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7 Role Models Inspiring SMB Tech Innovators

November is Inspirational Role Model Month. Who’s your tech inspiration?

Image via Shutterstock

Did you have a role model as a child? What about as an adult? A Psychology Today study of leaders and their supervisees shows that nearly all surveyed leaders reported ethical role models in their childhood. Yet the same study found that whether that experience transferred over to their own careers and supervision style depended on whether they had role models as adults.

For adults, inspirational role models most often take on the role of mentors — whether these are direct mentors who influence us or someone whose published work, philosophy, or lifestyle influence us long after they are gone.

November is Inspirational Role Models Month, and perhaps nowhere is finding the motivation to go forward and work hard — often through criticism and disbelief — as critical as in the field of innovation and technology. In this tough field, an experience shared by a person we respect and relate to, their very struggles, hopes, and wins, their way of thinking and mode of experiencing life become beacons of light on our own path.

Here is what successful tech entrepreneurs, innovators, and experts say about the inspirational role models (both legendary and contemporary) whose views “mentored” their own successful tech business or career.

Spoiler alert: no Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos below

James Burke

Image via Wikipedia commons

James Burke has been called “one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world”. A British science historian and broadcaster, he created and presented the popular television series Connections (1978), and its in-depth philosophical sequel The Day the Universe Changed (1985), about the history of science and technology.

Andrew Plato, CEO of cybersecurity advisory firm Zenaciti and a 25-year veteran of the information security (cybersecurity) industry who founded Anitian, one of the first security companies in the world, relates how Burke influenced his own tech innovation career:

“Burke’s groundbreaking 1978 series ‘Connections’ was supremely influential in my life. ‘Connections’ traced the origins of scientific and technological advances through history, demonstrating how breakthrough innovation was often the result of chance encounters, creative adaptions, and blind luck. Burke inspired my love of technology, innovation, and creativity. Moreover, Burke was an excellent communicator and inspired me to become a writer. Burke’s enthusiasm and creativity could make even the most boring topic engaging. I have modeled much of my own communication techniques after Burke, which helped me as a leader.”

Matt Cooper

Matt Cooper. Screenshot via ProBono Institute

Matt Cooper is General Counsel of Capital One Financial Corporation and a member of the company’s Executive Committee. He’s at the head of Capital One’s business department of 350 attorneys and legal professionals and is also the chairman of Octopus Investment, one of the most notable venture capital funds in Europe.

James Harford-Tyrer is a serial entrepreneur and founder of the luxury resale website, Cudoni. He’s come a long way from selling Henry Hoovers at age 12 to making the Forbes “30 under 30 Europe” retail & e-commerce list.

The reason for his success isn’t just having a role model like Cooper, but being fearless enough to reach out to his role model and turn it into a learning story.

“I look up to [Matt Cooper] more than anyone. The proudest moment of my career was when I managed to convince that man to a) let me in his house for a coffee and b) when he convinced himself to invest in the business and has done so in every subsequent fundraiser. The biggest milestone for me has been getting him as chairman.

“It’s the fact that when I think about how I want to model myself as
a leader, what he stands for is very unique. I think we live in a world
where there are lots of questionable ethics and the decisions that people
and leaders make, sometimes I question what the motives are. [Cooper] is
incredibly humble for a man who has achieved what he has achieved. He’s
very honest and taught me that feedback is a gift. He’s very happy to tell
me what I’m not good at rather than singing my praises. I’d love to achieve half of what he has achieved but more importantly in the way he’s gone about doing that.”

Anita Borg

Image via Wikipedia commons

A 20th-century pioneer of computer science, Anita Borg went on to found the global nonprofit organization Institute for Women and Technology and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. However, her own journey into programming was self-taught during her tenure at a small insurance company in the ’60s.

To this day, both her achievements and her educational legacy inspire men and women in technology. One of them is Eric McGee, Senior Network Engineer at TRGDatacenters.

“Anita Borg is one of my biggest role models and has been a major source of inspiration for me throughout my journey in tech. I’m in awe of all the things she was able to achieve within tech at a time when women in tech were unheard of, and she is one of the main reasons I chose to study computer science at undergraduate and Masters’ levels. I came across her story and accomplishments when I was still in high school, and it left a profound impression on me that has remained to date. I may not be a woman, but I found her story so relatable, and her accomplishments so immense because she was a lone wolf in this enormous field.”

Carter Milliken Reum

If you’re not into tech, you may best know Carter Reum as the husband of Paris Hilton. But tech-savvy entrepreneurs will know that paired up with his brother, Courtney Reum is the author behind the business bestseller ‘Shortcut Your Startup: Speed Up Success with Unconventional Advice from the Trenches.’ A former Goldman Sachs investment banker, investor, and entrepreneur, it’s not just Reum, but his book that has become the role model for startup entrepreneurs.

Kevin Miller, a digital marketing expert, former Google employee, entrepreneur, and angel investor recently named “Entrepreneur of the Year” in the 2021 American Business Awards shares:

“I grew to become an entrepreneur and investor myself after following Reum’s tips. This book provided a tremendous amount of insight into entrepreneurship that helped me give my business a competitive edge. The unconventional nature of the advice given helped me understand the major components needed for scaling my SEO agency upwards and fairly quickly.”

Ada Lovelace (née Byron)

Ada Lovelace. Public domain via Wikipedia

We generally associate the name of Lord Byron with some of the greatest English poetry. But in a twist of fate, his daughter Ada would become known as the first programmer in the world and the first to explore technology (in particular Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the unrealized precursor of the modern computer) not as a mere calculating machine but as a social collaborative tool.

Ada Lovelace may have lived two centuries ago, but she remains a powerful feminist tech figure in the modern world. UX designer at SaaS company MightyCall Victoria Bachina feels equally inspired by the pioneering thought and strong-willed determination of Ada Lovelace.

“As modern women in tech, we can learn a lot from Ada’s persistence and unwavering dedication to her work. If in 2021 we still have to rip through the thorns of patriarchy in STEM, we can imagine what it meant for Ada to pursue her research and push for its publication as a woman in the 1840s-50s. It’s an incredible inspiration that despite her short lifetime, she went on to become not just a talented mathematician, but an insightful and creative thinker whose visions for what became computer science were a hundred years ahead of her time.”

Lara Hogan

Lara Hogan. Screenshot via larahogan.me

Lara Hogan is an engineering leader and the author of several books, including Designing for Performance (O’Reilly, 2014), Building a Device Lab (Five Simple Steps, 2015), and Demystifying Public Speaking (A Book Apart, 2016). From being a self-taught front-end web developer to nailing the Engineering Director position at Etsy and VP of Engineering at Kickstarter Hogan went on to become a prized mentor and role model in the tech industry.

Theirs may be a long-distance mentorship relationship, but Hogan remains an inspiration for tech entrepreneurs like Cindy Corpis, CEO of SearchPeopleFree.

“Lara wears many hats with equal perfection and is a role model for every woman. She was the one who made me believe that it is never too late and one shouldn’t be restricted from trying new things. I was enjoying a stable career when I decided to start SearchPeopleFree. Many warned me as many did back then when Lara decided to learn coding, which is considered a man’s world. But, we both listened to our hearts and enjoyed our ventures to the fullest.”

Angie Chang

Angie Chang. Screenshot via GirlGeekX

One of the “Most influential women in technology” according to Fast Company, CEO and founder of “Girl Geek X” Angie Chang is a modern-day inspiration for women in the tech industry. Girl Geek X is a platform for connecting and inspiring women in tech that hosts live and online events, fosters connections, and empowers women in technology. She was also VP of Strategic Partnerships at Hackbright Academy, a women’s engineering school which has graduated over 500+ female software engineers.

Adam Korbl, a seasoned digital entrepreneur Founder and CEO of SaaS companies Amplify Ventures, Fill App, and iFax, shares that Chang is a mentor figure beyond gender roles and it’s her advice that has led him to tackle the unknown in starting his tech companies.

“Starting a [tech] company is never easy. I’ve struggled with trouble, afraid to
lose, afraid to fail, but then I looked up to Angie and saw her incredible
work, then I realized and learn from my mistake and keep going.

“She used to say, ‘Be curious. Learn new things. Get to know new people. Follow your gut and delve into the unknown. Google things. Ask around. Pitch your startup idea to anyone who will listen, then improve your pitch. Find like-minded people who are nothing like you so you can learn to anticipate and deal with them. Do the hardest thing. Think big’. And that is how it hit me, those words may sound simple to someone, but trust me, learning to ‘Think big’ is a whole process. Is it difficult? Yes; but is it worth it? Yes.”

Final word

Have you noticed how, in the above quote, Chang spells out a piece of advice that feels quite odd?

“Find like-minded people who are nothing like you”

This apparent oxymoron is, in fact, key to some of the best learning, mentorship, and role modeling we may receive. An inspirational role model should be someone we relate to on a deep level, but also someone bold enough to thrust us out of our comfort zone — be it through their words, their battles, or their living example.

This Inspirational Role Model Month, let’s find someone like that in our life — a mentor either through space and time, or one next door — who will support our goals and push us to conquer the unknown.

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