What makes a leader inspirational?
When we evaluate what it takes to be a leader, we look at their contributions. But to be inspirational, we look at the depth of experience they bring to the table and how those experiences influence their decisions.
Inspirational leaders have been shaped by learnings throughout their career with influences from various jobs, mentors, and personal lessons that can sometimes go undisclosed. We hear grand stories of rising from failure, seeking the guidance of mentors, and the general motivations behind a leader’s ambition and drive.
But, I want to know more.
As the tech industry grows, it continues to bump up against a glass ceiling with a struggle to diversify. We’ve acknowledged these issues, but we generally don’t talk in enough depth about how women continue to overcome challenges and pave the way for future leaders.
Leaders are born from experiences in all aspects of their lives, not just what we find on the surface level of their resume or LinkedIn profile. I want to dig deeper and see what’s beneath those stories.
I sat down with six women that are making a huge impact in the tech industry to learn about their careers and how they got to where they are now. They also just so happen to be mothers. And in honor of Mother’s Day, we want to celebrate these women and showcase their different pathways to leadership. By sharing the success and inspiration of these leaders, we hope it’ll serve as a “thank you” for all they do as leaders, individual contributors, and moms.
Keep in mind, we’re not honoring them because they’re “moms,” we’re honoring them because they’re badass leaders that we admire and somehow they find the time and energy to also be moms. We think that’s pretty incredible and awe-inspiring. Do you know how much more work that means they’re doing that goes unnoticed, let alone unacknowledged?
While each of the women have vastly different careers, backgrounds, and experiences it was incredible to see how their perspectives overlapped and hear their stories of hard work, motivation, and inspiration.
Take Tiffany Mikell for instance. Mikell is the CEO and CTO of AerialSpaces, a technology startup born from an incubator that she co-Founded. The inspiration for the incubator: a place to center the experiences of marginalized communities during the Idea to Seed Stage of solution building, which continues to inspire her work. From Java developer to data architect, to educator, and entrepreneur, Mikell has worked with organizations like Uncollege, i.c. stars, and Dev Bootcamp. She has developed self-directed learning opportunities that create greater access to enter the tech industry. Frustrated by the lack of representation and content in the landscape of alternative learning — she teamed up with Trans*H4CK founder, Kortney Ziegler. Together they built a learning platform for entrepreneurs and tech startups for people of color. Mikell continues to give back and provide ways for people to impact more lives and make the world a better place.
She admitted that it can be hard to have balance in all of her roles, especially in tech, where you’re often expected to work long hours. But she still believes you can have it all. “Maybe not at the same time, but it is possible for you to shape your career any way that you want to. You decide what that looks like and how it manifests itself. The world is ours and it is up to us to create our own paths, you just have to decide what you want that to look like”
But “doing it all can be exhausting” says Ingrid Alongi, Head of Mentor Network at Cognizant Accelerator. “Someone once told me that you can have three major things going on in your life at once. Figure out what your priorities are and go from there. You have to let go of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). You have to learn to say ‘no’ to things that aren’t going to serve you and your goals. That also applies to selling my business when my twins were born. Two and a half years later, I can’t imagine having done things differently. My current situation is allowing me to learn a ton of new things while allowing me the energy to be present with my children.” Alongi started her career in web development and went on to build her company in 2010, Quick Left, a tech consultancy based in Boulder, Colorado. Quick Left was acquired in 2016 by Cognizant, Inc and now runs their internal startup accelerator.
But why is “having it all” even a question for women? How many articles do you read asking men this same question? Our very own Data Analyst for humanpredictions, Nikki Jo Gomez, made this observation. For men, the focus is on their accomplishments and accolades.
So let’s carry on with those leadership stories of these impactful leaders.
Subha Sriram, a Practice Advisor for SPR, began her career as a software developer and has worn a lot of hats on her journey to the top. Her work at Thoughtworks as a developer evolved the more she worked with clients, stepping into the gaps that were previously going unfilled. She stepped into project management that later led her to product management with detours in client management as well as staffing management, team building, recruitment, and agile coaching. The versatility of her roles and ability to bring her perspective to each project is one thing, in particular, that the tech industry allowed her: the flexibility to have different roles and to gain experience and knowledge.
In her own small way, Sriram hopes to encourage more people in this industry, more women specifically, to build careers and the lifestyle they want to have. She has found that while being a leader in tech and having 14 year-old triplets has its own set of challenges, the industry has provided her the flexibility she wants in her life. She encourages young leaders to:
“take the risk. Put yourself in the the uncomfortable position because we need to look for challenges. Set little goals and figure out the small steps to achieve a larger goal. Celebrate these small steps. If you start with, ‘I can’t do it. I won’t make it.’ You won’t. Break it down and little by little, you will,”
“don’t settle for ‘normal’ or tell yourself, ‘when I get this job, I’ll be okay’. Really think about your dream and what it would take to achieve it. Life is just too short to settle for ‘this is the best option for my kids, my husband, or my current circumstances’. Instead, go for the dream that’s right for you. That will be the best option for everyone around you in a much more powerful way, even if you think it sounds crazy — carve the steps to do the thing.”
Aimiuwu followed her own advice when she put her dreams of working with technology to the side two different times. First, in college she was forced to drop out of her Computer Science program because she couldn’t afford the books and was pregnant with her second child. While braiding hair to make a living, it was the website that she built to grow business that led her back into web development. Talk about meant to be! What a way to be drawn back to your original dream and craft of interest.
Second, after several years working at Thoughtworks as an Analyst with a focus on testing, automation, and development, she followed her dreams of entrepreneurship and launched Geek Empowered. This digital consultancy helps get businesses on the Southside of Chicago online. The fact that she gets to expose her five children to her career in tech and entrepreneurship as a mother is her biggest motivator. “They see how passionate I am about what I do and it inspires them to try things at a young age, even if it seems intimidating. I’m so proud of what they’ve been able to do because of the worlds they’re exposed to from my career.”
Similarly, Jen Myers was also someone who left her Computer Science program 80% of the way to completion and is now contributing to tech education in a large way. Myers is a Senior Curriculum Writer at Flatiron School after spending the last 18 years in tech as a developer mostly focused on front-end development who has primarily been in tech education full-time for the past five years.
How did she go from a college dropout to a Senior Curriculum Writer and a well-known and respected speaker at tech conferences worldwide?
“I did anything I could to work in a place where I also had access to self-teaching and always made time to work on my own, to learn as much as I could outside of my job. After my technical skills strengthened, and some time working as a designer at a consultancy in Ohio, I started exploring ways to teach other people and help make the learning process easier, that’s when I found Girl Develop It (GDI). I loved GDI because my own access to education was so terrible. I wanted to help others have a better experience, so I helped GDI open a chapter in Ohio. This all launched me into education full-time and the speaker circuit with hopes of making change.”
Myers went on to share that it’s because of the GDI launch that she got to a point in her career where she could synthesize her skills and give back to younger generations. It’s also what has enabled her to do what she wants in her life, “There is this misunderstanding that you have to live and die by the code you write or the systems you build, but it’s also totally cool if tech is something you enjoy, but more importantly enables you to live your life better.”
Nikki Gomez, our Data Analyst at humanpredictions, agreed that moms today have more advantage in the tech industry as many tech companies now recognize the value in offering working from home and flexible hours, concepts that were practically unheard of when she started her family in the early 90’s. She graduated from her Computer Science program after switching from Biomedical Engineering in the 1980’s because the IT industry was booming and the opportunities were seemingly endless. She was a COBOL programmer that later moved into a Systems Analyst role where she designed custom software for businesses, helping to streamline processes and improve efficiencies. She ultimately left the industry to raise her family, but later returned. While the gap made it challenging for her to re-enter the industry, Gomez contributed her profound and diverse experience to her teams with understanding and empathy for users with a long-standing background in all aspects of software development. She acknowledged that her career had some bumps after taking a break to raise her three children: “You can have all the plans in the world, and something (like cancer) can completely disrupt your plans. There are things that happen outside of your control and you just have to adapt and adjust.”
Sriram also acknowledges the opportunities that now exist in tech because leaders continue to change the dialogue. “I wish more women and mothers would consider tech because of the flexibility it provides. And a mother brings so much to the table that this industry needs.”
There are so many intricacies to their stories I want to share with you, and I will over time. This is just the start to sharing the impact of these leaders through their work, their contributions, and their life.
To all the moms out there, thank you for all that you do in all of the areas of your life. You shape us professionally and personally. You build amazing things, and create opportunities for others. And frankly, you don’t get enough recognition for all that you do, and yet you do it anyway. That’s why we’re all so inspired by your leadership.