A Portrait Project by John Davidson
Job Title: Managing Partner of RSE Consulting; Managing Director of eWomenNetwork — Austin; CEO/Founder of All About That Brand
Years in Tech: My first ‘tech’ job was in a university lab writing Apple basic code on the first Macintosh… that should tell you how many years!
On growing up ‘on both sides of the house’ — beginnings:
My parents were high-school teachers in the small-town school I attended. Education was valued, and we often studied at the kitchen table together — me on my spelling & math — Mom & Dad on their masters & doctorate work. My directive: Be a Doctor, Lawyer, Dentist or marry one. At the time, the latter seemed so distasteful, I landed on biomedical engineering. As an only child, I did all the girl and boy things my friends did. I learned how to cook, clean, sew & play with Barbies. The next day, I would clean guns, reload bullets, and shoot with my Dad. I didn’t realize what a gift having access to both sides of the house would be.
On engineering school — ‘Ask the boys’:
I went to engineering school at Syracuse University. I was one of 4 women/300 men in the EE program and one of 4 women/30 men in the Biomed. EE professors would tell me to ‘ask the boys’ instead of answering my questions during office hours. So, I did, and we figured out problems together. I didn’t recognize the inequity of opportunity for women until I began searching for a job.
On uneven playing fields — entering the workforce:
When I first began to look for a job in the biomed field — I targeted Welch Allyn, J&J, and other top-notch companies. I held an awesome GPA with a dual degree from one of the few biomed universities and assumed it would be easy. After 6 months of working in a band at night and at lumber company during the day, I decided to take a temp job as a tech writer at Harris Corporation. This was my first job, to work with engineers designing a military encryption device. My job? to write the manual for the guys in the field. I spent half my time with engineers — all men. The other half of my time with the women in marketing. I believe I was allowed to hang out with the men because I hung on their every word — and they had full authority over what was written. They needed me to tell their story.
On the experiences that formed a strong commitment to empowering women in their work:
It was my women mentors in Austin that highlighted the gender discrimination I was facing. It was in my blind spot. I was coached on strategies to overcome and picked battles to win. Most often, I found a creative way to achieve my goals with my team’s help. This team effort — sometimes weeks of after-hours and weekend strategizing — was a philosophy I wanted to pass along.
Paying respect — on an important female mentor:
Many women in Austin were touched by Sonia St. James. She was brilliant not only in tech, but also in business, and saw something in me in my 30s — perhaps our unconcern with gender barriers. She founded the first bioscience forum in Austin in the early 90’s. She painted the picture then of what is happening today with the wet labs and medical technology park. She appointed me chair of the group and taught me Robert’s Rules of Order. Sonia’s network was seriously global, and funding was just a normal component of delivering a project. Always, the start of any conversation was ‘how are the kids’ followed by ‘how are you’? Family was of key importance to her. Self care, also.
On parlaying early frustrations into career success:
As a young woman in my 20s, I was soured by my inability to secure a bioengineering opportunity — even entry level with one of my target companies. When I heard of a position opening at Harris, I jumped at the opportunity to work. Little did I know interfacing with the marketing department would awaken the creative part of design in me. This position led me into the networking hardware market. First Apple hardware support and then networking device support. The networking support position unfolded into product marketing and then securing sales awards. Who knew solving problems for companies could be so much fun and yield a much better income?
True grit — on necessity as the mother of invention:
In my 30s, I was widowed with a 2yr old and a 4yr old. I was ready to leave my Upstate NY stomping grounds and the hitech excitement in California had my attention. I took a position as the Director of Sales and employee #5 at a small networking firm. Within a year, I grew the organization to 35, and was thrilled to be recruited to Austin as VP Professional Services and Sales for my first software company — a startup. 2 months later, that startup was no more. To secure income for me and my kiddos, I launched a consulting company. That company will be 20yrs old next year.
On being a first-time woman-funded CEO — notes on past success and disappointment:
Over the last 20 years, my consulting company continued to be the backdrop of my career. One of our client-driven projects yielded a new startup idea. Angels funded, and the Austin Ventures threw their hat in the ring. Being a first-time woman funded CEO was exhausting. The gender issues at this level of investment were the greatest I’d witnessed in my career. This company, eCityLimits was awarded the ‘StandOut Startup’ of the year, and ultimately was put on the shelf when the market crashed and our clients were unable to continue their investments. My highest career achievement to date and the biggest disappointment.
A few months later, I accepted the first sales/channel position at MotionComputing which shot to #1 in the TabletPC market. This was a wonderful 7 year ride. Why did I exit? One of the leaders felt I did not fit his picture of a channel sales leader. Was it a gender issue? Maybe.
On her work in personal branding — whether men and women see themselves differently, and position themselves differently professionally:
This is a great question. And yes, I see a a huge difference. I was initially of the opinion that women did not need a separate forum to design, launch, or promote a business — until I became a mentor of a women’s startup accelerator. I realized that my personal unconcern for the barriers to women in business were not shared with other women. Most simply, men will position themselves for the job they will have 5 years from now. Women for the job they had 5 years ago. As their personal branding consultant, it is my job to deliver clarity on their current authentic brand and draw a path to their future vision with specific activities to validate their natural career path.
On mentoring women in tech:
My role with women is to most often support them finding their voice. Their voice to speak up for their ideas, to speak up for their values, and to speak kindly to each other. I challenge women leaders to give back. I encourage them to work on themselves and to break old rules that keep them stuck as business leaders. This guidance looks different from one to another and from one age to another. I work with women who are willing to grow. Those who ‘know it all’ are stuck in their position, and my impact is limited.
On the expectations of young women starting out in tech today:
I find young women in tech today in one of two camps. Camp 1) expecting employers to acknowledge their genius — completely entitled flitting from job to job and blaming others, and Camp 2) brilliant, on fire, can’t wait to serve and solve problems. Those in camp 1 will find any reason for a project (job or startup) to not work — gender issues are just one of those. Camp 2 doesn’t spend a moment thinking about gender — they land in supportive environments and when faced with gender issues — they confront it directly. Camp 2 types are much bolder than I.
On the challenges women entrepreneurs face in fundraising:
My impression is that barriers are falling yearly for women to raise money. There is so much press/hype about women founders getting higher ROI than men, that male dominated investors are looking for the few women they will back. So long as the team/deal are good — the likelihood of funding is higher. In general, I believe investors are getting smarter about their investments — gone are the days of throwing money into something that sounds good over a glass of wine. We also have women Angels and Investors teaching women how to be Angels and Investors. This is a growing investment woman are making in their economic future.
On male peers, and the generational question:
Living in Austin, it is rare to be dismissed by men as business women. Get out of Austin and head to Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, and it will pop up when meeting a male professional (i.e. physician or banker). Upon reflection, I experience attitude from men 40+ and it shows us as being ignored or by addressing my male companion.
On whether sufficient pressure is being exerted in public life to change work culture and opportunities for women:
I tend to lead by example, meaning, if I can help women be better leaders, this will change the culture and create more opportunities. I was recently asked to join an effort to accelerate leadership opportunities for women nationally. Ask me this question again in 5 years.
On Austin tech:
Austin is a wonderful place to live as a woman in tech. We are embraced, and in some cases sought after to balance a team and point a project in a new direction. We are given funding opportunities — not only by women, but also by men.
On why changes may be happening now:
Strong women have always been in business. During the last 20 years, technology has afforded women the ability to create wealth more quickly. Personally, I was able to secure funds in the tech field to support my children and a household as a single Mom for 14 years. It yielded a very different lifestyle and opportunity profile for my kids than being a teacher or nurse would have. Women naturally want to help other women and our children be successful — following our footsteps. As more and more women take on jobs in STEM fields, more and more women feel safe to try. It is no longer weird to see a woman on the space shuttle launch computational team, for example. In the 50s, it was.
Always be growing and evolving — on current work:
Currently, I work with hi-tech startups, engineers and leaders to support their business, marketing and development decisions. I had the opportunity to launch a venture-funded software startup, sell the first tablet-pc & create the sales channel for a local manufacturer. I secured a patent for a table-pc pen for nurses. I was a tech mentor for an accelerator and then became the ED. Today, I’m working with a software startup in the online reputation space along with a dozen other concerns to support marketing technical solutions.
On how women can contribute towards lasting change in gender equity across industries:
Be kind, be innovative, grow up young women to do the same.
One book every CEO, Senior Executive and entrepreneur in America should read:
The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
*Quotes may have received minor editing for purposes of length and clarity only.
Women Who Tech Are Dangerous: A Portrait Project (author’s note)
Encouraged by the rising tide of women making their voices heard on the subject of gender bias in the tech and corporate world, I’ve embarked on a portrait project that seeks to feature women with a stake in the issue, and hopefully, provide a platform for them to share their experiences and express their views.
About the project’s title:
The first suggestion of this project came to me via a book on my wife’s bookshelf — Women Who Read Are Dangerous, by Stefan Bollmann. It’s a collection of paintings from throughout the centuries, each focused on a woman reading a book — the very act of which has, at various points in history, been considered ‘subversive.’
Are women who tech dangerous? To those in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, who seek to perpetrate the hegemony that unquestionably exists in the upper echelons of tech at present, perhaps. One woman I asked referred to the project’s title as being, for her, about ‘the notion that I’m not supposed to be here because I’m a woman — but I am [here]…we are [here], and we’re not leaving.’ Still another women described the idea that women in tech are dangerous as being, ‘in this context, almost patronizing.’ Clearly there are a range of views and experiences to be expressed.
My goal is to put faces to some of these women, to compile a portrait of women at all career levels, to elevate their voices and contribute to the dialogue.
No further portrait sessions will be scheduled until the project website is built and launched. Thank you to all those who’ve expressed interest in taking part. For further information, you can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.