Geek Girl Rising: Interview with Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens

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May 26, 2017

The issues that women in tech careers, or women aspiring to these kind of Silicon Valley jobs, face are numerous, but there's real progress being made. There's a new culture of "geek girls" in the tech world, and that's the subject that writers Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens tackle in their new book Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech (St. Martin's Press, May 23).

The authors generously agreed to talk about the book, the status of women in tech and what we can do to further improve and help women succeed in these difficult careers.

Where did the idea for this book come from? What are your backgrounds?

Heather Cabot: Aside from our daughters who all love tech, the light bulb moment for me came during my years as an on-air digital lifestyle editor for Yahoo from 2007 to the end of 2012. My entire job was to study what was going on in consumer tech and to craft those findings into informative TV segments for shows like TODAY, Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart, etc. There were tons of amazing companies being started by women at the time and or that had leadership teams that included women which I featured in my stories. Companies like Rent The Runway, Gilt, Red Stamp, IndieGoGo, Kiwi Crate, and on and on.

The research took me inside the world of startups and when I left Yahoo, I started doing a bit of angel investing and stumbled into the world of investors focused on female-led companies. That's where I realized there was a larger story about the sisterhood of women in tech across the ecosystem—it wasn't just about founders. The movement encompassed investors, educators, advocates around the country and that felt like a really big story no one had told quite yet. And by 2015, when we were deep into writing the proposal for the book, the Ellen Pao trial and its revelations emerged as a rallying point for a lot of the anger and frustration over sexism in tech and it just felt like this force for change was growing at the grassroots level — there was another side to the story of women of forging their own paths in tech and that empowering narrative is what we decided to cover.

Sam Walravens: I'm a first-generation "Silicon Valley Girl." I started my career in technology in 1995 as a reporter for PC World magazine, covering the rise of the dot-com world and companies like Netscape, Yahoo, and eBay. Then I got the "Internet bug" and went to work for a startup called Tumbleweed Software, which went public in 1999, right before the dot-com bubble collapsed. We all saw our fortunes rise (on paper) and disappear within a matter of months! It was a crazy time. Many of my closest friends and mentors to this day are from those early Internet days. We went through a lot together.

In 2011, I published my first book about women and the work-life juggle, TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, and was writing for several publications about women and work. Over lunch one day, a girlfriend and fellow dot-com survivor was telling me about how horrible it was to be a woman in Silicon Valley these days. She was the head of sales for a software company and had just had her performance review. Although her team had hit their sales numbers out of the ball park, her manager was more focused on complaints he had received from colleagues about her "aggressive" demeanor and asked if she could "tone it down a bit." He also told her she wore too much makeup and jewelry. She was horrified. Needless to say, she didn't stick around long at that company.

That conversation prompted me to explore the issue of sexism in Silicon Valley, which hadn't hit the mainstream media yet. In my conversations with women executives, entrepreneurs and engineers, I saw a pattern emerge: while a majority had experienced some form of sexism- either overt or subtle- they were more interested in telling me about their work—the companies they were leading and the cool technologies and products they were building. They wanted to share how they had overcome obstacles to find success, but not dwell on the negatives. I teamed up with Heather in 2013 when we learned we were both researching the topic of "women in tech." Four years and 300+ interviews later, Geek Girl Rising was born!

You tell the story of women in tech, and the way we are transforming the industry, through personal anecdotes and stories. It made me feel like I got to know these women. Was that the reason you structured it that way, to put a human face on the issue?

Heather & Sam: Our goal from the outset was to curate stories that would resonate with other women who perhaps never thought of themselves as having a stake in the digital revolution or who see tech as something that makes their lives easier by don't envision themselves as creating it. We wanted to crush stereotypes of who works in the tech world and what they are really like. We believe that one of the biggest hurdles to closing the gender gap in tech is the deeply gendered notions of who is an engineer, who is an entrepreneur, who is an investor, who is good at math and science. So the descriptions of women, including what they wear, what they like to eat, what they do with kids or during their time off was deliberate. And we intentionally followed women whose efforts focus on debunking the myths.

We also wanted to put a human face on the numbers. There's a lot of data out there that show how hard it is for women in tech today. 56% of women in technology drop out mid-career. The number of college women majoring in computer science has dropped from 37% to 18% over the past 30 years. Less than 3% of venture capital-funded companies have a woman CEO. Frankly, it's pretty depressing. What you don't hear about are all the success stories of women who are bucking the trend and starting companies, creating "sisterhoods" of support and rallying their younger sisters to join the tech revolution.

Geek Girl Rising focuses on awesome women in tech, but it also focuses just as much on how women can help one another succeed. Why do you think that's important?

Heather & Sam: It's essential because it counters the age-old stereotype of sharp elbowed women competing against each other. What we saw over and over was the exact opposite: women cheering each other on, passing along opportunities, helping each other get ahead. It's incredibly important because women haven't had the access and the contacts to succeed in the past and here they are creating their own network. And by the way, that network includes men who recognize that diversity and inclusion is good for everyone.

We saw this "sisterhood" in female-focused co-working spaces like HeraHub and The Wing, in accelerator programs that support and invest in female founders like the Women's Startup Lab and MergeLane, and on college campuses, where women in engineering and computer science were forming networks to address gender disparities and inspire the next generation of girls in tech. As Shelley Zalis, CEO and Founder of the Girls' Lounge, says, "A woman alone can be powerful. But collectively, we have an impact."

There are more and more young women interested in tech careers. Do you have any advice for them?

Heather & Sam: Find other women in similar situations, within your workplace or outside. Many companies today have women's groups that allow you to share your experiences, learn from each other and even learn from experts who are brought in to teach and give workshops. Because of the gender ratio in tech, you may find yourself the only woman in a meeting, or class or in your area of the office. The support that comes from finding others in similar situations can help that isolation.

Don't compare yourself to others. Tracy Chou, former software engineering lead at Pinterest, tells a story about how she felt intimidated by the guys in her computer science class at Stanford, who bragged about finishing their programming projects faster than her. She was one of the only girls in the class and was demoralized. When her professor asked her to be a TA for the class the following semester, she was able to see the actual code that her male classmates had written, and she realized her code was way better than theirs! It turned out she was cut out for the job. She kept it up and it led to a successful career in tech.

What surprised you the most about writing this book?

Heather & Sam: How similar writing a book is to launching a startup!

What do you want readers to know about Geek Girl Rising?

Heather & Sam: There are two things we want people to know about the book:

(1) We didn't have to look far to find incredible stories of women forging their own paths in the tech world. There were too many to fit in the confines of our book. So when you hear people say they can't find a woman to be on a panel or to be interviewed for a news story, they really are not looking in the right places. It's too easy to say "Well, there aren't very many out there." That's true, there could be many, many more women entering the field and staying on. But that shouldn't be an excuse to overlook the amazing women who are there persisting and succeeding.

(2) The stereotype of the nerdy "geek" guy coding away in a dark basement is fast becoming a relic, like the 1980s Revenge of the Nerds-type movies that created it. In all honesty, this image is completely false. Women have always been part of "geek" culture, from Ada Lovelace in the 19th century to Grace Hopper in the 20th to Marissa Mayer in the 21st. But like the movie Hidden Figures illustrates, women been largely kept out of the narrative. The good news is that, in the past several years, women have started making their voices heard about their "geeky" passions and love of technology. Geek Girl Rising is on a mission to elevate the voices of women in technology and encourage women and girls to join the digital revolution — and create the future!

What's next for you both, now that you've written this book?

Heather & Sam: Of course, we are eager and hopeful to see how the scripted TV series takes shape. We loved the reporting and process so much during this project. We'll definitely will continue to follow up with women in the book and profile amazing women in technology on our digital platform, www.geekgirlrising.com.

Heather: But I am also eager to tackle a different topic and subculture and hope to be digging into another juicy long form, nonfiction writing project soon. It was a gift to be able to spend so much time on this one.

Sam: I'll continue writing about women and work for Forbes and The Huffington Post. I'd also like to work with the "CS for All Initiative" to get coding built into the public school curriculum across the U.S.