“Stories are currency,” shared Elle Luna, Senior Communication Designer at IDEO at the Women in Design event on Friday, December 9th at 500 Startups. If that’s the case, the speakers at this event were some of the richest women in Silicon Valley with plenty of stories of how they got started, took risks, failed, persevered, and became who they are today.
The intention behind the event’s storytelling format was to strengthen the sense of community among women designers while inspiring the next generation (e.g., several high school and college students attended).
Here are a few highlights of the speakers’ journeys and tips for fellow women navigating the world where design, technology, and entrepreneurship intersect.
Kate Aronowitz, Director of Design at Facebook
One of Kate’s first design gigs was photoshoping abs onto muscular men for a Herbal Supplement company. She shared how years later, she turned down the position for Director of Design telling Facebook’s recruiters they needed “a young guy” (not a mom) and gave them a list of five recommendations. They persisted and she finally said yes, when she realized she was in fact the right person for the job.
- Learn how to code.
- Design with purpose (which your portfolio should reflect).
Nancy Broden, Design Lead for User Growth at Twitter
Nancy was a dancer for many years before she realized it was a great hobby but a “sucky” profession. She then become a museum curator and had to move back in with her parents when she met a freelance developer who showed her what an html tag is. Surprised by how simple it was, she delved deeper into computer science and has been working in the design/tech field since then.
- Don’t mistake knowing your tools with knowing your business.
- Have a mission statement.
Janice Fraser, Founder of LUXr & Former Founding Partner at Adaptive Path
Janice cut straight to the gender issue after making the audience dance to Beyonce’s “Run The World”. Is it true that there is a gender bias in the world of tech startups? It doesn’t matter because the effect remains the same whether or not there is a bias. She referred to “stereotype” threat, a concept validated in social science research, which is when perceived bias (as a result of being the “other”) makes one physiologically anxious and want to leave the situation.
- For women in tech/design/business fields:
- Change internal narrative by owning what you do.
- Don’t flirt or play the little sister!
- For others:
- Aim for 50% female representation. If not, get at least 33% of women in design/tech/startups, which is the critical mass proven in research to reduce stereotype threat.
- Neutralize language. Example: “We believe you would be great to write this piece in Tech Crunch” (note no mention of gender).
Elle Luna, Senior Communication Designer at IDEO
Elle started in a film program before she realized she was most attracted to storytelling, and transferred into graphic design. She submitted her application to IDEO through the website, the good old fashioned way (no networking) and was hired two weeks later. As a Texan she drew a risky (and awesome) parallel between Texas Debutantes and women in design.
- Design your story.
- Ask yourself: What makes me happy? What gives me meaning? Orient your life around these two answers.
- Find someone who is 2-3 years ahead of where you would like to go and take them out to lunch.
Sasha Lubomirsky, User Experience Researcher at Airbnb
Sasha had started working at Google for a couple of months when she heard a rumor that it was acquiring YouTube. Doing her best Tina Fey expression, she told her manager “I want to go there.” She was soon the first user researcher at YouTube where she helped make user research an integral part of the design process. She is now doing the same at Airbnb.
- Don’t overthink. Go for it.
Christina Brodbeck, Founder of TheIceBreak & Former Founding Designer at YouTube
As a history major destined for law, she caught her college roommate playing with photoshop which sparked her interest in a completely different career track. She bought the book “HTML By Example,” and started building websites for friends and family until her first paid job as a web designer making education sites for kids. During her graduate school in instruction and technology, she fell in love with startups.
- Accept risk and you will open yourself up to luck.
- Get out there and meet as many people as you can.
Karen Kaushansky, Principal Device Interaction Designer at Jawbone
Karen was one out of ten women and ninety men who earned a Computer Science degree from her graduating class. Since she had a strong technical background and loved to solve problems, her move to design felt quite natural. Though she had never designed hardware before, she took a leap and accepted an offer from Jawbone as the Principal Device Interaction designer.
- Stand your ground.
- Get outside your comfort zone to move forward.
Abby Sturges & Jennifer Lopez, Founders of Culture Kitchen SF
Jenn and Abby met at Stanford and Culture Kitchen SF grew out of their masters project. After working in corporate world, Abby knew she wanted to build products that wouldn’t end up in a landfill. Jenn shared that she never understood how her parents, who were Hispanic immigrants, thought they could hold the whole world in their hands. Like Abby, she felt destined to create meaningful social impact in the global community.
- Partner with someone who works hard.
- Find someone who can lift you up when you are down.
Angela Shen-Hsieh, Founder of Groupvisual i/o & Board member at AIGA
Angela talked about the market challenges she experienced over and over to starting her data visualization business: a recession, the dotcom boom, and the financial meltdown of 2008. She eventually turned visual i/o into a venture backed software company. Immersed in the world of architecture, real estate, and business, she noticed men’s suits were a “quiet backdrop” with subtle highlights and found her equivalent: pants, jackets, stylish wedges, and a dash of color here and there as to avoid being too conservative or “designer-y”.
- Learn the lingo of raising money, take a course (e.g., VC 101).
- Don’t be afraid to show who’s boss (or use “I” when pitching).
Jessica Hische, Freelance Illustrator, Letterer, and Designer
“I like making resources for people. None of the things I have ever made have been profitable. And that’s ok.” She refers to her many educational side projects such as “Should I work for Free?” “Don’t Fear the Internet” and “Mom This is How Twitter Works 2.0.” Projects like these, that showed her passion, earned her the respect of several fellow designers. Jessica is a master of procrastiworking, a term she coined, which means doing that side hobby you love to do when putting off the work you have to do.
- Place work you would actually want to do in your portfolio.
- Find clients as passionate about the work as you are.
Liz Danzico, Chair of MFA in Interaction Design at School of Visual Arts (SVA)
Liz’ grandfather, a furniture designer, made a saltbox which sat next to the oven throughout her childhood. She overlooked the possibility of being a design educator in the same way people overlook the power and history behind salt. For years, Liz has been an educator on the side kind of how salt is a meal’s best “side-kick.”
- Don’t underestimate what you do on the side
- Think little risks and big rewards
Themes Across All Speakers
Expertise and Development
1. Develop a Technical Side. Kate predicted the next person with her position at Facebook will know how to code. Learn how to code.
2. Know and Showcase Your Expertise. After Angela’s talk on appearance and perception in the world of venture capital, she still concluded that substance and expertise were more important.
Confidence and Self-Knowledge
3. Don’t Underestimate Yourself. As Nancy put it: ladies, lose the insecurity!
4. Be Genuine and Know Yourself. How did Jessica get 30,000 Twitter followers? She is 100% genuine, often tweeting in her pajamas at 4:00am. It is as simple as it gets: knowing yourself is the key to designing your story and ultimately steering your career path.
Attitude and Risk-Taking
5. Have a Yes Mind. Janice encouraged women to say yes to every speaking invitation they get. An attitude of “yes, I can do it!” emerged again and again throughout the speakers’ talks.
6. Get Outside of Your Comfort Zone. Karen talked about making bold career choices which were often uncomfortable but pushed her forward. “Fear what you do the most!” – Nancy. “Leap and Learn by Doing!” – Christina
Speakers: Kate Aronowitz, Nancy Broden, Janice Fraser, Elle Luna, Sasha Lubomirsky, Christina Brodbeck, Abby Sturges, Jennifer Lopez, Karen Kaushansky, Angela Shen-Hsieh, Jessica Hische and Liz Danzico
Sponsors: The Designer Fund, Khosla Ventures, Andressen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins, 500 Startups, Facebook, Product Design Guild, Jess3, KKLD, San Franola Granola, Farm to Cup and Benchic Chocolate
Organizers: Maria Molfino and Enrique Allen