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The Changing World Of Tech Requires A Woman's Eye


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. March is coming to a close, and sadly, that means we're wrapping up our Women in Tech series for Women's History Month. Throughout the month, influential and innovative women from all over the world have been tweeting a day in their lives using the hashtag #NPRWIT. We also spoke on air with trailblazers about new ideas they're bringing to tech and how they're encouraging more young women to get into and stay in the so-called STEM fields, and that means science, technology, engineering and math. Today we're going to look at some of the lessons learned and how women can move ahead in tech. So joining us for our final roundtable, for now, are Sabrina Hersi Issa. She is the CEO of Be Bold Media. That group uses technology and media to help mission-driven organizations connect with or build their networks. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome, Sabrina. Thanks for joining us.

SABRINA HERSI ISSA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us, Noramay Cadena. She is an aerospace engineer at Boeing and cofounder of Latinas in STEM. She's with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Noramay, thank you for joining us.

NORAMAY CADENA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Ingrid Vanderveldt is entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, where she is an advisor to the executive team, including the CEO. She also heads the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs, which, as you might imagine, exists to help entrepreneurs run and grow their businesses. And she's also the founder of Billionaire Girls Club. She's with us from Austin, Texas. Ingrid, welcome to you.

INGRID VANDERVELDT: Hi, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all. I should start by saying thank you all for your contributions to the series. It was wonderful, so thank you all so much. And I just wanted to start - Sabrina, I'll ask you to start us off by asking you how you got into tech.

ISSA: So it's kind of a roundabout story. I was initially a journalist. I was the kind of, like, the resident, tech-savvy young person in a newsroom who understood the Internet, and I transitioned to working for a global development organization that helped society and women lead in independent media. And my boss came up to me one day and was like, this is where I want us to lead in technology. We need, you know, an overall website, I want to build these web apps. Can you do this? And at the time, I was a self-taught developer. All the code I knew how to write, I had taught myself how. And so I told her, I was like, yeah, of course I can do this. And I was like, eh - kind of, like, panicked. I left work a day - like, about an hour early that day, flew to a local community college, burst into some poor, you know, counselor's office, and I was like, I need you to enroll me in some programming classes immediately. And she's like, do you even go here?

MARTIN: I do now.

ISSA: Yeah. Now I do. So over a year and a half, I mean, that changed my life. That is the moment where I entered tech. I learned how to write clean code, the architecture behind building tech that can really connect communities, and it jump-started my new career.

MARTIN: That's interesting. You gave us a lot to work with and think about, so I hope people were listening to that and will go back and refer to that when they get discouraged. So, Noramay, what about you?

CADENA: I didn't grow up around tech, actually. My mom has a second-grade education, and I come from a Mexican-American household. I was the happy victim of direct outreach, outreach by someone in my community who really cared about spreading the word and sharing their stories. And it's greatly influenced the work I do in the community now.

MARTIN: Can you identify a pivotal moment when you thought, this is for me? Can you remember it? Can you tell us about it?

CADENA: I absolutely remember it. It was a gentleman in our community who had graduated from my high school, gone off to MIT and was coming back to talk to students. And as shared his story and said, I grew up around the corner just like you did, and here's my family's story. And if I've been able to go to MIT and succeed, you can, too.


CADENA: That was a pivotal moment.

MARTIN: Wow, that's great. Ingrid, what about you?

VANDERVELDT: Yeah, such a great story. I actually was very, very blessed growing up in a family with a father who was a mechanical engineer and a mother who was a psychologist, and so I always grew up around tech. And what actually got me into the tech field, though, was after I graduated from business school in Austin, Texas, it was during the dot-com boom. And, you know, I was seeing all of these companies that were starting and getting funded and just doing so well. And I was really, really inspired that there was this guy who had started a multibillion-dollar company out of the trunk of his car, that guy of course being Michael Dell.

And I wanted to be like Michael. And so at the time, the Internet was really not a very easy place to use. And having grown up around tech, having been inspired by my parents to really grow up in an environment where they felt like, you know, with putting in the hard work, studying, going to school, that we could really learn to be, do and have what we wanted to in life. And so that really gave me the foundation to believe at the time, when I came out of business school, that I, in fact, could be like Mike. And I wanted to build a billion-dollar company. And so I was inspired to figure out how to make the Internet an easier place to use and to work with. And so my first company was actually - I developed a system using neural network technologies. My first patent was actually using neural nets to develop personalization software. And that is what launched my first company and certainly my career in tech and certainly has led to, really, the work we get to do these days, which is work with women around the globe in technology.

MARTIN: I mentioned - I started our conversation by thanking all of you for your willingness to participate in this conversation. All of you are very, very busy. But it was indicative of the kinds of conversations that we had both online and on Twitter, where people were very willing to share, you know, both their ups and their downs. And so, Sabrina, why don't I go back to you and ask, is there anything that, since we're on the air - and maybe everybody isn't engaged with Twitter yet, and we hope people will. But if they haven't, is there something that you want to share now that you really want to share as a word of wisdom?

ISSA: Oh, wow. Yes, absolutely. I think that, you know, both participating in the series and kind of, like, watching this conversation happen online and off, one of the things that I would, the words of wisdom I'd like to share is, you get to build your own community. I mean, if you are not around people who are supporting and championing you in this field and in the work that you're doing, you can go and find them. And also that you don't need to pick up other people's stuff. There is this sort of perception of what a tech entrepreneur looks like in America. And let me tell, you that is a very limited, shallow perception, and that's other people's stuff. You don't need to pick that up. You can look, sound different, be from every single different background. I'm a first-generation American. I don't fit that mold. And if I chose to pick that up, it would be very - it would inherently limit where I could go and the rooms I could occupy. So that would be my word of wisdom is to build your own community, and don't pick up other people's stuff.

MARTIN: Noramay, what about you? I just want to mention you joined our Day in the Life Twitter campaign where you tweeted a day in your life, and it got 9,000 tweets over the course of this month and millions of impressions around the world - and impressions, for people who are not aware, are the number of times the hashtag appeared in people's Twitter feeds. And you were telling us you noticed two distinct themes in the tweets in terms of how women viewed themselves at their tech jobs. Do you mind telling us more about that?

CADENA: Yeah, absolutely. I really saw a dichotomy in the women that were tweeting really across the month. And there was the set of women who were really aware of the challenges women face in STEM or in the tech workplace. And then there was a set of women who chose to not look at their gender and not look at how that impacted their daily work. Now for me in the aerospace business, the gender gap is really visible.

I live it every day, and it's hard to ignore it. And I really make it a focus of my community work to get more women into the field. It was really interesting for me to see the other side of that, the side where the women don't have to worry about this, where they, maybe like Sabrina said, build a community that includes a lot of women and includes a lot of people like them. But for people like me, I think the advice is for students graduating and entering a field in which there is a diversity or a gender gap or maybe even an age gap, the advice is, don't exhale just yet. There's a lot of work to do, and I don't think we often prepare the students for what they're going to face in the workplace.

MARTIN: Any more word of wisdom there for now? Do want to add to that at all, Noramay? So your word of wisdom is - what - is don't exhale just yet? And is it to dig into or kind of a - I'm intrigued by what you said, where a lot of people are saying ignore gender, ignore race, ignore ethnicity. You're saying, you can't always. That's not always relevant.

CADENA: Right.

MARTIN: Can you extend that thought a bit?

CADENA: Yeah, so...

MARTIN: How would you address these issues?

CADENA: Yeah, I think two concrete pieces would be for women in general, it's fine to put the gender aside but realize that there are a lot of women in positions where they can't do that. The work environment is simply not conducive to avoiding the gender issue. And for college students graduating and entering the workplace, just know that you're not done. It feels great to graduate from a tough program. It feels great to be done with engineering school. There's still a lot of work left in getting women into executive leadership positions in the workplace.

MARTIN: Ingrid, what about you? You tweeted for the Day in the Life earlier this week, and thank you for that. Two questions to you - what struck you most about the conversations on Twitter, and do you have some concrete word of wisdom for us?

VANDERVELDT: I do, and thank you so much for asking that because I think a topic that certainly comes up a lot is, of course, you know, women in the field, which is my passion area and diversity and how important that this is. And I think the thing that, you know, I always like to point out is I certainly understand why this comes up as an issue. I mean, I've raised money, you know, from all kinds of different investors throughout my entire professional career, and I often share the story that I'll never forget. On my first, you know, time trying to raise money that I couldn't get it done at first, and one of my advisors pulled me aside. And he said, look, you don't look like, act like, sound like or talk like any of the CEOs that these investors are used to funding, and I don't know that you can get it done. And, you know, I really took that on as a challenge to say, you know, in fact, I'm a really strong CEO.

And it doesn't matter what I look like, and it doesn't matter what my background is. In fact, it's an asset that I am different because I stick out, and how can we use that as an opportunity instead of a challenge? And so - really turned that on its head. But one of the things that has been critical to my being successful in doing that, and my advice and recommendation is, number one, get a mentor. Absolutely get a mentor. That has been critical to my success throughout my entire career, and it directly addresses the issue that - Forbes actually wrote an article recently, and they were saying the number one issue for women excelling in the workplace really comes down to confidence. You know, whether you're a man or you're a woman, we all have our challenges. We all have a lack of money, background information, access, whatever it is. And so for women, though, it really is this confidence issue because when you look around the room and you don't see a lot of role models that look like you, you know, you're oftentimes going out there and trying something for the first time, really.

And so when you have a mentor, that really can help you move the needle forward. The second piece of advice that I would recommend is - next to having a mentor, is really surrounding yourself with a support group of people who absolutely understand where you're coming from and, again, can help you move the needle forward. This is one of the reasons why I was so inspired to work with Dell in the first place because as far as large companies are concerned, this was the one large, global organization that was rolling up its sleeves, reaching out to try to figure out, how can we help women be successful? And they were doing it through, and continue to do it through through, the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. And so while it might sound biased now that I work with Dell and I love doing that, I highly recommend that there is a fantastic group of women involved in the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. And that is a wonderful way to quickly tap into a group of women who have been in your shoes and can help you move things forward.

MARTIN: All right, duly noted. If you're just joining us, we're wrapping up our month-long series, Women in Tech. Our guests are Ingrid Vanderveldt - that's who was speaking just now - of Dell, Noramay Cadena of Boeing and Sabrina Hersi Issa of Be Bold Media. Sabrina, you wanted to add a thought to that I understand?

ISSA: Yeah, so I kind of wonder what necessitates the need for mentors in tech. And I don't think it is totally a confidence issue. I think it's about access. I think it's about barriers to entry, and I think that actually leads to the necessity to have mentors and sponsors and community.

MARTIN: Do you have one? Do you have a mentor?

ISSA: Yeah. I have many. I have some who work in this building.

MARTIN: How do you get one? How you get a mentor?

ISSA: I think it's about being honest and open about what you need in your career, about finding people - I, personally, am very proactive. I seek people out who I admire, who see something in me and help me be a better leader. But I think it is the best mentorship - mentoring relationships are organic. It can't just be this, you know...

MARTIN: Will you be my mentor?

ISSA: Of course. Will you be mine?

MARTIN: Noramay, what about you? On the question of mentorship and overcoming kind of barriers to entry, what's your thought about that?

CADENA: I agree. I think mentors are crucially important, and the support network is important as well. And I also agree that you can't just reach out to a group and say, you're a successful woman or man. Will you be my mentor? I think it comes down to values and, like Sabrina said, someone who sees something in you and is willing to help you grow and understands where you're coming from, understands your personal struggles. I think it is about a 50-50 issue between personal confidence and external factors that are barriers for women in STEM.

MARTIN: Ingrid, we have about a minute and a half left, so I'd love it if you would tell us about the Billionaire Girls Club. There's also a Billionaire Boys Club, too, isn't there?


MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about what this group does and what you're trying to accomplish.

VANDERVELDT: Well, thank you. So actually, the Billionaire Girls Club - I mean, going back to the second point that I mentioned about putting together support networks, I actually teamed up with four other women CEOs now about six years ago. So before the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network ever existed, I had put this group together with these four other women. And essentially, the five of us really lean on one another to support each other in our personal and professional success.

And so what we have done and what we've done for the past six years is we essentially agree - once a month on the first Wednesday of every month, we do an hour-long call and basically do a round-robin. And it's a very safe place where we can openly share what our challenges are, and then we brainstorm as a group to help one another move the needle forward with whatever it is that we're facing. And then we come together twice a year in person to actually spend two to three days at a time together. So it has been a fantastic group to support one another in our success and challenges.

MARTIN: Just briefly, do you recommend this approach for others? Just very briefly, you only have about 10 seconds. Do you think others could emulate this who aren't billionaire girls?

VANDERVELDT: Yeah, absolutely. And I'm certainly - I'm not a billionaire. I mean, would love to be. Who wouldn't love to be? But it really follows the Mohammad Younis model of pulling together - which is from Microcredit, of course...


VANDERVELDT: ...But of pulling together groups of five to support one another in each other's success.

MARTIN: All right. Let's remember that - groups of five. That's a good take-away for now. Ingrid Vanderveldt is entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, among her other hats, that she directs the entrepreneur support program at Dell, and she's cofounder of the Billionaire Girls Club. Noramay Cadena is an aerospace engineer at Boeing and cofounder of Latinas in STEM. Sabrina Hersi Issa is CEO of Bold Media. Thank you all so much - or Be Bold Media.

Thank you all so much for joining us. And we had so much fun that we plan to continue our look at the gender gap in tech and ways of closing it through periodic Twitter chats. We're looking forward to engaging with NPR member stations as well. You can still join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #NPRWIT, and you can e-mail your ideas to TELLMEMORE@NPR.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.