Silicon Saskatoon? This is what many people in Saskatoon use as a point of reference when they think about Vendasta Technologies, a software company located in the heart of downtown. Ping pong tables, beer on tap, and casual work attire are just some of the cultural “norms” here at Vendasta’s HQ office in downtown #yxe.
While the technology industry is best known for the cultural norms I referenced above, it is also known historically for being a male dominant space. As the sector expands and grows rapidly, so does the potential for gender inequality, and workplace stereotypes. In contrast it’s also the perfect time to take your seat at the table and standout.
Although the software and technology space is not nearly as prevalent in Saskatchewan as it is in California, companies like Vendasta Technologies and others are making big strides to break barriers, force change, and be ahead of the curve ball. As a part of the #bossbabe Modern Woman Show committee, and a fellow “Woman in Tech”, I thought it would be a great opportunity to speak to a panel of some of the rock star female “techies” who are crushing it in Saskatoon.
On the Panel
Gillian Tebbutt, Account Manager, Zu
Gillian is one of those people who struggles to even back up her phone, but has found a home in the Saskatoon tech industry. Luckily, she now has an endless supply of "techie" friends who can help keep her digital life in order. She's found curiosity and a passion for unearthing problems and solving them through technology, and Saskatchewan's a pretty great place to do so. At zu, Gillian account manages (that's a verb, right?) to bring developers cool projects and deliver amazing web solutions to clients
Nykea Behiel, Director of Content, Vendasta Technologies
Nykea is responsible for overseeing all marketing content initiatives across multiple platforms to drive engagement, sales, retention, demand generation and positive customer behaviour. She manages all aspects of content production and strategy, driving company growth and creating a consistent brand voice. Nykea has spoken at events for Tourism Sask, Young Women in Business and Ideas on Tap.
Chelsey Schaffel, Product Owner, Zu
Chelsey Schaffel has been managing people, projects, and digital assets in various capacities since 2003. At the office, she spends her days wrapped up in budgets or project plans, writing user stories, meeting with designers, testing websites or apps, demoing features to clients, collaborating on strategy projects, or sneaking in a well-deserved coffee break.
Erin Bowman, Manager of Partner Support, Vendasta Technologies
Erin is the Partner Support Manager at Vendasta, and if you thought that sounded like it encompasses a lot, you're right, and she also does a lot more. She oversee's and delegates the tasks that are the building blocks of the technical support department. Erin is the glue that prioritizes tasks and work, provides direction and the guidance needed to 'unstick' problem-solving minds who are 'stuck', carries the voice of both her team and her partners into each meeting. On top of it all, she ensures every process on her ship is running efficiently and smoothly, all while leisurely sipping her coffee with not even a hair out of place.
Emily Howe, Manager of Engineering Support, Vendasta Technologies
Emily is a member of the R&D team and delivers recommendations for improvement in quality of R&D output. Emily helps raise awareness of issues within the system that affect our partners and customers and collaborates with our support manager to ensure they are communicated across all of Vendasta.
Jacqueline Cook, VP of Growth, Vendasta Technologies
Jacqueline is responsible for driving a growth mindset throughout Vendasta. She encourages alignment, focus and execution cross-functionally with engineering, design, product management, operations, marketing, sales, support and success. She leads Vendasta’s internationalization strategy and analyzes key customer insights and trends to funnel back throughout the rest of the organization. She has been a speaker at events such as TEDx UofS and WE DAY 2015, and has represented Canada at the 2010 G8 and G20 Summits, the 2010 APEC Summit in Japan, and at the 2011 G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit in France.
Do I need to act like a man to be a successful woman in tech?
- NB: Hell no! In fact, you shouldn't. Acting like a man—in the sense of acting in traditional gender roles, like aggressive, loud, immovable, etc—may help you be recognized by people in leadership positions that exhibit these qualities themselves more quickly. But we want—scratch that, need—to change the industry. Emphasize your strengths and don't get lost in acting like a woman or a man. In my experience, the people who have excelled at their jobs are often somewhat androgynous in their character traits. They have the best of both worlds. When the timing is appropriate, they use their voices, loudly. They also listen, a lot. Sometimes they spout motivational speeches, and sometimes they cry in front of their teams. Be who you are, and work on addressing your weaknesses.
CS: Definitely not. Women bring a different perspective to the table, and that should be embraced and seen as a benefit. Innovation comes from diverse approaches and ideas, not homogeneity.
- EB: Definitely not. But I think many of the qualities that we look for in a leadership role such as confidence, decision making, etc, are unfortunately qualities that are associated to men first. There are many women that have these qualities in spades and they avoid the tech industry, especially leadership roles, because they feel they're not as smart or have other insecurities. I think being confident in what you are doing, why you are doing it and how it will help your company grow will help you succeed. The confidence to speak up and make your opinions be heard in an industry that commonly has more males in the room can take some guts.
- JC: I wouldn't say you have to 'act like a man', but you need to possess certain traits that every successful business person must have: you need to be confident, driven, competitive, decisive, assertive, and at some times very critical. More importantly, you need to get along with men--and women. People are naturally attracted to people who are similar to them, so find ways to get along and bond with people in your organization through shared interests. It may be in keeping up with sports or a developing a new hobby. Find ways to share similarities and the differences will start to dissipate.
How do I know I’m good enough to sit at the table?
NB: You are. If you've done your homework, work hard and listen to the other active voices, know that your voice is valid. Read about the imposter syndrome and try to be confident. You need to know when you do good work, and not solely from depending on other people to tell you that your work is good. Know when you've earned something and accept feedback to make your projects even better. It's difficult to separate yourself from your work, but it's something that we all need to do. Also, use radical candour. Tell people when they're doing a good job and give them feedback when they need to pick it up. If you start doing this, you'll notice that others will naturally be more open with you. Ask your boss for feedback. If you aren't invited to be a part of a meeting you want to be a part of, ask how you can be involved and explain what you can bring.
EH: I don't feel this is a gender issue but I do struggle with my own self worth under the guise of Imposter Syndrome.
EB: If it's valuable for you to be at the meeting, sit at the table. Otherwise, don't attend the meeting at all. Having a clear description or agenda of what the meeting is about before hand should give you a clear idea if you even need to attend the meeting. If your presence isn't needed, indicate on the calendar invite that you won't be there. If you should be at the meeting there is absolutely no reason you should sit by the wayside and let men sit at the table. Your thoughts and opinions need to be heard just like everyone else's. Trying to get a word in from the sidelines will be more challenging for you and force half the people at the table to turn around to be able to make eye contact and listen. Sitting to the side may also give the perception that you don't want to be there or don't have anything to contribute.
JC: Of all the industries, I think technology will lead in closing the gender gap. As education becomes more decentralized and individuals have the ability to advance based on merit and skill, not race, religion or gender, we'll empower those that are willing to work hard to be recognized.
Can I be a mom and have a kick-ass tech career?
GT: I'm not a mom, but I know many successful women in tech who balance their careers with family life. The beauty of a tech career is that it can be very mobile, so flex days when the kids are sick at home is an actual reality!
NB: I like to think so. I'm not a mom, but I have a dog (same thing, right?), and I love my job. Blah blah blah, everyone is going to talk about balance. Balance is great--you definitely need to find your equilibrium. But for me, recognizing that I'm not everything to everyone everyday has been more validating. I once heard a woman say that she thinks of her life as a triangle—herself, her work and her family. She said every day, I pick two. That made some sense to me. If you're late picking your kid up from school one day because an important meeting ran late, you're not a bad parent. If you leave work early to go to a basketball game and catch up on your correspondence after supper, you're not a bad employee. Some days you'll be better at your job and some days you'll be a better parent. Flexibility is the key.
EH: All depends on the mom! Some moms struggle with leaving their little ones and find work difficult to focus on, while others (like myself) find work a great distraction and use it to maintain our vision of who we are. At home I'm a mom, and at work I'm a tech support manager.
EB: I sure hope so! I am currently expecting my first child in July and have had nothing but support from my fellow colleagues. I do expect there to be some ramp up time when I come back to work, but I don't think that is any different than working in any other industry. I am pretty passionate about continuing to grow my career along with my family and I feel lucky to work in a flexible environment that will allow me to do both.
How do I get the right support?
GT: Connecting with the fellow tech females in your company and community is definitely powerful! There are a ton of women in tech in Saskatoon, and it's a pretty great thing to experience. But don't limit yourself, guys in tech are generally ultra supportive as long as you treat yourself as an equal and bring your killer skills and knowledge to the table.
CS: Ask for it! People get very wrapped up in their own worlds and priorities. Never be afraid to reach out and say, "I need help," or, "This is what I need to achieve success in my role."
EH: I ask. Start with my manager(s), other colleagues, other managers, till eventually I find the solution I'm looking for. I don't feel there is anyone here who wouldn't be willing to help someone either get the support they need, or help them find a direction to look for it. If you don't ask, more than likely no one will you know you need something.
JC: Surround yourself with people who are ambitious, who inspire you, and who are genuinely happy for your success. Find yourself a good group of girlfriends who like to have fun but who also support each other's careers and challenge each other to be better. And most importantly, find a partner who shares your ambition and is equally passionate about something of their own.
Do you think technology creates a culture of equality?
GT: The industry is still very male-dominated, but it's not anti-female. The tech industry is very social, so get in there! If you don't like Foosball or video games, the traditional tech-perks, find something that you do have in common with your male counter parts, and roll with it! There's no reason to segregate the guys from the girls, collaborate to find that perk that makes both genders happy!
NB: Have you read the comment section on a YouTube video lately? Technology does not create a culture of equality—the people using it can, though.That saying that guns don't kill people, people kill people is analogous. Technology does democratize voices—big brands and small businesses can compete for share of voice on social media, a film maker from rural Saskatchewan can get a following on Vimeo, etc. But we absolutely cannot rely on technology to create a culture of equality. There is a lot of power in technology, and wherever there is power, there is someone who will abuse it. We need to create constant checks and balances, and ensure that the internet is a mostly safe environment used for good.
- CS: Technology is a male-dominated industry as a whole, but I think it does lend itself to opportunities for equality. Your computer doesn't care what gender you identify with.
- JC: Of all the industries, I think technology will lead in closing the gender gap. As education becomes more decentralized and individuals have the ability to advance based on merit and skill, not race, religion or gender, we'll empower those that are willing to work hard to be recognized.
How important is leveraging mentor-ship and networking opportunities?
GT: Very important! Just like in any other industry, building strong bridges will open up opportunities like no other. The tech community is very intertwined, and if you're in a position that isn't quite the right fit, you'll likely know someone at the company down the road who is looking for someone with your skills!
NB: As with most industries, the technology field can be about who you know. If you want to be in a community, go to events that community participates in. I have been attending Search Engine Marketing conferences for more than a year now, and I am starting to see more women in attendance, which I love. In Saskatoon, Vendasta holds a (nearly) monthly event called Ideas on Tap, which brings in a lot of the technology community. Having people know you and your work will create advocates in the space you want to advance in.
CS: Always take advantage of opportunities for mentor-ship. Having mentors who pushed me when I didn't think I was ready (but they knew I was) has been hugely valuable to my confidence and my career.
Who inspires you as a strong female in technology or in business?
GT: Arianna Huffington is someone who stands out for me. She's mastered the skill of balancing her business kingdom with her personal and family life, and isn't afraid to challenge the traditional rules of business.
NB: Counter-intuitively, someone I think of as a strong leader in marketing is a man: Seth Godin. When I first started reading his books, I noticed something very subtle but very moving—his pronoun usage. He'd say things like "When you go to your CMO and ask her for a raise..." It occurred to me then that, even in completely hypothetical situations, we often don't picture women in the top positions. Google image search "CEO" to see what I mean. It's also nice to have an advocate that doesn't sport the female anatomy. Rather than women only events (though there's definitely a place for those), we need to talk to others outside our sphere. Otherwise we run the risk of preaching to the choir. My co-worker, Jackie Cook, is another inspiration to me. She is a young VP at a rapidly growing tech company, and the only woman on the executive. She is an example of someone who's gone far in her career without adopting personality traits outside of herself.
EH: I'm not inspired by any one person, instead it's character that inspires me - people with confidence, who treat others with respect and equality, and those who can forge ahead with positivity despite all the crap that goes on around them - it's what I aspire to be, and I search out those qualities in others, no matter their gender or status role in a company.
JC: One of my mentors is Nancy Lockhart. Nancy is a an entrepreneur and a mogul in the Canadian business community, and she's helped me navigate some of the tough decisions I've made in my career. In terms of tech and business, Julie Hartz of Eventbrite and Sara Blakely inspire me. I encourage you to read their stories--they rock.
As a female in a leadership role what advice would you give the next generation of #techgirlbosses ?
GT: Never stop learning. Whether it's business skills, code language, or how to play ping pong with the development team, never stop honing your skills. That being said, be humble. Admit that you might not understand something! People will respect you for it as long as you work hard to solve the problem and seek help.
NB: Use strong language; don't sound hesitant about things. Eliminating words like "just" or "seems" make you sound so much more powerful. Never underestimate the power of language, whether that's written or orally. I noticed that male counterparts were saying things that were simply guesses with utter conviction, and it made people listen to them more. While it's essential we listen to a variety of opinions and acknowledge our biases before cementing an opinion, you don't need to preface your thoughts with "I think that..." It sounds weak and it's implied—I know you're speaking on your own behalf, not the President's. Language and bettering your communication skills is the number one thing that can propel you forward. Also, don't feel guilty about the advantages that come your way because you are a woman, and don't let anyone tell you that those advantages are undeserved.
EH: Don't be shy. If you are passionate about the work you are doing, follow through and don't let anyone put you down. Stand up and speak up for yourself, even if it's uncomfortable. I've seen many processes that I wanted to put "in play" years ago just start to come to fruition now, and it's validation that I'm on the right path, even if it's not the right time :)
EB: The technology space is a fast paced and growing industry, it’s one of the main reasons I love it so much. Unfortunately it’s lacking in women to be a part of it. Help us shape it.
JC: Hustle. Do work, and get sh*t done. Don't just rest on what you did last week, month or year. Be competitive with yourself but always find a way to help others around you.