Marta Gaia Zanchi
Founder & Managing Director of Medinnovo, Lecturer at Stanford Medical School
Dr. Zanchi is Founder and Managing Director of Medinnovo LLC, a consultancy firm established to support the entrepreneurial community of Silicon Valley, and Lecturer with Stanford University’s School of Medicine in the Biodesign Program, where she participates in the strategic planning activities of the Biodesign Leadership Group and is the Lead Director of “Biodesign for Mobile Health,” an entrepreneurial course.
Under Medinnovo, Dr. Zanchi has worked as a consultant, advisor or Board member with companies in the cardiovascular, imaging and mobile health industry, for some in acting executive positions joining the leadership teams at critical times of the company’s earliest stages. She is an advisor to student teams at Stanford University and a mentor at StartX, a startup accelerator.
Extended biography below.
What got you into engineering?
My devotion has always been to improving health care, and my passion for engineering only stems from the latter. Early as a high school student, I contemplated becoming a medical doctor; however, I was fascinated by the potential for technology (and specifically, devices) to massively increase access to high quality health care.
Nearly two decades later, this is still the reason I am drawn to it. I had, of course, an affinity for science and a talent for its creative application to design and problem-solving. I love engineering because of its potential to improve life.
Describe a time you’ve felt discrimination in the workplace or classroom. How did you handle it?
I remember taking a seat in the front row of the auditorium of my first digital engineering class during my Master’s studies (in Italy). I arrived early, and the classroom was empty. As the instructor walked in, I turned back to see the auditorium filled of 150 young men, and a handful of women scattered along the rows of seats.
Yet it was never within the crowded space of a classroom that I felt discrimination. When discrimination happened, and I am happy to say it happened infrequently, it was in the small business meeting, in that one-on-one initial discussion with a new professional acquaintance. Generally the acquaintance was male; however, over several years I have experienced the same discrimination with few established female leaders as well.
The most challenging discrimination is the insidious and unspoken one, based on an assumption that I, as a young woman, cannot be as committed, or as confident, or as educated, or as decisive as a man can be.
I was someone to indulge in conversation with, and give advice to. Clearly, my ideas weren’t being taken seriously.
How did I handle it? I made my best effort to remain calm, considerate of the other person’s feelings, and courteous in my behavior. I made my best effort to conduct the meeting professionally and lead it to a productive outcome, which I believe is the only way to correct an intelligent person’s bias.
When the other person was ill disposed or prejudiced, and even when I was unable to persuade him or her otherwise, I remained determined not to have my own time wasted unproductively. In some situations, afterwards I simply resolved to never interact with the person again. I pick my own battles.
What are the biggest challenges you face today as a female in two male-dominated spheres: engineering and entrepreneurship?
We have to be very careful and remember that women are not “at war with men” to gain their rightful place in engineering and entrepreneurship. Ours is an effort to change societies.
Men are our allies in an historical undertaking to alter a centuries-old perception of female roles and female abilities in a world that has changed dramatically in a very short amount of time.
There are many historic reasons for the gender inequality: the traditional role of women in families, skills and educational differences, and several “male-oriented” professions continue to practice unconscious bias and stereotypes holding women back. Women remain grossly underrepresented at top leadership positions in large and small corporations, and it remains true that women are (or are seen) responsible for most of the child rearing and day-to-day household duties. Change has to happen within organizations as well as within the nuclear family.
We are making strides, but we have a long way to go still. In my experience, the biggest challenge has been to deal with unconscious gender bias, which if unaddressed may undermine any efforts we undertake. What this unconscious bias has meant, at least for me in my own career, is that sometimes I had to work harder to overcome first (negative) impressions and to prove myself.
Intelligent, open-minded men (and women!) worth doing business with might have some unconscious gender bias, but generally can and will see past it when you prove your talents and abilities. All others who don’t, simply are not worth doing business with.
You can educate a receptive audience, but you cannot fundamentally change someone who’s unresponsive. I believe that we will make true progress when we all recognize that women are not on a quest to “achieve justice and fairness” in their professions: equality is desirable for everyone in both communities and industry. Society is better overall when diversity is achieved.
What makes being a woman in tech worth it?
The work we do in engineering can have an enormous impact on society. It is this potential for impact that excites and exhilarates me. It just so happens that I am a woman in a male-dominated field, and this at times has added a layer of complexities on top. Bring it on.
What advice do you have for any girls pursuing a future in tech?
Play to your strengths, which you have many. Be confident enough to know that you are not inferior to boys pursuing a future in tech, and humble enough to recognize that you are not superior to them either.
Foster, with your leading example, an environment that praises directedness and intellectual honesty, and trust that your male or female audience is intelligent enough to use facts, rationality, and honest debate to work out the best outcomes.
Always be sympathetic with others, be them men or women, and not too quick to judge when you feel discriminated: remember, many biases are unconscious.
One of the greatest indicators of maturity is revealed in how you respond to the inexperience and the potentially offensive behavior of others. And when you find yourself struggling due to gender discrimination, find courage in knowing that your struggles will only make you even stronger.
In previous years, Dr. Zanchi was the Chief Executive Officer of RenovoRx, an Entrepreneur In Residence with The Angels Forum (TAF), the co-chair of the Connected Health Safety Initiative (CHSI), a Medical Device Fellow with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and has held positions as system design and product management engineer with privately held semiconductor and wireless technology startups (both acquired).
Dr. Zanchi is a top graduate in biomedical engineering (BS) and electrical engineering (MS, PhD) from Politecnico Di Milano (Italy) and Stanford University. Her work at both universities focused on the development of innovative medical devices and systems for the diagnosis and staging of diseases. She was awarded the Politecnico Di Milano’s highest student honor and two fellowships from Stanford University. She was trained in entrepreneurship (Ignite) and holds an award from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
When she is not engaged in the entrepreneurial community of Silicon Valley, Dr. Zanchi can be found enjoying life with (and, taking innumerable photographs of) her adoptive son, her foster daughter, and her husband of nine years.