Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “Being one of very few is not necessarily a disadvantage if you are in an environment that is open and fair”, With ServiceMaster’s Petya Grady

Penny Bauder
Feb 21 · 12 min read

Even though I wholeheartedly believe that changing the gender ratio in STEM is super important, I also like to point out that being one of very few is not necessarily a disadvantage if you are in an environment that is open and fair. In fact, sometimes being the only one (or one of very few) gives you an unfair advantage. By being different, you automatically contribute a different perspective to any conversation. What you have to do, however, is focus on cultivating a singular perspective and not fall under the spell of groupthink.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Petya Grady.

Petya joined ServiceMaster in 2016 where she is responsible for driving organizational alignment on innovation initiatives. She’s a founding member of the ServiceMaster Innovation Council and has been instrumental in establishing ServiceMaster’s innovation strategy and its tactical implementation. Prior to ServiceMaster, Petya was with Lokion Interactive where she worked on customer experience strategy and user experience design for clients such as American Home Shield, FedEx, Hilton, Smith & Nephew and St. Jude Children’s Cancer Research Hospital. Petya’s background and experience allow her to bring an international perspective into her work. A native of Bulgaria, she began her career as a Project Manager in the Sofia offices of Dynamo Software (previously, Netage Solutions) where she led teams to successfully implement multi-lingual projects for an array of international clients.

As an immigrant and a woman working in tech, Petya is a passionate advocate for promoting diversity and empathy in the tech industry and beyond. She is co-founder and current Board Chair of CodeCrew, a non-profit organization providing computer science training to under-represented kids in Memphis, where she focuses on organizational development, fundraising and finance. She has previously served as volunteer and Fundraising chair of the Memphis Chapter of Black Girls Code and is a member of the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals network. In 2015, Petya was recognized as Top 40 Under 40 by the Memphis Business Journal. In 2016, she was the first recipient of the State Farm Exist to Assist Community Service Award after being nominated by the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation.

Petya holds a B.A. from Sewanee: The University of the South and a M.A from Penn State University. She lives in Memphis with her husband and daughter.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I came to the States in 1999 as an international student to study political science at a liberal arts college in TN. It was my very first trip outside of my native Bulgaria but, as strange as that may sound, I immediately felt at home. I needed to tell SOMEONE about what I was seeing, learning, thinking, experiencing. Everything just felt so interesting to me. This was slightly before MySpace, Friendster and other social media networks had started popping up but weblogs (blogs, for short) were gaining popularity. I took advantage of the fact that my liberal arts college encouraged us to take classes outside of our major and signed up for a digital arts class where I learned a little bit of HTML, which turned out was about all I needed in order to build a simple website for myself and start publishing. Over time, my site gained enough of a readership that by the time I went back to Bulgaria in 2006 and started looking for a job, I was able to walk into a couple of interviews at tech companies where the interviewers felt like they already knew me because they had been reading my blog for years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

We started CodeCrew in the summer of 2015 as a small summer program, teaching kids how to build mobile apps. We were already pinching ourselves because our pilot was being funded by the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation which gave us not only financial support but massive street cred with our kids. I guess we did a decent job because we were later approached by an even larger philanthropic organization that invited us to apply for a multi-year grant that would ultimately fund our forming a 501c3, hiring an Executive Director (my co-founder Meka Egwuekwe) and our first program staffers and set us on a path of growth and learning. We felt so incredibly grateful for the recognition but were also completely shocked at the support we were getting from the Memphis philanthropic community at such an early stage in our organization’s history. I remember telling myself at the time…. Remember this. People are always watching — even if you don’t know for sure who or why — and sometimes they will know that you are ready before you feel that you are ready. The experience has truly impacted the way I approach any project — big or small.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first thing we did as CodeCrew was a one-day event during which we taught mobile app development to middle-schoolers. The kids had had a great day and were having so much fun. The day culminated with demos of their apps in front of an adoring crowd of parents and volunteers. It was wonderful. So much so, that we got all the kids together for a group picture. My husband and I (didn’t have kids at the time and) were in charge of photographing the event and kept telling the kids, SMILE!!! SMILE!!! But they kept giving us these flat, no-expression faces… We eventually gave up. Audrey, my co-founder, who had been watching us struggle for a while finally took pity on us, came over and told us… Oh, by the way, middle-schoolers never smile in pictures because they want to be cool and they can’t smile and show that they had fun because that would be very much not cool. Phew. OK. Now we know to hire photographers who take spontaneous, unposed pictures throughout our events and we are even able to capture elusive middles-schooler smiles on camera.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

By design, we exist in order to create opportunities for those who have been excluded from the tech industry — people of color and women. Every class we teach has impact that carries way beyond our classrooms. Just a year ago, one of our students — Myiah — was a cashier at Walgreens and struggling to support her three kids. Right now, she is a lead developer for a Memphis startup and teaches coding classes with us as a way to pay it forward. She has so much more than a better job, she has a career that she finds stimulating and fulfilling. We are so proud of her.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Last year we started CodeCrew Code School — a bootcamp style code school for young adults. We are very excited about it and have been very thoughtful about creating a program that is both practical and rigorous. We are filling a massive gap in our local market, before we started our school, Memphis was the only city of our size that didn’t already have such a program. We feel confident in the skillsets of our graduates and support them into honing not only their technical skills but their softer skills as well. We also actively guide them through their eventual job search and are constantly looking for corporate and small business partners who are interested in hiring smart, talented and driven junior developers.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Who is?! It is so encouraging that this conversation has become mainstream but there is so much need for change: from the sheer numbers of women in tech companies or departments, to the rate at which we get promoted compared to our male peers and our pay levels. There are a lot of workplace issues, too, that are not unique to STEM that create disparities for women that are still unbelievably hard to overcome. For me, what makes the biggest difference is company culture… culture is the spirit of a place that leads good people to do better and discourages bad behavior by setting a tone of open mindedness, empathy, embrace of feedback and diverse perspectives. Bad culture, in contrast, makes good people behave poorly. I may be old fashioned but in my experience, culture is ultimately set and shaped by those at the very top.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

When I started in my first tech job in 2006, I remember being present for a project staffing discussion during which somebody suggested that a new male developer should be assigned to do the work even though he had no experience with the particular technology but he could figure it out. In the same breath, the same person suggested that a (more senior) female developer needed more projects under her belt before she got assigned something “harder” to work on. The conversation is still stuck in my mind because it illustrates a common assumption about men and women in tech… men are capable, just need an opportunity to demonstrate their capability; women need time to learn and gain experience. It is so subtle but so profoundly unfair because ultimately, one’s most important path to growth in tech is to figure things out by doing work that hasn’t been done before. My personal approach to dealing with this has been to volunteer to work on projects before being asked and getting comfortable with the natural discomfort of working through problems that are new and unfamiliar. I also always encourage my team members to take on work that feels like a BIG stretch.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Even though I wholeheartedly believe that changing the gender ratio in STEM is super important, I also like to point out that being one of very few is not necessarily a disadvantage if you are in an environment that is open and fair. In fact, sometimes being the only one (or one of very few) gives you an unfair advantage. By being different, you automatically contribute a different perspective to any conversation. What you have to do, however, is focus on cultivating a singular perspective and not fall under the spell of groupthink.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Lesson 1: Follow your nose. Earlier in my career I tried to come up with elaborate plans on what should come next. I quickly realized that a lot of the most exciting opportunities didn’t come along because I planned for them but rather because I dove into work that was new and unfamiliar but INTERESTING to me. To paraphrase Steve Jobs who famously said that you can only connect the dots looking backwards, don’t worry about whether every one of your moves makes sense. Just follow your nose, do work that peaks your curiosity and it will all make sense in the long run.

Lesson 2: Say yes and figure it out. You shouldn’t let your fear of failure prevent you from jumping into projects that you are interested in but unprepared for. In most cases, the most exciting work is to figure out something that hasn’t been done before. Which brings me to:

Lesson 3: It’s supposed to be hard. So what if it’s hard. It’s supposed to be! It’s called work and if something were easy, someone would have already done it. Nothing can beat the amazing feeling of struggling through a project and ultimately getting it done.

Lesson 4: Grow your network. I used to think that my resume was the most important part of my professional presentation but now I know that it’s how others will talk about your resume that is way more important. Take the time to create meaningful relationships with your coworkers and external partners so that they can speak knowledgeably on your behalf when you need them to.

Lesson 5: Be an upstander. My work through CodeCrew has been the biggest inspiration for me in committing to be an “upstander”… is a “person who has chosen to make a difference in the world by speaking out against injustice and creating positive change.” There’s nothing about your title, your position or your salary that prevents you from speaking up.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

As a leader, I strive to create clarity, enable autonomy and encourage recognition. If people are clear on what we are trying to achieve, have autonomy to do their work in ways that makes sense without being micro-managed and are properly recognized when they deliver, teams thrive.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are too many people who have helped me and it continues to amaze me how generous people can be. It seems that those around us are often quicker to see our talents than we are able to do for ourselves. I am forever grateful to my CodeCrew co-founder — Meka. When we started CodeCrew, we hadn’t known each other for too long but we had worked together for a little bit and I had shared with him how passionate I was about diversity in tech. At the time, I had little more than my own personal experience to speak of but he somehow trusted that I would be able to translate my passion into action and help build an organization. It must have been a massive leap of faith for him and that means a lot to me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

To me success means to bring goodness to the world, everything else is vanity. There is nothing better to me than seeing kids’ eyes light up when they have found themselves excited by an idea or a concept or have built something of their own. Nothing better than watching somebody discover their own intellectual confidence and then be celebrated for it in a community of peers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I was little, my dad would help me with math homework. Every time I got stuck, he would say to me, “When you don’t know what to do, do what you know.” I say this to myself every time I face an overwhelming challenge. I remind myself that you don’t have to know everything in order to begin and that, typically, after a few tentative steps, things start to feel clearer and a path does emerge.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

This is such an easy question for me to answer. I am tremendously inspired by Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments in Chicago and prominent business woman. Her work is so multi-dimensional and I truly admire her for finding ways to talk about business and justice in ways that don’t seem to make the two mutually exclusive. A few years ago she gave a now famous TED Talk about the importance of being color brave — recognizing racial injustice and being brave enough to address it. I have been profoundly changed by that talk and go through each day looking for opportunities to speak up, be a witness and do work that demonstrates that change is possible.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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