By Stephanie Walden, Contributor
Women have been front-and-center participants in history-altering innovations for centuries. Public acknowledgement and celebration of their successes, however, hasn’t historically been on par with that of their male counterparts.
In 1987, the United States designated March as Women’s History Month to celebrate women’s contributions to history, culture, and society. The month is an opportunity to reflect upon admirable historical figures like Ada Lovelace, who created the first written instructions for a computer program, or Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, who invented the first computer language compiler in 1949. It’s also a chance to commemorate the massive groups of unnamed women who have shaped history—like the ~11,000 women codebreakers of World War II, or the hundreds of black women who worked as “human computers” during the space race of the ’60s and ’70s.
Today, there’s still much progress to be made when it comes to gender parity in tech. Women constitute about a quarter (24 percent) of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the U.S.—even though they’re half of the labor pool. They make up just 18 percent of chief information/chief technology officers, and just 10.3 percent of computer network architects. In high schools across the country, just 19 percent of students in AP computer science classes are young women.
Celebrating women making waves in STEM is one way to move the needle toward a more equitable future—and inspire younger generations. Below, we celebrate four modern-day innovators working at game-changing companies.
1. Empowering Other Women in Tech: Lauren Hasson, Founder of DevelopHer
DevelopHer is an award-winning platform helping women in technology break through glass ceilings. The socially conscious company helps women develop confidence, pursue STEM careers, and enact large-scale change to redefine gender roles in the workplace.
Founder Lauren Hasson has worked alongside some of the world’s most reputable tech companies and universities. In addition to founding DevelopHer, she’s a skilled software engineer who triple-majored in electrical engineering, computer science, and economics at Duke University.
Hasson offers two primary pieces of advice to young women who want to break into technology, both of which involve embracing proactivity: 1) Start before you’re “ready,” and 2) Build your network before you need it.
“I committed to building my network before I needed it.”
—Lauren Hasson, founder, DevelopHer
“I was able to go from brand-new engineer with no technical experience to top of my field in less than two years because I stepped out—despite my fears at the time—and participated in a local hackathon,” explains Hasson. One hackathon led to another—as well as valuable networking opportunities—and in a relatively short time period, Hasson found herself invited to high-profile events like South by Southwest and the U.K. G8 Innovation Summit.
Building a network of other strong women in tech has also proved critical for Hasson. “I committed to building my network before I needed it. Because I did this, I’ve leap-frogged my peers, received amazing opportunities and promotions, and even been invited to attend the United Nations,” she says.
2. Bringing Blockchain to the Masses: Stephanie So, Co-Founder of Geeq
Geeq is a budding blockchain startup backed by a proprietary “Proof of Honesty” validation protocol, which helps establish a secure platform for large-scale, decentralized commerce.
Co-founder Stephanie So thrives on thinking outside the box. “I will go outside of traditional boundaries to experiment with and find the tools that help me get to the desired outcomes. I don’t feel bound by tradition; in fact, I chafe at it. I’m a very nice, reasonably well-behaved rebel.”
“Find a problem you want to work on. And interview the people you will work with.”
—Stephanie So, co-founder, Geeq
Despite this “rebellious” attitude, discipline is a key part of So’s approach to innovation, particularly in the Wild West environment of emerging technology. “There are some parts of the economy that are really suffering that can be helped by blockchain technology. Geeq has managed to attract people who are like-minded in the sense that “we all understand these problems can’t be solved by throwing money at them—they have to be solved in stages,” she says.
For other women who want to work in emerging tech, So says it’s important to consider the core motivating factors. She stresses that finding work you enjoy—versus work that simply pays well or comes with prestige—is critical. “Find a problem you want to work on. And interview the people you will work with. Don’t go into a toxic environment with your eyes closed,” she says. “My hope is that young women today have more choices, and that they do not have to have a passive mentality.”
3. Pioneering Healthcare Tech: Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi, Lead Pharmacist, CEO, and Co-Founder of Honeybee Health
Honeybee Health is an online pharmacy that provides direct-to-consumer prescription services, allowing patients to access medications at a much lower cost than they’d find at traditional pharmacies. Co-founder Jessica Nouhavandi, Pharm. D. hopes to build a future in which buying prescription medications is a manageable everyday expense—no more daunting than buying a tube of toothpaste.
As a woman working in health-tech and pharmaceuticals, Dr. Nouhavandi notes that male-centric mentalities have pervaded her career. “I have experienced subtle ways in which the industry remains laden with assumptions,” she says. For instance, when she and her male co-founder pitch potential investors, Dr. Nouhavandi is often asked if she’s planning on having kids—a question that’s rarely directed at her co-founder, who is, in fact, already a parent. Investors also often assume she’ll be in charge of the “softer” elements of running the business, like marketing or public relations.
“…as Honeybee continued to grow and I’ve gained confidence in both my own abilities and the company’s future, I’ve learned to let go and delegate tasks to others.”
—Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi, lead pharmacist, CEO and co-founder, Honeybee Health
These experiences, says Dr. Nouhavandi, have shaped her evolution as a leader. “[At first,] I felt the need to prove myself by doing everything for the business on my own. However, as Honeybee continued to grow and I’ve gained confidence in both my own abilities and the company’s future, I’ve learned to let go and delegate tasks to others,” she says.
Dr. Nouhavandi is determined to see Honeybee’s mission of affordable prescription medication for all come to fruition. “My passion and inspiration stems from direct interactions with real-life patients. Hearing their stories and the ways in which Honeybee is making a difference in their lives inspires me to keep fighting for future change in the industry.”
4. Championing Gender Equality in IT: Vanessa Bryan, Client Services Delivery Director at Draper
Draper is a not-for-profit engineering innovation company that takes a multidisciplinary approach to system design. The company provides engineering services to government clients and commercial organizations.
Vanessa Bryan, a client services delivery director with an IT background, is drawn to the dynamic nature of the role. “Technology is always evolving; it’s never stagnant,” she says. “I like to challenge myself and learn, and with technology you always have that opportunity.”
“I like to challenge myself and learn, and with technology you always have that opportunity.”
—Vanessa Bryan, client services delivery director, Draper
Bryan notes that she’s encountered some biases along her career journey. She started off working in tech as an administrative assistant—a role she calls her “foot in the door.” “With good management and my drive I was able to [progress] and was ultimately given the opportunity to run an organization,” she says. She’s found an inclusive and supportive environment at Draper, where about half of the company’s senior leaders are female.
“The same holds true for our IT leadership team,” she says. “We’re split about 50-50, and that’s one of the reasons I think as we raise the next generation of leaders, we’re always looking for the opportunity [for diversity].”
Bryan believes it’s important for women in tech to act as role models for young girls. She makes a point to attend career day at her kids’ school every year. She’s seen enthusiastic responses from the girls in her daughter’s class—and their parents. “[These conversations] make an impact on a 7-year-old girl,” she says. “Keep having them, and it will have a ripple effect.”