Education, Event

47 Min Read

Women in Tech - San Diego Startup Week Panel

San Diego Startup Week  (SDSW) featured a panel of prestigious San Diego women in tech, including

These leaders of local organizations focusing on women in tech discussed resources and tools available in San Diego as well as their insight into overcoming obstacles in growing a career. 



Kimbra started moderating the panel by introducing herself and Tech Women @ Intuit, an external initiative that helps attract, retain, and advance our women in technology. “I have the most amazing job in the world. We ladder up to the CTO, which is very unique. We’re not part of an HR group or D&I group … we then partner with local organizations and resource groups that help expose girls and women to tech.”  Kimbra started this particular panel four years ago at SDSW, which has continued every year with a variation on a theme. 

Holly Smithson, CEO of Athena, spoke next. She said the fact that so many people showed up on a Friday morning at the end of long startup week spoke volumes about who made it a priority to be here and invest in their career, since the first step towards victory is showing up. 

Athena is an advocacy organization, a women’s empowerment advocate. Athena runs 15 leadership development programs every year. The previous evening they held an event on artificial intelligence and machine learning, partnering with Kimbra, for example. The leadership programs are designed to transform technologists and scientists into corporate leaders. “Once upon a time, there was a young technologist by the name of Barbara Bry [currently running for Mayor of San Diego]. She and a couple of other women found themselves in executive positions at tech companies 20 years ago, and found themselves alone and felt isolated,” she said. These leaders saw the importance of developing, cultivating, and leveraging their network to ensure that our leadership development is continuous and sustainable. That was the genesis of Athena 20 years ago, it was exclusively for executive women. “Over time, they saw that it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to only support you after you get to the top. Why don’t we actually help you lift while climbing?” 

Jillian Moore spoke about her day job at Sony PlayStation as a software engineer on the tools and technology team, for all the different game studios all over the world. “It was my dream job since I was in middle school playing Final Fantasy I’m super excited to work there. But the reason I’m on the panel is that I’m one of the co-directors for Women Who Code. So Women Who Code is a global nonprofit organization. We have networks in over 60 cities all over the world. And the goal of Women Who Code is to inspire women to excel in technology careers. And we do that by hosting two or three free tech events per month, ranging from workshops, tech talks, and hack nights. Our main goal is to create a community of women technologists in San Diego, because women are underrepresented in the tech industry, they don’t always get that sense of community with other women at their companies.” 

Julie Morgan is the UX lead at Qualcomm and is currently getting an MBA at USD. She also leads a group called Designing Women, founded in 2014 to champion and amplify female UX professionals. “It’s akin to what Julianne does with Women Who Code, creating those communities, safe spaces for women. We meet quarterly and like to have networking but also focus on speakers from leaders in the industry.”

Elizabeth Cotton is the San Diego Group Organizer for Blacks in Technology, with a day job at a construction company that de-commissions power plants. She described her role as a diversity compliance analyst and managing all the subcontractors, making sure that they are fulfilling contracts and providing opportunities for disadvantaged business enterprises, small business enterprises, and women business enterprises. Blacks in Technology has been in San Diego for about three years, the organization has existed about 10 years with 11 chapters. Its mission is to increase the representation, participation, and visibility of black women and men in tech. The founder, Greg Greenlee, was attending a lot of events such as this, where he saw there weren’t a lot of black professionals in the room. He thought maybe they didn’t know about these events. So he started an online community where he shared these events, then people around the globe started sharing events, programs, training, and job opportunities. 

Lisa Rosenfelt is a client services manager for a digital marketing agency called Diamond and Branch. The agency is women-owned and serves purpose-driven clients to help spread their message to make better the world a better place, She also owns Ivy Street Coworking in South Park, with her husband. It focuses on building the community, to see people working together, networking, and helping each other. She is also the managing director of Girls in Tech San Diego,  a local chapter of a global nonprofit that looks empower and educate on technology and entrepreneurship. They put on events that connect women, inspire women, and help women level up their skill set. “We do a speaker series where you can hear from other women who have taken this journey and have advice to give. And then we also do the skill-based events like learning to code days, we just had one at Amazon. We do a hackathon every year. And then we do a lot of events focused on soft skills, leveling up those as well, everything from resume workshops to money management.”

Moderated Questions

Kimbra said, “So as you can see, between these five lovely ladies here, there is a vast amount of resources for anyone in tech or touching really any aspect of any role in San Diego. We’ve talked a little bit about the importance of connecting women together and creating that safe space. Why else is it important to disconnect and create that space? Everyone has a different take. When it comes to different roles, for example, women are more underrepresented in engineering. And in other areas like design, it’s actually a little bit more balanced when you look at the data. Why is it important to have this connection and community?”

Lisa said one of the biggest reasons connection and community are important is there’s a lot of focus and attention on the lack of women in the tech entrepreneur space, and maybe a little less focus on on the other truth behind that, which is that a lot of women drop out of these industries because they haven’t found that support network. They haven’t found a mentor that can guide them through not just getting into the industry, but leveling up, asking for raises and promotion, getting to that executive level. 

“All of the resources here today are a really good way not just to get into the industry, but to navigate every step of that journey, and to have that support system. Maybe you work in a smaller startup that’s mostly male, and you don’t have someone to ask, what do I do when this happens, or say this happened and I am freaking out about it. But if you have that community’s support through one of these organizations, you’re more likely to get advice and answers that you need to move to that next step and really stay in the industry,” Lisa said. 

Elizabeth shared a quick story to illustrate her answer. “I had an experience going through dev boot camp. I was one of the few women at boot camp. I’m tough, but going through the JavaScript, oh my god. Another girl is with me, and I’ve had a little bit more like exposure to HTML and CSS than she had. We were doing pair programming and if your partner is not the right person, then all hell breaks loose. But we built an amazing report together. It really encouraged me to want to continue my journey in coding. But the next day we were paired with males, and right off the bat, I noticed the difference from that female pair programming. He was a little bit more aggressive and wanting to navigate. And I was like, okay, I’ll let you drive while I just navigate. She, with her [lesser] experience with her nervousness, it was a little bit more intimidating, where she started becoming more emotional and started crying. Her male partner said he can’t work with her anymore. I was glad that I was there to help her and encourage her to continue her journey in coding, to let her know that this is not what it looks like all the time. So I think it’s really important for women to come together, especially in tech, to encourage because it can be very, very difficult when learning new things and when working with senior leadership that may be all male. That is my advice, for women to remain encouraged, and encouraging other women. And then that way they can feel comfortable as they go through their journey coding something.”

Julie said she liked what Kimbra alluded to with regards to just feeling comfortable with somebody, feeling that sense of safe space and generosity, then giving back this feeling. “I’m a big believer that diversity and inclusion can really drive innovation, new concepts and new ideas. So if you have a number of people at the table and their voices can be heard and elevated, you can make a whole lot of difference compared to just a single-minded vision.” She was a little surprised to hear about more women in design. She said in tech overall it’s between 19 and 35% women, but in general, design has higher representation, though even 35% would be shocking to her. 

Jilliane agreed with what Lisa said about like mid-level engineering and tech women are likely to jump out of the industry just because they’re not getting the support they need or because they may not see women in leadership positions.”I think having all of our groups there as communities in San Diego, where you can go and receive support from like-minded women from women who are in the same position that you are and learn and get support from them. It’s not just the companies that are male-dominated, a lot of the other tech meetups are male dominated. If some is asking how do I learn more JavaScript or more Python, I’ll say go to the Python meetups and go to the JavaScript meetups, but then their follow up question is always ‘I have been to those meetups and then usually mostly guys, how do you get over that intimidation factor?’ It’s tough. So Women Who Code tries to have a more comfortable and welcoming environment. We have a lot of guys at our meetups too, just because they also get intimidated by the other guy-dominated groups as well.”

Lisa said, “I love saying that a lot of our groups are a great way to form groups that you can then bring to other meetups and events. I’m a huge proponent of the buddy system. But I think for all of our organizations, we’re very safe spaces where women can come learn a skill, meet some other women, and network. And then if you’ve been really wanting to go to that JavaScript meetup, but you’ve been intimidated, bring some women you met from Girls in Tech, or Women Who Code, or Designing Women. When three or four of you walk into that room together, it becomes a lot less intimidating, and a lot easier to take on the bigger impact around us. So I love being that kind of stepping stone. Start here, and then you can go anywhere you want.”

Holly said, “I’m going to take license with your question, if I may … what is the value proposition of connecting? How does that impact your career trajectory? And how do you take the value behind connecting and apply that into your leadership development? I’d like to say that the connection is really, in its most optimized state, it’s called mentoring. About 70% of all Fortune 500 companies have a formal mentoring program internally. So for those people that are young, and in a new industry, like AI or ML, and just looking to figure out what’s the best path, mentoring provides a powerful vehicle to learn from others who have walked in your path. My whole life is through the lens of efficiency, I can’t stand doing the same thing over and over, I hate going along the way when I could have gone the short way. And obviously, technology and everything that we do when we interact in life is about efficiency. How can I do this quicker, smarter, bigger, and better, right? So in that vein, think about the connected resources that all of these special interest groups offer. But more importantly, we’re just here as an ecosystem, but the responsibility rests with you. Ask what tribe is best going to suit where you are in your career, and who’s going to make available those type of mentors or the sponsors  … And that’s what these groups collectively offer those who seek it. A tremendous amount of resources, a tremendous amount of energy, and people that are grappling with the same thing.”

Holly continued, “And it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, however you identify … as I look around the room, I also want to commend the men in the room, I would like to see more men populated in these events. Why? Because they’re actually taking an interest and saying, ‘what is it like to be in the other shoes? What does it feel like for them? I’m curious, I’d like to know. And I also recognize that my customers are 51% women, I also know that buying power is decided by 70% of women.’ So I really respect that the men in the room are coming into the conversation. I think if we’re going to change this whole bro culture, we have to invite them into the conversation and have them understand how we experience them. That’s called EQ. These are some of the conversations that you get to be a part of in any one of these groups.”

“I think the reason why Kimbra brought us all together is to really showcase one of the greatest strengths of San Diego, one of the signature qualities of San Diego in large part because of our size, and because of the different economies. But also, it’s our collaborative spirit. And I love that all of these women are up here on the stage. And they said, hey, we’ve been around for three years, four years, a part of a larger group that’s around for 10 years. But locally these groups are popping up because there’s a demand, they wouldn’t be here, if there weren’t people like you in this room that said, ‘Hey, I want more resources,” they’re responding to market demand. So this should give you good give rise to the optimism and excitement that is in front of all of us that want to make sure that technology, design, and product development have women in that assembly, she said. 

Holly said, “I will just add a data point here just to put a bow on your comment. There’s a 50% exit rate of women leaving the tech sector. So which is why it’s exciting for Athena, we index how many women are working in STEM over 25 years, we just want to come to the conversation with data. We found that 23% of all the STEM jobs in San Diego are held by women, and 77% by men. Talk about the one dimension, the single-mindedness. And so it just gives us an opportunity to come to the conversation with facts and say, if we as a society think it’s okay for some of the most cutting-edge jobs to be decided 70-75% from the men’s perspective, then at least we need to have that conversation. And the fact that women are leaving at 50% shows that there’s a major systemic problem. That’s what we want to do at Athena is look and say, what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s try to identify what those barriers are and why these women are leaving in droves, and then get really thoughtful and get really creative to figure out what those intervention strategies are. I’m fond of saying if we can sequence the human genome, surely we can close the gender gap. We’re a pretty accomplished region here in San Diego. I come to the conversation with data, and then that allows us to level set and then figure out how to close that gap.”

Holly, what have you seen as the greatest change in the last 5-10 years in terms of connecting locally, the growth in these local groups, new ways to connect and grow?

Holly spoke about her background, how she came to California 10 years ago from Washington D.C. where she was a lobbyist in public policy.”I basically got my Ph.D. in how not to treat people.” What she has been seeing was a complete departure when she came to California, where people were actually forming advocacy groups around technology. When she arrived here in 2008, when the economy was collapsing, the mayor needed to come up with a solution. So they started up a new economy called cleantech. “It was a wonderful experience where you have all these people around the table, and none of them were naysayers. None of them were saying, ‘well, we can’t do that. Well, we don’t do it that way.’ They’re like, ‘Okay, let’s try. Let’s be agile, let’s be style. Let’s be collaborative. And let’s be creative.’ And I’m sitting at this table. And thinking this is so weird that people are not beating each other up to get attention or to take ownership of the project, you actually want to collaborate and get things done. Fast forward 10 years later, I see the vast development of the technology cluster that’s come here, the startup community that has really become formative and robust. That all to me hinges on the collaborative spirit that San Diego is known for. But if I bet if I talk about women in tech and women in STEM, more specifically the changes that I’ve seen, I’m going to tell you the biggest difference is what used to be taboo, we’re now having conversations about. When Marc Benioff from Salesforce got up there and said, Oh, no, we pay everybody the same at Salesforce, I’m not that kind of CEO, I wouldn’t pay a man more than a woman. And then his Director uncovered a $9 million [gap], and he had to obviously eat his words and paid the next day. So the point is, we’re having conversations that we would never be talking about, the elephant in the room. No longer can we just ignore it or just act like it doesn’t matter. Suddenly, shared values are making these issues. And if the first step in any real change is awareness, again, bringing data and bringing awareness to an opportunity, a challenge is the first step of making material change. So that would be my observation. And that’s why having these types of panels is awesome. There was an awards category that Athena was a finalist in and somebody said they were sorry that Athena lost the award diversity champion. I thought, are you kidding me? [We are glad that] they now have a category that recognizes diversity.  And so these are the types of indications in the marketplace that are changing.”

Kimbra said she was curious from Elizabeth’s perspective,  since Blacks in Tech might be the youngest organization here in terms of San Diego, what have you seen in terms of coming into the community starting a new resource group, and with a specific goal of kind of increasing and pushing that diversity, especially for women of color, which needs that push in terms of tacking representation?

Elizabeth said that in snapshot demographics, blacks are 4% of the San Diego workforce. When you take a closer look, how many of those are actually in tech, how many of those women are actually in tech? What they try to do is build awareness around L.A. and also try to collaborate with other boards to provide that fundamental training. “That is what’s been the missing fundamental exposure to tech from a lot of black organizations, in general. So we partner with organizations like that. A lot of organizations are also looking to us like we have the answer, [but] we’re still doing this ourselves. When you look at the numbers, like a black professionals working in tech, it’s very low, you know, it’s 3% across the tech industry. I’ve taken a look at some of the larger companies, including what that number actually looks like in San Diego, and it’s much, much lower than 3%. It’s not even 1%. So, for us having conversations around that and finding where the problem is. What are we missing, and then building from there It’s a lot that we have to build as an organization. We started doing hackathons because no black organizations in San Diego were putting on any type of hackathon or technical training of that magnitude. So we started doing a baseball hack day, we debuted that last year. Before we did that, we did a lot of training … where we realized that those conversations were not happening. And so as an org, we took it among ourselves to make sure that we provide some of those fundamental initial trainings, so the black population feels comfortable also going to these larger meetups, they feel comfortable coding. We’re making strides. Baseball hack day, last year, the people at Learn Academy said it was the most diverse hackathon that San Diego has had … we actually did the hackathon across four other chapters nationwide. We started getting the interest of the Dodgers and the Padres, to sponsor us. Just taking milestones and going from there, but there is a lot more work that we need to do.” She spoke about how talking to the potential sponsors requires being mindful of the work that needs to be done and not being afraid to have those conversations with corporate partners that claim they want to diversify their workforce,but it takes more than coming to an event to do diversity recruiting, they need to take a look at the entire economic factors of black communities, and really start there. She said that’s where you can start identifying, truly reaching out. Being in the space, being able to have conversations, and providing a lot more insight to corporate partners, not only in San Diego, but nationwide, on how to better recruit is something BiT is doing. From a career standpoint, you want to have a career in tech, but as far as entrepreneurs, black women are opening up startups faster than any other group in America. So being able to have those conversations with investors and throwing pitch competitions, inviting people to pitch, and to actually be recognized and seen and provide that visibility to other investors and stakeholders, that’s something that BiT is working on. “I think that’s the beautiful thing about San Diego, is that no matter what age you are, when you launch, all these communities come together also to help support as co-sponsor or co-host. We’re exposing as many people as we can to all the different options.”

Jillian, by 2026, there will be 3.5 million related jobs in computing. And there’s this whole new focus from a lot of industry and enterprises about how do we expose more women to the pipeline, more girls? How do we get them through so that they can help one change the diversity of teams? The more diverse teams you have, the more innovation you have, the more product innovation you have, which leads to a better product, it leads to better business outcomes. And for companies, obviously, that is a justification. But as Women Who Code, what is your ultimate goal to support this pipeline and help kind of guide through that process?

Jillian said, “We are mainly focused on professional women who are already in the industry or looking to get into the industry. A lot of our attendees are just in bootcamp, students, or recent graduates. So we are just super excited to help support these women who may be just starting out or in their mid-level career, and we want to show them you can be even more, you can get into the leadership position, let us help you get there and support you to get there.”

Lisa said Girls in Tech has done a little bit more. “Our name is kind of a misnomer, we do focus also on women. But because it’s Girls in Tech, a lot of organizations who approach us ask what we do with younger girls. And so one of the things we started taking on that’s been working really well is a mother-daughter, or parent-child events. Because the more that kids are exposed early to the idea of coding and programming, the more they see it as accessible for them. I think when I was a girl growing up, many of you may be felt this way too, I knew what coding was and I thought you had to be super smart with math to be able to do it. We just had a learn to code event, it was mothers and daughters together, from age 12 and up. And so just more exposure of, ‘I can do this, I can sit here with my laptop, and I can learn some things. And I can create a program,’ that is really powerful, because it sticks with these young girls, and they can take it on their journey. I think just that first step of knowing it’s not just for these types of people, it’s for everyone, it’s for you, even as a young kid or a teenager, that you can get started now and have a career that long term.”


Audience Q&A

An audience member asked what other resources could help their daughter younger than 12 learn more about tech, besides homeschooling from her tech industry parents who are helping her build an app. 

Kimbra said Girl Scouts of America just launched a whole STEM program or badge. Lisa said there are also some after school programs you could look into, depending on what age range they start. Julie said the League of Amazing Programmers does Java Development after school. Thought STEM also does game programming, after school and summer camps as well. So you can make to start there. Kimbra mentioned Girls Inc. Holly said she was meeting with Sally Ride for Science later and asked the super mom for her card to stay in touch. “Sally Ride has curriculum that exposes young girls to how working in science and tech can actually be fun, like showing real use cases and applications to get these girls thinking that’s cool. UC San Diego won the bid to host it and facilitated the launch in San Diego.” Elizabeth suggested the San Diego Futures Foundation, they offer a seven-month free boot camp. Online bootcamp and courses are another option. General Assembly provides a really great like introductory program to like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Khan Academy is another good online resource.


What some actionable items that we can all step away today and possibly do with our next week of our lives to be part of the solution or the dialogue to solving some of the discrepancies that we discussed today?

Elisabeth said simply show up. Holly said what we’re doing as a region, and what all of everyone in this room can do to take back, is that Athena was on the United Nations floor two weeks ago in New York, and announced a partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences. “We don’t want to take the conversation and talk amongst ourselves in a room, we actually want to hold the corporate sponsors accountable. But as we do that, we can’t be some sort of watchdog, we want to be a good dog. And so for these companies that are all waking up to the statistics about when you don’t have a diverse workforce, when you don’t have women in management, you don’t have women in the boardroom, you’re leaving profits on the table, you’re leaving innovation cycle on the table. So they all get it. And so as the perception gap closes, and they actually understand that they’re going to be left behind without diversifying their workforce. They now all say to the UN through this Global Compact, the business practices as it relates to tech is that we are we’re losing more women than any other industry. So tell us how to stop, the Titanic is going down. We don’t want to have the conversation continue to be ‘there’s no talent pipeline, there’s not enough women.’ Through this Global Compact, and partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re actually going to come in and do a pilot program with about 15 tech companies and say, ‘What are the biggest roadblocks? What is stopping you from recruiting women actively? What is stopping you from identifying the pay disparities? What is stopping you from putting systemic approaches into the culture, the best practices and the behaviors so that you can celebrate, be competitive, and be sustainable?’ At the end of that pilot program, we then will be presenting to the STEM community the gold standard on how you can achieve gender equality. So you asked what can we do today, which I love, because that is now now now now. And this is a grand vision of Athena’s bringing science to solve for major societal challenges. The opportunity and the invitation is go back to your companies and say, ‘Hey, I was on this panel yesterday, and I heard about this regional initiative, they’re trying to make San Diego a destination for diversity. Are we a part of that? Can we be a part of that?’ Guess who has the power now, if you haven’t noticed? There is a major battle for talent. And so the power is in the employee, and the power is in the customer. So use your power, make some suggestions, and in mass, you can actually influence these corporate executives.

Julie said she would add on to that for talking points, if you don’t know what to say, sign up for any and all of these newsletters, whatever it is great. Because these go out multiple times a month, Athena puts on quite a few events, we meet quarterly, go often and listen to the talking points, and then you’re going to be better able to articulate those.

Lisa repeated Elizabeth’s comment about showing up. She also thinks the follow up to that is don’t be afraid to ask for what you want when you show up. It’s really common for women to be like ‘I don’t want to bug this person. I don’t want to interfere in whatever it is,’ but we’re all in it together. Every woman in here iswanting to help. So I asked her what it is that you want, mentorship or guidance or whatever it is. 

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