Accept your imperfections. I make mistakes. I fell down a flight of stairs in front of the President of my company and another company. Things happen. It is how you handle and recover from your mistakes that makes you who you are. Take the elevator!
As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Quantum Computing Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denise Ruffner.
Denise Ruffner leads Worldwide Business Development for IonQ which offers the highest performing quantum computer in the industry. In this role, she is responsible for all sales and strategy for this new technology.
Denise is a top evangelist for quantum computing worldwide, and is featured at many events. She is an Advisor to the OneQuantum organization, President of Women in Quantum, and co-hosts a weekly podcast “Quantum World Detangled.” Prior to IonQ, Denise was Chief Business Officer at Cambridge Quantum Computing, and part of the company executive team. She had an 18-year career at IBM and, in her last role, was responsible for the IBM Quantum Startup Program, Ambassador Program and overall sales strategy. At IBM, Denise had an extensive commercial career in different leadership roles in scientific, high-performance computing and channel sales across multiple geographies. Denise was recruited by IBM to lead venture investing for the emerging Life Science business unit.
She has a MS in Neurobiology and Genomics, and a long-time interest in understanding the mechanisms of learning and memory. In her free time, she loves adventure travel and exploring remote cities and cultures.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Southern California in a family with two siblings. My mother (now 96) is an Austrian physicist and always had a professional career. My father was an engineering and technical marketing expert who was an early employee of Intel and involved in many emerging tech Silicon Valley companies. My parents stressed the importance of education and learning multiple languages. I always joke that I was raised to be a Nobel laureate and somehow ended up being a salesperson.
As a child, I was the outlier in my school in that I had a professional mother who worked every day versus all of my friends whose mothers were at home full time. My sister and I were in awe when we went to a friend’s house and their mother cooked dinner…we went to a restaurant every night. As I grew up I began to realize that my mother was very special both in her intellect as well as in her career. She was the role model for all of my friends. I grew to love that she came from Austria, our family traveled there frequently and I loved that other part of my life in Europe.
My family went through a tough time when my older brother died of cancer at age 13 after a two-year illness. It was tragic and we all mourned his loss in our own way. I decided that I needed to pay back the care that he had and volunteered at the local hospital where he had passed away. I also decided at that time that I would study biology to learn about the mechanisms of cancer so I could hopefully contribute to make sure that other families would not experience the tragedy that we experienced.
I went to college at University of California, Irvine, which was local to where we lived, and really enjoyed being in college. One day I attended a lecture on neurobiology and was completely entranced by the professor and his research. I began working in his lab the next day. Being in his lab was a unique and formative opportunity, as everyone started at the same level and earned their way up in terms of responsibility. I met Nobel laureates, famous scientists, presented at scientific meetings, and published many papers including an article in Science magazine as an undergraduate. I loved the entire experience and am still in touch with him and the people in the lab today.
I left UC Irvine and went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. I had chosen Pitt for it’s neuroscience program. The best lesson I learned was how to give a talk and present scientific data, and to lose my Southern California surfer patois. When people hear me speak, they think I am from the East Coast and that is due to my graduate journal club coaching. I finished my PhD three years into the program, and when I discussed defending my dissertation with my advisor was told that as a woman I needed to take longer to get my PhD than it took him. It took him six years, and it would take me seven years. I decided that I did not want to wait four more years and left graduate school with a MS in Neurobiology and Genomics.
I used this inflection point as a reason to get a job in business, which was another area I was always interested in. I went to work at a scientific instrument company and gained experience teaching, in product management and finally went into sales. I started in sales with a Bay Area territory — imagine being the sales rep for the biotech revolution — I sold to Genentech, Gilead, Syntex, Alza, Affymax, Affymetrix…all the emerging biotech companies. I loved it. At the time I led a group called the Northern California Pharmaceutical Discussion Group so that people from the different biotech companies could network and learn from each other. I was the top sales rep in the company and sold the highest volume of sales in the entire world for the company. Year after year, I broke every record.
I called on startup companies every day and wanted very much to join one. I left my job to try new things, started a company and then moved on to join other startup companies. It was a great business education. At the same time, my former startup customers were calling me and asking me to help them with their business plans for their new companies and I started consulting with venture capitalists. One day IBM called me and asked me to join their emerging Life Sciences group doing venture investing. I was intrigued and took the job and started an 18-year career with IBM.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have always been an avid reader and it is hard to keep up with the books that I read. In business, I liked “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore and read a number of books about marketing emerging technology. I love books on neuroscience such as “101 Theory Drive” and “The Big Brain.” And I love a good murder mystery.
Lately, I have been a big fan of the book “The Four Agreements.” I have a stack of them and give them as gifts. Being in quantum computing I also love “Quantum Computing for Babies” which is another great gift for children and adults.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My motto is “lead, follow or get out of my way.” Growing up in a results-driven household, I want to move and get things done. I push myself and others to be their best. I hate when people become obstacles through indecision or lack of vision; I know I can be tough to work with because I have a strong vision and push myself to make it happen.
I also love the Serenity Prayer — “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer reminds me that I need to understand when I can make an impact and where I need to walk away.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the quantum tech industry? We’d love to hear it.
The quantum tech industry fascinates me in that it is an emerging new technology that will change the world. I want to be part of it and contribute to it in my own small way. I love the recent Nature Review article “25 years ago: the beginning of the quantum computer era” which shows me that even though this industry is new, it has been a long time in development.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
My favorite thing is that as a salesperson, I get to talk to a diverse group of people about quantum computing. I have met people with many different roles in many different companies to talk about this technology and how they can apply it. Every few months, I encounter someone who completely thinks out of the box and comes up with absolutely brilliant ideas on how they would apply this technology. It amazes me, and I love to marvel at their creativity and work with them to develop their ideas. This is what gets me going every day, meeting new people and sharing this amazing technology and promise with them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mistakes, I make them every day! I have fallen down a flight of stairs during a sales call, messed up customer names, and often forget to turn on the mute button during conference calls. My favorite story is when my IBM boss and I flew to Beijing to make a big sale, it was a super hot day and we were dressed up in suits and ready to sell. We took a taxi to the customer, only to be told that it was the wrong address and we had to run about a mile in the heat to make the appointment on time. We both arrived sweating, and then were in a warm conference room trying to regain our composure and give a great presentation. After the meeting, the customers asked us if we were sick because they could not understand why we both were drenched in sweat! This was a reminder to us to be early to meetings, especially in foreign countries in case we arrive at the wrong place.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a lot of people who have helped me. I ran the Ambassador program at IBM and had to host a three-day class every three months with different technical speakers every hour. I always appreciated the generosity of very busy scientists who would help me and do a wonderful, thoughtful job teaching the group. They all became my good friends and mentors and helped me develop a great understanding of quantum physics.
I met Andre Konig while at IBM and instantly liked him. We stayed in touch over the years and developed a wonderful friendship and ultimately started OneQuantum and Women in Quantum together. I value his opinion and perspective, and love our adventures. We both have the same strong German / Austrian work ethic and I am amazed at our progress.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
When Covid started all of a sudden, my email increased in volume with women from around the world reaching out to me for help. I never understood why I was chosen to give advice, but always tried to find time to help anyone who asked. I became overwhelmed trying to help them, and when I talked to Andre about it we decided that we should form a group dedicated to helping women by creating a community for them. Women in Quantum was formed to nurture, support and highlight women in this community. The rest of our story is history and a lot of hard work. This group has become a tremendous success with thousands of attendees, dozens and dozens of renowned speakers, and a truly global, highly engaged audience. A lot of people supported us along the way, and I want to thank them all.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The quantum computing industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the quantum computing industry? Can you explain?
- This is truly an innovative technology that will change the world. We are experiencing the emergence of a new renaissance. A lot of work needs to be done to make this happen, but I am confident that it will get done.
- This is a very supportive, collaborative industry. We all know each other and are supportive of each other. It is a great group of interesting people.
- I love being able to bring a new technology and new ideas to people, I love public speaking, and I love meeting customers to share this technology. I love learning new things every day and working with very talented people. It is truly fun.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the quantum computing industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Three things concern me: 1. Hype 2. Hype 3. Hype Many people have the tendency to oversell the technology and what it can do today. I work hard to be accurate in my descriptions and not oversell, and get very upset when I hear exaggerated stories about this technology.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I think back through my career and realize that women still struggle in a man’s world. I remember my first sales meeting as a new sales rep when a man handed me a stack of papers and said “Honey, can you please copy these for me?” I am sure you can imagine my answer.
It pains me that women still struggle. There are not enough women in management, in science, in engineering. There is not enough diversity. Women in Quantum is our attempt to give women a stage, a voice and support in this world and to try to help them navigate the ups and downs of a career.
I am delighted by the support our group is getting, and the realization that all companies need diversity. This is important to me personally. Over the weekend, a friend shared an article with me where Francis Collins, Director of the NIH, said that he wants to end the tradition in science of all-male speaking panels. I agree with him, and it is my mission to help women get the opportunities that they deserve.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the quantum computing industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I still experience the bias that as a woman I certainly can’t contribute as much as a man. Many men do not like to be managed by a woman or even advised and they miss out. It is still tough to get the space to contribute that is naturally given to men, but somehow restricted if you are a woman. I see this every day in my job.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth is that a woman can’t think or contribute or might have different or better skills than a man. Women are discounted all the time and it is frustrating.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I encourage every woman in STEM to be herself. I think that when we try to be someone else or fit into a man’s way of doing things, it does not serve us. BE YOURSELF.
- Don’t second guess yourself. We all have life experiences and from them have developed ideas or strategies that we have improved on through experience. Go with them, and don’t let someone else tell you that they know better than you.
- Accept your imperfections. I make mistakes. I fell down a flight of stairs in front of the President of my company and another company. Things happen. It is how you handle and recover from your mistakes that makes you who you are. Take the elevator!
- Develop your own support system. It is important to have a group of people that understand you and your capabilities, and can help you be your best as you encounter obstacles.
- Some days are hard and some days are easy. Always do your best. Everyday I ask myself if I pushed myself and did my best, that is the most I can ask of myself, and my employees.
- Accept kindnesses. Many people offer you help or experiences, don’t be proud, take them up on it and go for it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like every man in every company to go out of their way to do three nice things to help diversity in their company every day. Offer your help, encourage and support people and say thank you. This world has forgotten that kindness can be magical. Too often we all forget to acknowledge people and make them feel valued.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are actually two people: 1. Francis Collins who I would love to work with on gender equality in science and encouraging women to be in STEM and 2. Melinda Gates who has written that gender equality in society is within our reach. I believe that together we can develop programs to help women at all levels in life.