How One Hardware Startup Solved Silicon Valley’s “Woman Problem”
Other Machine has made gender equity a breeze
At Other Machine, a hardware startup at the base of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, 11 out of 21 employees are women. The list includes mechanical engineers, software developers and the CEO. In an industry notorious for skewed gender ratios and outright hostility to women, the balance is one of the first things a visitor to Other Machine notices. It’s also no accident; a commitment to gender diversity is at the core of the company’s DNA.
Other Machine’s primary mission is to put high-quality precision manufacturing technology into the hands of the masses. The two-year-old company’s first product, available since last October, is a tool called the “Othermill” — a relatively inexpensive device that can cut a variety of materials, such as wood, plastic or soft metals — into the precise shape desired. These objects can be anything from gewgaws to circuit boards.
Until very recently, computer-controlled mills were prohibitively expensive; a top-notch machine could easily cost between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars. But the Othermill takes full advantage of the same advances in miniaturization and processing power that have given us smartphones, drones and 3D printers. It retails for $2000 and is light enough to carry in one hand.
CEO Danielle Applestone sees the Othermill as the perfect empowering device for a time-constrained engineer looking to prototype a new part, or an Etsy shop owner eager to ramp up production of some key component, or any do-it-yourself dreamer cooking up a wild idea in a basement workshop. “Everyone can be a manufacturer,” says Applestone.
That empowering mission puts Other Machine at the heart of the “Maker” movement, that much-hyped intersection of DIY hobbyism and digital-era tools. Scores of similar startups abound in the Bay Area and beyond. It’s a Silicon Valley trope — give the people cool tools and watch them go crazy.
But what makes Other Machine stand out from its colleagues is how the company itself is an empowerment factory. Other Machine isn’t just building a tool to unlock creative potential through the “democratization” of manufacturing. It’s also building a corporate culture to achieve something even more desirable, to demonstrate how women don’t just belong, but are absolutely poised to flourish in a technology industry all too eager to make excuses for its testosterone imbalance.
“They called me the ‘mosquito,’” recalls Danielle Applestone, with a grimace.
“They” were some of her fellow graduate students in the material sciences lab at the University of Texas at Austin, where Applestone was pursuing a doctorate in the mid-2000s after receiving her bachelor’s degree from MIT. As lab manager — a position she had volunteered for — it was Applestone’s job to make sure that the lab’s 15 workers followed the proper protocols for disposing of hazardous waste and using the lab’s equipment safely.
The lab included advanced tools for analyzing potentially toxic chemicals and pressurized gases; the potential for a disastrous mistake was non-trivial. So Applestone made sure everyone followed the rules, with a relentless persistence that apparently stirred some annoyance from her overwhelmingly male co-workers. Her mere appearance would catalyze the muttering: “Oh no, here comes the mosquito.”
Applestone shrugs off the experience even as she recounts it, noting that other women she knows encountered obstacles in their careers that were “much, much worse.” And to be sure, when compared to some of the truly vile rhetoric that routinely confronts women who venture into traditionally male domains on the Internet, being likened to a mosquito might seem to carry just a tiny sting.
But ask any woman who has worked in the technology industry and you will hear tales of similar “micro-aggressions,” little digs that, over time, contribute to an unwelcoming atmosphere. Researchers who have studied the experiences of women in technology report that expectations for what are considered “appropriate” gender roles form very early on in life. The workers at Applestone’s lab were not used to having a woman tell them what to do. Study after study have shown that conflicts due to clashing assumptions around gender roles contribute a great deal to making Silicon Valley’s corporate culture seem hostile to women.
But there’s also a moral to the mosquito story.
“The thing that made the culture get better [at UT] over time,” says Applestone, “the thing that mattered, was that any time there was an issue, I brought it up with my boss, he listened to me, then he brought everybody into his office, and gave everybody a talking to, and things got better. We had to repeat that process a couple of times, but it made all the difference.” Exit surveys conducted by technology industry employers after women quit their jobs suggest that corporate cultures in which women feel unheard or disrespected is a major source of ongoing attrition — women leaving the technology industry and never coming back.
Interviews with Applestone and her employees, both male and female, reveal several different, potentially replicable strategies for nurturing a technology workplace that women find collegial and respectful — to the point that, as Other Machine web developer Cassy Jens told me, “I brag about it to my friends all the time.”
It starts with the hiring process. Applestone doesn’t just pick through the applicant pool that comes to her; she goes out and actively looks for qualified women.
There’s no question that the pool of applicants contains more men than women — a fact that undoubtedly makes it more difficult for a Google or Facebook to achieve gender parity than a small company like Other Machine. Yet Applestone reports that the culture she is creating has turned out to be a potent recruiting tool: “The ladies know where the ladies are.”
Some of Applestone’s initiatives are small, such as her determination to avoid obviously gendered language. (She recalls, ruefully, telling a couple of her employees that the company needed more “manpower” and then realizing she had made this comment to two women.)
Other efforts have more obvious impact. She screens potential employees for a quality she calls “technical empathy” — a capacity to think about the company’s product design beyond its technical merits, and instead, speak to a sense of “connection” with the needs and capabilities of consumers and co-workers, as well as the larger mission of the company. One of the benefits of putting together a team with high technical empathy, says Applestone, is that “there is not a mansplaining bone in our body.”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Other Machine’s corporate culture to emerge from conversations with its employees is the sense that at this startup, nobody is going to be labeled a mosquito. This is not a company where micro-aggressions will fly. This is a company where the first bedrock rule is that nobody gets interrupted, and the second is that everyone gets their say.
“The dynamic in meetings is the most important thing,” Applestone says, “because that is the thing that you do every day, every week — it is the reinforcement of what the culture is. You sit around the table and you speak — and the way you address others and the way they address you is reinforced every single day.”
Applestone says that “one of the most satisfying things” about being the founder and CEO of Other Machine is that she was able to personally write the Employee Handbook. With a wealth of experience dating back to her own struggle as a single mother in graduate school, she made sure things would be different, and better. “I was able to say I want this, and I want this, and I want this,” recalls Applestone.
When Other Machine’s Alana Yoel majored in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, she recalls that out of a total of 120 students in her “Intro to ME” class, “at most” 20 were women, and during her entire four years there, all but two of her professors were male. “All of the friends I did my homework with were men,” she says. “It was very intimidating.”
When Jens, the company’s web developer, was majoring in computer science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, only one out of 10 students in her classes were female. At her last job she was the only female software developer.
Yoel and Jens’ education and work histories are the norm in the tech industry. According to a recent analysis of Department of Labor statistics completed by the American Association for University Women (AAUW), in 2013 only 12 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computing professionals were women.
Even more perturbing, though the percentage of women in engineering jobs has been creeping up slowly over the last 50 years (from 1 percent in 1960 to 12 percent today), the percentage of women in computer science has actually fallen from its early 1980s peak. Even as women have surged towards parity with men in the fields of law, medicine and biology, in computer science women have been in retreat. The numbers released over the last year by Silicon Valley’s biggest corporations are abysmal. Only 20 percent of Apple’s technical workers are female. For Google, it’s 17 percent. Yahoo and Facebook: 15 percent. Twitter: 10 percent.
The explanation for how this state of affairs came to be is complex and contested. To date the best stab at putting all the pieces together is the AAUW’s 141-page report, released March 26 and titled “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing.” By far the most comprehensive look at recent research on gender diversity in the technology industry, the report doesn’t resolve easily to a single smoking gun. Indeed, just the act of summarizing it runs the risk of drastic oversimplification.
But when read with Other Machine in mind, some intriguing insights pop into focus. Perhaps most encouraging, the current comparative lack of gender diversity in engineering as compared to other sciences may actually be something of a historical accident.
The report cites the research of Amy Bix, a professor of history at Iowa State University and author of “Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women.” I called Bix up, and she told me that “the thing a lot of people don’t realize is that the history of women in engineering is significantly different from the history of women in either science or medicine.”
Women, says Bix, have always had a place — albeit small — in science and medicine. Women’s colleges such as Smith and Vassar boast a long tradition of teaching the sciences. The nursing profession offered a natural path to increasing female professionalization in medicine. Over the last several centuries, the occasional woman has emerged from time to time in various scientific fields. (Marie Curie being by far the most famous example, but not the only one.)
But the modern specialization of engineering, says Bix, traces its roots back to the military and heavy construction, two domains in which women were almost completely absent. “It’s no coincidence that the first engineering school in this country was actually West Point,” Bix says. The way it evolved as a discipline “made the link between engineering and masculinity much more deeply rooted than the link between masculinity and either science or medicine,” she says.
Deeply rooted, but not intrinsic. Applestone, for one, credits her career path to her childhood circumstances. As a kid who grew up poor in rural Arkansas, she simply didn’t know about the gender bias in science and technology.
Applestone was raised in an environment shaped in part by the fact that her father was constrained to a wheelchair when she was a child. He had a well-equipped workbench but limited ability to use it. Applestone was his proxy. When he conceived of a plan to retrofit the house so he could move around more easily, she executed it.
“My dad and I built everything,” she says. “I was so out of the norm I didn’t even realize that there was a women-in-tech issue. I just thought that if you could make things and show people that you were a hard worker, you could get pretty far.”
As a middle schooler, she learned during a two-week summer science camp that the state was about to start a new math-and-science magnet school free to anyone who could pass the stringent admission requirements. She spent the next two years doing everything in her power to ensure that she got accepted. “I just decided that’s what I had to do with my life,” she says.
She repeated the same single-minded process with the only college she applied to, MIT. She besieged MIT with supplementary application materials — a recording of herself playing guitar and saxophone; a photo portfolio of the horses in her neighborhood.
In graduate school she found herself solo-parenting a young son as she struggled to finish her dissertation. The ordeal forced her to quit graduate school twice before she could see it all the way through.
Now she feels a responsibility to pay forward all the encouragement she’s received from her mentors along the way. “If you are a woman anywhere where there isn’t equality, it is your job to do as much as you can possibly do to address it,” Applestone says. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to get out of it.”
There’s a resonance between Applestone’s formative experience — a father who encouraged her to pick up tools — and a life-changing moment cited by Alana Yoel, who operates the machines that make the parts for the Othermills. At an all-girls high school in Philadelphia, Yoel volunteered to lead a team in a national robotics competition. No one at the school hinted that this might be an inappropriate role for a girl; in fact, Yoel mused that she might not have been quite as eager to take on responsibility, or risk failure, if she had been part of a mixed-gender team with boys who might have had more preexisting knowledge about robotics. After starting college at Carnegie Mellon, she recalls thinking that her male colleagues seemed to have vastly more experience. “I felt like they were so far ahead of me. It was tough.”
But like her eventual boss, she persevered. “I liked the challenge of being one of the only women in the program,” she says, “I think I wanted to prove that I could do it.”
Midway through my second interview with Danielle Applestone in mid-March, a bell rung that could be heard throughout the entire building. Everyone stopped what they were doing, applauded, and then promptly returned to work.
“That means we just sold a machine,” says Applestone. “And that’s our thirty-second sale today, which makes today our biggest day ever.”
Thirty of those sales, Applestone explains, came from a single order from an educational institution, testament to the Othermill’s potential as not just a tool for making things, but as a tool for introducing people to the entire universe of advanced manufacturing.
Other Machine is a spinoff from an incubator called Otherlab, the brainchild of inventor prodigy Saul Griffith, a MacArthur Fellow who first met and mentored Applestone at MIT. Griffith obtained a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop low-cost manufacturing tools that could be distributed to high schools and spur interest in science and technology careers. “Reinventing shop class for the 21st century!” Applestone recalls.
Griffith offered Applestone the job of turning the DARPA grant into a working prototype. But the road got rocky, fast. Not long after the project started, the budget logjam in Congress that led to the “sequestration” debacle caused Other Machine to lose its DARPA funding. Applestone orchestrated a successful Kickstarter campaign to keep the company alive, and although she says it is on pace to sell enough machines to be “cash-neutral,” she’s still looking for the necessary venture capital investment to ensure sustained growth.
Yet the core notion of Othermill as an educational tool — something more than just a profit generator but a thing that could actually change lives — is likely key to Other Machine’s gender success story. It also jibes with one conclusion of the Solving the Equation report: that the opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives is especially meaningful to women.
“Many researchers,” states the report, “have found a perceived difference in the value that women and men place on doing work that contributes to society, with women, on average, more likely than men to prefer work with a clear social purpose… [Another report] found that the desire at age 20 to have a job that helps people is a very strong predictor of both women and men completing a major in the biological rather than the physical sciences or math and working in biological or medical occupations rather than physical science or engineering occupations at age 25.”
As Jens, the web developer, told me, “I wanted something that overlapped with ideas that I cared about.” That sentiment could have been lifted straight from the Solving the Equation report.
And maybe, if all goes as planned, the spread of tools like the Othermill, along with the increasing visibility of role models like Applestone, will mean that in the not so distant future the next generation of Cassy Jenses and Alana Yoels aren’t vastly outnumbered by men in their college engineering and computer science courses.
“When you make tools accessible to everyone,” Applestone says, “that necessarily means they are accessible to all genders. And if they are deployed in places where kids can learn how to use them when they are young — not just boys, but also girls, then more women will be exposed to them.”
“And they will realize, hey, this is awesome. Hey, this is a thing that is possible.”