6 Women in Tech Share Inspiring Stories About Their Role Models

Inspiration can come from anyone — teachers, managers, neighbors and other unexpected places.

Written by Avery Komlofske
Published on Mar. 08, 2022
6 Women in Tech Share Inspiring Stories About Their Role Models
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When we talk about mentors, it’s usually in the context of careers, such as a manager or supervisor who helped us grow professionally. Having these mentors is especially important for women — for example, Microsoft News reported that the number of girls interested in STEM doubles when they have a female role model. However, it’s not just career leaders that can inspire us. 

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but it will likely come from close to home. A 2018 YouGov report discovered that 52 percent of the women surveyed have a female role model in their personal lives. That percentage dwarfs the next highest category, which is entertainment at 38 percent. Seeing women they personally know confidently pursue their dreams can inspire other women to pursue their own, creating a chain of personal successes.

For International Women’s Day, Built In NYC spoke to women leaders at Contentsquare, Reonomy, Octane, DigitalOcean, Cockroach Labs and Galileo about the women in their lives that inspired them. Their answers varied wildly — these women were inspired by teachers, neighbors, career leaders and one very unique 9-year-old girl. Yet each of these figures also have one thing in common: They forged the path they wanted to walk for themselves. Their stories have valuable lessons that can inspire anyone who takes them to heart.

 

Kat Borlongan
Chief Impact Officer • Contentsquare

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

A 9-year-old girl named Eva. She was the youngest member of the Paris Summer Innovation Fellowship, a program I created for the city of Paris. I designed it not with children in mind, but seasoned urban designers, open street mappers and PhDs. She applied, proposing: “The streets of Paris are sad. I want to build a robot so they’ll be happy. I’m learning to code on Thymio robots, but I can’t make it work. I want mentors to help me.”

I accepted her, and she inspired me. I wrote to her, “Nothing on the website said this was open to 9-year-olds, but nothing said it wasn’t. You said you had trouble making the robot work on your own and needed help. That was brave to admit, and we were convinced to take on your project.”

I watched her grow, stumble and learn while building her robot at our partner Fab Lab. It was inspiring to see her at work. I had been such a different little girl: eager to please, afraid of sounding silly or coloring outside the lines. 

Then, we interviewed her and asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ll never forget her answer. She said, “I built a robot, so I bet everyone expects me to say I want to become an engineer. But the truth is, I don’t think the job I want has been invented yet.”

Nothing on the website said this was open to 9-year-olds, but nothing said it wasn’t.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Following Eva’s mantra, I invented my own job as Contentsquare’s chief impact officer, the newest animal in the C-suite jungle. Instead of rebranding a head of CSR, I designed it as analogous to a CRO. If a CRO generates revenue in a startup, a chief impact officer is responsible for any social and environmental impact, defined by their company’s mission and values.

Even a company whose line of business isn’t directly concerned with climate or health needs to prioritize impact. Whether it’s global warming or social injustice, the world faces real challenges — everyone needs to pull their weight, especially startups with funding.

Contentsquare empowers businesses to create digital human experiences that others love, seek and deserve. In UX, human tends to mean personalized — what if it could also mean more inclusivity for all? If Contentsquare can make UX a force for business, it can also make it a force for good!

To answer with integrity, I bring together product, people ops, legal, R&D and philanthropy. I experiment with innovative models of startup philanthropy and — if we make it — I’ll help create a new role I hope to see across startup C-suites by 2023.

 

 

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “Break the Bias.” When I think about the women who have impacted my career, there are many I have witnessed break the bias. I have been extremely fortunate to work with, play with and to be raised by incredible women. However, when I think of those who have had an impact on my career, it comes down to moments of courage. 

Early in my career, I had the pleasure of working for Phyllis Yaffe during the time she was the CEO of Alliance Atlantis, an international film and television company. Phyllis was a change agent — she knew what she wanted to do, thought boldly and moved swiftly. I watched her listen to people in meetings tell her all the reasons why various strategies or initiatives wouldn’t work, but she never wavered and she achieved great things. 

I recall one day being invited to lunch to hear a group of CEOs speak on the lack of representation of women at senior levels. The panel was all men. One CEO proceeded to provide the opinion that the reason there wasn’t better representation was because there weren’t enough qualified women available: It was simply a talent pool issue. Phyllis addressed the bias head on. She courageously said “look around this room. Half of this room is full of talented women. We are here — you just need to see us.” It was a moment I will never forget, and an act of courage that still inspires me to this day. Phyllis went on to continue to break glass, sitting on many boards and eventually becoming the Consulate General of Canada in New York. 

She courageously said ‘look around this room. Half of this room is full of talented women. We are here — you just need to see us.’”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Phyllis started her career as a librarian. Her path was not straight but it was based on her ability to align herself to organizations she believed in — organizations that required courageous leadership and commitment to purpose. In the face of adversity, I often think of Phyllis and her ability to find a way. A mantra I use often is: There is always a path.

 I have also tried to focus my leadership practice on courage. It will not always be in a big room calling out bias, but there are always ways to have quiet conversations that get your message across and stay true to your path.

 

 

Yehudit Nathan
Director of Engineering • Octane

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

The first woman who inspired me is also the one who had the greatest impact on my career and life. When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was young, smart and ambitious. She had graduated from the same high school where I was a student, and afterward attended the Illinois Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. At this time, computers and engineering was still a new industry. There were very few women in the field and even fewer women from my community and social circle.

When I arrived at my high school, this woman was employed as a teacher there. She really inspired me to work hard in my calculus class and encouraged me to apply to whatever engineering programs I wanted. She helped me navigate the college application process and gave me tips for the interviews. As life would have it, although I was accepted to these programs, I ended up choosing an international program instead. Still, knowing that I was not the first woman to try this path was the springboard for me choosing to get a degree in computer engineering.

Knowing that I was not the first woman to try this path was the springboard for me choosing to get a degree in computer engineering.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

My mentor chose to do something she loved even though it was not a common role for a woman. The biggest lesson I learned from her and a message I pass on to anyone who asks is this: You have to be happy at your job. Everyone should be allowed to choose work they enjoy, and if you do not enjoy what you are doing, it becomes a burden. Similarly, you need to be happy in your career decisions and not let others push you into something you don’t want. 

When I was a mid-level developer, my manager pushed me to take on a more senior role. The truth was, it wasn’t the right time. I was overwhelmed by my lack of work-life balance and adding job pressure would not have been healthy for me, so I turned down the promotion. Several years later, another opportunity came along that was better aligned with my needs at that time — I embraced that opportunity to advance my career and never regretted it.

 

 

Laura Smyrl
Senior Manager of Engineering, IAM • DigitalOcean

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

As a woman in my professional career starting in the 1980s, it’s been an incredibly interesting twenty-some years so far. There are many possible domains to choose an inspirational leader to share across business, the computer science field and politics. I chose one that was close to home — a former manager that is now my current manager — because of the repeated positive impact this leader had on me. 

One of my first positions as a software engineer was with Hewlett Packard and, as luck would have it, my position was in Suzanne’s organization. Suzanne worked for 12 years at HP as a director of software development. As a director, she demonstrated business acumen coupled with a straightforward style. She could speak clearly about how our work connected to the company mission, but was approachable and friendly and always willing to chat. She was also a working mother and helped me think about priorities and job flexibility to manage both work and life. She went on to hold senior technical positions at CA Technologies and is now a GM at DigitalOcean. Throughout her career, Suzanne continued to stay engaged in technical processes, raise her daughter and continue her career development.

If it’s the right thing to do, then you bring your courage to the table and step up as a leader.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

The best lesson I learned from Suzanne was asking, “What’s the right thing to do?” The answer might take you to a happy ending, and it might lead to an uncomfortable situation. If it’s the right thing to do, then you bring your courage to the table and step up as a leader. 

One example of this was an internal project that had been put on hold due to short-term changes in business priorities. After those fires were banked, I was asked to deliver this project. I had not originally been involved — all of the engineering staff required were no longer committed to the project. Scope and schedule were contentious in some sectors, but it was the right business priority to meet the company goals and it was the right time to exploit an opportunity and show that our group and my leadership could deliver. 

I had to employ the key question repeatedly: Was it right to ask people to put in some extra hours? Was it right to scale back some scope or was it right to extend the schedule? The compass of “doing the right thing” gave me a path to move forward successfully. In the heat of the battle, I have found the simplest tools are the most effective, and this one has served me well repeatedly.

 

 

Cockroach Labs sign on the outside of the building at the entrance
Cockroach Labs

 

Melissa Lor
Deputy General Counsel • Cockroach Labs

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Women who lead by example, exhibit an inner resolve, question the status quo constructively, empathize with and uplift others and deftly balance their time for work and family have been inspirations to me throughout my legal career. Carla De Silva and Nithya Das are two of my former colleagues who continue to be these bright lights for me.

These women underscore how I can lead and have a meaningful impact professionally and personally.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

At various crossroads in my professional journey, Carla has been instrumental in providing me with sage guidance that has been enlightening, practical and longstanding. Similarly, Nithya’s manner of immersing herself in a company and then quickly mastering new opportunities with such prowess inspires me to reach my highest potential while staying true to these values. For me, these women underscore how I can lead and have a meaningful impact professionally and personally, and they motivate me to help others in the same way.

 

 

Carly Litchfield
Engineering Manager • Galileo

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

One woman who has inspired me throughout my career is someone who I met outside of the corporate world. I grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood with four families who basically operated as “the village” it takes to raise kids. Nancy, the mother of the three kids next door, has always fully embraced who she is. She consistently pushes judgment, fear and anxiety to the side and lives her life the way she wants. She’s hosted alternative celebrations around traditional holidays, sent us all through some very progressive education programs and homeschooled her children for several years to foster creativity and freedom. She once paid for a 10-foot alligator to roam around her kitchen and living room while all the kids looked on in terror and excitement. She has always resisted the pressure from society to behave in a particular way and instead focuses on what is truly best for herself and the people around her.

When I’ve tried to change myself or do ‘what a man would do,’ I end up feeling inauthentic and I don’t get the result I wanted.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

The lesson I take from Nancy is to focus on the things that work for me, shed the things that don’t and ultimately trust myself. There is endless advice for women in the corporate blogosphere on how to advance your career: how men get ahead — and how you, as a woman, might try to embody some of that — how to speak up more, how to stop apologizing, and so on. To the extent this advice gives me confidence to navigate the corporate world, great — I’ll take it. But if the advice feels antithetical to my personality, I just let it go. When I’ve tried to change myself or do “what a man would do,” I end up feeling inauthentic and I don’t get the result I wanted. 

For example, I’ve tried the negotiation tactics touted by articles and my peers — come in strong, know your value, be assertive — and it’s left me feeling deflated, disconnected and even at-odds with the other person. Alternatively, when I’ve approached negotiations as my authentic self, by being honest and connecting with the human on the other side, I’ve left the conversation feeling empowered and find I get better results. Nancy has been a strong example and reminder that I can and should do what feels right and forget the rest.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via listed companies and Shutterstock.

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