Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “There is a misguided fear that immigration is a threat to values and culture; But as a society, we gain so much from the co-existence and celebration of diverse cultures” With Vidya Sundaram and Elisabeth O’Bryon of Family Engagement Lab
A lot of good would come from more people understanding and believing that diversity can be additive and not mutually exclusive. I think there is a misguided fear that immigration is a threat to values and culture. As a society, we gain so much from the co-existence and celebration of diverse cultures. And I know from my own experience that it is very possible (and an asset) to hold and honor my Indian and American values, even when they sometimes are in direct conflict.
As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vidya Sundaram and Elisabeth O’Bryon who are the co-founders of Family Engagement Lab, creators of FASTalk, an app that helps teachers engage diverse families to improve student outcomes. With a degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University, a Master’s in Public Policy from UCLA, and an MBA from UCLA Anderson School of Management, Sundaram has led software development at both consumer and enterprise Internet start-ups — and is the mother of two kids.
O’Bryon also balances motherhood and career. After earning her Ph.D., Elisabeth was a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Based on her experience providing psychological services to preschool through high school-age students in both English and Spanish, she recently co-authored 45 Strategies that Support Young Dual Language Learners, a resource that provides practical strategies for supporting children and families from diverse backgrounds and creating inclusive early childhood classrooms.
In this interview, Sundaram and O’Bryon talk about their career paths, reflect on their experience as women in STEM, and share five leadership lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Vidya Sundaram (VS): One of my favorite computer games growing up was Eliza, a rudimentary artificial intelligence program that simulated a therapy session. I remember it as my first introduction to software that mimicked the personal interactions I craved as a latch-key kid. Eliza even inspired my college engineering projects, including an electronic “date” with speech recognition. Eliza was a safe way to practice for the real world.
Years later, I became drawn to the idea of applying my experience with Eliza to improve family engagement. While working at an education nonprofit, I saw how families wanted to play a role in learning but didn’t know how, and wanted to learn from their child’s teacher. Yet, despite parents being the most important figures in children’s lives, communication between parents and teachers is limited and seldom connected to learning. In 2016, Elisabeth and I launched Family Engagement Lab to use technology in a way that strengthens the most important relationships needed for student success.
Elisabeth O’Bryon (EO): As a bilingual school psychologist, I worked closely with non-English speaking families who struggled to navigate the educational system because they’re unable to communicate directly with the educators making critical decisions affecting their children’s academic pathways. Many families withdrew, others expressed frustration. As a Spanish speaker, I was able to serve as an advocate, elevating parents’ voices and highlighting the value of authentic partnership. I continue this critical work today by helping teachers and diverse families effectively partner to support student learning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
EO: I think what has been the most interesting for me has been the opportunity to learn new skills. For example, I’ve learned a lot about fundraising, sales, and marketing. These are not the domains I was trained in as a school psychologist!
I’ve been able to learn a lot from Vidya and other team members and leveraged the knowledge and expertise of advisors and consultants we’ve worked with. I also am always trying to learn new information by doing my own research — something I definitely am trained in.
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?
VS: Because we do a lot of work with language translation, some of our funniest moments are when we come across things that literally get lost in translation. One day we were testing out automated translation of some early literacy activities for parents in different languages, and I sent my mother-in-law a message translated into Tamil. Later that day she came to me saying, “Oh this is so interesting, I didn’t know kindergarteners learn about punishment.”
I was thinking “What? That seems odd.” So, I went back to the original message, which read “In kindergarten, kids learn about sentences.” This automated translator had translated “sentence” as “punishment” with total disregard for the context. It was a really important lesson because the automated translation totally changed the meaning of our message and would have been really confusing for a parent receiving the message. Now, we primarily use professional translators!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
EO: I think our focus on using technology to support relationships makes our company stand out. Our goal is to leverage the benefits of technology to help build connections between two key dyads: parents and teachers as well as parents and their children. Technology provides the opportunity for FASTalk to send pre-loaded, pre-scheduled messages in their home language that convey key information from their child’s teacher about what their child is learning and how they can help at home. Teachers and families also use the two-way messaging feature to communicate, in their home language, at any time.
Importantly, FASTalk content is embedded with warmth and gratitude that acknowledges parents as assets and promotes collaboration around learning. Additionally, the tips and activities that parents receive are fun ways to engage and interact with their children. One parent from Oakland said that the messages helped them learn “new ways to engage my child with learning that are fun and interesting.” We know that FASTalk will only work well if the activities and conversation starters are fun and reinforcing for families. We’re encouraged to have created a solution that makes the cell phone something that is full of ideas for how parents can engage with their children — instead of a distraction that can pull them away.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
EO: One of the projects we’re working on now is improving FASTalk’s ability to reach and engage a large number of families in Oakland who speak Mam, a non-written language that is primarily spoken in Guatemala. Instead of receiving written messages, Mam-speaking families will receive a text message with a link to play an audio file to hear the translated tips and activities spoken aloud. The pilot program will offer the Mam messages initially in select kindergarten classrooms, and will then expand to support additional schools and grades in OUSD. This solution will help teachers and Mam-speaking parents regularly communicate and partner to support students’ success.
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?
VS: As a society we have a long way to go, not only in terms of women in STEM but in terms of broader inclusivity in STEM. Zooming in on technology developed for education, the population of students and families is becoming increasingly diverse. Yet the same applications are used in classrooms across the country. Tech developers must be continually mindful of the distinct and heterogenous needs of families, educators, and students.
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?
VS: Well, other than pumping breast milk three times a day, I think some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in engineering and tech roles are more pernicious than in-your-face. Technology-based innovation requires a fearlessness and willingness to take risks. But when women and even girls experience failure they’re more likely to attribute the failure to a lack of ability. While I’ve experienced this self-doubt, I was able to navigate it because of how my parents responded to my failures. They were confident that I could recover and do better and taught me a kind of persistence that I am grateful for every day. They taught me that even when things seem bad or difficult, you can always find a way to make it work. I think that helps me focus more on problem-solving through failures and setbacks. One of the best gifts a parent can give their child is seeing what they’re capable of — sometimes before they can see it themselves.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
VS: When I was entering my career, the pervasive thinking was that you can’t expect upward mobility in a tech job if you want to have kids. Or worse, pursuing a career would not be fair to your children. I’d love to dispel the myth that you’re a bad mother if you prioritize your career.
EO: I totally agree! With two young sons, I want them to see their mother prioritizing her career and doing big things, especially in a field that is typically dominated by men. Being that type of model for them is definitely part of how I define being a “good mother.”
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.)
- Accept that taking risks is an important part of leadership. VS: When I was early in my software career, I gave a presentation to convince my engineering colleagues to do a major refactoring of the code-base — a big change for everyone. Somehow, I worked myself into a place where I didn’t feel I was worthy of giving the presentation. I gave the presentation basically staring at my notes the whole time, which is very unusual for me — I love presenting! But I was afraid of leading the team in the wrong direction. I realized afterwards that it wasn’t that big a deal, and to relax about taking a risk. It’s part of the journey.
- Take your time to prepare. VS: I used to think the people I admired most in tough or high-stakes meetings were just naturally good at navigating those types of situations. Some people make it look so easy! While I’m sure some people are truly “naturals,” I have learned that preparation is key! It may seem counterintuitive, but rehearsing helps me feel more comfortable and natural. I ask for lots of help from trusted advisors, but Elisabeth is my favorite preparation partner.
- Listen, and put people’s advice in context. VS: People will give you all sorts of advice, but no one knows exactly what circumstances you are in. Listen openly to everything that people tell you. But before acting on advice, think about whether the advice fits your unique needs.
- It’s okay to not know the answer all the time. EO: This one I’ve struggled with a lot, especially coming from an academic background. Recognizing all that you do know (and being humble about what you don’t know) is key for a leader. The startup world is fast-paced and there are times you’ll feel very well-prepared and times that you won’t, but approaching new challenges with openness and confidence makes a huge difference.
- Set boundaries. VS: I have to set boundaries with myself. Sometimes I get really absorbed in problem-solving, and I find structures around my day really help me maintain a balance. But to stick to routines, I ask for a little help from my friends. For example, my friend across the country will text me regularly to make sure I’m getting exercise. It helps!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
EO: I think that strong relationships between leaders and their team members are essential in order for teams to thrive. My advice would be to take time to foster those relationships: share personal stories, and make connections with team members beyond the work that you are doing together. Our team members are all deeply committed to the values of our organization, especially around promoting educational equity. These are people I would want to connect with regardless of whether they were my colleagues. Lastly, I think being vulnerable is also important as you work on building strong relationships with your team. Talking about mistakes and challenges and how you’ve overcome them and what you’ve learned can be really valuable.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
We manage a pretty small team now, but ask us in the future!
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?
VS: it’s hard to name just one person because one of the things I’ve realized in a startup is that it really takes a village to achieve your goals!
EO: Definitely! The knowledge and skills needed to be successful with a startup are wide-ranging. We’re grateful to so many different advisors, team members, funders, and family who have helped us, whether it be around sales, marketing, fundraising, technology, or just testing early versions of FASTalk.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
EO and VS: We’re helping bring goodness to the world by promoting daily, positive interactions. We build warmth and connection between teachers and parents, and parents and their kids.
You are people of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
VS: A lot of good would come from more people understanding and believing that diversity can be additive and not mutually exclusive. I think there is a misguided fear that immigration is a threat to values and culture. As a society, we gain so much from the co-existence and celebration of diverse cultures. And I know from my own experience that it is very possible (and an asset) to hold and honor my Indian and American values, even when they sometimes are in direct conflict.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
EO: “The time is always right to do what’s right” ~Martin Luther King, Jr
This quote has been relevant in my life in many ways, especially when thinking about founding a startup — and the risk involved.
There are always reasons the timing may not be right (I’m about to have a baby, the funding may be uncertain, etc.), but if you’re doing important work, the time is right and it’s now!
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 :-)
VS: Mira Nair, Zadie Smith, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Indra Nooyi…
EO: It would be wonderful to be able to sit down with Marian Wright Edelman. I’d love to discuss ways that the importance of family engagement could be elevated in education policy. We need a systems-wide approach to disseminating information about the power of regularly engaging families in their home languages with information about their child’s learning and how they can support that learning at home. Policy is an important component of that approach.