-party audit. Through that, we understand how we are progressing from leadership and development, pay equity, recruitment and promotion, and flexible work culture, perspectives. That data is going to help us drive change for the next 6 years.” Her team is rolling out programs centered on male allies, sponsorship and mentoring and “return-ship” – recruiting those who dropped out for life reasons, but now want to come back. Nothing can be accomplished in a vacuum, so her team is working on collaborative partnerships with other visionary organizations to help achieve SAP’s target of 30% by 2025.
For other companies fielding inclusion programs, Shuchi shared SAP’s ingredients for success: strong executive sponsorship, an effective ecosystem, with diversity and inclusion team members scattered throughout the company, and employee network groups. SAP is thrilled to have received much deserved recognition for their progress in diversity and inclusion. The latest is being named one of the top 5 companies for women technologists by the Anita Borg Institute.
Shuchi offered wonderful wisdom for women. On pay equity, she said “if you are in university, seek out resources that the AAUW provides. You can find a workshop to teach you the skills to negotiate salary, which is something you must do in every facet of life. Just become comfortable with asking. JUST ASK.” She also recommended books including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Why We Should All Be Feminists and watershed works by Dr. Louann Brizendine, particularly The Female Brain. In her own career, Shuchi is joyful about her SAP role. “Women are going to change the world…for the better. If you look across history, women are almost always at the heart of every positive social construct.” But she isn’t free of stress. “I worry that entrenched biases we have seen will continue to exist through our technology. We need to take a very active role to ensure that there is no prejudice; that it is open, available to everyone, and people have opportunities regardless of their race, color, appearance. NOW is the time.”
Shuchi’s two daughters are her personal inspiration. “I want to equip them with everything I can to help them overcome what they might face in the workplace.” She proudly mentioned that one of her daughters recently beat a boy in a footrace, and when one of his buddies commented that he was beat by a girl, her daughter turned and said: “that’s a normal thing; get used to it!”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Patricia Howard, veteran instructional designer/developer, whose employers and clients have included General Motors Corporation, AAA Life Insurance, the Auto Club Group and MSX International. Patty came to the technology field by happenstance. “When I was a little girl, technology did not exist as it does, today,” she said. “I didn’t touch a computer until my senior year of college!” She pursued a fine arts bachelor degree with a minor in business at The University of Southern Colorado, “..and had to write a paper for a finance class,” Patty said. “The system was DOS!”
After college, she moved to Michigan, and her first roles were at a national historic landmark and nonprofit, Pewabic Pottery, as a tile presser, potter, mold-maker and technical design reviewer, checking and validating specifications. Her intellectual appetite led her to explore technology and a friend “gifted” his 486 computer to her. Exploring her options, Patty left Pewabic and took short-term administrative assignments as she explored various industries. After this investigatory period, she exclaimed “I feel like I got the ‘Willy Wonka Golden Ticket’ because I landed a job as an entry-level Web Designer, with no experience” at MSX International, where she worked on websites for internal customers. “They were looking for someone with an artistic eye.“ Patty is forever grateful for her MSX tenure of 6 years, where she learned HTML, Illustrator, Wireworks, ImageReady, Flash, and Photoshop as well as “soft skills” including conflict resolution training. Patty was blessed with an excellent manager who told her to “design it the way you think it should be, and I’ll make it work!” Then “the economy unfortunately contracted.” Patty was among the last of her team to be let go, in the depths of the recession/depression, as the company dramatically downsized.
Her MSX experience awakened Patty’s realization of her affinity for organizational development. She worked at The Creative Group, a division of Robert Half International, as a temporary contract employee, deploying Web development skills. Eventually she landed at Gradepoint working closely with instructional designers. Then she entered Wayne State University, for a masters’ degree in instructional design with a focus on interactive technology, and human performance improvement. Post-recession, “when I emerged with my degree, the economy was on the upswing.” Patty took an internship at Auto Club Group, and then a full-time position at AA Insurance, where she spent 5 years as a courseware designer. “I did more courseware development and was also the LMS (learning management system) administrator.” Leaving there, she began working as a contractor, through TTI Global, at General Motors. The November, 2018, announcements of GM consolidations and plant closures resulted in contractors ending projects. Now she is actively seeking her next challenge.
Patty’s advice for creating an interesting career included: “Find out what you don’t know. Ask more questions.” She noted that, when younger, she didn’t explore all her options as thoroughly as she would recommend others do. She characterized her own skill-sets as having a propensity for gleaning information and making logical sense of it; a passion for making data useful; and a thirst to build something comprehensive from scratch. Patty loves to “put all the pieces together into this beautiful, inherent piece of training that is going to make someone’s life easier!” Her three greatest strengths include organizational ability, creativity, and a high degree of empathy. “Trying to see what the learner is going through to understand what they need” is key in doing instructional design. “I feel like I have great skills to make a difference, now.”
With all the changes through which she transitioned, Patty said “I don’t have any ‘pit of the stomach’ fears, any longer.” One of her lessons for other girls and women is “fear can be a motivator or a show-stopper. New technologies can be intimidating. Don’t let that stop you. Let that motivate you!” Patty has learned much from her volunteer work, since it gives a person the chance to “do something they would like to do,” increasing knowledge. Some of the organizations she mentioned are the Association for Talent Development, the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Inforum Detroit . In all her volunteer work Patty said “I try and give without resenting it” to avoid crossing the line into imbalance. To sum up Patty’s humorous viewpoint: “The glass isn’t half empty; it isn’t half full. It is twice as large as it needs to be, because no one did a proper needs analysis!”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Rebekah Bastian, Vice President of Community and Culture at Zillow Group, leading efforts focused on equity and belonging, social impact and cultural engagement. Rebekah was one of Zillow Group's first employees, moving from Microsoft in 2005. She has spent over 13 years leading product development and evolving into her current role.
Rebekah originally started as a music major, but shifted, reassessed, and went back to school taking courses at her local community college. This led to math and physics. Her epiphany was that “[she] can do well at anything [she] works hard at.” Rebekah has been proving that lesson to herself ever since. She encourages others to “work hard at things you enjoy, are passionate about, and things you are good at.” She transferred to the University of Washington where she completed her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and continued on to UC Berkley, for a masters in that field. She applied to Microsoft and her work included development of the pervasive Outlook email platform.
Subsequently she found Zillow Group, which was in full start-up mode and working under the radar. She took a flyer because she had faith in the founders, Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink, from their success with Expedia. Ultimately, Rebekah loved the mission of Zillow Group, the ability to start something from scratch, and the chance to get experience with many different roles.
She began working on the first version of the Zillow website, which has since become the largest real estate marketplace in the U.S. Rebekah worked on building product until about 8 years ago, when she was promoted into people management. As she progressed, leaders under her grew. She was able to launch a side project, paving the way for her current role.
Zillow Group’s diversity program began by reviewing how to build diverse points of view and people’s experiences into the organization, while shaping culture more intentionally. Rebekah also starting thinking about how she could use the Zillow platform to solve social issues like access for underserved populations to fair, affordable housing. This community work is her real passion. Rebekah believes in setting employees up for success by removing barriers while affording autonomy. She benefited from this philosophy personally with her own side projects at Zillow Group. Based on the introduction of the Apple iPhone, she assisted on a project that led to the mobile Zillow application. When it launched, it got attention from Apple and gained fast popularity. Zillow Group created the formal mobile team and she became its first mobile product manager. This opened more doors for her career.
In her Community and Culture Vice President role, Rebekah organizes and leads the Zillow Group team focused on equity and belonging, cultural engagement, housing stability, and social impact. She believes “power comes from combining these components together” into one unit. That team creates a space where everyone can bring their best selves to thrive at work. This includes hiring diverse employees, and ensuring that after onboarding, they possess a strong sense of community. There are also affinity equity networks, and a team of “Equity and Belonging” ambassadors. The ambassadors receive tools, resources, and through those, offer support for “every employee in the community to apply an equity lens to their line of work.” Zillow Group is also encouraging internal mobility within the company, bringing everyone to a level playing field for success despite any past inequities in backgrounds.
Rebekah believes no organization has proposed and implemented the perfect formula for leadership in diversity, community, inclusion, especially in corporate tech. Rebekah professes that she “love[s] problems that need to be solved that haven’t been totally figured out yet because that is what we do at Zillow Group, --- innovate! We need to be bringing everyone along.” More importantly, “everyone is on the equity and belonging team. It can’t be just one team of a few people doing this work for the company. We have to create systemic change.”
Active prioritizing is key when there are so many ideas and directions for a team like this. Rebekah’s product manager experience/role comes into play as she handles the sheer backlog of potential projects that fall under this mission. The team examines metrics on where they are and where they are trying to go to select the most impactful projects aligned with overall strategy. Reviewing employee engagement can help, so she gets that data through various surveys. “In term of deciding the exact priority, you want to have a big vision of where you are trying to go. Zillow Group wants to create a space where every employee can be heard” and positively impact everyone with whom Zillow interacts.
Zillow Group also created an internal pathways model called “get involved” so every Zillow team member can easily get immersed in equity and belonging, and give back, or just have fun. They use various technology and channels to share these opportunities. This work is exciting for Rebekah. For example, “Kids Day of Engineering” is an annual Zillow Group event where employees bring their children to participate in engineering activities. Another example is Zillow Group’s “Community Pillar” which takes the rental marketplace and allows individuals with credit or rental barriers find housing --- a great example of “incremental work that can be done on top of an existing product to create a new feature that can solve social issues.” Overall, the approach is to “creates pathways for everyone to get involved. We are really trying to channel all the passion and skills our employees have to do some great work.” Rebekah exclaimed.
Rebekah believes every woman should “speak up and advocate” for herself “asking for what she wants.” Her career breakthroughs began by simply asking. On the topic of balance, Rebekah finds times for things like aerial acrobatics as a “physical outlet, social outlet, and creative outlet.” Rebekah is a big fan of making a list to help her keep everything straight as a mother, leader, and philanthropist.
Rebekah ended the Diva Tech Talk interview with one of favorite quotes, from the Girl Scouts: “Leave it better than you found it.” She thinks that can be “applied to anything you are doing and is needed in our world today.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Nafisa Bhojawala, Studio Chief for Cloud Design at Microsoft Corporation. Nafisa, the daughter of an engineer dad, and an art teacher mom, grew up in India, and Dubai, UAE. “We grew up, drawing, painting, working on embroidery; just basically making things! But I also loved the clean rules of math and physics. I learned to appreciate how the world works around me.”
When Nafisa chose her university major, she wanted to specialize in fine arts. But her parents persuaded her to “pick a useful profession.” She decided on architecture and emigrated to Chicago to study at Illinois University of Technology. She spent one year, before she realized she was hooked on design, “looking at problems, and solving them, even on a smaller scale.” She logically matriculated into the design school. Nafisa then discovered computer technology. “I used it first as a tool, as a designer, but very soon I began running into these frustrating situations while using the computer,” which prompted her to think about how challenges could be circumvented. She began “sketching out ways of doing it,” and taking programming classes to “go deeper, to understand how code is written.”
Nafisa’s Capstone project was an interaction endeavor: a learning tool targeted to high school students. To gain confidence, she accepted an internship at Morningstar, the respected global financial firm offering influential investment research and recommendations, managing over $200 billion in institutional assets, and providing software/data platforms for investment professionals. There “I worked for close to a year on a CD-ROM project,” Nafisa said. “They were converting their stock data into an information tool that financial planners could use. It was the first time I was working as a young designer, figuring out how to apply my visual skills to interaction design.” After obtaining her degree, Nafisa joined The Doblin Group, a global innovation firm dedicated to solving complex problems through rigorous interdisciplinary approach. It was another evolution for her. “Their work is very diverse. I learned how to do research there; apply business strategy to problems.” It was there that Nafisa realized that “I like to design things that become real, and that I can see people using.”
Through a friend, 19 years ago, Nafisa successfully interviewed for a design position at Microsoft. “When I joined my team, I felt like I had found my tribe: very talented people, supportive of each other. I had a great manager, and a fantastic mentor. I could learn everything!” As she has moved into more senior leadership, she has come to the realization that “It takes a culture that supports growth and exploration…where people feel like they can take creative risks, and actually try things.”
Nafisa shifted into program management and learned she needed to “lean on others.” The key was also “being humble about it: being a learner,” she said. “Now I’m not afraid of pivoting. I can figure it out. “ One of her revelations has been that early in her career she focused on how to get things done, (“because you need to perfect your craft”) but later in her career, she has had to “focus on the big picture, because I needed to solve bigger problems, that were more ambiguous.” She takes pride in the fact that she feels comfortable “being the person who asks the stupid question.” That exercise often results in pinpointing the most innovative solutions. For example, working as a program manager for Microsoft Azure (Microsoft’s primary cloud platform providing a full portfolio of technical services for IT developers), Nafisa realized that there was a “weak link: the customer research piece.” Accessing customer feedback was a complex issue as the product line was being developed. “There were various stakeholders, timelines were crazy, and we did not have resources.” In less than 6 months, she had created and led a “high trust” team, to “do research at a very fast clip;” and work with diverse user “personas” encompassing developers and IT professionals, to ensure high feature quality and useful deliverables across a decentralized product set. Azure is robust and successful in part “because we figured out how to pump data through our decision-making process, from the time we decide what we want to build to actually building something.”
Nafisa has now moved to leading the UX (User Experience) for Microsoft’s Power BI (Business Intelligence), PowerApps, and Flow, tools designed to elegantly provide the highest level of productivity to developers and others deploying BI rules inside the enterprise. “Now we are adding artificial intelligence and machine learning. The responsiveness of systems is just at another level. You suddenly feel like you have more power, working for you.”
Nafisa acknowledged: “I have a need to create. Art has always been the place I go to, my sanctuary. It has, also, been a way for me to connect to a very different community, that I would not be connecting with in business. Her art “informs” her career and vice versa. It has taught her useful leadership precepts: “be optimistic about the process and the outcome; pour your soul into it; take risks along the way; recover from the failures you encounter. You will discover you are very resilient. You know more than you think you do.” Nafisa also characterized her art as essential because “It helps me understand the ‘creatives’ I manage. It is a journey all of us go through.”
As a busy mother, as well as business leader/artist, Nafisa achieves balance by “not thinking about perfection.” She works on doing a little bit better each time, bringing heightened awareness to each project. And “I lean on others,” she said. “My partner who has an equally busy and chaotic work-life is my partner in parenting, too.” She stressed that “we can all be present in all parts of our lives, if we have a strong community to work with, that we trust.” Additionally, “I am very selective about what I spend time on. I am a little bit ruthless, setting those boundaries.” Nafisa’s final piece of wisdom was simply “anything you choose to learn, can be learned. You get to decide. But keep doing it, because that is how you keep growing.”
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Ford Motor Company’s Smart Mobility and Tech Engineering Leader, May Russell.
“I loved mathematics,” May exclaimed, “but it’s not like I had access” living in Kuwait, from which her college physics professor father and civil engineer mother emigrated to the U.S. when she was in college. “It’s beautiful but limited in resources. There was one bookstore in the whole country.” A self-described “reading nerd,” May “exhausted every single sci-fi book they had!” She recognized her first “thirst for, and love of technology” through a “very aspirational” science fiction passion. She pointed to Isaac Asimov and his Laws of Robotics, and mentioned that, today, she still refers to those, in her work. Her first computer science class at age 15, allowed May to innovate, using an Access database with a Visual Basic front-end, so that a video store owner could catalogue the entire inventory of VHS tapes. She became computer science valedictorian in her high school class.
Matriculating, she had the chance to either enter the school of dentistry at Cairo University or the computer science program at the American University in Egypt. Urged to “try both,” May simultaneously began first semesters at both institutions. Quickly though, “it became clear” that May loved computer science, so she focused on technology. She has never regretted that decision. In her senior year, her family moved to the U.S where May entered the University of Michigan - Dearborn. It is another decision May has never regretted, lauding the U.S. tradition of “respect for humanity…the value for human life and civil rights, comparatively speaking” and “the ability to effect change.”
Graduating, May had job offers from E&Y, Texas Instruments, and Ford. She accepted the E&Y offer. “My advice to anyone is accept the most challenging opportunity; do the thing that scares you the most, the thing that is riskiest to you.” E&Y gave her the chance to work in many industries with many different clients. Post 9/11, she reached her 5-year E&Y anniversary, having “learned a lot.” Combined with “fatigue from the pace” of 80-plus hour weeks, she discovered “I wanted to work for a company where I got to ‘own’ things.” So, she applied to Ford and moved there, 16-plus years ago.
May learned a valuable lesson: careers are not always linear. “My goals, staying in the technology field, were to join a large company where I had purpose and mastery and got to ‘own’ products. And I didn’t want to have to travel, Monday through Thursday.” Within the first year at Ford, however, her salary returned to the E&Y level, and her hard work was recognized. Her admonition is “do what is right for you, at the time it is right for you, as long as it aligns with your goals and values.”
May’s first Ford project overhauled the entire dealer parts order fulfillment system. Then she became the leader of a 150-person development group working to transform the intricate Ford global order system She progressed to manage all business-to-consumer and dealer ordering and communications systems development, where she led a much larger organization, with a variety of team leaders managing sub-teams inside it. “That takes a different skill-set, more strategic thinking, supplier relationship management, and deep thought on how we execute B to C” she said. She then moved on to lead the transformation of Ford’s worldwide human resources systems and then began to work in “emerging technologies.” There she led a team to create Ford’s initial “best-in-class” consumer-facing mobile application, empowering consumers to command and control their vehicles. May helped create a “software engineering company within a company” ---- recruited talent, built an entrepreneurship culture, adopted the agile processes of a software development company. Starting with just handful of developers, that organization has now grown to 500 colleagues, and four software development labs on 3 continents. Their products on the drawing board had to be developed in months vs. years, (in an organization traditionally unused to that speed) and deployed globally. May is proud that this first application (“Ford Pass” and “Lincoln Way”) has been the “highest rated application in every app store”; won the global 2017 Mobile Marketing Design Award from MMA; and has been recognized as a leading application for connected cars by Gartner.
May sees her top strengths, in addition to confidence instilled by her family, brilliance and developed leadership skills, as perseverance (“I just keep going”) and learning to “enjoy the journey.” Her philosophy is that “at the end of the day, you spend more time at work. So, if you enjoy the journey, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy” that you will achieve great things.
Discussing female leadership, May shared that “I did feel the burden of being a woman when I had children.” But two of her “greatest career catapults” at Ford occurred within two months after the births of her two children. May acknowledged that while she had educational and career advantages and has a very strong support system in her husband and parents, not every mother is that lucky. “There are women out there, who have had children too early. And childcare is too expensive if you make a decent income, and cost-prohibitive if you don’t. It becomes a vicious cycle.” While very courageous, May admits to two fears: “A primal fear that something will happen to my children; and that both my kids, and I, may not realize our potential.”
In becoming a leader, May’s lessons included:
To achieve happiness, May constantly reminds herself to be grateful and “that instantly makes me happy.” In her technical leadership role, May received great advice from a former Ford CIO: “you are the CEO of your own business.“ The technical leader is fully responsible for everything (P&L, human resources/talent, product development and delivery etc.) as well as the established technical vision and future technology path. Summing up, having “a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose” creates May’s personal joy.
Diva Tech Talk interviewed Wanda Castelvecchi, National Practice Manager for Security and Enterprise Networking at ePlus, (https://www.eplus.com/), responsible for over $500 million, annually.
Wanda did not enter the technology industry in traditional fashion. In the mid-1980’s she was a law librarian, using Lexis (https://www.lexisnexis.com), and Westlaw (https://legal.thomsonreuters.com/en/products/westlaw) research databases before most attorneys became adept in them. “I worked for a large law firm in downtown Richmond, Virginia, until my son was born,” she said. During her maternity leave, the law firm closed. “So, I found myself as a brand-new Mom, with a brand-new baby at home, with no job. I had to figure out how to make this work!” She became the “Renaissance Woman” at a smaller firm, doing reception and recruiting duties, working in the law library, handling billing, marketing and more. That firm acquired their first computer. So, she evolved into becoming the firm’s internal computer expert. Wanda saw this as a strong learning challenge, which she mastered.
From that firm, Wanda was hired by a technology systems integrator. She proceeded to obtain both Novell certification, and Microsoft certification, within the first 6 months and “thus launched my crazy career in IT!” After entering the field, she noticed the paucity of women. “It felt like a huge challenge to me not only to be accepted as a newbie in the technology field, but to be accepted as a woman.” At the company, Wanda was promoted into sales from systems analyst but immediately encountered a resistant manager, who stated she would probably “be gone in 90 days.” Wanda decided to prove him wrong. Through sheer persistence, she wound up as the top salesperson of the quarter, during that very first quarter. “As women, we could let those words crush us, or we can take those words and say ‘I’ll show you what I can do…”
Having moved from a technical role into sales, Wanda counseled that the path is not for every technologist. “What people don’t understand are all the mundane tasks” with which sales professionals cope, including paperwork. The role requires empathy for deeper psychological issues underlying customer satisfaction, as well as the need to acknowledge and attempt to rectify mistakes when they are made. She also emphasized that being honest, genuine, reliable, considering yourself an advocate for the customer, and never losing the tendency to ask many questions of a client, as part of sales discovery, is key to success.
Wanda moved from the smaller system integrator to Sycom Technologies (https://www.sycomtech.com/) where she spent the next decade. She performed at a very high level, becoming Professional Services sales leader of the year for multiple years and then “I became a sales manager. While I had a really good run at it, what makes a good salesperson doesn’t always make a great sale manager!” But she learned valuable lessons from sales leadership: patience with a diverse team; understanding that individual motivation is different and not all team members are driven to excel; and how to listen, set expectations, and create plans with achievable goals. But above all, Wanda “learned to keep moving and always learning.”
From Sycom, Wanda briefly did a short stint at another Cisco partner company, and then moved to ePlus, (https://www.eplus.com/), an engineering-centric technology solutions provider working in key technologies from data center to security, cloud, and collaboration. She has been with ePlus for 9 years. There she was fortunate to get her “best boss” and is absorbing more leadership lessons. One is selflessness. “Nothing he ever talks about is about himself. Imagine that you wake up every morning and you have the ability to create your own path. And you have a manager who is 100% supportive of that, who has always got your back!”
Selfless, herself, Wanda has been active in several nonprofits giving back to the overall community including a role on the Board of Directors for the Richmond Animal League (https://www.ral.org). But her newest endeavor fills her with the most passion. GRIT (which stands for Girls Rock’In Tech) introduces middle school girls to various tech careers, with a specific focus on cybersecurity. “In addition to there being an overall shortage of women in technology, there is a huge shortage of experts in cybersecurity,” according to Wanda, up to 1 - 2 million jobs going unfilled each year. So, from her vantage point, it is logical to encourage girls to explore the field. She noted that women are often more risk-averse, have excellent project management skills, and a concern for safety, so the field could be attractive. “Organizations who don’t have women in their cybersecurity practice are probably less secure,” as a result of the deficit, according to Wanda. Currently active in 4 schools, with plans to be at 6 by 2020, and then growing even more rapidly, the GRIT program’s name has a double meaning since “one of the things we want to be able to develop is grit” (the ability to persevere against all odds) in the young women it serves. “You can be really great at math, engineering or science, or anything you want, if you work really hard,” is GRIT’s mantra.
Wanda shared other additional success tips. Among them are: as you progress, pull people up with you; honesty and integrity are paramount; learn to laugh at yourself; and take your vacations. Most importantly, she emphasized: “Always be learning. Every day, learn something new.”