Founder & CEO of ChickTech
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin and I don’t remember my school teaching us a lot about career development. Back in elementary school though, I wanted to be a writer and then in middle school I wanted to be a mathematician because no one else wanted to and I thought “well I can do that”. Then in high school I wanted to go in to international business.
Was there a specific event or program that influenced you to pursue a STEM field?
I ended up going to college to study engineering because I was always super good at math and my grandma told me that it would be a good field for me. There were also a lot of scholarships that were only available if I studied engineering which was important to me because I had my son when I was sixteen. I wanted to make sure that I could pay for both college and daycare because my parents weren’t supporting me at the time.
Can you tell us a little about ChickTech?
ChickTech is a national non-profit organization giving women opportunities to thrive in STEM fields. We are in 27 chapters across the country and Canada with about 1,500 volunteers. We focus on building a tech-pipeline to get amazing girls who aren’t thinking of themselves as technologists to change their minds about who they are and what a technologist “should look like”. We are also piloting a ChickTech college program this year to build a community and connections for college women in STEM majors. The ChickTech team has all these amazing connections so if we can link college women with industry women, these students have a much better chance at finding companies that will treat the right and respect them. Once women are in the industry, we host ACT-W conferences and meetups throughout the year to maintain that network of women who can support each other in STEM.
Have you ever been treated differently in your career because you were a woman?
When I was in college, I was often discriminated against by other women because I was pregnant as a student. Once I graduated with a degree in computer science, I then worked for a what I very kindly call the “worst company in the world”. There, I experienced blatant sexual harassment– men would touch me and speak to me inappropriately right in front of clients. Even when I told the higher-ups in the company, they ignored me and tried to brush the issue under the rug. I decided that I had to quit even if I didn’t have a backup plan because I was just so emotionally drained from issues at work.
I went back to school to earn my MBA with a focus on sustainability. Afterwards, I started volunteering at an organization to help minorities and girls pursue technology fields and fell in love with what I was doing. All of these experiences combined lead me to create ChickTech, a resource that would make women feel powerful in an industry where I had felt powerless.
How have you seen the STEM community evolve in terms of inclusivity over time?
It’s hard to tell because there is a lot of talk and not much action so there is less change that some might think. What people sometimes forget is that even though gender diversity is an issue in STEM, you can’t just fix one industry; you have to focus on the workforce as a whole. I understand that it’s hard though. On the hierarchy of things that a company can focus on at once – sales, marketing, development – gender diversity just seems less important. Even in the companies who do work towards building an inclusive workplace, a lot of men still have unconscious bias against women. Overall, I still think there is a lot to be done.
What's is one important message you Would give to girls pursuing STEM?
I remember back in college, every term, I would buy new clothes, notebooks, etc. and I would struggle to choose between the “girly” stuff and the “masculine” stuff. I would end up picking the more masculine things because I wanted to fit in with the students in my computer engineering classes. In hindsight, I really wish I didn’t do that because worrying about others’ opinions just ended up making me unhappy.
What I’m trying to say is that fitting into stereotypes does you and the industry a disservice because we need diversity. When you finally find a community where you no longer feel isolated, bias will be put into perspective and you’ll realize it’s not you, it’s them because you are perfect.