Samantha Walravens ’90, co-author of Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech (St. Martin’s Press), discusses how women are making their own opportunities in the supposedly male-dominated Silicon Valley.
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TRANSCRIPTCarrie Compton: Hi, I’m Carrie Compton. Today I’m speaking with Samantha Walravens, Class of 1990 and co-author of Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech. Walravens is an expert on work-life balance and writes for Forbes, The Huffington Post, and Disney Interactive. She is the editor of the 2011 anthology Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood.
CC: Samantha, welcome.
Samantha Walravens: Thank you for having me.
CC: Absolutely. So, let’s start with painting a picture for our listeners here about what the climate is like toward women trying to work in Silicon Valley, especially in tech.
SW: Sure. So the way I like to put it, Carrie, is if you’re a woman, let’s say just out of college and you’re arriving in Silicon Valley, maybe you’re starting your first job. And you open up the newspaper or your web browser and read some of the headlines about women in Silicon Valley, you get back on the train, or you run for the hills, and go back to where you came from. So, the picture painted in the media about women in tech, and especially women in Silicon Valley, is pretty ugly. You know, every quarter or so there is a new story about a woman that has been harassed or experienced some form of sexism, often subtle but sometimes overt. So recently there was Susan Fowler who was an engineer at Uber who wrote about her tremendously horrible year working as an engineer and being propositioned by her boss over and over again, and then being shut down by human resources when she reported it. So those stories are very much in the mainstream. And these stories are important. I’m not discounting it. Women need to tell their stories. And companies need to respond.
But the problem is that these stories are keeping women out of technology. So the other side of the story that people don’t tell is the story that we tell in Geek Girl Rising, which is about the women in Silicon Valley and in tech hubs across the country: Women who are starting companies, they’re investing in other women-led companies. They’re building these networks of support that we call “the sisterhood,” or “the girls’ club,” to help each other succeed and to really stake their claim in this digital revolution that’s happening today. And these are the stories we want to tell because these stories are often overlooked and replaced by the more salacious, you know, juicy stories of sexism and harassment.
CC: Absolutely. That’s very much something that gets highlighted a lot in my field of vision anyway. I come across those stories a lot. So your book does definitely tell a story that is not being told. I’m curious. What led you and your co-author, Heather Cabot, to write this book?
SW: Sure. Yeah. You know I call myself a “first generation Silicon Valley girl.” So, I started working in Silicon Valley in 1995, which dates me.
SW: Yeah, it dates me. But I was a reporter for PC World Magazine in San Francisco, and I was covering the rise of the dot-com companies like Netscape, and Yahoo, and eBay, the very, very beginnings of the Internet when consumers were just having access to — you know to search the web. So I reported for PC World. And then I got the Internet bug and I went to work for a start-up in Redwood City called Tumbleweed Software, which went public in 1999 right before the dot-com bust. So we all saw our fortunes rise on paper and then disappear into nothing within a matter of months. So it was a really crazy time, and many of my closet friends today are from those days of working in the Valley.
So, the inspiration for the book though came a couple years back. It was 2013. I was having a conversation with a friend who’s been in Silicon Valley for 20 years now. She’s one of the dot-com survivors. And at the time, she was heading up a sales division at a start-up in Silicon Valley. She had just had her performance review. Her sales team had hit their numbers out of the ballpark, but her manager, she told me, was more interested in sharing with her comments from her team and from her colleagues that she was too aggressive, her manner was too abrasive; and he asked her if she could tone it down a little bit because she was scaring people around her. And then he also proceeded to tell her that they had complaints about her makeup. She’s a beautiful woman, she wore makeup and jewelry, and he asked if she could tone down what — her outfits a little bit as well.
SW: So, yeah. She was horrified. Needless to say, she didn’t stick around long at that company. But that conversation spurred me to explore this issue. She wanted me to write about her story. And I said, “Before I write about your story, I’d like to research [and] talk to some other women and see what’s going on.”
And this was really before the Newsweek article about sexism in Silicon Valley, and before the Ellen Pao [’91] trial, and before this issue was part of the mainstream media. This was before that. So I start reaching out to women in the Valley and also in New York, in Silicon Alley and around the country to hear their stories. And I saw a pattern emerge. And what I saw was that while yes, many of these women had experienced some form of sexism at work, whether it was overt, or unconscious bias, death by a thousand cuts, they wanted to talk about their companies that they were building. There were entrepreneurs who were building artificial intelligence companies. They were investors who were investing in women who were building robotics companies. They were developing these new next-generation technologies.
And they were like, “Yeah, we’ve experienced this. Most women have. But let me tell you about the company I’m building.” So they wanted to share how they have overcome these obstacles, not dwell on the negatives, right? So I teamed up with Heather. Soon after I started interviewing these women, I reached out to Heather and she said, “Hey, you know I’m kind of working on this topic myself. I’ve been interviewing women in — she’s in New York — in Silicon Alley, and in the entrepreneurial space.” And we ended up partnering, and here we are 40 years later, Geek Girl Rising is finally coming out.
CC: Wow. Fantastic! So tell the listeners a little bit about, a slice of what you found out from some of these women.
SW: So one of the founders we interview, Tara Reed, started a company called Apps Without Code. And she told us — she said the dirty truth about being an entrepreneur, and especially a tech entrepreneur, is that is can be really lonely. So what we found is that finding a community, finding your tribe, as a founder is so critical to be successful in this world. So the good news is that over the past few years, a number of groups have popped up around Silicon Valley and beyond to help women and support them in their entrepreneurial and technology journeys.
So we saw — just to give you a couple of examples — we saw this sisterhood in action in spaces like — in accelerator programs, like Women’s Startup Lab, which is in Menlo Park. I spent a week down there with eight female founders and they spent two weeks — I was there for a week of it — they spent two weeks getting trained on how to develop their pitches, on actually developing their products. They were connected with mentors and advisors and investors. And the two weeks ended up with a pitch deck where they would pitch their companies to actual investors in Silicon Valley. So this kind of support system is so crucial to actually following through as an entrepreneur. And we also saw the sisterhood like, on college campuses for example. Stanford has a program she++, which is women in engineering, and they have a gala every year. And these women are just incredibly excited and smart and there to help each other to feel not so alone in what they’re doing. Because the fact of the matter is, there are fewer women in tech than men and it’s hard to succeed when you feel like you don’t have support. That’s one of the big takeaways.
CC: Did you get these impression that these women are — are they vocal about having a different experience or are they focused on something else? Are they very optimistic?
SW: Yeah, they’re really optimistic. The she++ women at Stanford, what their program is interested in — because what they do is they partner with high school girls across the country, and they work with — remotely — they work with these high school girls to start programs in the girls’ local communities. So just to give you an example, I have two daughters who are 9 and 13. There is a high school senior at Tam High School in Mill Valley, which is you know five minutes down the road from us. And she started an after-school robotics program in my hometown of all things, in Tiburon, California. So my girls go after school and they build robotics with other girls. And they love it because it’s all girls. And they feel like they can experiment, they can play. Their robots don’t work, they don’t mind. They don’t feel like they’re failing or — you know, it’s okay.
So but this high school girl who partnered with the Stanford students to start this program — so there’s so much energy in, not just creating communities but to pay it forward and to try to inspire the next generation of girls to try out technology. Because you know it’s really fun.
CC: Right. So as a woman, hearing all of these stories, what kind of effect did writing this book have on you? What was — what really resonated for you?
SW: Yeah. You know one thing that really stuck with me as I interviewed all of these different women is that one thing that is really holding women back in the tech world is the fear of failure and of making mistakes and always trying to be perfect. And the fact of the matter is is that computer science and engineering is not an easy field. Being an entrepreneur and starting a company is not easy. And you’re going to experience setbacks. You’re going to experience failures. In school, you’re not always going to get an A in that computer science class. And the women who are really smart sometimes shy away from coding because they don’t want to fail.
So there’s a great story in the book about a woman named Dona Sarkar who is — she’s currently a software engineer at Microsoft. And she talks about experiencing failure — and not just the fear of failure but she actually fails her first computer science class in college. And she was at the University of Michigan, and she said was too afraid and too embarrassed to raise her hand in class because she was one of the only women in the class, and it was all guys, and they were all know-it-alls. And she said many of them had taken AP computer science in high school. She had never taken a coding class. And she was embarrassed to raise her hand so she ended up failing the class. And she said, “It’s kind of like riding a bike. You know, when I started — when I learned to ride a bike as a kid, I fell off and I skinned my knees and I cried and I said I would never get back up on that bike again. But I got back on. And guess what? Now I can ride a bike.” She said she got back and she took the class over again and got a B+ and she ended up majoring in computer science, and then, is now working at Microsoft as an engineering lead.
So, you know, the message we have in our book for women is, “Don’t give up on your goals.” If it doesn’t work the first time — you know, it’s like, “I ran a race. I wanted to win first place, but I came in second so I quit running.” You know, a lot of people don’t go for things because they’re afraid they are not going to succeed. So what I’m trying to teach my two daughters is you know — take the risk. Be bold. It’s OK to make mistakes. And that’s how you learn. That’s how you get ahead.
CC: Yeah. Absolutely. Are there any other overarching themes that you expect that or you hope that readers will take away from your book?
SW: Oh, there’s so many. You know the other big theme — the other big thing as a theme as I said earlier is to find your tribe. Don’t do it alone, whether you’re working as an engineer at a tech company or you’re starting your own business or you’re trying to take some coding classes in college. Find other woman in similar situations, and if the group doesn’t exist already, create your own group. So there’s so many groups and companies. We’re speaking at Google next week. And there’s a women-at group for women engineers. I mean, there’s no shortage of organizations and networks to bring women together. So you don’t have to feel alone. Find that support or create that support.
And the other method is really to not compare yourself to others. Another really great story in the book is about Tracy Chao who is a former engineer at Pinterest. And she talks about her experience in college feeling like the odd woman out in a computer science class. And she was, you know, getting surrounded by guys who are bragging about how quickly they finished their programming projects. And then one semester her professor asked her to be a TA for the class. And she said to the professor, “Are you sure you want me?” She got a B in the class. She didn’t feel like she was worthy or smart enough. She got a B in the class. He said, “Yeah, no, I want you.” She said, “Well, are you sure it’s not another Chao because there are a lot of” — I’m using her words — “there’s a lot of Asians in the class, maybe it’s another woman you’re thinking about.” He said, “No, I want you.” And she became a teaching assistant and she said she was able to read all the coding and the programming that the guys — who were so bragging about their, you know, their great code — she said she read over their code, and it was terrible. Her code was much more efficient, much less sloppy. And she realized that she had been suffering from this lack of confidence, this imposter syndrome that she wasn’t smart enough, and she was totally, 100 percent cut out for the job. And she went on to have a very successful career in Silicon Valley. So don’t compare yourself. Do your thing.
CC: Yeah. Very universal message. It almost applies to everything, not just technology.
SW: True. Yeah.
CC: So what’s next for you? What’s next for the book?
SW: So we’re traveling the country speaking, it’s interesting, you say it’s not just technology. We were asked to speak at Visa in June because a lot of the themes touch on sort of universal themes of building confidence, stepping outside your comfort zone, juggling work and family, all these themes that apply to many different industries. But for me, one of the best parts of writing Geek Girl Rising was getting to meet and interview so many incredible women founders and investors and innovators who are truly, truly building the future of technology. We have a column on Forbes. I’ll continue to write about these women on Forbes and also The Huffington Post and just spread the message and encourage women and girls to join this revolution. After that, I’m not quite sure, but I’m noodling around the idea — I also have two teenage boys — so I have three teenagers in my house now, and I’m noodling around the idea of writing a parents’ guide to surviving the teenage years [laughter].
CC: Oh boy. We might have to have another podcast on that topic.
SW: That’s a big topic. I’ve learned a lot of lessons and I’m still learning. I feel there’s not a fun sort of funny manual out there to help parents through this process because man, it’s full of a lot of ups and downs.
CC: Oh boy. I can only imagine. Well that sounds fantastic. I wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about anything we didn’t already discuss. Was there anything else you’d like to say?
SW: Yeah. You know, we have a lot of resources on our website — I hate to be promotional but it is — it is really our mission — our mission is really to inspire women to join the tech revolution. And we have resources on our website (geekgirlrising.com). So if you are thinking — if you have a daughter who is interested in technology, or maybe not even interested in technology, you can go to our website and find out some of the resources for tech toys that will inspire your girls in science and technology and engineering. There’s also resources for professional women, if you’re feeling like you need a meetup, you know, you need to meet some people who are in your area and you are just feeling kind of alone. You don’t have to be alone. That’s kind of my main takeaway is find your posse, find your tribe. You don’t need to feel alone.
CC: That’s great. Wonderful message. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I really appreciate it.
SW: Yeah. It was super fun. Thanks for having me.