On the Shoulders of Others: How Women Inspire Each Other

From Ruth Bader-Ginsburg to Amelia Earhart, women from eight Seattle companies open up about the women who inspired them.
Written by Avery Komlofske
March 14, 2022Updated: March 14, 2022

When actress Nichelle Nichols wanted to quit Star Trek, Martin Luther King Jr. changed her mind with a single conversation: He told her that having a Black woman leader on a show that depicted an idealistic future was too important for children that looked like her. 

Nichols stayed on the show, and we have concrete proof that her actions paid it forward. Actress Whoopi Goldberg was nine years old when she saw Nichols on TV as Star Trek’s Uhura — and it was a moment when Goldberg realized she could be anything she wanted. The chain goes further: Black actress and comedian Leslie Jones credited the times she saw Goldberg doing comedy on TV as her own inspiration for pursuing her career goals.

It is important for groups that lack representation to see those they relate to succeed. This is true of public figures like Nichelle Nicols and also for personal heroes like parents, teachers and managers. An inspiring woman holds out a hand behind her for everyone who wants to follow in her footsteps.

For Women’s History Month this year, Built In Seattle sat down with women leaders from eight local companies to learn about the people who inspired them. These women cited both individual mentors and public figures as role models, including Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Melinda Gates. 

Lakshmi Nidamarthi, chief product officer for DreamBox Learning, summed up what these women meant in a single sentence: “Women working across technology, and many other fields, stand upon the shoulders of countless women that made our choices possible.”

 

Himani Naresh
VP Strategy, Discovery DTC • Warner Bros. Discovery

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

About a decade ago, I had a chance to listen to Madeleine Albright speak in person. As an immigrant and former refugee, her story is inspiring. Dr. Albright overcame all odds to become one of the most influential women in business and politics. As UN Ambassador and the first female Secretary of State in the United States, Dr. Albright fought tirelessly for human rights, for women’s rights and for making sure women had a seat at the table where decisions are made. She encouraged women not to apologize for getting ahead because we are women, but also to make sure we open the door for those who come after us. On a personal note, I feel connected to Dr. Albright as we are both alumna of the same university and are both mothers of twins!

You can be the smartest or most talented person in the room — but without negotiation and diplomacy skills, you can only go so far.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own? 

I learned early in my career that in any field, you can be the smartest or most talented person in the room — but without negotiation and diplomacy skills, you can only go so far. As Secretary of State, she focused on standing up for her principles, but also for building common ground, creating coalitions and finding ways to make incremental progress together. These skills are not only critical in the geopolitical arena but in any business field and at any level.

 

 

DreamBox Learning Matrix themed Zoom call
DreamBox Learning

 

Lakshmi Nidamarthi

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Women working across technology, and many other fields, stand upon the shoulders of countless women who have made our choices possible — be it the ability to vote, get an education or the freedom to choose what’s best for our bodies.

One such leader, who I have had deep adoration and respect for, is former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a force of nature and a fierce advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. She was willing to stand in her truth when it was uncomfortable and risk being misunderstood. Undoubtedly, she represents one of our finest. We know that progress throughout history is a result of brave pioneers like her.

I constantly think of ways in which I can add value to make things better for the next person, team or generation.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

There are two Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes that resonate deeply for me. The first is, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” The second is, “Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks. That means don’t do it just for yourself. You will want to leave the world a little better for your having tried.”

Every day I draw inspiration from leaders like Ruther Bader Ginsburg. When I have an opportunity to hire talent or build teams, I look across leadership to evaluate if we have the right representation at the table. While I may not get it right every single time, I strive to work towards equity. I also like to reflect on my daily work by asking myself if I’ve improved an idea, project or team. I constantly think of ways in which I can add value to make things better for the next person, team or generation. This strategy has shaped the way I approach my work and live my life.

 

 

Inside of Mason office with twinkle lights hanging from the ceilng
Mason

 

Khyati Vyas
Technical Product Manager • Mason

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I first met Betsy Speare when I joined Microsoft back in 1998 — we both worked on Exchange Server. I was the only woman on the team and while I was with my colleagues, she just walked up to me and said “cute jacket!” Right there and then, I felt like I belonged in the tech industry. It showed me I was part of the team and didn’t need to dress or act like a man to fit in. It was huge for me. 

Betsy excelled in her career at Microsoft and always seemed to care about lifting other women along the way. She led an initiative in Windows Server — she poached me from Exchange Server — called the Microsoft Leadership Counsel, to build a workplace that fosters personal development for women and recognizes the journey of women in technology. Betsy just made everyone smile. She had such a warm energy she could turn a tense atmosphere into a relaxed one. At the end of the day, she always delivered high quality results, understood the challenges of women in technology and was a champion for women.

I tend to take folks under my wing and they don’t even know it. I don’t look for any credit, I just do it because I care.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

I didn’t even know most of the time that Betsy was actually mentoring me, but I look back and she was. So I tend to take folks under my wing and they don’t even know it. I don’t look for any credit, I just do it because I care. That’s what she did.

I strive to be fully present and add value in every setting. I also do not feel the need to bring others down. Especially in times of pressure, Betsy was really good at lightening the mood, looking for the path forward and doing it in a collaborative way. I saw this work well for Betsy, so I try my best to follow that style — then I too can smile often and not get too attached to an outcome. We collectively go after a goal and have fun along the way. 

All of this brought me to where I am today as a technical product manager at Mason. Solving large, diverse problems requires creative and diverse teams. We can’t possibly build the best products that support incredible humans without actively seeking to foster a diverse and inclusive environment.

 

 

Syndio team outside on a hike
Syndio

 

Maria Colacurcio
CEO • Syndio

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

From the first time I met Tama Smith, she has been a consistent source of inspiration for me personally and professionally. After receiving a B.S. degree from Berkeley and a Wharton MBA, Tama went on to become the president and founder of Tama Smith & Associates Inc., the CEO of Saventure and the CEO of The Tyra Banks Company. 

One of the things I admire most about Tama is how she has allowed her personal experiences — both painful and triumphant — to shape and propel her professional mission. After navigating her own challenging personal experiences, Tama dedicated her life to helping women embrace financial wellbeing as a core component of their overall wellbeing. Tama is now the head of Women Living Richer Lives, a unique wealth management firm where she leads client engagement around women, well-being and financial empowerment. She’s a mentor to countless women across the country like myself and a leading voice in how companies embed diversity and inclusion into their organizations — from entry level to board of directors — while helping shape how companies get serious about disclosing environmental, social and governance (ESG) and human capital metrics.

From her, I have learned that living a richer life is about having a life that yields purpose and a commitment to others.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

At a time when Tama was facing real adversity in her career, she got a call that changed the rest of her life: Her sister had passed away suddenly. Overnight, she became a mother to her 13-year-old nephew and the caretaker to her elderly parents. This experience shook the foundation of every aspect of her life and she found herself in what she describes as a valley of despair. 

However, from these painful experiences she was able to extract profound life lessons that guided her to finding her true purpose: helping women live a richer life. From her, I have learned that living a richer life is about having a life that yields purpose and a commitment to others. As the CEO of Syndio, I do my best to live the mission Tama set forth by ensuring that every employee is equitably compensated for their work and valued based on what they achieve without bias.

 

 

Sarah Martino
SVP, Capabilities • Accolade

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Elena Donio is someone that I began working with when she came back to Concur to build the SMB business. At the time I was just starting out at the director level, and it was so inspiring to work alongside Elena as she built this business from zero customers to one of the largest driving forces of revenue and international growth success at Concur and then watch her become CEO. 

When she was building the SMB business, she had a small team of direct reports, but needed to build bridges across over ten other teams in order to succeed. She created a cross functional team that had a vision and purpose and that everyone was truly excited to be a part of. She did this not by a top-down approach, but by allowing each person on the team to have a direct contribution and ownership of success. 

Elena taught me to create a career around the family life that I envisioned, not the one that was traditional at the time.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own? 

One thing I learned from Elena was how to build cross-functional teams. I always try to value differing contributions and opinions into the success of the project or initiative, both of those who work directly for me and those on other teams. That has allowed me to build strong relationships across the business and also get to know other more junior team members — I can recommend them for new projects and roles as they become known to me, which helps those talented people and our organization. 

She also taught me to create a career around the family life that I envisioned, not the one that was traditional at the time — that I should create a return-to-work process that worked for me and my family, even if it didn’t mirror others. I have told the story of her feedback to me before maternity leave to many of my team members as they face concerns about their own careers when taking leave or coming back: That five or six months is a small blip in a career. They should enjoy their family time with zero concerns about their future career growth — and know that when they are ready to come back, I will support them in that transition.

 

 

Lindsay Harris

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Melinda French Gates inspires me. She was a leader in the tech world, rising to the level of GM within the Microsoft organization and leading development of some of Microsoft’s best successes. Then, she used her talent, skills and success to co-found the world’s most successful global health foundation, which has invested in projects that have saved millions of lives across the globe. I am inspired by her focus on making the lives of others better, how she uses her platform to advance the cause of women and girls everywhere and by her willingness to be open and vulnerable with the world because doing so makes it easier for others to share their challenges and seek connection.

I am inspired by how Melinda Gates uses her platform to advance the cause of women and girls everywhere and by her willingness to be open and vulnerable with the world.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

I lead a healthcare organization today because it affords me the opportunity to make healthcare easier and more affordable. I recently stepped into the role as president and CEO. This role gives me a bigger platform to make a difference, just as Melinda French Gates has done — albeit on a smaller scale. As the leader of my organization, I have championed initiatives to address challenges that people face with healthcare in the US: access to mental health, access to care addressing chronic conditions and access to care at a price people can afford. In addressing these challenges, my company and team make healthcare better for our members.

 

 

Inside the Assurance office
Assurance

 

Allison Arzeno
CEO of Assurance IQ • Assurance

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

It may seem strange to get inspiration in today’s world from a woman who was excelling in her career almost 100 years ago, but I’ve always been inspired by Amelia Earhart. She was a pioneer in the field of aviation, eager to take risks in pursuit of something better and above all, bold. These three things have consistently inspired me throughout my career and continue to inspire me today. No matter how much the world changes, technology leaders need to be pioneers, willing to take risks and be bold in their decisions and actions.

No matter how much the world changes, technology leaders need to be pioneers, willing to take risks and be bold in their decisions and actions.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

In both my previous company and the one I lead today, I was presented with an opportunity to step into a bigger leadership role. This required me to take on a new challenge and accept the risks that come with a big role transition. While the two situations were very different, they both gave me an opportunity to contribute more and see how we can go beyond what we had achieved in the past. I’m a firm believer that a risk is worth taking if it is being done to achieve a bigger and better business outcome.

 

 

Maria Kalam
Director of Quality Engineering • Project Archer

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you?

The person who inspired me while I transitioned from a software developer to a quality assurance engineer was the senior quality assurance manager. She has done a similar transition at the start of her career. She started her career as an entry level engineer and moved up the chain due to her resilience, persistence and technical knowledge. Twenty years ago, the software industry did not have many women in this path and succeeding at the role was a big achievement not only for her but also other women engineers in the industry.

Twenty years ago, the software industry did not have many women in this path and succeeding at the role was a big achievement not only for her but also other women engineers in the industry.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own? 

The biggest lesson that I have incorporated in my career from her is that a woman engineer can do the same or even better compared to a male engineer, so that should never be a limiting factor for you to succeed. Even though there are fewer women in the industry, you need to make the path for yourself to succeed in your career by being persistent and showing the skills that you have. Never be a timid engineer — always share your thoughts. Being part of the test team, my job is to raise all the issues because I am the voice of the customer and want to make sure that the customer experience is always magical.

 

 

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