Female Tech Execs Tout Benefits of Networking, Following Your Passions
Female technology executives from AT&T, Deluxe and Google provided their inspiring career stories and discussed the benefits of networking, following your passions, accepting and embracing change, continuously growing your skillsets, and more on Oct. 8, during the Tech Mahindra Women in Leadership webinar “The Cumulative Effect.”
The benefits of drawing ‘soft lines’
“I’m a second-generation Asian-American,” Anna Lee, chief strategy officer at Deluxe, noted during the webinar, adding her father came from Seoul, South Korea, and her mother from Hangzhou, China.
“My grandparents, while in China, were living during the time of the Imperialist Japanese invasion of China” and her grandmother “had to flee her home with four young children in tow to seek safer ground,” she said. “When I see the movie Joy Luck Club with my mother, she cries because it really was the story of her life and I feel like that already is in my DNA in a symbiotic way. And it really has formed a very powerful foundation for who I am, and the values of my Asian culture never escaped me for a moment.”
Lee’s parents arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s and set out to get a greater education here than was possible for them in Asia. Her father was able to receive a full scholarship at Brown University.
Despite not speaking much English, he was “very good at math,” she noted. “That, unfortunately, is a gene that did not get passed on to me,” she said, drawing laughs from the other participants.
Her father went to Boston to study for his PhD and, there, met Lee’s mother, who had arrived in the U.S. with just $4 in her pocket. “She took two jobs while she was going to school. She was attending Harvard at the time in a special women’s program that had just been approved,” Lee said.
“Their story really is very symbolic to me…. My parents really wanted the lives that they never had for us and everything they did [was] for us. Now, I realize. I didn’t realize it back then. I was very rebellious.”
Lee’s mother told her everything that “I should have done… but I decided to go my own way,” she recalled.
Her parents were in the science field, her dad a chemical engineer and her mom a chemistry professor at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, she noted. Her parents wanted her to pursue science and tech but “it was not what I was passionate about,” she recalled.
“I really decided to kind of take my own path” and chose to study business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, she said. There, she learned the “ins and outs of multinational management and marketing and finance and statistics [in a] rigorous and intense program,” she recalled.
She was “passionate about fashion,” but pivoted and entered the music industry, with a job at Warner Music, where she learned how to network and “how to build and forge relationships,” building a “kind of yellow brick road” for her career that next took her to Bertelsmann, then Netflix and then Deluxe, she said.
All the individual experiences she had “really have” increased her skillset, she said, explaining: “The most important thing that I learned along the way is to follow your passion. Don’t follow the salary. Don’t follow what you think you should be doing. Follow what your heart tells you you should be doing.”
Lee also “learned so many other things though about how to interact with people, how to learn and how to lead, and I think those come from different experiences and being exposed to different groups and different teams and different industries and having to use those skills that you learn from another company and apply it where you are now,” she said.
That kind of “cross-lateral thinking [is] what I always tell my teams…. Use both your left and right [side of the] brain,” she noted. “It’s possible but we’re so cubby-holed into thinking that we’re linear thinkers or we’re creative thinkers – we’re math thinkers or we’re good in languages. But we can be both if we learn to train our brains and think that way.”
That is what she has “gleaned over the years based upon my experiences in publishing, in music, in entertainment and now in streaming and… in media services and technology,” she said, adding: “It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s what you bring from yourself to where you are.”
One mistake she made earlier in her career was that, “instead of setting hard lines of milestones that I wanted to achieve by a certain date or a certain age, I should have just kind of… [gone] with the flow,” she said, explaining: “Sometimes you can set out aspirations for yourself [and], by setting milestones you lose out discovery and synchronicity and any magic that can happen along this road. And I think that that’s something that everyone should be mindful of. That is my advice to everyone on the panel… Don’t draw such hard lines in the sand. Draw soft lines because you never know where it’s going to go.”
Learning how to solve problems in a creative way will take you far, she went on to say, adding: “Even when there’s no way out, there’s always a kink in the armor. Find that kink in the armor and then, from there, you can bust it open.”
Choose a tech career
Kate Hopkins, VP of data platform at AT&T, discussed the “adventurous spirits” of her mother, who was born in Peru and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was nine and barely knew any English, and her father, who grew up in a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania. “He was the first person in his family to attend college [and] they both joined the U.S. Air Force, she noted.
Her parents met in Oklahoma and got married. Her mother became a nurse after leaving the Air Force but, like many military families, they had to move multiple times: First to Texas, where Kate and her brother were born, and later to California. But they then “had to leave the beach and the sunshine and moved to snowy Michigan” and then Massachusetts, she said.
“It’s hard at first” to leave friends behind, along with the things you loved about each place, she recalled. But she learned from her parents to “jump into [a] new place with full feet” and “find what was amazing about that new place,” she said.
“It’s been really important to me to embrace [the] concept of change [being] what you make it, so make it good,” she noted.
She “always did have a little bit of a tech lean” so she took computer science in high school, she recalled. She was planning to follow in her father’s footsteps and major in electrical engineering “but realized my real love was software,” so she got a degree in computer science instead.
After college, she went into consulting and then decided she wanted to work for a corporation. She ended up at AT&T. While at AT&T, she started talking to other women about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) because “there weren’t enough of us” in that field, she said.
She saw a “shocking statistic” of 1984 being the peak year of women getting computer science degrees, when she graduated high school, she said, adding 2021 finally went back up to 2003 levels.
“It’s a real passion of mine to really encourage girls to stay in a technology track because it’s a really, really great career,” she pointed out.
Although she enjoyed consulting and going to see different clients and using tech to solve their problems, she was doing a lot of travel, she recalled. Although she met her husband doing that work, they basically ended up living in different cities for the first two years of marriage, seeing each other only on weekends, she noted.
Once she and her husband started talking about having a family, being a consultant and traveling all the time “wasn’t the path I wanted,” so she sought working for a tech-focused company, she said.
She recalled her first day driving to AT&T – then Bell South – when she thought: “Oh my goodness. What have I done? I am going to be doing this for the next 20 years – just driving to this building and doing this job.”
That, however, was just a “moment of panic” and wasn’t true because there are “a lot of opportunities” at AT&T and she has done several jobs since starting there, she said, adding she moved from Atlanta to Dallas with the company.
With the “experiences that AT&T has given me, I feel like I’ve had multiple careers and job changes and almost even company changes – all staying within AT&T, and that’s been really fulfilling but something that I didn’t expect on that first day,” she said.
Neena Budhiraja, senior product manager at Google, was born and raised in Dubai, which she called a “melting pot of various cultures.”
Growing up, she wondered why she had two different types of cuisine at home because her dad was from north India and her mom from south India, she recalled. She came to America for graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh after attending Panjab University and touring the south of India, where her mother was born.
“It’s been quite a journey across three very different cultures over the years,” she said.
“In high school, coding came naturally to me,” so computer science and engineering was a “logical next step” for her, she said.
“I wanted to learn more,” which led her to Carnegie Mellon for a graduate degree in finance, she said, noting that, after finishing college, a job opened up at Google and she was hired by the company, she said, calling that a “dream come true.”
At 1 a.m. Jan. 26, 2017, however, “I was sitting by the pool coming to grips with the reality that the doctors had just shared with me that my 23-week pregnancy was not going to make it to the end,” she recalled. “I couldn’t help but wonder [why, with] everything that I’d optimized for in life – a stellar education, prestigious recruitment, big titles, fancy house, big cars – nothing could save my child’s life. So why had I been prioritizing all of these things above all else?”
“It took me months to come out of that state [but] family, friends, colleagues all flocked to my side, to help me with the pain and the grief,” she said.
Almost “five years later, today, I can stand here and say that that one life event has single-handedly shaped who I am and given me the perspective that I do have today,” she said, adding: “I honestly have changed in one big way. I’ve come to realize the power of relationships. It was relationships that had pulled me out of that dark period in my life. And not just personally, professionally, I came to realize how relationships could have a multiplier effect on one’s work.”
One in five women lose their pregnancies but “we never talk about the emotional, the mental strain that comes with the loss of a life and the dreams that you built up for that life,” she went on to say, adding it is important for women and – even men – to talk about pregnancy loss so colleagues, family and friends can help you.
Meanwhile, over the course of her career, “I’ve come to realize that, other than my first job, none of my transitions have come through cold call interviews,” she said. “Colleagues or seniors or mentors have observed me working in a role and then I’ve been ready to make a transition. They’ve opened up space and new opportunities for me.”
For example, her business partner “brought me on as a chief of staff to support the business’s growing needs and then, as a chief of staff, I was sitting next to a product leader [who] dumped a few projects onto me and that kicked off my product management journey. With every move, my skillset diversified and my impact multiplied because I was able to talk my partner’s language because I had been in their shoes,” she said.
“The other important thing is, with every bridge that you build and the more bridges, the deeper bridges that you build, the social [network] multiplies and so when you’re looking for that next dream job or that next dream employee to bring on your team, you not only get them but also get to them faster and snap them up,” she advised viewers.