The tech sector is growing rapidly and continuing to disrupt many traditional industries. However, according to a recent study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, technology is behind other sectors when it comes to diversity of workforce, and opportunities for advancement for women. What's it really like to be in a woman in a tech today?

On Monday February 13th the Wellesley Club UK brought together three Wellesley alums who shared their own experiences and insights as women in the sector. The panel was moderated by Audrey Mandela, co-founder of Multimap and chair of Women in Telecoms & Technology (Wellesley '80); Audrey also spoke about her own career. She was joined by: 

  • Cecilia Harvey, Director of Account Management at OpenFin (formerly Chief Operating Officer for Markets and Securities Services Technology, Citigroup); (Wellesley '99); and
  • Sahar Meghani, Founder and CEO, Trunkaroo (Wellesley '05).

 

Audrey kicked off the discussion. She graduated from Wellesley with a degree in English literature in 1980. Her introduction to tech started before that, though, with a summer job operating a Burroughs Redactron word processor at nascent tech consultancy The Yankee Group. That led to a full-time role in the company's new consulting division after graduation.

 

Her first project was a study on the market potential for handheld devices. The team concluded that there were good prospects in certain sectors, but that a consumer market was unlikely to develop quickly. It was a very different world in the early '80s.

 

Audrey spent close to 20 years at the Yankee Group; she moved to the UK in 1987 to run and grow the company's European research team. She was then promoted to run all of the companies international operations. In 1996 the company was sold to Primark, now part of Thomson Reuters.

 

At around the same time, Audrey's fiancé was thinking about starting his own business. Audrey had made some money from the sale of the Yankee Group, so was able to help fund the new venture, Multimap (maps on the web and phones before Google Maps). When Multimap took some external investment Audrey joined the business, which grew to become one of the world's largest online mapping companies, with offices in London, Boston, Sydney, and Istanbul. In 2007, Microsoft bought the company.

 

Audrey now spends her time helping other start-ups by angel investing, mentoring, and serving as a board director; chairing a women's network in tech (Women in Telecoms & Technology); sitting on the steering committee of Global Board Ready Women; advising London Business School on its annual TEDx event; and supporting charitable enterprises Acumen and WEDU.

 

Sahar Meghani, class of 2005, studied political science and economics at Wellesley. When she graduated it was the height of the financial boom; she did an internship in investment banking, and enjoyed it, so following graduation she went to work at Greenhill, a boutique investment banking firm in New York City. Although Sahar had offers from larger funds, she liked the fact that the firm was entrepreneurial.

 

Sahar worked in mergers & acquisitions for two years and then moved into the company's private equity arm; instead of advising companies she was investing in companies. For family reasons Sahar moved back home to Dallas for a couple of years; there she worked for a turnaround private equity fund that invested in heavy industry in surrounding states. There were very few women at most of those companies.

 

Everyone Sahar had worked for at that point had been to business school, and there was an expectation that to get promoted or move on to more senior roles she would do the same. After working for five years, she went to Harvard Business School for her MBA. It was at HBS that Sahar decided to make the switch from finance to tech. Although she enjoyed finance, she had a desire to make something tangible. Sahar's parents are entrepreneurs, and she realized it was in her blood.

 

Sahar did an internship with LinkedIn's business development team in the  Bay area, "which was incredible...we were building something, I could talk about product... I wasn't working until two in the morning but I was still working hard. It was quite energizing to be around a lot of young people doing interesting things."

 

Her advice is if you're interested in big tech roles, look into the large Silicon Valley companies, such as Facebook LinkedIn: they have a range of good roles, they really develop young talent, and they're happy to take in young people without experience

 

Although Sahar could have taken a full-time role with LinkedIn, which was just a couple of months away from its IPO, she was dating someone who was English, and decided to join him in London.

 

To find the right job in tech, Sahar made use of her network. She called the big venture capital funds in London and got meetings with people at Index, Accel, Balderton, and others. She told them she didn't want to work in VC; she was interested in working for a start-up they'd invested in that was doing well. "They get so many applications that it was refreshing for them; this is someone young I want to help. And they want to be helpful to their portfolio companies as well. If you have a partner at a VC fund emailing a portfolio company they've invested in saying, 'talk to Sahar,' they'll talk to you. Be strategic; it takes a lot of time to figure out what to do and what works."

 

These meetings led to a role at Wonga, which was then one of the big up and coming tech companies in London. (It was subsequently found to have over-charged customers and is now struggling, but at the time all signs were positive.) Wonga started life as an algorithm-based provider of loans to consumers. Sahar was hired to design and launch the company's business lending arm. Two years in, though, it became clear the company were doing things that weren't good for its customers, so she left, and did some consulting for other start-ups. And then she decided to start her own business.

 

For the last year and a half Sahar has worked on Trunkaroo, an education tech company that launched last April. The company make science and tech and art-based hands-on kits for three- to eight-year-olds. The idea is to get young children and families excited about science and tech and make it convenient. She's now running a team of five and has started fund-raising.

 

Cecilia Harvey, class of '99, also went into finance after graduation, in sales and training at Lehman Brothers. She worked on trading floors, and learned a great deal about derivative products. At that time there was a lot of technology focused on building out derivatives businesses.

 

She then realized why many people leave banking by the age of 30 and asked herself: do I want to do this forever? A friend in management consulting at BearingPoint suggested she move there; they were impressed by her knowledge of derivative products, and hired her.

 

Cecilia loved management consulting, working on project teams, leveraging her derivatives experience. She worked with senior-level clients and found she could talk the talk and had credibility with these large organizations.

 

But, in a recurring theme in Cecilia's career, change happens. Her bosses left to start their own company. This didn't appeal to Cecilia, so she called a former manager, who was now at Morgan Stanley. After roughly a year there she called another former manager who was now at IBM, building out the derivative solutions group. She joined him and was once again working on large-scale tech projects, learning a lot about technology and what was going on in the financial services industry.

 

However, Cecilia was getting tired of New York. She learned of an opportunity to go to London for a three-month project, at Lehman Brothers. The project time stretched out, and Cecilia was offered a full-time position. But Lehman's share price was dropping, and she decided to go to Accenture instead. The day she returned to London with her visa was the day Lehman imploded!

 

At around that time one of her previous managers moved to Barclays, and asked Cecilia to join him. She did. But then: more change: the manager moved to Citi.

 

After a year, Cecilia moved, as well. At that point in her career she was managing very large tech programs, dealing with the trading desk, with operations and with legal, "and I just got more responsibility thrown on me: manage the budget, manage the headcount, manage the location strategy. I just became a COO [of the Global Rates and CVA Technology Group]; it was not part of the plan, not part of what I intended to do. But I thought, 'I'll figure it out it will be all good.'"

 

Cecilia says the COO role at Citi was the toughest job she's ever had. She ran a large department in tech — about 600 people, with a $52 million budget. But she figured it out, leveraging her past experience.

 

She then moved up to be the COO of markets technology, the division that oversees all tech for the investment bank of Citigroup, with a budget of $1 billion; offices in 52 locations; and a team of 8,500.

 

 

Then, more change. Citigroup underwent a massive restructuring. Many of the functions Cecilia was managing were going to be centralized. She thought, "this could be a good time to get off the hamster wheel." So she left Citigroup, planning to take a year off to travel. And then the phone rang: the manager who'd brought her in to IBM had a new challenge: he wanted her to join a fintech start-up.

 

At first, Cecilia said no; she only wanted to work for big companies. But after meeting the founder, she decided she liked the spirit and ambition. She's now director of account management for HTML5 runtime technology provider OpenFin.

 

Cecilia has also started her own business, Walking Red. The name comes from walking the red carpet; it provides mobile beauty and fitness services. The company plans to leverage data analytics and AI to help consumers make more intelligent decisions about services that work best for them. " So here I am today, CEO of a start-up. And if you'd told me that two years ago I would have said you're crazy."

 

Q&A

 

We had several interesting questions from alums:

 

Did your parents have anything to do with where you are now? Were they mentors, sponsors, encouragers... ?

 

Both of Audrey's parents were entrepreneurial, which may have influenced her decision to join a small firm and ultimately to help to grow Multimap. She also quipped that her mother was a fast typist, and she always said that if you could type quickly you'd always have a job. And that is the skill that opened the door into tech consulting.

 

As Sahar had said, both parents were entrepreneurs and it's in her blood. She watched her father start over again when the family moved to the US from Pakistan. Initially Sahar thought,  "I would never do this; I'm getting a great paycheck, I have health insurance, I'm getting promoted, so why would you do this? But I'm glad that happened. ... Now I have the vision of where I want to go but there are times when my father will say be more aggressive... it's nice to have that push from an entrepreneurial side."

 

Cecilia felt her influences were less direct. No one in her family had a similar career. However, she grew up in a household of strong women. Her grandmother, who is her role model, moved her family from Birmingham, Alabama to New York to provide a better life for her children. Her example gave Cecilia the strength and drive to accomplish what she has.

 

What advice would you give to someone who has built an app and wants to take the next step?

 

This subject turned into a very full discussion about start-up models, funding, and proving your business model. Some of the advice our panel provided:

 

  • Don't be afraid to show your app to people because you're afraid they might steal your idea. Ideas are actually worth very little.
  • Research is very important when it comes to determining whether people will use something you've built, what they'll pay for it, and what you need to improve to make it better. You'll also learn about competitors. Don't invest much time or money until you've done this.
  • Listen to the feedback you receive but don't let it discourage you if it's negative. Go back, make changes, and try again.
  • All panel members recommended the book, "The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. It talks about how to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which may only be a piece of paper about your service, and encourages entrepreneurs to "get out of the building" to show it to as many people as possible.
  • It will be easier to get investment from third parties if you have some proof points that there's a market for your product or service. Start by setting small milestones.
  • There are a number of resources to help: Sahar was part of the MassChallenge accelerator, out of Boston; they don't take any equity. There are also networks of women investing in women. Audrey is a member of Angel Academe; in addition to bringing together investors it runs Entrepreneur Academe, which teaches and provides mentors.

 

Have you seen cultural differences between the US and UK tech sectors?

 

Audrey believes that although thing are changing, it's still true that many things are easier in the US: there's more money for investment, more support, more people who have done it before and can help you. But there are fewer who understand what it's like to do business outside their own country. If you're planning to be international from the start it's good to be in the UK.

 

Sahar agreed and felt that on the positive side, you can be a big fish in the UK. There are fewer people chasing the same opportunities, so there's less competition. If you have experience that you can bring and can market yourself you can stand out.

 

Americans are also more willing to cold-call for jobs as Sahar did when she reached out to VCs. It's less a part of the culture in the UK. Of course, it's important not to come off as too pushy or aggressive. On the flip side, it can be harder here to get a job by saying, "I'm smart, I'm willing to work hard, I have transferable skills, take a chance on me. It's more often the case that companies are hiring for specific roles and are less flexible.

 

What general advice can you offer to someone considering a career in tech?

 

Your career won't always be a linear progression. Don't always think about moving up; be open to the next thing that will be interesting. This was true of all of our panelists' careers.

 

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Similarly, when you're running a start-up, there are no typical HR benchmarks: you're not getting promoted, you don't have the regular feedback you'd get in a corporate role. It's important to have someone in a similar position to support you; Sahar has a group of other founders.

 

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Technology is a big industry and there are a lot of different types of roles. Do some due diligence on a company that you'd like to join. If you're joining a young company, spend time talking to the founder and your prospective manager to get a sense of the culture and the long-term vision. Don't want to go in blind.

 

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Know your worth: Cecilia always makes a point of asking women she sponsors or mentors: do you have an understanding of existing market rates for someone in a similar role? Many women don't. Although our three panelists hadn't encountered blatant discrimination in their careers, by looking at the data, they've seen instances of women being paid less than men in equivalent positions.

 

It can be especially tough in tech. Sahar noted that there's no real career progression in many companies. You can start in sales, move into product, change countries, and all the while you're progressing and learning but from an HR perspective is it clear that you're getting paid appropriately? There are resources such as Glassdoor, but any time you're considering a new role it’s important to try to figure out who's doing a similar role, what their trajectory has been and what they're paid.

 

Cecilia also suggests having two recruiters in your network; they can help to assess where your market value.

 

Salaries at start-ups also don't generally follow a single pattern. There will often be a balance between the cash component of a pay package and options or equity. It's important to ask about the size of the option pool, how options vest and what the start-ups exit plans are to get a sense of the potential value of the options.

 

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Understand the skill sets you need to stay on top and be more marketable. Cecilia believes women need to focus on staying relevant. You don't need to reinvent yourself; just stay relevant.

 

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But don't forgot to take some time out. Cecilia says if she hadn't got off the hamster wheel she wouldn’t have thought about what she wanted to do longer-term in her career and outside her career. And she never would have come up with the idea for her start-up.

 

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Have confidence: you're a Wellesley woman; you'll figure it out. All of our panelists have had situations in their careers where they were thrown in above their heads. Cecilia hadn't planned to be a COO, but she figured it out and excelled. In her first job in banking Sahar was asked to build a leveraged buy-out (LBO) model, but at the time didn't know what that was. She spent the weekend learning how to do it, and did it. "I also asked a lot of people for help and I think a lot of the guys didn't."

 

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Don't overlook the importance of your network.

 

The role of the network was a clear theme throughout the evening. Carrie Coombs, class of '81 and an executive coach, contributed to the discussion by clarifying the roles others can have in helping to progress your career, in particular mentors and sponsors. Mentors can be someone in your organization or outside your organization. They are altruistic about you getting ahead; they will lend you their networks, give you advice, love you. You have to like your mentor. They're going to be in your life for a long time.

 

Sponsors are someone in your chain of command or just outside who taps you on the shoulder and says, "I want you to do this thing; I'm dependent on you succeeding." Cecilia agreed: "when someone's willing to put their neck on the line for you, it's a major thing. When they tap you on the shoulder, you need to respond — no excuses. When I think back on it, building those relationships and getting that sponsorship has been so key. That's why I had the trajectory I had: someone was willing to put their neck on the line. And now it's important for us to figure out how we can sponsor other people."

 

Carrie suggested everyone should have an "advisory board," and that the number of people on it should grow as you age: it should be the same number as your decade plus one. Go to those people with clarity: I want to do this. And they will help and support you.