The tech industry is growing at a head-snapping pace, with a pool of talent that includes some of the world’s brightest innovators, movers, and shakers. But, despite being one of the most fascinating and progressive fields, tech still falls flat when it comes to inclusion of women and minorities — with staggeringly low diversity statistics. For example, women make up just 26% of the computing workforce.
However, in spite of the jarring numbers, there are plenty of women who aren’t just doing a standout job in their professions, but are also working hard to change the status quo within the tech community. We’ve rounded up eight rising tech stars you’re going to want to remember. Among the group are a NASA engineer, a CEO who is switching up the wearable market, and a founder who hopes to change the way little girls are exposed to tech. These ladies are whip-smart, fearless, and trailblazing.
Get ready to be inspired.
The Ringleader: Christina Mercando
While most kids were out roaming the playground, Christina Mercando rushed home each day to "play" on Photoshop in her dad’s basement. Her inquisitive nature and early interest in design eventually led her into a career in product design and management at Hunch and eBay, before she shook up the wearable market with Ringly in 2013.
As the company's founder and CEO, Mercando has created a seamless, alert-based way to stay connected via the eye-catching Ringly ring. Its no-screen interface makes it easy to learn when a call, text, or email comes in without needing to reach for the phone. Mercando talked to us about her refreshing take on staying connected.
Mango sweater, Bally blazer, Theory pant, Dune London sandals, A Peace Treaty earrings, talent's own bracelets and rings.
Tell us more about Ringly and the inspiration behind it.
"Ringly is a wearable-tech jewelry company that I founded two years ago. Ringly started out as this problem I wanted to solve in my own life, which was that I hated always missing important meetings or phone calls because my phone was buried in my purse. I realized the only solution was to always have your phone out. It became very frustrating, and I noticed other people having this problem as well. [I] wondered if I could somehow make my jewelry smart — alerting me when my Uber is arriving, or [when it's time for] my next meeting, or when I'm getting an important phone call. This way, I can focus more on the moment, and less on checking my phone. The technology component of Ringly is "invisible" — there’s no screen, obviously, and it’s based around an alert system."
You studied fine arts and human computer interaction in school — what led you to that intersection of arts and tech?
"My dad was an engineer, and my mom was a creative type. I grew up with technology, and my dad had a start-up in our basement... So, when everyone else was going to play sports, I was going home to the basement, to poke around on Photoshop. I’ve always had that in my blood."
You have a strong background in product development and design, spending time as VP of product at Hunch and design manager at eBay — how did your experience help you with launching Ringly?
"Ringly is so amazing, because there are so many fields to bring together. And, product management organizes all different parts of the company...to create the best experience for the customer. So, whether it’s software [or] hardware, the core is there — to design and develop a great product. I learned a ton from my time doing that."
What advice would you give to someone trying to start his or her own company?
"It takes a lot of perseverance and doesn’t come easy... When I first started out, I had no idea how to build hardware. I did some research and found this circuit-board class that was an intensive weekend, so I signed up, went, and learned."
What was the biggest challenge with launching your own business?
"For Ringly specifically, it was that we were combining so many different industries into one. We’re not just creating a jewelry company; we’re creating a technology company that has hardware and software. There’s an iPhone app that we’re building, an e-commerce site — the hardest thing was merging all of these and being an expert in [them] all."
How does Ringly distinguish itself from other wearables?
"It was our goal to make sure it looked good. I’m hoping Ringly is leading the way in this area, making devices that are fashionable and more targeted to a specific audience. [It's] like how you would wear rain boots when it’s raining, sneakers to the gym, and heels to a cocktail party. I think that’s going to be very similar to wearables: [You'll wear] your fitness tracker at the gym, a Ringly when you go to a cocktail party, maybe a watch when you’re at work."
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
"Stick with it."
What about the worst?
"Somebody once told me I was too nice! I think that is such bad advice. I love being nice!"
The Toy Tinkerer: Alice Brooks
Alice Brooks grew up immersed in engineering before she even knew what it was — partially prompted by Santa Claus refusing to bring young Brooks any dolls for Christmas. An MIT and Stanford-trained engineer, she wanted to find a way to help girls engage in problem-solving and motor skills at an early age. This is where the idea for Roominate, a wired dollhouse-building toy, was born. It offers girls an opportunity to foster these skills in a way that feels innate — and it could potentially spark an interest in STEM-related fields.
Brooks is busy bridging the gender gap, one house at a time.
What made you decide to create a learning toy for girls?
"It was three years ago. My co-founder Bettina [Chen] and I were both at Stanford [for grad school]. She was studying electrical engineering, and I was studying mechanical engineering. She had gone to Cal Tech for undergrad, and I went to MIT...we’d both come to Stanford thinking that since we were out of these tech schools, we’d be around a lot of women — and that just wasn’t the case.
"We started talking about why we’d chosen engineering and why a lot of our female friends hadn’t even thought about it. We realized that it was things that we played with when we were younger that inspired us from an early age. For me, it was when I was eight and I asked my dad if Santa Claus could bring me a Barbie, and he told me, 'Santa Claus can’t do that in this house,' and instead I got a saw."
Wow, that’s a great gift.
"It was a lot of fun. I made my own dolls and a dinosaur. I sawed them out of wood, would nail them together... That whole process of figuring things out with my hands...got me really interested in engineering before I knew what it was. So, when I was applying to college and I got into MIT, I saw mechanical engineering as a way to take my love for making and being able to design real products."
So, how did this lead to Roominate?
"We didn’t see much that was getting girls interested in hands-on, open-ended creativity... [We] decided to make a toy and wanted to involve building and circuits, pulling from both of our backgrounds. We...spent a lot of time in homes, talking to girls, talking to their parents, testing out our ideas, observing them with the toys they already had, and looking at the research on the gender gap in engineering, math, science, and technology."
Teague: Vintage Dries Van Noten shirt, Topshop skirt and Paul Smith shoes. Brooks: Theory shirt, Paul Smith trousers and belt and Kurt Geiger shoes.
Why do you feel it is so important to expose girls to engineering at such a young age?
"One of the main things that I saw was having that self-confidence, being able to take a new problem and figure out a solution; that was really important for me. Building up that confidence as early as possible, where girls don’t see this as a 'boy’s thing'... By exposing girls to those things and leveling the playing field, who knows what they will go after in the future?"
What has been the rewarding moment so far?
"We get pictures every day from our customers of things they’ve made. A lot of times, they are in the picture, too, really proud. It’s so cool, because not only do they make things we wouldn’t have thought to do — like the Golden Gate Bridge or car washes with spinning brushes — but just seeing a six-, seven-, or eight-year-old and how confident she is in what she has made is the most exciting part. We get to do a lot of this in person, too. We do role-model workshops in the Bay Area, or go to after-school programs for STEM, or go work with Girl Scout troops. Seeing them figure out the circuits for the first time and then just charge ahead and build is so exciting."
What advice do you have for women entering the tech space?
"Just go for it. There’s nothing scary about it. If you’re interested in it, you’re going to be good at it. I feel really lucky that I found something I really love doing — mechanical engineering — and [I get to] turn that into making toys. At the beginning, it can seem kind of scary or kind of intangible, but there are a lot of ways you can apply your talents."
The Advocate: Erin Teague
The only Black female in her graduating class at the University of Michigan, the current director of product management at Yahoo was driven to change the racial and gender disparities in tech. Thanks to support from her mother and her local community, Teague forged a powerful career — including time at Twitter, Path, and Intel — before settling in at Yahoo in 2013. (“Go change the world,” was a phrase Teague’s mother uttered often.)
Teague is also involved with the National Society of Black Engineers and the non-profit CODE2040, an organization dedicated to securing African-American and Latino students internships in tech. She is well on her way to doing just what her mother encouraged all along: changing the world.
You grew up in Detroit — a huge manufacturing city. How did this influence your interest in tech?
"The big three auto-makers are all headquartered there, and quite a few of my parents' friends worked in this sector, so...I understood the notion of engineering. I was always naturally good in math and science. I think that, combined with the fact that I was always into sports and liked working in team-related environments, led me toward exploring this path... I didn’t know what computer programing was until I got to college, which meant that I was really behind in comparison to my peers. I had to work extra-hard to catch up. But, I liked being challenged to think in a new way."
When did you first get excited about computer programming?
"Freshman year, intro to computer programming. The mid-term exam [had a] question that stumped everyone in the class — there were easily several hundred students... Only four or five people got it right; I was one of those people. After that, I was like, This is meant to be!"
You mentioned you were the only Black woman in your graduating class — what was that like?
"That was one of those formative experiences for me. My high school was 85% to 90% Black, so when I got to college it was a huge culture shock... The best thing about that experience is it helped prepare me for my career. It taught me to work in environments where I felt like I was being underestimated... Also, it allowed me to recognize I always had a unique perspective."
Do you feel like the gap is getting any better?
"A lot of companies have been very public about their diversity numbers... That is the first step — acknowledging there is an opportunity to really do better in terms of recruiting diverse talent. Diverse teams make better decisions. They arrive at better solutions, and that impacts your bottom line.
"But, the numbers have not changed. Until that happens, I can’t say that progress has been made, but I think we’re moving in the right direction. There is no quick fix; this issue is so multi-faceted. The core of that issue is around exposure, around access, around what societal norms are being reinforced for young kids."
What is CODE2040 and what does it do?
"It places underrepresented minority students into internships in Silicon Valley. They augment whatever happens throughout the course of the internship with programs and training, as well as mentors to help support their pursuits of getting a full-time job. CODE2040 is providing access to a talent pipeline that isn’t historically tapped... [It] says to Silicon Valley companies, 'Look, here is a group of students who are underrepresented minorities and women, who are at schools you haven’t traditionally recruited at, but we think these students are good."
How have things changed at Yahoo since Marissa Mayer came on board as CEO?
"So many things! There has been a significant cultural shift internally at the company. I think the hardest part of leadership is the people component, and the challenge of figuring out how you shift a culture to being super-high-caliber, focused on results, and incredibly sound technically. That is something she’s been able to do in such a short amount of time. That is a miracle that no one is really talking about. In business school, you have whole classes dedicated to changing company cultures and managing change, and she has done that in such a masterful way, infusing the company with new talent, ideas, and innovative thinking."
What’s one common lesson you’ve learned from working at Twitter and Yahoo?
"The first thing is that it is much harder to turn a company around than it is to start from scratch. I think what we always talk about in Silicon Valley is how hard it is to start from scratch and run a start-up. But, I think being a CEO at a turnaround company is significantly harder. I don’t think I really understood that until I took this role. There’s a bunch of...backtracking and reverse-thinking...that is really hard to do when you have a very large team that is used to operating in a certain way."
What advice do you have for women wanting to enter the tech space?
"Two things: The first is to recognize and embrace your uniqueness. I don’t think the ratios are going to change anytime soon. But, I don’t think it has to be a disadvantage. Being a Black woman, being a woman in general, on a team of all men, means that you are going to have a unique voice. It’s important to embrace that. Also, make sure you never stop learning. Being the unique person in the room, that means you’re a little different, and sometimes that means you might have to prove yourself again and again."
The Millennial Marketer: Rachel Tipograph
Zara suit, Tibi shirt, Catbird necklace and rings, Seline Kent ring, Jennifer Zeuner ring, talent's own shoes and bracelets.
At the age of 24, Gap made Rachel Tipograph its youngest executive. She was hired to head up its global digital and social media efforts — to recharge the Gap brand to appeal to younger, hipper customers. Tipograph got her start in the tech world as an entrepreneurial eBay power user as a tween, and she jumped into the social media space after graduating from NYU in 2009. Tipograph, whose steadfast self-confidence is apparent even over a cross-country phone call, is clued in to the millennial audience (since she is one) — their pain points, ambitions, and habits. She’s also savvy about how to successfully sell millennials on ideas, and how to do so in a way that it’s not annoying or intrusive, but entertaining. It’s about changing the environment, she says.
Tipograph is taking that idea and applying it to her own startup: MikMak, a mobile video shopping network launching this June. Think QVC meets SNL, and put it on an iPhone. The platform is centered around entertainment…and just happens to sell things. Read on to hear more about how Rachel got the idea — and the advice she’d give her younger self.
What is MikMak?
“MikMak is the first-ever mobile video shopping network. It’s a place people will come to watch and shop super-short infomercials (we call them “minimercials”) on [their] iPhone. Everything we sell is below $100, and [we don’t sell anything] with sizes — so, a lot of gadgets, jewelry, beauty, kitchenware. It’s designed for the millennial audience, and the voice represents the millennial voice — a funny, self-aware, unapologetic voice. All of our hosts are improv comedians. Our beta users have described it as ‘Broad City or SNL for shopping.’”
How did you get this idea?
“The idea came to me while leading global digital and social media at Gap. No matter who you are on the Internet — from a luxury brand to a mom-'n’-pop shop — you will fall into the same traps to grow revenue: promotional emails and retargeted advertising. To everyday people, those are the most annoying aspects of the web. Which means every day you kill your brand to make a sale. I would go to work and ask myself the same question: How can you drive sales on the Internet, not annoy people, and even improve the perception of your brand at the same time? MikMak is my answer.”
What’s your team like?
“We’re currently a full-time team of six (seven by the time this article runs). Half my team is men and half is women. Three quarters of the technical team are women. It’s a really supportive environment that is quite unusual in tech.”
You started out in the film industry. How did you end up here?
“One of my firm beliefs is that pop culture can solve world problems. As a kid, I'd record 'radio shows' on my bedroom boombox or run around with a mini digital video camera I got at Radioshack, making short films. I've always learned better outside of the classroom, so while at NYU I interned every semester. I was at Miramax when the New York office shuttered, New Line Cinema when they laid off hundreds of employees, Time Inc when that midtown building emptied out, floor by floor. I knew I had to jump headfirst into tech and social media for a job post-college, so I did.”
What are your thoughts on being a woman in such a male-dominated field?
“When you enter tech, you realize that there are more men than women. You can’t deny that. But, I don’t think you can make that an obstacle. You can’t get deterred as a female founder knowing that’s the landscape. You need to ignore the naysayers (of course there will be naysayers) and surround yourself with investors who believe in you, believe in your idea, believe in the market you’re going after, and believe in your ability to execute, most importantly.”
Have you experienced much gender bias or discrimination as a women in the tech space?
“No, I wouldn’t say I have. I think it’s because I’m a confident person, and that’s what people see. [At MikMak] 50% of our investors are women and 50% are men. The men, they’d never say, ‘She’s a female founder.’ They’d say, ‘She’s a founder.’
"And, as a founder, you have to lead by example. When you build a company, you get to hand-pick the team. You can change the conversation as a leader. At MikMak, I hired collaborators. They recognize magic happens when you bring in people from all different backgrounds and different expertise with an untraditional mission.”
What sort of adversity have you faced in your career thus far?
“The biggest challenge was working through public criticism and failure. I take really big risks in all aspects of my life. When you take big risks, the failures are really big. There have been points in my career where thousands of people have tweeted against something I spearheaded. But, I believe one of the most important traits of anyone who wants to be successful in life is resilience. I’ve become quite strong.”
What’s the most important thing a mentor or critic has ever told you?
“A mentor once asked me a question I now ask myself all the time: ‘What risks can you afford to take?’ Every time I make a decision, I ask myself, what would happen in the worst-case scenario? If I’m okay with what would happen, I do it. It definitely leads you to unusual places.”
If there’s one piece of advice you could tell your younger self, what would it be?
“Slow down! I look back at certain parts of my life and wish I were more present. Too much of my younger self was defining myself by what I did next, and I realize now you don’t get time back.”
The World Citizen: Privahini Bradoo
Talent's own sari and Kurt Geiger shoes.
Privahini Bradoo’s startup, Blue Oak, is doing the U.S. a huge favor. With a refinery centered in Arkansas, the company is tackling the growing problem of electronic waste, harvesting the valuable precious metals out of our old smartphones and TVs so we don’t need to mine those resources from the earth. Bradoo is Blue Oak’s founder and CEO. Born in India, raised in Oman and New Zealand, and schooled in Boston, she pulls from a variety of diverse life experiences to lead her company and make a positive impact in the world.
Bradoo stresses that she is not a “female startup founder.” She’s a founder. And, she’s intelligent, capable, and (perhaps most importantly) deeply passionate about and dedicated to her company. “It’s not that we’re women or not, or colored or not. It’s remembering that we have the ability to be whoever we want to be,” Bradoo said over the phone the day after her photoshoot (she’s constantly jetting between San Francisco and Arkansas). Bradoo had lots of wisdom to share about her life in science and startups.
You have a fascinating background, including a PhD in Neuroscience. What got you started on that path?
“I’ve always been very inquisitive about the way the world works, fascinated by scientific discovery and progress. I think there’s no more interesting field to explore that than the field of neuroscience. Understanding how the brain works is, well, completely mind-boggling. Through the course of my PhD, I was fortunate to be working on a really exciting project: We discovered a gene for brain repair.”
And what made you decide to get an MBA?
“Along my PhD, I met a few people who’ve become very close mentors. We started an initiative with a focus on promoting entrepreneurship in New Zealand. It was basically a not-for-profit seed fund, a house within the business school at the University of Auckland. The goal was to turn the first-class science that happens in New Zealand into world-class enterprises. Through that process, I realized that while I really loved science, what I enjoyed even more was taking cutting-edge science and technology and making it into something that benefited the world.”
What was your most important takeaway from business school?
“I remember our professor of leadership had a great quote. He said that being a true leader is having a fully rational understanding of all the obstacles that lie ahead of you, and a completely irrational belief in your ability to overcome them. That stuck with me. It’s not just a foolhardy, Yeah, I can get whatever I want. It’s: Yes, it’s hard, but if you’re fierce and fearless, your confidence in your ability will overtake the hurdles life throws at you.”
What’s it like living in Silicon Valley compared to New Zealand?
“It’s a very unique part of the world. There’s a confluence of incredible people who believe in their ability to change the world, and an ecosystem that allows it. I don’t think it exists anywhere else the same way it exists in the Bay Area.
“There’s a great quote from Ernest Rutherford that represents the New Zealand mindset: ‘We haven’t got the money, so we’ve got to think!’ You have to be exceptionally creative when you don’t have capital or financing. Every company I’ve seen in New Zealand, they’re kind of hacking it. That’s a commonality: In Silicon Valley it’s the hacker mentality in solving problems, and Kiwis are good at that as well.”
How did you learn about the problem of e-waste?
“I was on the faculty as an advisor at Singularity University and met my cofounder there. We became really interested, and recognized that there’s a massively growing problem of e-waste being generated around the world. There’s a high concentration of valuable metals within e-waste. To us, what was astonishing is there was no domestic solution in the U.S. to recover this value.”
What is Blue Oak doing to fix this issue?
“E-waste is a broad category, which comprises many things — including precious-metal-containing components, like circuit boards. We’re able to take these precious-metal-bearing electronic scrap through a first-of-its-kind plasma furnace and very efficiently recover all the high-value elements like gold, copper, silver, and palladium. We can do this very efficiently and in a very environmentally sustainable way. That’s the secret sauce of our tech, its high recovery efficiency. And, we create 95% less emissions compared to traditional gas-fired furnaces.”
What do we, as consumers and electronics users, need to know about e-waste?
“We live in a world of technology explosion. The new iPad, the new watch, the new Nexus 6. The average lifespan of devices has gone from five to eight years to 12-18 months. Over 80% of consumer e-waste ends up in landfills today. Just recognizing that e-waste is the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the world and making sure people are much more conscientious about recycling e-waste [is important].”
What’s the most challenging thing about running a startup?
“To be honest, people often think of joining startups as a career choice, but it’s much more than that. It’s a lifestyle choice as much as a career choice. Over the last few years, I was subletting. I was in seven different apartments over four years. There was always a possibility I may have to move again. A lot of people don’t realize how much uncertainty a startup entails. But, that’s what I find the most interesting part: navigating the uncertainty.”
What advice do you have for women hoping to get into tech and startups?
“I never believed I could or couldn’t do something because I was a woman. I remember something my mom always told me: ‘You are the best at whatever you do.’... And then, just fighting for it. Focus on being the best that you possibly can be. All the people I’ve worked with, they’re looking for people who are the best at what they do. If you as a woman or a man can prove to them that you are the best at what you do, they respect you for that, and they’ll empower you to succeed.”
What’s the significance of the sari you’re wearing in our shoot?
“The sari that I brought and wore was actually one that I designed in high school. People often ask me where is home. I am a New Zealander who was born in India, grew up in Oman, lived in Boston, now San Francisco and Arkansas. That piece is symbolic. I truly feel like I’m a global citizen. I’ve been welcomed wherever I’ve lived and embraced wherever I’ve landed. That feeling… That’s a thread of my life that I really value.”
Flying High: Michelle Haupt
Theory blazer, Club Monaco shirt, Paul Smith trousers and H&M shoes.
Michelle Haupt has, without a doubt, a seriously cool job. She works at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center as a lead operations engineer. There, she and her (largely female) team manage NASA’s support aircraft, helping with the design process, making sure planes are structurally sound, and generally ensuring they’re airworthy. She’s flown supersonic at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and has taken two trips on the “vomit comet” to perform research in microgravity (nope, she didn’t even puke).
Haupt genuinely loves her role at NASA, probably because she’s deeply interested in math and airplanes — and has been since she was a child. She knew definitively that she wanted to be an aeronautics engineer when she was in middle school, even though she wasn’t quite sure if that was an actual job title or not. Now, she shares her passion for technology and learning with kids and teens at outreach events. She’s had numerous female managers and mentors over the years, and will continue that cycle as she inspires young women to follow in her footsteps.
Tell us about what you do for NASA.
“I’m a support aircraft lead operations engineer. We have nine aircraft, ranging from F-18s to F-15s to king airs, a glider, and a T-34. The support aircraft primarily serve as proficiency planes for our pilots; they also fly support chase for aircraft that have research or science experiments on them. We’re in charge of the airworthiness of the aircraft, making sure it’s structurally sound. We make sure nothing goes wrong.”
What’s a typical day for you like?
“There are usually a few project meetings down in the hangar with the aircraft and the maintainers. If there are any modifications being done, we check on the process. Do they need any other information from us? A big part of what I’ve been doing is making sure all the documentation and records for the maintenance they do and the modifications they do are documented properly so we fly our planes safely.”
Do you fly?
“I do! On previous projects, I flew a lot. I used to fly over the San Andreas fault here in California, and over volcanoes in South and Central America as part of the UAVSAR project.”
Are there many women in your field?
“Surprisingly, my group has been almost all women in our support team. Our operations-engineering branch is 25 to 30% female. We’re a small branch, around 40 engineers. For a little while, it was all female. It was a lot of fun. Typically, there’s a 3:1 male-to-female ratio; that’s how it was in school.”
What got you first interested in space and aerospace?
“When I was little, my dad flew a lot on business, and he’d come back telling us all about the planes. My mom was hands-on; she fixed copiers for a living. My dad was in IT. I loved math early on, and I naturally gravitated towards space movies like Apollo 13. Then, around 7th grade, something clicked. I wanted to be an aerospace engineer; I thought I made it up in my head. I didn’t know what aerospace engineering was or if it existed, but that’s what I wanted to do.”
How did you end up specifically in aerospace?
“I went to college wanting to do space — shuttles and rockets. When I started applying for co-ops, I got a call from Dryden (now Armstrong)... I learned I really enjoy airplanes. I shifted my focus towards aircraft instead of space. On one project I was on, I got to see how the operations engineer ran the project and what she got to do. I decided, I want to do that next time.”
What’s one of the coolest experiences you’ve ever had?
“We had a program at school that was part of NASA’s reduced-gravity student program. You submitted ideas you wanted to test in microgravity; ours was welding in space. It was amazing to get to test the experiment… We did over 30 parabolas of microgravity, and I did not get sick!”
What are the hardest parts about your job?
“In our operations-engineering branch, a lot of it is learned by firehose. It’s a very fast-paced environment. Because we have so much diversity and variety in the projects we work on, we move around a lot. Another big challenge over the last two years was the records audit. Just sifting through mounds and mounds of paperwork and records… It was a great way to learn aircraft quickly! The best way to learn is to immerse yourself.”
What advice do you have for women hoping to one day work for NASA?
“One thing I always tell young girls: Never let anybody tell you you can’t do it. Growing up, they’d look at me like, Really? Even when I did my college visit, I had someone tell me most people change their minds after the first year. I never gave up. Even when I was having teachers tell me, just take a break from math, you can take this class next year. I said, ‘No, I’m going to take it now.’ I kept pushing for it.”
What inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing?
“When I get to go do outreach events, we dress up in our flight suits and sign autographs. Little girls come up and are in awe. I get to talk to middle-schoolers, the age right when I decided [to do aerospace engineering]. I love getting to tell them my story and tell them, ‘Don’t give up; if this is what you want to do, keep pushing for it.’”
The Social Do-Gooder: Kerry Steib
Acne Studios from Albright Fashion Library jacket, Zara trousers, Dune London sandals, Sarah & Sebastian bracelet and talent's own shirt, earrings and rings.
After years doing marketing at giants like AOL and Google, Kerry Steib is now the director of social impact at Spotify. When we first heard that title, we thought that meant she was some kind of social media guru, measuring the success of the company’s status on Facebook and Twitter. Turns out, “social” doesn’t just mean posts and tweets. After starting out in business marketing, Steib forged her own role at Spotify (which then had only 40 New York City employees) as a social entrepreneur within the company. Now, with over 1,000 employees globally, Steib heads up collaborative projects with nonprofit organizations, so they can creatively share their messages on Spotify’s platform. It’s a more hands-on, company-tailored approach to the idea of corporate philanthropy. And, Spotify is a natural fit for Steib; music is deeply ingrained in her DNA.
“I was raised in a household where there was constantly music,” Steib says. “My father...was always discovering new music, taking trips to the library or the store for CDs. Looking for new music became something that I really identified with.”
Steib brought a sampling of the types of records she grew up on to our shoot — the things that were most instrumental to her music tastes: the Who, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, a lot of classic rock. “My dad also introduced me to Dave Matthews Band, which is hilarious.”
What does your title, director of social impact, actually mean?
“I look for ways Spotify can contribute to different kinds of social issues. I work with employees to engage them in their communities. It’s important they feel connected to the communities in which they live. I also build projects with charities and organizations, to use music to create social change.”
What is the thought behind “social impact?”
“Companies have been doing social impact for a really long time — traditionally, it’s more about corporate philanthropy. But now, you see a movement toward a more integrated look at social impact and responsibility. How can you create shared value between you and a nonprofit? How can you use what you’re really good at as a company? In our case, by distributing music and giving people access to that music.”
What’s an example of one of these projects?
“Our San Francisco office is in the Tenderloin, [a historically low-income, high-crime area]. As part of being in that neighborhood, we started working with an organization called History Through Hip-Hop. It uses hip-hop to empower young voices in the Tenderloin and encourage them to create art and tell their own stories. They pick an issue every year (last year it was gentrification) and bring in all sorts of experts on the subject matter, so the kids get to learn about the issue from all sides. In this case, they wrote, performed, and recorded an album, which was their take on gentrification. We hosted that program in our offices (which was a great opportunity for the kids to be in a professional environment), released the album on Spotify, and built a marketing campaign around it, so hip-hop fans could find it.”
How did you end up in this role?
“When I got to Spotify, I was doing business marketing and sales development, but we were such a purpose-driven company, everyone believed in what we were doing. I felt like there was a greater opportunity for us to bring that purpose more to the forefront. About a year into Spotify, I just started doing it. I put together a business plan, took on small projects here and there, to prove this was something that could work at Spotify, and a year ago this became my full-time job.”
So, you tailored your own position?
“Yes. We are a very self-starter, entrepreneurial company. I think that I definitely fed off that vibe when thinking about what I wanted to do and how I could make that happen. There is a lot of individual agency at the company, but at the same time, everyone is working together. It’s an interesting balance.”
You’re clearly passionate about music. What artists are you digging right now?
“I love the new Wale. And The Gay Blades and July Talk; they were touring together and I got to see them. They have some crazy energy and great new material. I’ll just send you a playlist!” [You can listen to Kerry’s playlist here.]
What’s it like working at Spotify?
“It’s the best! We have amazing bands come in, and I work with some of the smartest people on the planet. It’s incredible to work in such a global organization, too; it makes things so much more interesting.”
How does that compare to working at a tech giant like Google or AOL?
“Being at a smaller company, you have the opportunity to build more of your own work into the fabric of the company. This was something I learned while I was at Google. I started as an administrative assistant and used the opportunity to take on projects with a bunch of different teams. If you saw a need for something… it was about solving problems. I learned that was something I really responded to as a person and looked for in my career. As companies got bigger, I moved towards more of that entrepreneurial space inside a company.”
What advice do you have for women just beginning their careers?
“Not knowing what you want to do is really okay. I remember at the beginning of my career, constantly being asked what my five-year plan was, what my 10-year plan was, and feeling invaluable if I didn’t have the answer. The reality is: So much is changing. You only know what you know. Keep your mind open. Keep having conversations with people. Make yourself valuable: Jump into projects, keep learning. Every opportunity leads to something else. Try things that seem scary or you think you might not like in the beginning — they end up shaping your career.”
What’s the most important advice you’ve ever gotten?
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is from my mom: ‘You get to choose how you react to things, and people can’t make you feel one way or another.’ You have agency over every reaction, in your work or personal life. It’s incredibly empowering to know that, and to really take advantage of that.”
The Disruptor: Natalia Oberti Noguera
Ter et Bartine blouse, Alberta Ferretti trousers, Zara sandals, Jennifer Fisher necklace and Lillot bracelet.
Natalia Oberti Noguera is changing the status quo for the world of startup. Her company, Pipeline Angels (formerly Pipeline Fellowship), is increasing the diversity of U.S. angel investors by giving women the knowledge and tools to make a positive impact with their money and influence the next generation of start-ups.
Oberti Noguera started Pipeline Angels because she kept hearing that women were having a difficult time securing funding for their companies. The growing list of start-ups Pipeline Angels has helped support includes such diverse projects as: DayOne Response, which makes a water-purifying bag used at disaster-relief sites; Voz, a fair-trade, haute couture fashion brand; and Repurpose, which creates products from plants instead of petroleum. Oberti Noguera has a lot of thoughts about how improving diversity among investors is good for everyone.
First off, what is Pipeline and what does it do?
“Pipeline is an angel investing bootcamp for women. Have you ever watched Shark Tank? Well, there are enough white-guy sharks out there. I’m in the business of creating more women sharks. In 2013, out of all angel investors, only 19% were women and 4% were minorities.”
What made you decide to start Pipeline?
“I had the opportunity to build a network of women social entrepreneurs in 2008. It grew from six to 1,200 in two years. I kept having conversations with them about how hard it was to secure funding. They’d share their change-making ideas, but the assumption would be that they’re launching nonprofits.
"I realized society, particularly in the US, had this perception that if a woman is going to change the world, she’s going to launch a nonprofit. People aren’t assuming that about a guy. I wanted to really break down that stereotype and create opportunities for women who want to change the world in a for-profit way.”
How is Pipeline different from other angel investing groups?
“We’re lowering the threshold of what is needed to make an investment. A lot of angel groups have a yearly commitment of $25,000... We’re providing this experience at the $5,000 level, and we now have close to 100 women who have graduated and continued to invest.”
I’ve heard time and again from male founders and VCs that there just aren’t that many women-led start-ups for them to fund. Is this true?
“The numbers are low, but they’re not zero. For me, one thing that’s clear is the term 'pattern recognition.' We invest, hang out, and collaborate with people who are like us. A very prominent angel investor, years ago...was asked, 'Who do you look for when you invest?' He said, 'Someone like me.' A huge aspect of Pipeline Angels is turning that on its head... Let’s get more of us — more women, more men of color — on the other side.”
What inspires you to keep doing what you do?
“I spoke at the Women 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. This young, Black woman approached me after the event; her eyes were welling up with tears. She thanked me for being visible and speaking up. She shared with me how she had earlier that month been invited to present at a pitch event in LA. When she went to the event, a prominent white-guy investor walked up to her and handed her his trash. When she said 'Hey, I’m here to pitch,' he doubled down and asked her to get rid of his garbage. Not even an 'Oh, oops, sorry.' He was just like, 'Get rid of my garbage.' Talk about being invisible. 'There are no women entrepreneurs'... We’re there. They’re just not seeing us.”
Do you think the issue of gender bias or discrimination against women in tech is getting any better?
“I just have one comment for that: #thankyouellenpao.”
How do things need to change?
“At a regular tech event, oftentimes the loudest voices tend to say, 'Where are the women?' When we’re at women's events: 'Where are the women of color?' At women-of-color events: 'Where are the LGBTQ women of color?' What has been refreshing is that within each community, there’s this concept of intersectionality — the concept that it’s not either/or... It would be helpful to create inclusive environments that remember that many of us are more than one identity.”
Pipeline Angels focuses on diversity in entrepreneurship, but some of your angel investors still invest in all-male startups. Why is that important?
“The power of having a woman investor early on and the potential to influence the culture...is really incredible.”
Who did you look up to, growing up?
“Mafalda. She is a social-critical cartoon — this little girl who’s going to school and is super outspoken about stuff like politics and bureaucracy. She was powerful to me because she had a point of view. Looking back, I learned through her. When people ask who’s my hero, I say this little girl. She’s just so awesome.”
Bradoo, Haupt, Brooks, Teague: Photographed by Christelle de Castro; Hair and Makeup by Lindsey Smith; Styled by Skye Stewart-Short. Oberti Noguera, Mercando, Garcia, Tipograph, Steib: Photographed by Christelle de Castro; Makeup by Michael Anthony; Hair by Yuhi Kim; Styled by Connie Berg.
This piece originally published April 27, 2015.
29Rooms — Refinery29’s magical art and fashion funhouse – is back for its second year, kicking off during NYFW, from September 9 to 11. We’re bringing our commitment to women claiming their power to life, through the event’s theme, “Powered by People.” To celebrate this sense of possibility, we’ve curated content that embodies our theme and pushes you to do more — start the conversations you want to hear, make change. We built our dream world and want to inspire you to power your own. For more information on the 29Rooms event and our initiative, click here.