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Four female leaders weigh in on what International Women’s Day means to them

(Image credit: Future)

International Women's Day is a global day held on March 8 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. When it comes to technology, the day sets out to celebrate digital advancement and champion the women forging innovation through technology. In honor of this, women in tech comment on various topics ranging from encouraging other women, tips for young entrepreneurs and breaking down the gender divide. 

Harumi Akimoto, Partner, Pegasus Tech Ventures

“For women in tech, it can be intimidating to get people to respect you upon first interaction, let alone sell your business concept to VCs. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a company that breaks these norms, with women led startups making up around 40% of our portfolio and women making up 40% of our team. To inspire the next generation of female leaders, International Women’s Day should be celebrated as a day to teach our daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings. It’s also a great day to emphasize the benefits and success stories of pursuing STEM educational pursuits for more female representations in the tech industry. My advice to young women entering tech is be fearless, be articulate, ask for constructive criticism, look for role models, and pursue what you're passionate about. For female founders looking to grow their company, find investors who have consistently supported other female-led companies as they will have the experience to best support you in your endeavours.”

Caroline Puygrenier, director of strategy & business development, connectivity, Interxion:

“Over the past year in particular, I’ve participated in conversations around elevating women in the technology and telco industries – highlighting leaders, connecting over unique challenges we as women in the technology industry face, and identifying room for improvement despite progress we’ve made – particularly through focus groups and speaking forums. I enjoy these discussions and believe they are critical for achieving greater diversity in the industry.

However, something we must constantly remind ourselves of on our quest for gender equality is ensuring that these conversations truly reflect equal representation. For example, a panel on women in tech consisting only of female participants is not truly an inclusive conversation; rather, it excludes the male community, which, in my opinion, won’t help long-term goals of forging a gender equal world.

By having more inclusive conversations, all parties can work together to make changes that promote greater equality. The same goes for greater diversity too in terms of ethnicity and age – all parties of interest need a seat at the table to participate in meaningful discussion that will bring us closer to an equal world, sooner. More inclusive representation allows for more interesting conversation, not only helping achieve our goals for equality, but also allowing for various perspectives to add to the value of the conversation.”

Heather Ames, Co-Founder and COO, Neurala

“As the co-founder and COO of Neurala, I’m proud to celebrate women’s accomplishments in business and technology every day, and especially on International Women’s Day. Being a woman in technology and in artificial intelligence (AI) specifically, I am constantly reminded that this is a male-dominated field, which is made abundantly clear not only by the stark imbalance of women in leadership roles, but also by the underrepresentation within the VC community. In fact, only 9 percent of partners within venture firms are women, and female-founded companies received just 16 percent of VC funding in recent years.

These stats paint a grim picture, but they fuel my conviction to push for change. In addition to my role at Neurala, I’m a mother of four, and people often ask about how I handle the two – as I’m sure other women will agree, we’re sometimes made to feel like we can’t do both. My answer? I don’t apologise for it because I’ve learned over the years that it’s impossible to achieve work life balance, and I accept that. I try not to get stuck on the day to day, but rather take time to reflect on the positive things over a month time period. I bring my kids to work when I need to, leave early when necessary, and am transparent about that part of my life at work. I know that’s important for creating a strong workplace where others feel they can do the same.

I’ve also thought a lot about the way women in technology are recognised compared to men, and the issues that need to be addressed in that regard. Too often, we see women being recognised or receiving industry awards for “soft” skills – i.e. community building, contributing to diversity, and developing strong workplace culture – while men are put on a pedestal for their leadership and innovations. In 2020, we should not be subscribing to these stereotypes and boxing women into them – while I value my accomplishments in these areas, as a technical leader and operations executive, those are very small parts of my day-to-day, yet they are continuously the areas I am asked about most. That said, there’s some hope – from my own experience, in 2019 I was recognised as a national finalist in the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® Award. The award recognised my contributions as a business leader at Neurala – not just for me as a woman – which was an honour. But it’s not just about getting awards, it’s also about having a voice and seat at the table. I’ve been invited to participate in the 2020 Entrepreneur Of The Year® Awards, this time as a regional judge for New England. I am excited to have the opportunity to join this network and celebrate other women for their innovation and commitment to businesses that are changing the world.”

Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder and CEO, Affectiva

"International Women’s Day is a time for us to not only celebrate women’s successes and contributions to society, but also call attention to gender disparity. This is something that impacts women across industries, but as the CEO and co-founder of Emotion AI company Affectiva, I feel a personal conviction to advocate for women in tech and STEM.

We need to build up the entire ecosystem of women and diverse leaders in tech, starting with having more role models for girls to look up to. As a young woman, I was never able to relate to the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – but when I met my mentor, Dr. Rosalind Picard, I saw proof that women could be leaders and pioneers in technology. Young women need to see examples of people like them, pursuing their passions, so they can be inspired to do the same. And it’s not enough just to have more women in tech – we need more female investors and founders to serve as role models and advocates for other women in all stages of their careers.

In addition, we need to empower women to share their ideas and innovations, and ensure they’re recognised for their contributions. I’ve been thinking a lot about the patent process in that regard. Women made up just 12% of all patent inventors in 2016, based on a report by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. So to change that, we really encourage everyone at my company, Affectiva, to be part of the patent process and share their ideas. We don’t limit it just to our R&D team either – we have members of our marketing team, for example, who have their names on patents, and I’m extremely proud of the fact that 97% of our patent applications have a female inventor.

By not limiting the circle of people who can contribute new ideas, we’re not only bettering our company and fostering innovation – we’re also, I hope, encouraging people to take an active role in building the future of AI, no matter what their background may be. I encourage any woman looking to break into STEM to not be afraid to stand up for themselves. Speak up when you have ideas to contribute and don’t let anyone talk over you. And if you notice this happening to a woman in the room, you should also speak up! If I’m in a meeting and a woman gets interrupted, I make it a point to stop the meeting and ask her to finish her thought.

I’ve been heartened by progress made for women in recent years, but to keep things moving forward, we all need to get involved at our own companies and outside of them. There are a number of organisations doing amazing work to advocate for equality. For example, I’m a member of the Boston steering committee for a non-profit, All Raise, that’s dedicated to supporting and increasing women in tech and VC. Find organisations near you and get involved."

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