Last night around 200 women convened at Redfin’s headquarters to learn from three great leaders in technology and business; Bridget Frey, the chief technology officer of Redfin, Katie Plowman, the vice president of Veterinary Systems at Trupanion and Asha Sharma, the chief operating officer at Porch.
It was all part of the Women in Business & Tech: Celebrating Breakthroughs event, hosted by ARA, a group that aims to “attract, retain and advance” women in technology by cultivating and nurturing relationships via mentoring and events. The moderators were Dana Shaw, president and chief operating officer of ICon and Martina Welke, the chief executive officer of Zealyst.
Each speaker offered her advice and insight as a female leader in technology, and a few common themes emerged; all three executives agreed that women need to ask for and be selective about their mentors, find their passion and not be afraid to take risks. The speakers also took questions from the audience; below are a few highlights.
Bridget Frey, Chief Technology Officer, Redfin
How do you balance the obligation or the need to mentor up-and-comings, with all of the things you have to do during your day?
“In my role as CTO, I’m pulled in a hundred directions all the time. So one thing I do, when I’m working side by side with someone on a small project, and they’ve asked me to review a document, I see if there is something that I can say that isn’t just ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but actually explains the ‘why’ behind it,” said Frey. “I’ll explain that the reason I view this this way is because of another story or something I encountered years ago, and try to connect the dots. That is a way to work mentoring into a lot of the things that you do; by explaining a little bit.”
We’re discussing “attract, retain and advance,” and many large organizations have figured out the “attract” and “retain” part, but we still don’t see that many women in senior positions; what do you think are the biggest barriers for women to advance?
“I think we need to broaden who we think of as managers, and what we think are the important skills of managers,” said Frey. “Looking for different styles of management, and making sure that you’re growing all of them does broaden diversity in a number of different ways. I don’t think there has been enough of a shift towards that, and there can be a more traditionally male management style at a lot of companies, particularly at engineering companies. When I’m looking at folks who might be ready for the next step, I try to look at all the different kinds of management skills; can they mentor people, do people respect them, are they that voice that holds weight. Sometimes that type of leadership is hiding in the corners, so it’s important to develop those people and give them chances to take risks.”
Is there a bit of advice or a tip that you could give women in the room who are looking to advance their careers and make waves in the tech industry?
“Don’t let a lack of diversity in technology, or perception of a lack of diversity, keep you out of the field,” said Frey. “There are just too many types of software applications being built that are changing the way we eat, the way we dress, the way we educate our children; there are so many hard problems being worked on, and the stakes are too high, so don’t opt out because of that. The diversity problems are hard, but they are surmountable.”
Katie Plowman, Vice President of Veterinary Systems, Trupanion
Do women have to act like “men” to get ahead? Are we labelled bossy if we’re aggressive?
“If you ask my team, they will tell you some days I’m probably ‘bossy,’ but more importantly, I think it’s about creating a relationship with the people you work with; it’s about being transparent,” said Plowman. “I personally believe I’ve been labelled bossy when I haven’t shared the whole story, when I’m just quick and not really explaining what’s going on, or trying to move to the next thing. I think it’s a balance of slowing down and explaining, but some days I don’t care if they call me bossy.”
A lot of women in technology face perceptions based on their looks, and get comments like “you’re so young,” or “you’re so cute.” How do you deal with that, and establish your credibility?
“I have a strong history of delivering results, and I think that was huge. If you give me a problem, I will fix it, and it will get done. That built a lot of my credibility early on,” said Plowman. “But I did struggle, especially early in my career. I still feel like I have to build credibility in every conversation, but as I talk about my past and what I’ve delivered on, it gets easier and easier.”
Asha Sharma, Chief Operating Officer, Porch
What is your definition of confidence?
“Confidence is knowing who you are, and embracing that,” said Sharma. “I have always despised the quote ‘fake it til you make it.’ For me it’s inauthentic and it doesn’t work. I think the first part of confidence is knowing who you are, and the second part is having self-awareness of what you’re not good at, and what your insecurities are, and being vocal about that to the right people. The third part is being committed to making it better, and facing those things, and taking steps. It’s incredibly important to be vulnerable in order to be confident, and I think all of those things together create confidence. It’s momentum that compounds on itself.”
Can you share a story of how confidence has helped you in your career?
“I’ll admit a vulnerability…one of the things that was hard for me was my age. I’m under 30, and it was something I had to get really comfortable with,” said Sharma. “My CEO was really great at helping me, saying ‘you just need to own it, you are a kid, and you need to love that and embrace it.’ It has taken me awhile, but through the journey you own the perspective that you have, and that which you can be uniquely great at. And I am more than OK saying I don’t know the answer to that, and these are the things we need to do to figure that out.”
Visit ARAMentors.com for more information on how you can get involved as a mentor or mentee, and for a list of upcoming events. You can follow the conversation @ARAMentors and using the hashtag #ARASeattle. Special thanks to Harvey Nash for organizing the event, and to everyone who attended!