An evening with women in engineering
The transcript to my keynote at the 21st annual Society of Women Engineers Corporate Dinner at the University of Pennsylvania on September 13, 2017. I delivered it using PromptSmart, a voice-activated teleprompter app.
Hi everyone, thanks for having me. It’s great to be back on campus.
You’re probably thinking, wait… what? How is someone with my background at Capital One? A startup too? What about sleep?
Tonight I hope to put these questions to rest and get us ready for an evening of great food and conversation.
I’ve spent 15 years so far in the tech industry, many of which as the only woman in the room. It is why we still have this women in engineering dinner tonight but someday I hope that we won’t have to.
To the students in the room, congratulations. You’ve already beaten some tough odds. Only half of women who start in a STEM major will graduate in STEM. The tough reality today is that about half of you will drop out of engineering roles over the next two decades.
But rather than focus on the problems, I want to talk tonight about how we can pave that road, position ourselves for success, and keep more than half of you in those engineering roles. You’ve already heard my official bio and maybe even Googled me. Tonight I’d like to share more of my unofficial bio and four things I wish I learned sooner.
Find your superpower
A few years ago, I got the advice that there are a lot of things that I can do pretty well, at the B or C level. Then there are a few things that I can knock out of the park at the A+ level, my superpower. It’s that superpower I need to be leveraging in every role I’m in. It took me building my startup Innovatively to truly realize my superpower.
I had been consulting with healthcare and life science companies since undergrad, helping them tackle tough business strategy questions like what is my target market, how big is that opportunity, who is my next customer?
Traditionally, this can be a manually intensive, lengthy process where consultants take months to put together a recommendation that quickly becomes out of date.
I was already using data and a bit of code to answer these questions. When I finished my PhD, I was compelled to solve this problem and systematically digitize what I had been doing on the side.
As a founder, I did not have the resources to build a business intelligence suite that could answer all those questions. It’d be like trying to rebuild Excel when you know Excel already gets most of the job done.
Instead, the real problem customers were facing was the data is messy and there’s a lot of it. They just want access to usable, meaningful information. What Innovatively does is take publicly available datasets like research articles, clinical trials, drug and protein databases and pulls out the business pieces: who is targeting what market with what technology and how far along are they.
Innovatively gets information to the customers in a format they can consume, spreadsheets. They can use Excel, Tableau, Powerpoint, or whatever else they’d like to analyze with.
The impact of the decisions and this approach didn’t hit me until a conversation I had with another company in the space.
They had Innovatively on their radar as a potential acquisition target. They went down the path of building out a business intelligence suite. When they ran out of money, they looked over to see Innovatively taking a completely different approach, focusing on meaningful data and connecting it to existing tools like Google Sheets. They told me they were kicking themselves for overlooking this simple approach. As their company shut down, they referred their clients to Innovatively.
Today, I can tell you that my superpower is to take really complex problems, figure out the most pressing pain points, and lead a team to design simple, elegant digital solutions that people want to use and that also impact the business.
As you go through on-campus recruiting and think about your next chapter, ask yourself if that role or environment will allow you to find and hone your superpower.
Be bold and set your trajectory
By now you’re probably wondering, how did Capital One get into the picture? It’s about this other theme in my life, being bold and setting my trajectory.
Early last year, I was heads down working on Innovatively and figuring out how I might scale it. I got a note from a friend at Capital One asking if I would be interested in meeting with Capital One. Someone on her Commercial Bank Innovation team was looking to connect on healthcare data.
What’s going through my mind is awesome, I’m going to turn Capital One into a customer.
Yes… a healthy mix of naivete and boldness.
I took the meeting. Our conversation quickly evolved to broader data challenges they were tackling. Some within the capabilities and resources of my startup and others beyond.
What was now in front of me was an opportunity to tackle even more complex problems and build large-scale digital products. It would also frankly give the market for my startup more time to mature. The decision to shift my startup to nights and weekends and return to a corporate environment was a bit daunting.
I had to remind myself that this was not that different from previous decisions I’ve made. They are these reversible, two-way doors. Something that Jeff Bezos wrote about in his shareholders letter to encourage high-velocity decisions.
It’s now been over a year of building for a large enterprise by day and smaller enterprises by night. I oversee three products across those roles and have finally taken a vacation, three actually.
The next time you’re faced with an interesting, non-traditional opportunity, remember that very few doors are one-way. Don’t be afraid to do something a bit different and set your own career trajectory.
Stay true to you
As you set your own trajectory and find your superpower, it is also critical to develop and stay true to your voice.
In corporate environments, there are lots of powerpoint templates and expectations around how to present them. I almost got sucked into that pattern at Capital One but quickly saw how ineffective the corporate version of me was in telling someone else’s story. I trued back to the startup version of me that would share the story behind Innovatively and convince companies to trust a startup with their business strategy.
Earlier this year I was asked to show Capital One’s head of commercial real estate one of the internal products I had been leading and showcase how our Innovation team can partner with a line of business. The challenge was the product we were working on was not as relevant to his team and I honestly did not know enough about the commercial real estate industry to talk about how we might address his team’s pain points. What I do know quite a bit about is the New York rental apartment scene and shared with him how I use real estate data to find my past apartments.
NYC apartments are expensive and tiny. When I travel, the hotel rooms are often bigger than my apartment. What I have learned in these apartment searches are that rental buildings charge much higher rent than condo buildings where each unit is owned and managed individually. StreetEasy is a company that has most of the NYC condo rental listings, but they are often listed by brokers who will charge you as much as 12% of your first year’s rent. What I did was find listings of open apartments and cross list them with a database of deed and mortgage filings. It helped me find out who the owner is so I could directly contact them and avoid the broker fee. I could also find out how much they paid for the apartment and if they have paid off their mortgage which gives me a sense of how much room there is for negotiation.
In that meeting with the head of commercial real estate I had no intention of sharing this story, but in going off script it helped him understand how I used data to solve my own problem. I gained his trust that our Innovation team could bring that same approach to his team’s pain points.
When you start your internships and your jobs next year, learn the ropes but also stay true to you. It’s part of what makes your superpower unique to you.
Look for your advocates
This brings me to my last point: look for your advocates. While I do strongly believe you are your own best advocate, I am not where I am today without help. I am only here tonight because a certain professor nominated me. She’s here tonight so hopefully you’ll give her positive feedback.
It may not be obvious from my bio but I intended to get my PhD at Stanford, not Columbia. After graduating from Penn, I did your typical post-graduation Europe trip and headed off to Stanford. I was laser focused on completing my course requirements and getting my research off the ground. I paid little attention to the signs that I was not positioned for success. I had a wakeup call when I failed my qualifying exams, the exams standing between me and starting my PhD thesis.
I searched Stanford for a research group that was a better fit for me and found an emerging researcher. She took me under her wing, but after a few months, research support and funding became uncertain, putting my PhD at risk. She helped me find an opportunity to continue my work at Columbia. In that moment, she put her interests aside and advocated for me.
These are the people and their actions I have learned to recognize.
It’s especially important when you find yourself in a large organization like Capital One. It’s so easy to get lost in the sea of employees. Because of another advocate, I am traveling to each of the Commercial Bank offices next month and showcasing our Innovation team’s work as part of Capital One’s annual Commercial Town Halls.
So take the time to notice the advocates around you. They come in all shapes and sizes from managers to peers to direct reports to the admins who keep things running. Recruit your army of advocates to help amplify you.
As women in engineering and allies getting started in your careers, I encourage you to harness your superpower, set your own trajectories, stay true to you, and build that army of advocates.
It won’t matter if you are the only woman in the room or if you’re like me and look barely old enough to drink beer.
Your voice and your value become undeniable.
I look forward to seeing you out there and in a few years hope to see you up here sharing your story.