Be you, unapologetically: Advice from 12 women leading teams in Chicago tech

by Alton Zenon III
October 25, 2018

According to Google’s own statistics, the gender makeup across its global teams is just shy of 70 percent male. The company, one of the world’s most influential tech employers with 85,000 staff members, makes a point of disclosing its diversity statistics and efforts to combat them, which suggests industry-wide statistics could be even more skewed.

Aside from this disparity’s impact on women looking to enter the field, it is also bad for the industry as a whole, which misses out on talented contributors and their perspectives.

However, some Chicago tech companies are hoping to change all that. We spoke to female leaders at 12 companies about their backgrounds, their advice for other women entering the field and what their companies are doing to boost the number of women in tech. 

 

Female staff at Enova speaking at a desk
image via enova

Using advanced analytics and machine learning, online lender Enova provides loans to individuals and businesses that may not otherwise be able to obtain them. Technology Senior Manager Karen Nowicki tells women aspiring to careers in tech not to give up on their interests, even if course materials may not feel targeted toward them.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I’ve been in tech since I started my career. My dad was a mathematician, and he did a lot of work on programmable calculators to run his business. He really inspired me to get into the field.

Find a part of tech that aligns with your passion and run with it.”

 

What advice would you give women hoping to start careers in tech industry?

Find a part of tech that aligns with your passion and run with it. During college in the 1980s, I found that a good portion of the course content wasn’t geared towards my interests. If you find yourself in this position, don’t give up on a career in tech. If you don’t like one area, try another.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Our [email protected] employee resource group helps connect, develop and retain female talent by providing networking, professional development and community engagement opportunities to all employees, regardless of gender identity. Their work also expands to the Chicago community at large. [email protected] members just planned and executed their third annual Chicago Women in Tech Conference.

 

STATS Chief Technology Officer Helen Sun
image via stats

STATS provides companies and teams with sports-related data and analytics tools, giving them added insights into what’s happening on the field. Chief Technology Officer Helen Sun said the company is actively evolving its hiring and retention strategies to bring in, and keep, more women on staff.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

Growing up, I showed strength in math and science. But my mother asked me to stay away from engineering. She suggested that I choose education, as it was a better fit for a girl. Years later, as I came to the U.S. for graduate studies, I ventured into a class in information technology. That was when I realized my passion for technology and problem solving.

As we evolve, we’re looking to find better ways to recruit more women into our organization.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

Do not stay in your comfort zone. Have a can-do spirit.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Half of the executive team at STATS is female. As we evolve, we’re looking to find better ways to recruit more women into our organization, with improved hiring practices and manager training around unconscious bias as our most recent focus areas. We plan to continue this journey through various initiatives to recruit and retain more women into our company, ensuring their success as professionals and within our organization.

 

West Monroe Technology Director Penny Wand and other staff member
image via west monroe

Consultancy company West Monroe Partners develops custom solutions for its clients that address their business and technological challenges. Technology Director Penny Wand said the company hosts regular open discussions during which women can lend support to one another.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

My grandfather was a self-taught engineer and inventor, and my inspiration. He encouraged me to “be a maverick” and not let other people tell me how to think. I enjoyed math and physics in high school, so when my counselor suggested engineering, it seemed like the obvious choice.

I didn’t enjoy electrical engineering the way my grandfather did, and I was tempted to quit — I am glad I didn’t.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

My sophomore year of college, I realized that I didn’t enjoy electrical engineering the way my grandfather did, and I was tempted to quit — I am glad I didn’t. My technical degree reinforced my love of problem-solving and provided the confidence and courage to create a successful career across multiple industries and roles. I would have never had that opportunity if I gave it up.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

We have an internal women’s leadership network that hosts various social and formal learning events and opportunities to share our stories, learn openly and support one another. Last month, we facilitated roundtables on strengths-based leadership and we all learned from one another — whether we were at the beginning, middle or later stages in our careers.

 

Four female Trunk Club staff posing
image via trunk club

Trunk Club is an e-commerce company that providers consumers with curated style options to fill their wardrobes. Engineering Manager Christina Zhong said she actively works to create an open environment within which women feel comfortable sharing and taking initiative. 

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

Growing up, I was drawn to science and technology, so my parents and teachers encouraged me to develop technical skills. After earning two master’s degrees in computer science and physics, I chose to pursue a career as a software engineer, and I really enjoy it.

It’s important to develop strong technical skills and also focus on non-technical skills.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

I would encourage her to follow her passion. It’s important to develop strong technical skills and also focus on non-technical skills, such as communication and collaboration. 

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Our culture is very supportive of all employees, including women. As an engineering manager, I’m focused on building an inclusive environment for other women on the team, and frequently encourage them to speak up and take the lead. These values are pervasive throughout Trunk Club, and I’m confident this environment exists within our other teams as well. 

 

Civis Analytics team members pictured at a table
image via civis analytics

Civis Analytics offers cloud-based software that allows companies to make better use of their data. Lead Data Scientist April Chen said taking risks and stepping into foreign territory is a great way to facilitate professional growth.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I have always found math and science interesting because they explain how the world works, and I believe that more problems should be solved with a scientific and mathematical approach. Problems across industries and sectors can benefit from the scientific method, and technology enables the scientific method to scale.

Take on opportunities that you don’t feel 100 percent ready for, and trust your ability to figure it out.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

You learn the most when outside of your comfort zone. Take on opportunities that you don’t feel 100 percent ready for, and trust your ability to figure it out. Ask questions, even if you think they might be silly. This can be hard because you don’t want to come off like you don’t know what you’re doing, but that’s how you learn.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Civis has monthly “ladies’ brown bags” — a dedicated time and place to talk about topics that affect us as women, especially as women in tech. We bring together smart women who have different roles at the company but are dealing with the same issues, from emotional labor to building and maintaining credibility, to negotiating salaries.

 

Deepika Duggirala, VP of engineering at Yello
image via yello

Yello offers businesses resources to make their recruitment efforts more efficient and personalized for candidates. Deepika Duggirala, VP of engineering, said some of Yello’s professional development opportunities and perks work to benefit women directly. 

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I would say the career chose me. When I was little, I was curious about how things were made. That, coupled with a natural aptitude for math and physics, led me to engineering. Each time I changed roles or companies, it was because the new technology or industry inspired me and I was interested in learning more about it.

Follow your passion and be unapologetically true to who you are.”

 

What advice would you give women hoping to start careers in tech?

Follow your passion and be unapologetically true to who you are. Find a good mentor and, as you grow in your career, be a mentor for other women. Remember that you are your best advocate, know your value and don’t hesitate to represent yourself and ask for what you deserve.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

We support employee growth through our learning days, employees attending and speaking at conferences, and a commitment to continuous feedback. Women are also supported through our Women at Yello mentoring rings, the company’s flexible time off policy and our generous parental leave policy. The number of women in engineering has increased by almost 10 percent in the last year.

 

Two female Solstice staff listening
image via solstice

Solstice develops custom digital solutions for Fortune 500 clients that allow them to serve their customers better. Senior Technical Consultant Ming Roush said women hoping to break into the industry should keep supportive people in their circles.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I love building. It’s cool to see what you’ve built come to life and be used by millions of people. I find it fascinating how technology can transform the world, and I love being a part of it.

I find it fascinating how technology can transform the world, and I love being a part of it.”

 

What advice would you give women hoping to start careers in tech?

You have the ability to do whatever makes you happy. There are people who will fully respect you and empower you. Surround yourself with those people, always stand up for your views and do what you love.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Solstice has put me and other women in positions of leadership so that our voices can be heard. But at the same time, people have been understanding of my role as a mother and have given me flexibility when I have needed it.

 

Connie Capone, SpotHero chief financial officer, and her team
image via Spothero

SpotHero partners with businesses, event venues and car manufacturers to offer drivers on-demand parking spots across the U.S. and, as of very recently, Canada. Connie Capone, chief financial officer, said the company supports women in the most obvious way — by hiring them often.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry? 

I was trained in accounting and finance and decided to focus in the technology industry. I was introduced to coding when installing SAP financial software systems, and while it was tough learning how to code, I thought it was fascinating. The entire software and tech industry was transforming at that time, and I wanted to be part of a sector that was not only growing, but also changing rapidly.

I wanted to be part of a sector that was not only growing, but also changing rapidly.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

There are many different types of tech careers. Consider taking the time to learn an area or a skill that is in high demand, but may be more complex or difficult and require experience and time to master. You will be at the head of the curve, and over time, your skill set will be incredibly valuable.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

Approximately 40 percent of SpotHero employees are women, including around 15 percent in engineering and 50 percent in product roles. We believe that diversity is important because new ideas and fresh perspectives are introduced to the organization. We encourage women to coach others, including cross-functionally.

 

Three GTreasury staff working near window
image via gtreasury

GTreasury offers banks and corporations a liquidity management software platform that gives them real-time insight into where their assets are and how quickly they can be accessed. Senior VP of Product Ashley Pater said women should find something in tech industry they’re passionate about — then pursue it wholeheartedly.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

Being at the forefront of creating products that streamline corporate businesses and positively impact the lives of their employees is very inspiring. The need for technology is going to continuously grow and evolve, and that change and evolution offers consistent challenges and new opportunities, which I find very exciting.

Dive in headfirst and constantly challenge yourself.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

Getting involved in the tech industry is to first find a product or technology that inspires you and that you feel passionately about. Then dive in headfirst and constantly challenge yourself, as well as the product or company. Always ask lots of questions, challenge the status quo, think outside the box and, most importantly, speak up and keep speaking until you are heard.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

I think the most empowering thing our company has done is support and promote women into management positions and leadership within the organization. I have seen more women take on senior roles and become strategic leaders within the company in the past couple years, and it is incredibly inspiring.

 

Women on Target Data team seated in office
image via target data

Target Data helps companies develop cross-channel marketing campaigns designed to reach the individual, rather than generalized groups or segments of the market. VP of Analytics Jessica Angelotta said her enjoyment of math eventually led to a career working in analytics positions.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I’ve always been interested in, and enjoyed, mathematics since I was young. When I graduated from my undergrad program, I was very interested in pursuing a career that applied probability theory, and thus I was quickly introduced to predictive analytics in the big data age. From there, the best fit for my interests led me to positions where I could use machine learning and predictive analytics.

The tech industry desperately needs more women, and it’s important to encourage and support other women.”

 

What advice would you give to women hoping to start careers in tech?

Pursue an education in a STEM program. The tech industry desperately needs more women, and it’s important to encourage and support other women with similar interests.

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

The executive team has made supporting women in tech a priority. We are encouraged to join women’s groups and attend female networking events to learn from, and be empowered by, other women with similar backgrounds.

 

SwipeSense Senior Product Designer Camay Ho
image via swipesense

SwipeSense provides hospitals with tech infrastructure they can use to do things like stop the spread of infection or track how equipment moves throughout the facility. Senior Product Designer Camay Ho said her desire to help others motivated her to pursue a career in her field.

 

Why did you choose a career in the tech industry?

I chose to go into product design to make a difference in people’s lives — to have a direct and long-lasting impact on the things they are trying to accomplish. It’s rewarding to see people experiencing joy rather than pain because of something I’ve designed.

Even if you are just beginning your career, you have something to bring to the table.”

 

What advice would you give women hoping to start careers in the tech industry?

Don’t sell yourself short. Even if you are just beginning your career, you have something to bring to the table. The better you can figure out what that is, what motivates you, and what you want to do with it, the more clarity you will have in the path you want to or should go. 

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

We’re all given a voice to improve both ourselves as well as company goals and outcomes. This can come in many forms, such as asking for opinions during meetings, being invited to important meetings, supporting educational growth through conference attendance or workshops, speaking engagements and recognition of achievements.

 

NowSecure team at Cubs game
image via nowsecure

NowSecure offers companies fully automated services to test their mobile apps for security flaws. Katie Strzempka, vice president of customer success and services, said the creation of the company’s maternity leave policy is greatly beneficial for her, and will continue to be so for future employees.

 

Why choose a career in tech?

There wasn’t a moment in my life where I thought “I am going to start a career in technology.” My strengths and interests always involved STEM-related topics so I chose college courses, majors and ultimately jobs to match those. If I recognized I was going down a path I either didn’t enjoy or didn’t find success in, I made a correction.

If I recognized I was going down a path I either didn’t enjoy or didn’t find success in, I made a correction.”

 

What advice would you give women hoping to start careers in the tech industry?

Try not to focus on the fact that there are still very few women in the industry. There will be moments where you look around and wonder if you belong — if you enjoy the work and you’re good at it, then of course you do. 

 

What is one way in which your company supports women advancing in the industry?

I am expecting my first child in early 2019 and I will be our first female employee to require maternity leave. I am working closely with the rest of the executive team to establish a policy that encourages and invites women to join NowSecure without fear of or concern for what will come if they also choose to focus on building a family.

 

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