Women at the helm: How these 5 Seattle women are driving technological change

by Quinten Dol
July 25, 2019

Almost every industry is currently experiencing some sort of technological revolution, and many of those changes are being driven by executives, coders, designers and product managers in tech companies right here in Seattle. And while there is still plenty of room for improvement, at least some of those companies are receiving meaningful input from the talented women on their teams. We spoke to women at five Seattle area tech companies — from CEOs to managers to scientists — about how their work drives change in their industry. 

 

dreambox learning ceo
photo via dreambox learning

Bellevue-based DreamBox Learning builds education software that uses a huge array of data points to identify how a student learns, and then automatically adapt its teaching style to help improve math proficiency. The technology is currently in use at schools throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.

CEO and President Jessie Woolley-Wilson trumpeted the company’s mission to help every child fulfill their potential as a key ingredient to DreamBox Learning’s culture. 

 

How are you driving change in your industry through your work?

At DreamBox, we envision a future in which students are not just prepared to survive the next century, or merely thrive in it — we want students to feel prepared to drive us forward. We believe this starts by ensuring every child — regardless of where they come from, what they look like or where they live — receives a high-quality math education.

DreamBox empowers students to develop a love and understanding of math by adapting in real time to their learning needs and meeting them where they are at. Through this adaptive learning approach, DreamBox has proven to increase student achievement, and independent research shows that students who use DreamBox for just one hour a week improve their math scores nearly 60 percent more than expected growth norms on benchmark and state tests. We know that to address the next generation’s challenges, math will be key, so our team is committed to unlocking learning potential for all students.

There are thousands of talented people like me out there, working hard, overcoming adversity and waiting for their moment to soar — they just need the opportunity.”

 

What challenges have you faced along the way? How have you overcome those challenges?

As a black female CEO in tech, some people might see me as an anomaly. I’ve even been asked to fetch coffee for an individual who did not realize I was waiting to pitch their team of investors. What people do not realize is that there are thousands of talented people like me out there, working hard, overcoming adversity and waiting for their moment to soar — they just need the opportunity.

In order to ensure women and minorities have the opportunity to be represented throughout all levels of policy, education and business, we must start by ensuring every child — regardless of race, gender or zip code has access to a high-quality education. This is my mission, and why I believe the work we do at DreamBox is so essential for our shared future. 

 

outreach seattle tech
photo via outreach

Outreach’s sales technology acts as a jetpack for sales reps, automating the more mundane aspects of their job and allowing them to be more strategic about the rest. The company recently raised $114 million and moved into a spanking new office on the Elliot Bay waterfront.

VP of Product Sarah Phillips said its important for women to be an active part of key conversations at the top. 

 

How are you driving change in your industry through your work?

I am crazy fortunate to lead product at a company whose software is transforming the way sales teams work and engage customers. This means that I have an opportunity to affect change in multiple ways. First and foremost, I’m responsible for a product strategy and roadmap that delivers on the promise that Outreach will help sales teams understand their buyers better than ever before, and know when and how to take the next best action to meaningfully engage them. 

Secondly, I strive to deliver on the promise that our product and engineering teams can expect to work in an honest, transparent and highly engaged environment that embraces diverse points of view. Being part of a high performing team is rare and beautiful. As our organization grows to meet customer demand, I need to constantly evaluate what is working and what is not, so that we can facilitate the best environment for our teams to thrive and create great software. Finally, I can and do affect change in Seattle tech, in a very small way at least, by influencing hiring decisions, building intentionally diverse teams, and providing mentorship to younger women.

 

I’ve learned the value of trusting my voice, being direct when it matters and defending my opinions in a group setting.”

What challenges have you faced along the way? How have you overcome those challenges?

Every woman in tech has had the experience of being the only woman in the room when a major decision is being made. For several years, I thought my job was to facilitate a process where we got all of those people to a decision. That’s not a bad thing! It frequently got us to the right decision and everyone felt included.

But along the way I’ve learned the value of trusting my voice, being direct when it matters and defending my opinions in a group setting. Whether that is taking a deep breath and daring to propose an alternate view point to a principal engineer in a technical meeting or to a board member when discussing business strategy, it’s worth taking the plunge. Being an active part of the conversation (instead of a facilitator for the conversation) can mean the difference from being perceived as capable and reliable to smart and strategic. Over time, that perception is crucial to getting thought of when that next stretch assignment comes around.

 

new engen women in tech
photo via new engen

New Engen’s advanced machine learning technology helps businesses analyze the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns across a wide range of platforms, and adjust resources accordingly. The company is growing fast in its Belltown offices since revealing its technology to the wider world last year.

Director of Software Development Lily Cornell outlined how asking the right questions can be a great mentoring tool. 

 

How are you driving change in your industry through your work?

While I love writing code, I’ve experienced firsthand how I can have a larger impact on the whole organization by leading teams. Specifically, I enable the engineering team through providing guidance, direction and mentoring. Digital marketing is everywhere, which means there is a huge landscape of companies and marketers who can benefit from our tools and services. I directly influence what we build by helping with prioritization, sequencing and standards. I love rallying the team around a challenge and giving them the resources they need to be successful.

For me, every opinion counts and decisions are team decisions. I am just another member on the team, playing a different role than the individual contributors. I draw from my experiences to ensure the team is moving in the right direction. We are all energized toward our vision and have fun learning and working together. I also helped get our diversity committee off to a great start at New Engen and now am actively involved with increasing gender neutrality in our job postings, and working on evolving our interview process to be more open and inclusive.

 

I find that asking the right questions can be a great mentoring tool to get people thinking about what could be better.”

What challenges have you faced along the way? How have you overcome those challenges?

In my current role, I’m not always involved in day-to-day details, which makes it a challenge to keep a pulse on what is happening without being in every meeting and discussion. I stay involved by listening and asking questions and am mindful of keeping processes efficient so that the team can work on development — not just giving status reports. I find that asking the right questions can be a great mentoring tool to get people thinking about what could be better. With growing organizations, managing and embracing change is imperative. I am always asking my teams what we can change to be more efficient and more successful. Always being open to change and seeking it from the people living it will only better the organization as a whole.

 

convoy seattle tech
photo via convoy

Convoy connects shippers and carriers with a mobile platform designed to dramatically increase efficiency in the massive trucking industry. The company became one of Seattle’s newest tech unicorns last year, and has been busy growing its teams with a massive $185 million funding round.

Operations Research Scientist Gwen Spencer most recently worked as a math professor, and described her approach to her career transition. 

 

How are you driving change in your industry through your work?

My main focus at the moment is optimizing the automated rebalancing of our universal trailer pool, part of a nationwide ‘drop and hook’ trucking program we announced in April. But as the first official operations research hire at Convoy, I’ve also been scoping optimization problems in other parts of our business.

Convoy’s major advantage over traditional incumbents in trucking is that data and technology have been part of our business plan since day one. This means that we’re always looking for measurable ways to deliver excellent service quality and competitive price points for our customers. As someone who loves to dive in with collaborators whose expertise is different than mine — economists, statisticians and operations specialists who know the trucking industry inside and out — my favorite Convoy company value is “love problems, not solutions.” It’s a great reminder to be really open and curious about where the best insights can come from.

 

I’ve always had a strong aversion to bluffing, so it’s awesome to work in a culture in which I feel I can be really transparent about what I know, and where I need more perspective or guidance.”

What challenges have you faced along the way? How have you overcome those challenges?

Until recently, I was working on the East Coast as a math professor. Transitioning to a new industry has meant learning a new ecosystem, probably a bit analogous to the culture shock of moving from a large company to a startup, or vice versa. Fortunately, I’ve found that my new coworkers are really generous. I’ve always had a strong aversion to bluffing, so it’s awesome to work in a culture in which I feel I can be really transparent about what I know, and where I need more perspective or guidance. In turn, I try to think about how I can pay that forward. Convoy is growing so fast — building trust so that new people can onboard quickly and thrive is essential!

 

curalate seattle women in tech
photo via curalate

With a product that helps to build and engage social media audiences and grow influencer networks, Curalate helps businesses with their marketing efforts. Headquartered in Philadelphia, the company’s downtown Seattle office is growing quickly.

Product Management Manager Malini Jagannadhan always knew she wanted to become a manager at some point, and described the steps she took to get there. 

 

How are you driving change in your industry through your work? 

Over the past year, Curalate has worked with more than 1,000 brands to help them better engage their audience and bridge the gap between social and commerce by building a robust B2B SaaS platform and related consumer experiences. In the past year we’ve become profitable, sustained strong growth and have continued to help our clients achieve more traffic to their website, conversion and revenue!

One integral element of our success comes from close communication and collaboration between the product team, customer success and go-to-market teams. In addition to ongoing feedback channels, every quarter I drive roundtable sessions to get insights from these functional teams — things like market shifts or developments, competitive threats or opportunities and customer challenges. This helps our product team stay ahead of the curve. Having a cognitively diverse product management and design team has further helped build empathy between these teams. Understanding each others’ goals and challenges has broken down silos and improved the overall flow of information. This helps us build product that continues to excite and bring value to our client base.

 

I created a personal board of mentors by reaching out to folks who I respected for specific skills or areas of expertise that I wanted to grow in.”

What challenges have you faced along the way? How have you overcome those challenges?

At some point in my career I knew that I wanted to become a manager, and continue to grow my impact on the people, product and business. I created a personal board of mentors by reaching out to folks — both internal and external to Curalate — who I respected for specific skills or areas of expertise that I wanted to grow in. I also took on projects in many different areas with many teams to get a broader understanding of our product. These, among other tactics, helped me become the first female manager on the product and engineering side at our company, and many of those mentors continue to support and encourage me to this day.

As a woman of color and immigrant, I also believe it’s not only important to see more diversity in leadership roles, but also to provide access and resources for womxn in earlier career stages. [Womxn is a term that intentionally includes transgender or non-binary individuals and women of color]. To foster and grow future womxn leaders, I coordinate the ‘Womxn’ group sessions at Curalate, where we have discussed many topics like having uncomfortable conversations, career planning and brainstorming ways to increase diversity in our recruiting efforts, among others.

 

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