June 9, 2022 | Diversity & Access

Seat @ the Table 2022: Inspired. Grace. Curious. Sonder.

Martina Lauchengco

Written by

Martina Lauchengco

I could have listened to our panelists for hours. They were each inspiring and collectively passed on so much wisdom. Even though they all come from engineering backgrounds, their insights were relevant for anyone in the workforce. The session is worth a listen while you’re making dinner or on a drive! 

Full transcript available here

These are just some of my favorite highlights from our phenomenal panelists:

  • Helen Altshuler, CEO and Co-founder, EngFlow
  • Kimberly Bryant, Founder and CEO Black Girls CODE
  • Lauren Hasson, Founder DevelopHer and Engineering leader
  • Dr. Cynthia Maxwell, Director of Engineering, Netflix Animation Studio

Take every opportunity that comes your way. 

This was a theme echoed by all our panelists. Dr. Maxwell remembers being at Apple when her manager said “one of you needs to become a manager” and everyone looked around saying “No, man. That’s just overhead. We like to code.” But it meant someone else took the job, and they had to live with the consequences. She never let an opportunity like that pass her by again. It may feel uncomfortable at the time, but it’s also an opportunity to grow.

When Helen’s Google co-worker, Ulf, decided to start a company, Helen’s experience as an engineering leader and passion about developer tools let her connect the dots. “Here’s this remarkable engineer who never did a startup. I could actually help him become successful and build something very special and different together… I just went for it. I never wanted to ask myself shoulda-woulda-coulda.” It’s a powerful reminder to not let fear get in your way. 

Don’t quit. Hit pause. 

Lauren went from counting change so she could put gas into her car to becoming an award-winning developer and engineering leader. She reskilled multiple times. It has not been an easy or a straight path. But she was diligent: “Constantly listening for feedback. I put something out there. I take action. I collect feedback. I do a little bit of user testing and then I iterate. I keep going but sometimes I just want to quit. To quote my mom, ‘Don’t quit. Pause.’ I take a lot of pauses along the way to keep going. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I’m constantly hitting the brakes and asking what am I low on? Then I replenish my reserves. When my reserves are replenished, I iterate and keep going.”

Women tend to be over-mentored and under sponsored. 

A sponsor or advocate is different than a mentor. Sponsors advocate on behalf of you and your career and are not your direct manager. All our panelists benefitted from sponsorship by others. As Kimberly said, “these are people who will speak your name in a room in places you aren’t.”

That’s what happened early in Helen’s career, a senior manager named Paul Compton, saw her leading larger, cross-functional projects. He thought she was very effective. Because of her program’s success, he would go to senior leadership meetings and say “What we need is a Helen” for other complex programs. That made those senior leaders look for her and within a month, she had multiple new career options because he brought her up as an example by name. 

This sort of advocacy has a disproportionate impact early in someone’s career. Do a great job at whatever you do so it gets noticed. But if you’re a senior leader, look for how you can recognize and promote others’ work even if they don’t report to you.

Find your voice. Embrace being different. 

When Kimberly worked at a biotech company early in her career, she found herself not speaking up so she could fit in with the boys club. Her boss’s boss pulled her aside, asking “Why are you not speaking up in these meetings?” She didn’t want to be perceived as talking too much. 

He told her, “Oh no, no, no! The reason you are here is because you have a different perspective. And I need you to speak up. That’s why you’re here.” That one conversation from her boss’s boss impacted the rest of her career.

Define what success feels like for you

What does it feel like? Don’t define this in terms of title. Instead, when you wake up, what makes you want to go to work? What is your lifestyle like? What gives you energy? 

Lauren did this when she said no to a job at a FANG (Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google) company and instead chose a smaller startup with a less impressive title. It turned out to be one of the best career decisions she made because it gave her space to found DevelopHer, eventually lead a team, and learn totally new technical skills. “Had I been chasing these really high flying opportunities that paid more…it wouldn’t have aligned with my definition of how I feel successful. [Choosing the startup] let me live a life that’s truly aligned. I refuse to say “I need to be just a founder” or “I am just an engineering leader.” I say, how can I make both happen? I’m not Sheryl Sandberg, but I hope that I’m inspiring some people.”

Be flexible in your career and how you define opportunity

Kimberly shared that Genentech was “a Mecca of diversity,” yet she chose to leave to found Black Girls CODE, a non-profit, because she believed so strongly in creating a community for other women in STEM to find themselves and other allies. 

“We have to embrace that flexibility and not just think we can only do one thing. Tap into all your unique talents. You have many, many opportunities in things you probably haven’t yet explored. Give yourself permission to take a chance and explore.”

Model attention to boundaries, mental wellness and personal well-being

Cynthia holds her partner accountable for doing his share of work to support their family. She also shuts work off after certain hours.

But beyond having and encouraging others to have strong boundaries, Cynthia encouraged “it’s okay to not feel okay.I have shared my journey of finding a therapist and let people know I’m utilizing a resource and encouraging others to use it as well. I also encourage people to take time off.” We’re all whole human beings and offering a supportive work environment means acknowledging that a whole human shows up.

Speed round fun from our panelists:

Favorite book you’ve recently read?

  • Helen Altshuler: LOVED by Martina Lauchengco.
  • Kimberly Bryant: Hollywood Shuffle – the movie.
  • Lauren Hasson: Reading for like the 10th time, Awaken the 
  • Giant Within by Tony Robbins 
  • Dr. Cynthia Maxwell: I’m currently enjoying reading, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris

Favorite sanity saver?

  • Dr. Cynthia Maxwell: Yoga and gardening.
  • Lauren Hasson: Getting my nails done.
  • Kimberly Bryant: I’m gonna say Netflix and chill. So thank you, Cynthia!
  • Helen Altshuler: 2-hour walks in New York city.

Favorite word?

  • Helen Altshuler: Inspired.
  • Kimberly Bryant: Grace.
  • Lauren Hasson: Curious.
  • Dr. Cynthia Maxwell: Sonder. Look it up–it’s cool!

May the sonder inspire grace and curiosity. Thanks for doing your part to help more women have more seats at more tables!

If you’re interested in learning more about potential opportunities with early-stage startups in our portfolio, please join our talent network.