3 Female Tech Founders Spill The Career Advice You Actually Need
From the woman fighting sex trafficking with AI (yes, really) to a game developer transforming the way we think, these visionaries are transforming our future.
In partnership with Google Play, we’re profiling game-changing women in traditionally underrepresented industries, in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8). From investors to product developers to executives dead-set on changing the world, these women are challenging participation and representation in industries where it matters most.
These women more than embody the “Change the Game” initiative, a program designed to empower women as players and creators in the realm of mobile gaming, and by extension, across tech as a whole. Meet the Game Changers.
One thing is constant in the tech world: Everything is always evolving, usually at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace. But through dizzying change, some universal truths remain. Truths like: The contributions of women in technology cannot, and should not be underestimated. While it is true that many more men than women are in the tech space, even in 2018, women are far from the sidelines.
More and more women are becoming recognized as thought leaders and game changers in the industry, becoming powerful catalysts for change across the tech landscape. Their unique perspectives, solutions, and ideas are rapidly changing the world as we know it. We spoke with three female tech luminaries on their jobs, their vision, and what they’ve learned along the way.
The Woman at the Forefront of Gaming
Video games aren’t an escape from real life. They’re a path to a better life. That’s what game designer Jane McGonigal PhD, believes, and she’s on a mission to prove her theory to the world. Her game SuperBetter, a game created to increase resilience, has proven positive effects in a study backed by the National Institute of Health—which found that patients who had experienced brain injury were more successfully able to transition to caring for themselves following hospital discharge.
The concept came from an experience in her own life. After suffering a traumatic concussion and subsequently experiencing debilitating pain and depression, McGonigal designed her own game, the prototype for SuperBetter, to help her heal. The multiplayer game has real life implications: By inviting allies to play with you, you can be reminded of how many people in real life have your back.
“So many people who aren’t feeling well, whether it’s physically or emotionally, don’t know how people can help. And maybe they can’t help. But they can be allies in this video game, all working together toward the same goal,” says McGonigal. “At the end of the day, people feel better. They’re getting better at something, not running away from something, and they’re working with a team.” But McGonigal feels the way SuperBetter was conceived is emblematic of the light bulb moment just waiting for so many people.
“I think everyone has two or three chances to make a significant and positive impact in the world, and it comes when you have deep personal experience or passion that surrounds a topic, and you also have preparation, experience, and knowledge you can bring to that issue. When I made SuperBetter in the months after my concussion, what else was I going to do? I needed to use my talents to get out of my own pain. I had gaming in my arsenal. And I think that’s what people do, or people can do. They can dive deep into their talents, and make the thing they need in the world.”
McGonigal hopes that more people see gaming as a path to a better, more enjoyable life for the world. “People think of video games as isolating, but they truly can enhance social bonds. They’re a powerful tool, and it’s time we treat them as such.”
Jane McGonigal’s Top Three Takeaways For Innovation
1. Reach For the Sky. Mcgonigal’s goal is to see a game designer nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which she predicts will happen in 2023. But it’s not enough to just have a big dream—what’s key, McGonigal says, is breaking down the steps needed to make it happen. For McGonigal, that means partnering with the National Institute of Health to perform research that games do have a positive impact on the world.
2. Be a Beacon of Positivity. “There are so many people critiquing things and pulling ideas down. Instead, I tell everyone to focus on what you love,” says McGonigal, who adds that attitude envelopes social media. “Tweet about what you love, not what you hate.” McGonigal has seen the professional implications of positivity. She regularly tweets her goals, like helping a reality show design games, and has gotten consulting gigs that stem from her initial positive, enthusiastic tweet. “It’s a great habit to get into. Show your passionate, enthusiastic side, and people will want to work with you.”
3. Think Outside the Box. It’s easy to get locked down in your job description, without thinking of everything else you bring to the table. For example, when McGonigal was in college, her goal was to be a magazine editor. In her twenties, she worked in Off-Broadway theatre. These disparate skills led to her first tech job, where she worked as a stage manager for a GPS based mobile game in San Francisco; a gig that introduced her to the game design world and made her realize her skill set of storytelling could be an asset in this space. The lesson: Think broadly, and you will be rewarded.
The CEO Fighting Sex Trafficking With AI
At only 26 years old, Emily Kennedy has emerged as a leader in law enforcement, confidently advising prosecutors, sheriffs, and other law enforcement professionals two or three times her age on how best to use technology to find victims of sex trafficking.
As a student in high school, Kennedy recalls a trip to Eastern Europe, where she was shocked to discover that women she saw on the side of the road, offering to wash the windows of cars driving by, were victims of sex trafficking. She was even more shocked to learn that sex trafficking also occurred in the United States. As an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University, Kennedy planned to devote her senior honors thesis to sex trafficking, and was again shocked with the limited research available.
“There were a couple books, but it was pretty much this blue ocean that hadn’t been explored,” recalls Kennedy. More eye-opening was what she did find in her research: Online ads that seemed to be offering sexual services of women who may have been trafficked. “Through my research and investigation, I learned that something like 30,000 ads appear every day. That made me feel like it wasn’t enough to just research, I wanted to actively do something to change and stop sex trafficking. I learned that law enforcement officers just had no time or no programming to sift through this information.”
Kennedy teamed up with professors and researchers at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon to create a prototype for what would become Traffic Jam, a facial recognition software that assists law enforcement in finding victims of trafficking.
“I got a crash course in artificial intelligence and machine learning there, and was able to partner with a lot of geniuses who could take the concept of facial recognition for victims and turn it into a reality,” she says. Traffic Jam began being used by law enforcement across the country while Kennedy was still in undergrad; becoming the anchor product for the company Marinus Analytics, which Kennedy co-founded.
“I never thought I would be a startup founder. In fact, I had taken an accounting class that had terrified me about owning a business. But I knew I was so passionate about the product, and I needed to form a company to bring it to the next level,” says Kennedy. Today, Traffic Jam is expanding from the United States and Canada to Mexico, Asia, and Europe, changing and saving lives.
“It’s more than a product, it really is a mission, and that’s what I make sure all the people we hire realize. They have to be passionate about the company’s mission,” says Kennedy.
Emily Kennedy’s Game-Changing Advice For Young Women
1. Raise the Bar. “When you’re a young founder, people may just see your age,” says Kennedy. “Use it to your advantage. They may be intrigued by how young you are, so then surprise them by showing them just how much you know.”
2. Do the Legwork. Prior to founding Marinus Analytics, Kennedy had interviews with hundreds of people in law enforcement to drill down on exactly what they needed in a product. “You may have a concept of what you want to create, but you have to know if it’s something people actually need and will buy,” says Kennedy.
3. Go Deep Into Your Topic. “I did so much research, so I really felt like I knew my topic,” says Kennedy. “I think it can really help to really have a niche of focus. That way, you know what you don’t know, and have the right questions to ask.”
The Product Strategist Democratizing Government Contracting
Getting a government contract can be a mystifying process, especially for startups that may not have the connections or inroads that established businesses may have. That is, it was until Sky Kelley stepped in. The founder of Avisare, Kelley wanted to create a level playing field, where every business could put in a bid for a government contract, from the local, all the way to the national level.
Kelley is no stranger to the tech scene. Starting her career on Wall Street focused on technology products, Kelley co-founded a startup called America’s Minority Health Network, which went public after a $5 million Series A round and was sold in 2011. Kelley then went back to the corporate world, working as a product manager for ESPN before launching Avisare. “I remember in middle school that so many of my friend’s parents were entrepreneurs. I was fascinated with the idea of growing a company from the ground up, and wanted to know how I could do that, too,” says Kelley.
But the startup world isn’t always easy. “I think the statistic of success to failure is something like 33 nos for every yes, and that can be demoralizing and tough, especially for women, who may be more likely to give up on something after the first no,” she says. The learning curve can also be steep, which only galvanized Kelley, especially when she realized just how much the product idea behind Avisare— a platform where government contracts could be bid on by eligible businesses, including small startups—could help entrepreneurs like herself.
“Government contracts are confusing and complex, with slightly different processes for different towns. It sometimes feels like you need a PhD to understand them, much less apply for them,” she says. But this complexity only fueled Kelley’s passion. “Governments are required to supply contracts to a certain number of minority owned small businesses, but the level of complexity made it hard for these companies to find or apply for these contracts. I realized this business idea could really help other entrepreneurs by taking out the confusion and complexity in the application.”
Kelley hopes to expand to the private sector, helping connect small businesses to large corporations, as well: “My quest is to level the playing field.”
Sky Kelley’s Three Tips For Forging Your Own Path
1. Take a Coding Class. “There’s no industry that doesn’t touch tech,” says Kelley. Taking one coding class, either at college or online, can demystify tech and make it less intimidating. “You don’t need to know everything or learn everything, but just having the building blocks can make you feel a lot more confident, regardless of what industry you work in.
2. Lean On Other Women. “We’re at a watershed moment with the time’s up movement,” says Kelley. “There’s so much camaraderie of women helping women and really changing the tech culture.”
3. Talk Shop at Happy Hour. Considering a startup? Ask friends for help. “When I was considering starting my company, even when I was still working in corporate, I would ask friends in different departments or industries what they thought of the idea and brainstorm with them,” says Kelley. Even a casual convo can lead to some valuable insights.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Google Play store will be promoting collections of games created by women and featuring female protagonists on their front page. Load your smartphone and/or tablet up with some game-changers on March 8, 2018, at the Google Play store.
Words: Anna Davies