USDS Alumni Network: Elaine Ho

When you join USDS, you become part of a community that extends to life after your tour of duty. In this blog series, we share the stories of USDS Alumni. Find out what they worked on, where they are now, and why you should join us!

Elaine Ho, She/Her, Senior Advisor, Office of STEM Engagement at NASA, previously Chief of Staff at USDS

Kelsey Hastings, USDS: What is your background and what were you up to before joining USDS?

Elaine Ho, NASA: I’ve spent my career in a lot of different places — the military, in private practice, and most recently in the federal government. While I’m a lawyer by trade, my career has evolved quite a bit as I developed an expertise in diversity and inclusion, change management, and government operations. Right before joining USDS, I had the incredible experience of working with Michelle Obama’s office, where I led the federal government’s implementation of her ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative.

Elaine Ho and Kelsey Hastings at the U.S. State Department before an event for women in STEM

KH: What made you decide to join?

EH: As I was wrapping up my time with the First Lady’s office, I started to wonder what else I could do in the government — particularly after such an impactful experience of working with Michelle Obama to help millions of girls around the world get a quality education. I had actually worked with USDS before when I was the Deputy Chief of Staff of the IRS, and helped to bring in a ‘SWAT team’ to fix a security breach. When I thought about how I could continue making the most impact for the most people, USDS was my top choice.

Elaine Ho and Marcy Jacobs (USDS Agency Lead at Veterans Affairs) at Grace Hopper Conference 2017

KH: What is your current role and what kind of work are you doing?

EH: After I left USDS last fall, I joined NASA. I’m a Senior Advisor in NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement whose mission is to build a diverse STEM workforce and inspire the next generation of innovators and explorers through NASA’s platform, with a particular focus on girls and students of color. My role is on the operations side, as I help NASA reimagine how they can best implement its STEM Engagement mission within their headquarters and ten space centers across the country.

Elaine Ho, Matt Cutts (USDS Administrator), and Anar Simpson (TechWomen Mentor) prior to presenting on a panel to women leaders in STEM from around the world

KH: How did you first get involved in diversity and inclusion?

EH: Diversity and inclusion has always been a personal and professional passion of mine. As an attorney in private practice I handled a wide range of discrimination cases while helping clients develop their D&I strategies. I then transitioned into government where I transformed D&I efforts for many federal agencies and offices, including USDS.

KH: We both know D&I is very important to focus and build on within tech. Why do you think the tech sector in particular needs more work in this space?

EH: I have worked in the D&I space in many sectors. For the tech sector D&I isn’t just a “nice-to-have” — it is an imperative. Women and people of color bring incredible talent to the table, but have persistently been underrepresented in tech — and it needs to change. While I could go on and on about why, three top reasons come to mind.

First, the tech sector is all about finding the next best idea, and research has long supported that D&I teams are the best at fueling creativity and innovation. Secondly, technology is an important vehicle that wants to reach a wide audience — and we know that our audience, whether at a local, national, or global level, is becoming more and more diverse. Having teams that leverage different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences will result in products that will better connect with all of us — not just a segment of us. And finally, none of this will work if the tech sector doesn’t also focus on how to build an inclusive environment where these different voices can be valued and where everyone can bring their full selves to work — and too often this is ignored.

None of this is easy, but it’s critically important. That’s what I loved about USDS. In government, we knew that we were going to tackle the hardest of problems, and we knew our users were going to be the American people and beyond. That meant we needed a diverse team to fuel the best ideas and ensure we were building products that would work for the most diverse population. At USDS, valuing D&I wasn’t just lip service, it was a key priority. Sure, we made our fair share of mistakes, but I’m grateful we had an environment where people felt empowered to call us out on it, and a leadership that was willing to listen and take action.

Elaine Ho with women leaders in STEM from Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, during a TechWomen event

KH: We know representation of women, and particularly women of color, in tech continues to be unacceptably low. What can we do to encourage young girls of all backgrounds to consider interests in STEM?

EH: Women have traditionally and persistently been underrepresented in STEM. We saw that first hand as we tried to recruit talent for USDS. To get, and keep, more women in STEM, I think the most important thing we need to do is to surround our girls — and boys — with positive female role models. Our kids need to see not just one or two, but many Melinda Gates, Grace Hoppers, and Katherine Johnsons. They need more Wonder Women and Captain Marvels alongside the Batmans and Supermans. But celebrities and comic superheroes aren’t the only source of role-models. We all can be. We can all help kids today see, read about, and interact directly with everyday women in their own lives — thriving as computer science students, software engineers, and math teachers. For a girl, seeing someone they can be when they grow up, makes a huge difference.

Elaine Ho with Jennifer Anastasoff (founding member and former head of people at USDS)

KH: What are you proudest of during your tour of duty with USDS?

EH: As the Chief of Staff at USDS, I oversaw the operational side of the organization. In other words, while I didn’t have the same technical background as the people we recruited, I brought a different superpower — understanding how to navigate the government bureaucracy, especially when it came to hiring and setting compensation. In tech, the pay gap for women and people of color is a well-known and persistent problem. And because the federal government generally uses your previous pay to set your government salary, I realized USDS was simply perpetuating this inequitable practice. But after combing through dense regulations, finding an unconventional way forward, and persuading the right champions, I was able to change course, and close the gap for USDS. As a result of that painstaking effort, USDS now has the means to give equal pay for equal work, and compensate individuals based on their experience and background — not merely their previous salary. I’m pretty happy with that!

KH: If someone was on the fence of joining USDS what would you tell them?

EH: If you have the opportunity to join USDS, that means you’re the best of the best. And if you’re not sure about joining, I’d tell you: I believe the old adage that life’s biggest regrets don’t come from the things you did — but what you didn’t do. Your country and the American people need you now more than ever. Nowhere else will you have the opportunity to make such a meaningful impact on so many. And…it’s not forever — it’s just a year or two. Just do it and you won’t regret it.

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Kelsey Hastings, digital marketing and content at U.S. Digital Service.



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