Industry Watch

Women (Heart) Tech

How women leaders in technology are encouraging girls to enter the field

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Minnesota’s technology sector is gathering steam. Last year, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data pegged Minnesota’s tech-job growth rate higher than any other state — ahead of California, Washington state, Texas and other established tech hubs. But rapid job growth doesn’t mean equal opportunity. Though gender inequality is an issue in many local industries, it’s particularly stark in the technology sector.

Minnesota’s business community is responsible for more than its fair share of innovations. Why shouldn’t a drive to improve access and inclusivity start with our ascendant tech companies, entrepreneurs and inventors?

We turned to three of the field’s brightest leaders for on-the-ground insight into what’s already being done, what more needs to be done, and what ambitious young women with interest in STEM disciplines can do for themselves. 

Heather Manley: CEO of Minneapolis-based IT consultancy On-Demand Group, founder/president of Heather’s Dirty Goodness Inc. (spice rubs) and Crooked Water Spirits (craft spirits), and past president of the National Association of Women Business Owners Minnesota chapter

Shawn Stavseth: senior director of product development at Edina-based Bluespire Marketing and executive director of Technovation[MN]

Kristen Womack: director of product at Minneapolis-based LeadPages, co-ambassador at Twin Cities Geekettes, co-founder of Hack the Gap and board member/sponsorship chair at Mpls MadWomen

Diverse Perspectives at Work

Womack: When building teams, I build for diversity: diverse skills, diverse experiences, diverse backgrounds (including age, gender and ethnicity). I’ve learned that diverse teams are stronger — they have a flywheel effect, attracting and inspiring greater volumes and varieties of quality ideas. Being open to women’s authentic leadership styles can bring a lot to the table, including not losing the ideas they have to offer. 

Manley: In our industry, every point of view is valuable. At NAWBO Minnesota, I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of driven women business owners who push the boundaries of what’s possible in their respective industries and contribute tremendous value to Minnesota’s economy.

Stavseth: I’m a creative, right-brain thinker by nature. At Thomson Reuters [where Stavseth worked for 17 years prior to Bluespire], many of my colleagues were more analytic, left-brain types. Though it took a lot of practice, working in that environment was ultimately invaluable — I learned how to communicate effectively with different types of people and formulate my thoughts in a linear, objective fashion, which had previously been a challenge.

Early in my career, I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that I was one of the only women at the table. I did become more conscious of it later. To their credit, Thomson Reuters and other big companies are really trying to increase diversity, which has benefits for everyone — problem-solving is more effective when everyone isn’t saying the same thing.

Mentoring & Education

Manley: I didn’t have many female mentors growing up, outside of my mother. My three-year tenure as NAWBO Minnesota president taught me that our state has a great community of no-nonsense women business owners absolutely committed to supporting one another. I’m honored to be a part of that community.

Stavseth: At Technovation[MN], local technology professionals mentor small teams of middle and high school girls as the girls develop apps for the Technovation Challenge. It’s incredibly rewarding to see these relationships develop — almost more so for the mentors.

Speaking of rewarding: Last year, one of our teams made it to World Pitch in San Francisco [Technovation’s “finals”]. That was amazing.
Womack: There’s a difference between mentorship — providing advice and guidance — and sponsorship. Sponsorship is a social structure whereby senior people reach down and help their protégés differentiate themselves. For instance, a sponsoring executive might ask a particular subordinate for help with a complex project.

In the tech industry, sponsorship networks are male-dominated for multiple reasons, one of which is that it looks weird and problematic for male leaders to sponsor younger women. People ask, “Why are they working so closely? Why are they getting a drink after work together?”
Twin Cities Geekettes and MPLS MadWomen [a group of women igniting conversations to bridge the gender gap in creative fields] are partly about promoting sponsorship for women.

Networks & Partnerships

Manley: Heather’s Dirty Goodness grew out of clutch partnerships. Initially, it was just me experimenting in the kitchen. I managed to convince Kowalski’s to sell the original lamb rub. I was fortunate to have a personal connection at Supervalu who introduced me to a buyer who was willing to take a risk and stock [Heather’s Dirty Goodness’] entire line at most Cub Foods stores. And a win at the World Food Championships in Vegas in 2013 and 2014, plus an FYI Network special filmed simultaneously in 2014, were huge for our word-of-mouth network.

Stavseth: When you work at a big company like Thomson Reuters, your network — to a large extent — exists within that company. Before I left, I intentionally began building an outside network in the Twin Cities tech community, largely by attending events around town. At MinneDemo [an annual “demo day” event by minne*], Matt Johnson [a Minneapolis-based social entrepreneur] stood up and said “If you’re interested in helping young girls learn to code, tweet me.” I did, and within weeks, we’d launched Technovation[MN].

Womack: My community-building activities are central to my professional identity. This past October, Twin Cities Geekettes had a mod programming “hack night” to design a Battleship game — a fun, challenging experience. It was wonderful to see connections being made before our eyes, and to see everyone so fired up afterward.

Pushing Your Personal Boundaries

Manley: Early in my career I learned the value of speaking up — even if it feels like it’s not your place. If no one tells you things are not working, how can you make it right?

Prior to joining On-Demand Group, I worked at a printing company for several years. I brought some issues to the attention of the company’s leadership, not knowing how they’d react but knew the issues needed to be addressed. Within weeks, they promoted me to general manager. That wasn’t my goal, but the honesty and engagement was appreciated and valued.

Stavseth: Technovation[MN] is really all about pushing your personal boundaries. We see big differences between middle and high school teams: The middle school girls come in energized, ready to break the mold and change the world; the high school girls are more cautious.

Clearly something happens between middle school and high school. We’re not sure what, but the power of pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box is indisputable. Great things happen when you do. 

Womack: Prior to LeadPages, I led a product team at Best Buy. The team was structured as a sort of a startup in funding and end-to-end business operations, including engineering, marketing, but still had some of the bureaucratic obstacles you’d find in any large company. I decided I’d have more of an impact elsewhere, which is why I transitioned to LeadPages — definitely a change in direction that wasn’t without its own challenges, but one that I’m glad I made.