Ep 75: Scarlett Ong Rui Chern: Passion Plus Perseverance

Diva Tech Talk enjoyed interviewing Scarlett Ong Rui Chern,  budding entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Peerstachio.  Scarlett represents the epitome of entrepreneurship:  courageous, persistent, yet agile in her approach to creating a technology venture.  She grew up in a small town in Malaysia and left to pursue her higher education in the United States. “I had one year of community college in Kuala Lumpur, and then transferred as a freshman into the University of Michigan (https://umich.edu/).”  As a 10-year old girl, Scarlett said: “I was interested in tech, especially the gaming field. I was very ‘into’ role-playing games, and multiplayer, collaboration games. I was always interested in the collaborative aspect of tech, which is the basis of what I am working on, right now.”  

Scarlett matriculated to the University of Michigan, after researching online, and looking for a sense of “community” among colleges she evaluated. Everyone was very friendly, from her perspective. But her first year at the university was difficult. “My first year was not a good year. But I really believed in myself, although I was struggling to adapt to the whole situation,” she said. “Besides being an international student, I was a first-generation college student in my family. And I didn’t have any family members around.”    Scarlett initially faltered, academically, particularly with calculus. “It was a shock to me, to realize that I was coming from far behind. Not having enough peer support, from an academic sense, brought me into a space where I felt very alone, and not sure of what I was doing.” She had to swallow her own pride, and “figure out strategies of how to reach out” for help, which was time-consuming and difficult. Even with her assigned academic advisor, she felt that “there was a barrier in communicating.” Scarlett initially closed herself off; but now “I have grown to be a more open person, more self-aware” knowing when to reach out and ask for help.  “It really motivated me. There are a lot of other students that face this issue, too.”

Scarlett had one certainty as she began her time at the university.  “I knew I wanted to ‘do’ business. But I was not certain WHAT business,” she said.  She was influenced by some of her friends to join the university’s “optiMize Social Innovation Challenge” in her freshman year. “Initially, I was just there for the experience,” she said.  Her first project created a “gamified” classroom experience for elementary school students.  She learned a lot and then successfully entered the university’s business school, with an emphasis on consulting, in her sophomore year.  “I joined a pro bono consulting club on campus. I actually learned more about myself and how to give back to our community.” She worked with the famed Zingerman’s, (renowned for leadership in employee engagement) as one project, and helped create the framework to enable past employees stay in touch with the current Zingerman’s community.   During this time, Scarlett discovered that consulting was NOT her personal life mission. “I am the kind of person who likes to get her hands dirty, make that ‘hands-on’ impact, and see things through,” she said.  “Everything was too high level for me. I wanted to do something, create something. This is when passion comes into play. Not only did I pick myself up, but I wanted to create something that would help others pick themselves up.”

Scarlett admitted that “it was pretty hard to get a job”, but she needed one to defray expenses. “I am a pretty stubborn person. When people tell me: ‘no’, I like to prove that ‘no’ means ‘not yet.’ I’ll get there.”  She began to explore the world of venture capital and acquainted herself with U of M’s Zell-Lurie Institute, dedicated to advancing knowledge and practice of innovation.  “They offer a lot of support in terms of mentorship, grant-funding; they have been one of our biggest supporters.”  She also got an opportunity at the Michigan Venture Capital Association, as a summer intern, where she worked on the association’s 2017 annual landscape guide and “changed the game” in terms of its data collection, data collation, and interactive reporting.  

Scarlett also decided to “get more serious” about EdTech projects. With a fellow student, she entered U of M’s CAMPUS OF THE FUTURE competition, which “reimagined” techniques and spaces for teaching and learning in the 21st century.  Scarlett and her partners tried to create a “study mentor” using artificial intelligence (AI) as its engine. Her team was one of 5 finalists that had the unique opportunity of meeting with Amazon’s Vice President of Development for feedback.  From this, Scarlett learned one of her key life lessons: “What makes a startup successful is not just a cool idea. Ours was too far in advance. There wasn’t yet a market for it.” Scarlett then made a big pivot; shed that original team; and used the kernel of the concept as the foundation of her current startup: Peerstachio, conceptually launched in September 2017.

Scarlett stays abreast of technology by taking both computer science classes and Udemy courses. “But I knew, deep in my heart, that even though I love tech, I wouldn’t be a professional coder by any stretch. I partnered with a friend of mine, who is currently our co-founder and CTO (Chief Technology Officer).”  She also recruited a UX designer and front-end engineer (currently founding members of the startup) to implement the “front end” of the Peerstachio platform while the CTO manages the back end operational database engine. Scarlett manages fundraising, the company’s overall vision and strategy, market research, marketing, competitive analysis, and sales.  Peerstachio’s main mission is to help students improve their grades by connecting underclassmen with a trusted cadre of older students --- mentors connected with mentees, tutors connected with students needing support and tutoring --- to get academic questions answered in a highly responsive fashion. “Kind of an instant messaging platform,” Scarlett said, “where students pick a course, go to the topic, and then ask their questions, with access to trusted upperclassmen.”  Peerstachio’s MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launched on a django, html5, scss and javascript coding stack Website, and sqlite3 (PostgresSQL in future) on the back-end of the site. Having learned from her previous experience, Scarlett ensured that she validated real customer need by conducting detailed surveys of potential clients. “It was a lot of work,” she said. (At the time of our Diva Tech Talk interview, the Peerstachio team had interviewed 110 students, all over the world.)  

Through all this, Scarlett is becoming a highly experienced entrepreneur.  For instance, she said “If any startup tells you there is no competition, they need to do more research.”  For Peerstachio “I feel fortunate we have competitors. That means there is a market, and room for us to improve.” Scarlett thinks that passion, perseverance and sense of purpose are propelling her future success, as well as her empathy for the customer. “I would add one more: positivity,” she said. “In a startup, not everybody can see it through.  Positivity helped me keep at it to find resources to get to that better future. A ‘growth mindset’ has kept me going.” Scarlett shared her fond hope that she, and others like her, can show that “if you have some goals, and you try to get what you desire, that is ultimate happiness.” Scarlett has a strong fear of having regrets in her life --- a fear of missing something that she could accomplish.

Scarlett’s leadership lessons for women interested in tech and/or entrepreneurship are:

  1. Develop deep listening skills – “Listening has really helped me to understand strengths and weaknesses” particularly in her own team;

  2. Collaborate – “In a team, I think the most important thing is making sure everyone is inspiring everyone and building a vision, together;”

  3. Be confident and decisive– “Decisions that you make may not be the best decisions but that’s life. Give people faith;”

  4. Lead by example – “No matter what I say, I try my best to SHOW it. “

Scarlett stressed that, in a startup, “there is no such thing as 9 to 5. Work and life are intertwined.”  To balance that, she follows a “process of layers of priority” so that she can juggle multiple goals, successfully. And for Scarlett, many of the goals are tied to making life better for others. She also recoups her physical and psychic energy through exercise and by reading, watching videos, and reflecting.

Note:  Peerstachio has received grants since this interview including a grant from DTX, at TechTown Detroit: https://techtowndetroit.org/?press-release=u-m-startup-peerstachio-receives-inaugural-10000-gm-go-award

Scarlett can be reached at ongruich@umich.edu/scarlettong@peerstachio.com

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Ep 74: Grace Hopper Conference 2018: Diversity Leadership Series Launch

The Diva Tech Talk team was grateful to have the amazing experience of attending Grace Hopper Conference 2018. We highlighted many conference details, discussed the Abie awards, and shared the voice of attendees on the Episode 73 Podcast. If you didn’t get a chance to listen, please check it out here: http://www.divatechtalk.com/blog/ep73

There was so much material and insight that we had to create another article and episode for our listeners to stay with us on this journey. This podcast features a special announcement for our listeners.

One incredibly worthy outcome of the Grace Hopper Conference and the AnitaB.org effort is the Top Companies report for women in technology. This is a national program that identifies key trends around the representation of women in the workforce. First launched in 2011, it pairs wonderfully with the conference “vibe.” Although there are many other female technologist benchmarking programs, this is the only one that measures technical employees using a rigorous, standardized definition of the technical workforce. The 2018 Top Companies report was compiled with participation by 80 companies, 628,000 + technologists with 150,000 + women technologists in that group. Congratulations to the companies who took top honors for female tech diversity for 2018. They include: HBO Inc, Morningstar, Inc, Securian Financial, ThoughtWorks, XO Group, Airbnb, Blackbaud, GEICO, State Farm, Ultimate Software, Accenture, Bank of America, Google, IBM, and SAP. Every company is scored along the spectrum of seven identical metrics. There is no weighting nor subjective or black-box evaluation of the results. Everything is simply data-driven, with pure statistics.  Special Diva Tech Talks “shout-out” to Tarsha McCormick and Shuchi Sharma, two leaders in that cohort we were fortunate to interview.  

The complete Grace Hopper Conference 2018 Press Release on Top Companies is here: https://anitab.org/news/press-release/2018-top-companies-report/

In addition to the keynotes, and breakouts on topics ranging in complexity from exploratory data analysis to mentoring, there were also some amazing women with whom we spent time to capture their experiences for our Diva Tech Talk audience. After reviewing their insights, the Diva Tech Talk team is proud to announce a new Diversity Leadership Series, following this event. The series will feature senior level leaders from a variety of organizations, who lead diversity and inclusion programs in their respective organizations. In this Grace Hopper Event Recap podcast, we include audio teasers for these full-length episodes, rolling out over the coming weeks and months. Here are some of the women we will include in our upcoming Diversity Leadership Series:

  • Monica Bailey, Chief People Officer at GoDaddy, the world’s largest company managing domains and domain names for the worldwide Internet (www.godaddy.com)

    • Monica prides herself on being a very strong advocate for diversity at GoDaddy. She spoke about her opportunity to lead, creating an even playing field for everyone through specific targets, and highlighted research from a Stanford study. She shared applicable, real world tips to help expand workplace equity.

    • “Having seen a lot of things I loved in the industry and also having seen a lot of things I didn’t want to repeat,  I got to take all of that and make GoDaddy a company we all want to work for.”

    • One of her recommended mental exercises to inspire and focus you is: “Take 2 minutes to do an ‘I believe in _____’ ”

    • Monica believes “there is enough pie for everyone”. It's a grounding philosophy. She wants to discourage enervating and demotivating competition. “I don’t want my folks to compete with each other. Together, we are way better, than we are apart.  When it comes to promotion velocity at my company, I wanted to make sure everyone has equal access to promotions and career advancement, but I didn’t want any of my employees to suffer so other employees could benefit.”

    • “We just decided to build diversity into everything we did. It doesn’t live in a silo.”

    • “There is a ton of unconscious bias built into people and processes.”

    • “By the nature of not being really specific about what you are looking for, you are excluding a large group of people”

  • Sonja Gittens Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana, a company that provides a world-class application for teams to track their work with greater ease, clarity, accountability, and efficiency.(www.asana.com).  Asana is one of Fast Company's (www.fastcompany.com) Most Innovative Companies, the top work-tracking vendor on Forbes's inaugural Cloud 100 list, and the only enterprise software application to win Google's 2016 Material Design Award

    • Sonja never thought she would be in a technology field.  She is a lawyer by trade, but after a temporary job with Yahoo doing management and consulting in 2005, technology “hooked” her. She began working on a human rights program at Yahoo, and then naturally pivoted into a diversity and inclusion specialty.

    • “In my role, I get to work across the entire company, which allows me to be thinking about it in two aspects. Diversity is really about how you are thinking about the people that are coming into your company. That allows me to think about recruiting. How are we attracting the best applicants from everywhere and how are we ensuring they are assessed in a really fair manner? The inclusion part is how are we ensuring that they get here. The culture is really supportive of inclusion as well as supporting those communities that are existing in the company. I think about it as those two pillars. And one cannot exist without the other.”

    • “People inside the company needed to understand how people outside the company were using products. Part of that involved having people inside the company who looked like those people and had those perspectives.”

    • “Imagine the product that we could build if people inside the company reflected those users. The potential of that is so huge.”

    • “Because we talk about diversity and inclusion or we talk about women in engineering all the time, we have an understanding of it. But we often forget that this is new and uncomfortable for a lot of people --- to talk about race or gender or any other identities that people possess. It is an uncomfortable topic. So, I want us to be doing more work to get people more comfortable to being in that sort of icky place of comfort because I think that is how you change things. I don’t think you do it by ‘saying this is too hard, so I am not going to touch it.’ It has to be ‘this is hard, I need to know why this is hard.’  ”

  • Tarsha McCormick, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, North America for Thoughtworks (www.thoughtworks.com), which is a loosely-confederated community of passionate individuals, whose purpose is to revolutionize software design, creation and delivery, while advocating for positive social change.

    • “I’m a great example of someone who was given some opportunities, and was able to make a way where society probably said I shouldn’t have a way. I fell into the tech industry by chance. I would like to say it was intentional, but it wasn’t. But once I got into the tech industry, I realized how important it was for people of color, for women, and for other marginalized groups to have a say in what we are doing in technology because it really is impacting all of our lives. So I am very passionate about what I do in the diversity and inclusion space because I know we all have a voice, but unfortunately we all aren’t being heard right now.”

    • “Diversity has always been sort of baked into the fiber of who we were as an organization, but honestly we were not always intentional. We were doing it on an adhoc basis. And as we continued to grow,  we saw the disparity of women in other under-represented groups in the tech industry. We realized we had to be more intentional with our approach.”

    • “Diversity is important, but more importantly I think you have to pair that with inclusion. We can get people from different backgrounds and race and gender and socioeconomic status, etc, but if they don’t feel like the workplace is supportive. If they don’t feel like it’s a place where they can be their authentic selves and they can grow and learn, we aren’t going to retain them.”

  • Shuchi Sharma, Global Lead for Gender Intelligence at software industry giant, SAP (www.sap.com), a 4.5-decade old solutions leader:

    • “I started my career as a scientist. I studied chemistry with the aim of being a doctor, but then realized that probably wasn’t the best option for me for many reasons. What I actually excelled in was economics. I went into management consulting for many years in healthcare. I loved technology. I discovered technology in that line of work.”

    • “What I observed was that women were not really helping one another. I saw that opportunities were being missed because of that. They were missing opportunities to help each other excel. I thought ‘well what can I do about this,’ so I founded an organization dedicated to women’s leadership and professional development.”

    • “Be comfortable with failure. If you aren’t failing, you're not trying new things.”

  • Rebekah Bastian, Vice President of Community and Culture at Zillow Group (www.zillow.com), the leading cloud-based real estate and rental marketplace

    • Rebekah  leads Zillow’s efforts around equity, belonging, and social impact. She was also one of Zillow’s first employees. Prior to that, she worked at Microsoft.

    • “I ended up getting degrees in mechanical engineering, following things that were interesting to me. First time I ever went to college was for music and I failed out. I just wasn’t quite focused enough yet. When I did start going back to school, I started taking a series of classes that were interesting to me and it led me to math and physics. I was pretty good and liked the problem-solving and exploration that went along with it. I ended up transferring to the University of Washington and getting a Mechanical Engineering degree. After that, I ended up at UC Berkeley getting a masters in Mechanical Engineering.”

    • “I did answer an ad on Craigslist and was one of the first employees here. Zillow was still in stealth startup mode, so I didn’t really know what I was going to be working on.”

    • “We generally have this philosophy: hire better than yourself.”

In addition, we got to meet with Dr. Paulette Gerkovich from Micron (www.micron.com), a 40-year old semiconductor giant.

  • Senior Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Paulette offered a vast amount of knowledge from her years of experience in the field of diversity and leadership. It was incredible to hear about her data-driven diversity development mindset and some of her cool work at Catalyst (www.catalyst.org), a 56-year old nonprofit working with some of the world’s largest companies and CEO’s to accelerate the progress of women in the workforce .

We are excited to add this special series to the Diva Tech Talk “mix” along with our traditional podcast format. We know it will be a great fit.  It will continue to inspire women in the field of technology, and the unique perspective these leaders share will get you thinking about companies you might work for in the future or do work for today. We still continue our tradition of learning about women’s  personal journeys, but the series goes deeper into what it means to lead a diversity effort, and innovative ways to approach the challenge to get more diversity and inclusion in technology.

We hope you enjoy this teaser and look forward to the upcoming series as much as we do. Make sure to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.

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Ep 73: Grace Hopper Conference 2018: Diva Tech Talk is Here!

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“A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.” - Grace Hopper

The Diva Tech Talk team was ecstatic to attend the 3-day 18th Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing #GHC18 (ghc.anitab.org) --- the world’s largest gathering of women in computer technology --  September 26 through 28, 2018 in Houston, Texas. The conference has taken place since 1994, with a yearly cadence since 2006. Named for the inspirational and courageous U.S. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the annual conference is a tribute to her work on the Mark I computer and creation of one the first industry compilers, that eventually led to the development of COBOL, still a relevant programming language. Grace paved the way for many women to follow in technical careers.

The Grace Hopper Celebration convenes many thousands of women in computing in a single venue to discuss topics of interest, and share research related to women in technology. Students flood the halls to get exposure to tech companies and tech departments. Many engage in onsite career interviews. There are a variety of presentations, poster discussions, and meet-ups throughout the week. It is also an ideal gathering for veteran tech women, employed in the field, to present and listen to each other, while networking and meeting the next generation of upcoming tech women. This year’s conference boasted a record attendance of over 22,000.


If we want technology to serve society rather than enslave it, we have to build systems accessible to all people - be they male or female, young, old, disabled, computer wizards or technophobes.

-Anita Borg

While Grace is celebrated as a pioneer, it is appropriate that this conference is organized by the research-oriented Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (https://anitab.org/) and Association for Computing Machinery (https://www.acm.org). The Anita Borg institute was founded by Anita Borg, PhD and Telle Whitney, PhD to recruit, retain, and advance women in technology. Anita Borg was also a significant contributor to technology history, innovating in Unix operating systems, analyzing computing memory, and doing extensive work in early email and messaging applications. Telle was a computer scientist by trade; significantly contributed to the microprocessor industry; and founded the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT.org), another non-profit focused on increasing meaningful participation of girls and women in technology.

The Diva Tech Talk team is so passionate about strengthening women in tech, we could clearly write a novel sharing the names and accomplishments of a multitude of women highlighted at this conference. Instead, we encourage our listening “divas” to visit the Grace Hopper Conference website here: ghc.anitab.org for event immersion, and to experience the wide range of speakers and featured talent. We also encourage our listeners to consider attending, starting now to get your company’s support for your attendance in the future.

Three primary keynotes dominated the 2018 GHC mainstage. Justine Cassell is the Associate Dean of Technology Strategy and Impact at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, and Director Emerita of the Human Computer Interaction Institute (https://hcii.cmu.edu/). Her work furthers the development of human and robot communication in addition to advancements in Artificial Intelligence. It was amazing to see her showcase innovations in this area, noting that we are living in a robot-embedded world.  Jessica O. Matthews was the first woman we ever witnessed jump rope in high heels during a keynote! She is the Founder and CEO of the unique Uncharted Power (https://www.u-pwr.co/).  Her company strives to leverage more energy in motion to derive a greater degree of innovative power solutions for the world, much like the light she powered from rope-jumping. There was one other keynote speaker, no stranger to the corporate side of technology. Padmasree Warrior is the CEO and Chief Development Officer for NIO U.S (https://www.nio.io/) developing innovative solutions surrounding the Connected Car. She previously worked as the Chief Technology Officer for Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com). This female triumvirate represented just some of the variety of opportunities available in three key areas for women in technology: research in academia, the fast-paced startup space, and the impact of a large, global technology corporation. Each of them vociferously voiced wisdom and inspiration during the conference. We hope to feature each of them in future Diva Tech Talk podcasts.

The Grace Hopper Conference also offers a variety of awards programs to highlight the achievements of individuals and organizations in technology. The individual series recognizes distinguished women, whose achievements and life stories demonstrate that all of us have the power to improve our world, individually and collectively. The Technical Leadership Abie Award and the Student of Vision Abie Award are granted every year at the conference. AnitaB.org also sponsors hundreds of student and faculty scholarships to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration each year as well.

Congratulations to two winners for this years Abie awards in 2018! The Technical Leadership Abie Award (the Conference’s most prestigious award)  celebrates a woman who led or developed a product, process, or innovation that made a notable impact on business or society. This year’s winner was Dr. Rebecca Parsons, ThoughtWorks’ (www.thoughtworks.com) Chief Technology Officer. For decades, Rebecca has used her knowledge and technical experience in applications development across a range of industries and systems. She led the creation of large-scale distributed object applications and the integration of disparate systems. Furthermore, she is a strong advocate for diversity in the technology industry. Committed to increasing the number of women in coding and STEM fields, Rebecca served on the board of CodeChix and acted as an advisor to Women Who Code.

The Student of Vision Abie Award honors a young woman, dedicated to creating a future where the people who imagine and build technology mirror the people and societies for which they build. This year’s winner is Chiara Amisola, an incoming college freshman at Yale University (www.yale.edu) from Manila, Philippines. She plans to major in computer science. First encountering technology at the age of seven — post-after school ballet practice and pre-Warcraft II gaming session — Chiara picked up web and basic game development before turning it into a long-time hobby, and later into a passion and vocation. After several years of international experience in competitions and research with the Philippine Robotics Team, she began to recognize the disparity in inclusiveness and accessibility within the technology sector, finding a gap where students with the most socially-conscious and transformative ideas towards innovation had no opportunity to even enter the tech landscape.

At the event, we spent some time with past winner of the Abie award to learn more about their experience. Here is a quick look at insight we gained from speaking with them.

  • Ashley Conard with Brown University (www.brown.edu) helped judge the Abie award and shares information about the video portion of the contest submission.

  • From 2016, Past Winner Canadian Alyssia Jovellanos won the award and continues to build for change.  She is a Computer Science student and undergraduate teaching assistant at McMaster University (https://www.mcmaster.ca/) , and Outreach Instructor in the program Software: Tool for Change, which exposes girls and other underrepresented minorities to computer science.She has built education tools for 10,000 disadvantaged students in Canada and gives dated technology to those students in need. She found out about the awards on Twitter and since winning in 2016, she has continued to find success.

    • “It was absolutely incredible. It was such an overwhelming experience in the best way.”

  • From 2015, Past Winner from Brazil Camila Fernandez Achuttiis is the Founder and CEO of Women in Computing, the biggest site, in Portuguese, to support and encourage female participation in technology. Camila also works as a software engineer at Iridescent Learning, (http://iridescentlearning.org/) a non-profit that creates and delivers powerful science, engineering and technology education to help underprivileged children develop curiosity, creativity and persistence. She went on to found and create a school that is now comprised 61% of girls.

    • “This award means everything. It was more than a boost of confidence. It was a message that you are on the right path, so just keep going. It was a wake-up call.”

There was one additional interview that will also be published, in full, at a later date.  But, we wanted to introduce you to Noramay Cadena, Founder and CEO, Make In LA.  A three time MIT graduate and now founder of a hardware accelerator, she will be featured as a future standalone podcast episode.  Noramay also co-founded a group called Latinas in STEM (latinasinstem.com). She spoke candidly about her challenges, not having as many role models and being a young mom. Her continued journey to success in education and career prove that you can do anything to which you put your mind.

Why are you HERE at Grace Hopper Conference?
We love all the people we met throughout the time at the conference. Many were featured in the podcast audio. We wanted to provide a bit more information on the projects featured in this section of the podcast:

  • We spoke with Jennifer Cloer who is working on an inspiring film project called Chasing Grace that highlights women in the technology field. More information is available here: http://www.chasinggracefilm.com

  • Trish Costella, CEO and Founder of Portfolia, stopped by to share her passion for backing tech women for things they require in the market.

  • We also ran into the Black Girls Code (www.blackgirlscode.com/) team, who shared their vision. They are a well-known and celebrated organization, that encourages black girls to become programmers/coders. More info: http://www.blackgirlscode.com/

  • Digital Undivided (https://www.digitalundivided.com/) was the main organization behind the first ever PitcHER Competition held at Grace Hopper to encourage female entrepreneurs, from all industries, leading early stage technology startups. They stopped by to share with us why they love the Grace Hopper Conference.

“Go to as many things like this as possible [like Grace Hopper] and surround yourself with a community of women that build each other up.”

-Anita Hill, inspiring Grace Hopper Conference 2018 speaker

Sincere thanks to Hotwire, the Anita Borg Institute, and Melissa  Iarocci, all amazing hosts who accommodated us at the conference, and support the work we do on the Diva Tech Talk podcast. We are so grateful to them, our featured guests, and listeners!  The Diva Tech Talk team left this experience feeling empowered and humbled. It further fuels our energy and resolve to continue our mission to inspire more women and girls in the field of technology with our podcast.

Interviewing these organizational and corporate change-makers was truly moving. In fact, we were so motivated from this event, that Diva Tech Talk will be announcing a special project next week to explain more an upcoming Diversity Leadership Series: We Lead Diversity.  Stay up to date on this special series and other upcoming episodes by visiting our website or following us on social media.

Most of all, Make sure to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss an episode!

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Ep 72: Stephanie Espy: Exposure to The Possibilities

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Stephanie Espy, Founder and CEO of MathSP (https://mathsp.com/) and STEM Gems (http://stemgemsbook.com/).  A leader, engineer and author, Stephanie shares a common goal with Diva Tech Talk (www.divatechtalk.com) to educate, support and serve female STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) practitioners as well as inspire the next generation of female STEM leaders.  

Stephanie is lucky.  “I think it is important to note that both of my parents are engineers,” she said.  One of four siblings, “all of us are connected, in one way, shape or form, to STEM. Growing up in a home where both of your parents are creators, problem-solvers, builders,” was a distinct advantage. In her extended family, “I had aunts and uncles who were in STEM as well.  Engineering and science are two main career paths my family has taken.” She fondly recalled family gatherings where “we would play a lot of chess; do board games, logic-type puzzles.” Stephanie was also influenced by “really fabulous teachers” as early as elementary school, extending through secondary education and college.

After high school, Stephanie moved from Georgia to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: www.mit.edu ). There she “thrived because of the community” and obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering.  “MIT brought engineering to life,” for Stephanie, since she could implement “hands-on projects,” and collaborate with other brilliant students. “We were able to take an idea from inception to creation” repeatedly.  Her penchant for bonding with others in her dorm, in her major and “with other women of color on campus” got her through the “difficult moments.” Supplementing her academic program, Stephanie successfully completed research projects, and worked at many internships (“they are absolutely critical.”)  Internships “helped solidify my understanding of how engineers make a difference in the world,” and acquainted her with post-graduation career options. “My first two internships were in a manufacturing plant,” and helped her apply fundamentals of process design and engineering in a real-world application.

She matriculated to the University of California, Berkeley (https://www.berkeley.edu/) for her graduate degree in chemical engineering.  Stephanie’s work there was more independent. She implemented a variety of approaches to “get my experiments to work;” published her research, (“that was exciting,”); and built another supportive community on campus.  “Having community leads to confidence, empowerment, and helps you believe you can get through any challenge that comes your way,” Stephanie said.

As she proceeded in her education and career, Stephanie accrued significant experience, working with polymers; using various rubber-producing plants at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve quality and yield of U.S.-grown natural rubber; and as a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry at BP (www.bp.com).  Along the way, “I saw the value of having an impact at the highest levels of an organization.”  So, she decided to get a business degree to complement her graduate degree in chemical engineering.  “Engineering is its own language,” Stephanie exclaimed. And she “wanted that other set of skills,” so she completed a joint program at UC Berkeley’s HAAS business school (The Management of Technology – a certification program combining engineering and business).  Then, “I landed at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School” (http://www.goizueta.emory.edu/) where she earned her MBA. At Goizueta, Stephanie “shifted gears; I got this entrepreneurial ‘bug’ and it came down to my experience as being one of the few women of color in the room” in her engineering and business environments. “That drove me to want to create something, my own way of helping to close the gender gap in STEM.”

Throughout her career, Stephanie said “most of my experiences had been in male-dominated environments. I yearned for more representation” by women of color.  “In thinking about my legacy, it really came back to my desire to help to fill the pipeline with more girls, young women, and people of color.” To accomplish this, she founded MathSP a decade ago. “S stands for strategies; and P stands for problem-solving.”  The company’s premise is that “in order to enter a STEM career, you absolutely must have a solid foundation in math and science.” Her venture helps male and female students at all levels “find their gaps in education, and close them, helping them become more ‘STEM-fluent:’ better problem-solvers, independent thinkers, and self-sufficient learners.”  

She also saw a need to serve girls “in their own special way.” To that end, in 2014, Stephanie founded STEM Gems (http://stemgemsbook.com/) which began as a book but has morphed into “a movement.”  Its aim is “to expose girls and young women to careers and role models in STEM.”  It offers its audience exposure to career opportunities that “they did not even know existed.”  Stephanie lamented that movies, television shows and other communications channels don’t offer enough female engineering role models to young audiences.  “So many of these careers go unnoticed!” In addition to a variety of career choices, STEM Gems also give girls exposure to role models, working in science, technology, engineering and math. The basic premise is “these careers are not only for boys, only; these are things you, as a girl, can do!”  The STEM Gems book features 44 different careers. “I brainstormed careers that I had never heard of when I was a tween/teen but I wish I had,” Stephanie said. They include a wide variety like data science, global health science, environmental engineering, archaeology, entomology, biotechnology, animation and a plethora of others. “There are so many careers out there that people don’t really think about, especially girls,” Stephanie exclaimed.  STEM Gems is shining a light on many of them.

“A lot of research went into finding STEM women leaders, highlighting their accomplishments and advice, interviewing all of them,” and spotlighting the biggest thing: “how they make a difference in the world and help people.”  A challenge was also to put those stories into the language of children “so a 10-year old girl could pick up the book, read it, and understand!” Stephanie noted how grateful she is to the women who participated. “It has touched so many lives, both through the book and through the STEM Gems Clubs!” The clubs focus on groups of girls (boys welcome too) reading the book and following a curriculum (with adult community members leading).  They began in the last 12 months, and have spread throughout the United States. “It is a ‘tribe setting,’ and shows you that you are never alone in your pursuit of greatness,” Stephanie said. “Girls who were singularly uninterested, before, have transformed through these clubs.”

Stephanie has learned many leadership lessons in her own educational journey, through her career and creating MathSP and coming to know her STEM Gems role models.  They include:

  • “Never, ever, give up, despite the odds.”  The common theme is that the successful women Stephanie has profiled have a “prove them wrong” attitude.

  • Do not be intimidated. “These women have walked into a room and pulled up to the table…” invariably letting their voices be heard. Speak up and speak out.

  • “You cannot shy away from a challenge.” Get comfortable “being a trailblazer.”

Stephanie’s parting tips for women and girls to succeed include:

  • “Be a part of a community. You can’t do much alone.”  To that end, she recommends membership in many of the national and regional professional associations that offer resources, support and fellowship.

  • “Be a mentor to the next generation. Be a role model to many; and pick a few for whom you can really have an impact on their journey.”

The inspirational Stephanie can be reached via LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephanie-espy/, via Twitter/Facebook, and Instagram @STEMGemsBook, and via her website at www.STEMGemsBook.com.

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Ep 71: Lori McColl: You Can Cry, but You Can’t Quit!

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to hear the entrepreneurial journey of Lori McColl, Founder and CEO of Whim-Detroit, a digital transformation consultancy and innovation lab, dedicated to empowering agile change for its customers, and the world.

Growing up in rural Canada, Lori completed her undergraduate BBA in marketing, through a scholarship as a star Division One Volleyball player, at Ohio University. “I grew up in a very small town, on a farm,” she said.  “A lot of what I was exposed to were the professions that were ‘small-business driven’: doctors, nurses, lawyers, famers. There was not a lot of tech.”

It was her college journey, and friends she made at OU, that “opened my eyes.” She moved on to complete her MBA at Bowling Green State University,  with a minor in MIS (Management Information Services) and discovered that she was fascinated by technology. “Having that understanding of how you run a business and putting it together with tech and data creates a holistic lense” on any endeavor, according to Lori.

Her first career role was at “Big Four” consulting company, PwC, a global network of professional services firms, in 158 countries, employing 236,000 people, that delivers assurance, advisory and tax services to other corporations.  “I joined the assurance practice in tech services, while PwC was selling off the consulting side,” Lori said.  Her work was exciting and diverse. “I moved around. Went from working on the compliance side to transformation projects, U.S.-wide, and globally. I’ve had a chance to work with some of the best companies, either on process optimization, data analytics, or enterprise-wide implementation programs.”

“You name it --- we did it,” she said. “I worked in high tech, with some of the big tech companies.  I worked in automotive companies at the OEM level. I worked with some of their suppliers. I worked in industrial products.  I worked in the oil and gas industry.” From that rich experience, Lori gained insight. “One of the things I learned personally, was how to refine messaging, how you spoke with the executive-level team about the risks and challenges they could encounter.”  She learned “how you share key findings, so they are in ‘their language.’”  Lori also absorbed how large organizations implemented, managed, navigated and adapted to major change.  “How you get people onboard (with change) still sticks with me, today.” She is grateful for the 15 years she spent at PwC. “I got a chance to work with some of the best leaders.”

Along the way, as SaaS and cloud-based solutions were beginning to dominate the tech landscape, Lori said, “one of the things that I was keeping an eye on was that I was always in a box:  big corporate ‘box’ and massive systems boxes.” She tried to envision her future: “where did I want to be in 5 years, 10 years?” Her answer was: “I wanted to broaden my experience to shatter some of those ‘boxes.”

Lori then spent the past year diving deeply into the startup world in Detroit.  And she realized: “When you go from big corporate Fortune 500 to the startup world, you are in two different worlds!”  Lori made her first move by relocating from the northern suburbs of Southeast Michigan to the heart of Detroit and learning from, the various startup founders and community supporters there. “I spent a large portion of my career traveling all over the world. I really love supporting our community in a different way.” So, she founded her company.

“My vision is that Whim-Detroit does really cool things with really cool companies. The end goal is that we are a ‘tech forward’ company. We focus on digital transformation: the future of technology, people and processes. That ties into what is coming with some of the newest commerce platforms, customer acquisition, and all the new channels; how you use data analytics and build predictive analytics programs.  It’s all in those up and coming front-end commerce and content systems, and ties into existing enterprise systems technologies. We focus on transformation, implementing systems, data and processes.” And Whim-Detroit solutions are “in the space I love the most,” said Lori, “fashion and sports!”

Whim-Detroit has two main components:  a consulting practice and an innovation lab.  “Part of what I am trying to do is create a sustainable model, using one side of the business to support the other side.” Consulting has helped create cash-flow so that Whim-Detroit can experiment with pre-MVP (Minimum Viable Product) offerings.   Lori “works with really great brands. Most of them are with products that I am either a supporter or a customer of.”

In the consulting practice, a current representative Whim-Detroit client is with a premier, historic athletic club.  “We are embarking on a 3-year transformation project,” of this long-standing facility and service-oriented membership organization, Lori said. “They have global and national awards. And soon will have leading edge technology to match. What is fascinating is that you have to figure how to make technology invincible in a place that has such a great history” and how to use technology to “deliver an experience before a customer even asks for it.”   On the innovation side, Lori is proud that Whim-Detroit just delivered the first fashion and technology hackathon in the city’s history. To do that, she worked with Pure Michigan Business Connect (part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation) with brand sponsors providing the problem statements for the teams to hack.  

Self-reflecting, Lori thinks some of her strengths are personal courage, the ability to eloquently communicate, and her penchant for creating and refining a vision. “I would also add creativity and perseverance,” to that list. “In this new entrepreneur space, never give up! Passion equals resiliency.” Lori also values experience. “War stories and post-mortems” yield pearls of wisdom to her.

While never experiencing gender discrimination at a younger age, more recently Lori has faced challenges related to being a woman leader. “Because I was in tech, and only 25% of tech professionals are women, and 40% drop out, I started to have typical scenarios:  the ‘man-splaining’ or being demoted to work under a peer. I really became more mindful of it, over the last two years.” One of the solutions she suggested is “having ambassadors, or ‘table-pounders’ to help you navigate through things” in your career. Lori generously tries to do the same thing. “I have always made it a priority to do it for others.”

A revelation for Lori was that “life will be about what you don’t like vs. what you do like!” She carved her path by process of elimination and would have told her younger self, to “try a lot of things; anything you are curious about – try it!”   As an entrepreneur, Lori acknowledges: “you don’t have balance. But what you do have is a rounded career that merges work, passion and people.” To “turn off her brain” she relies on her athletic prowess, runs, goes to yoga classes, and has recently taken up squash.  She also spends a lot of time with other startup co-founders.

Lori believes that women have the gift of unique perspectives, based on  compassion and empathy. “Compassionate leaders, historically, have built stronger, more long-lasting, organizations.” As a leader, “you should be the last to speak. You’re there to listen; you’re there to inspire. You’re there to bring in the other, best, people you can find….and unlock talent.”

Lori noted that conscious gratitude is a way to get through the startup hard times. “During the tough times, there is always something you can be grateful for!”  Having passion is also key. “It brings a lot of joy and can overcome the need for other things, material things.” She struggles with a fear of failure, despite knowing that the path to success is often paved with failures. To overcome that fear, she “does it in small pieces.” Lori shared that her athletic mantra has always been “left/right, left/right, one step at a time; keep moving.” Concentrating on that has helped her quiet the “internal voices” that are fear-engendering.  

The motto that sticks with her has been “you can cry but you can’t quit!” - a mantra that has helped her get through some of the toughest physical endurance races.

To give back, she has enlisted Whim-Detroit as a FOUNDERS FOR CHANGE company, taking the pledge to #changetheratio and to consistently encourage diversity on her teams, boards and investors.

Lori McColl can be reached at Lori@whim-detroit.com and on Twitter at @WhimDetroit.

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