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“Don’t underestimate the power of technology” With Penny Bauder & Donna Kidwell

As a leader, one must work to ensure that building those relationships within your network are actual opportunities for your team to thrive. I think that concept is true for a man in STEM, as well — don’t restrict or limit yourself to a female mentor. Look at who can help you achieve your goals […]

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As a leader, one must work to ensure that building those relationships within your network are actual opportunities for your team to thrive. I think that concept is true for a man in STEM, as well — don’t restrict or limit yourself to a female mentor. Look at who can help you achieve your goals and go from there.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donna Kidwell, Arizona State University’s EdPlus Chief Technology Officer.

Donna Kidwell serves as Arizona State University’s EdPlus Chief Technology Officer, where she has embraced the responsibility of helping to create the technology infrastructure to support more than 100k online students while commercializing new technology produced by EdPlus. Donna Kidwell leads a team responsible for designing, developing and managing the technical infrastructure and information services necessary to deliver EdPlus at ASU’s online degree and lifelong learning opportunities at scale. She provides oversight, vision and strategy as EdPlus integrates over 150 technology tools and processes in ASU Online courses, open scale initiatives and continuing and professional education offerings.

Kidwell is a frequent speaker on innovation, entrepreneurship, technology transfer, regional innovation ecosystems, innovations in learning technologies and future models for educational delivery. She is an expert in learning technologies, program design, and change management to foster innovation in higher education. Kidwell earned a Doctorate of Business Administration from Grenoble Ecole de Management, France; a Master of Science, Technology Commercialization and Bachelors of Arts, History from the University of Texas at Austin.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’d say it was a mix of being obsessed with entrepreneurship and innovation and the transformative power of education. My starting out as a software consultant also played a role, I think, as well.

I finished my history degree in 1992 in a city that was almost entirely technology — Austin, Texas was an exploding Technopolis at the time. I immediately went from my history degree to software consulting, where I spent the first third of my career largely learning the world of software by getting the chance to work hands on, and actually dig in. One of the companies I worked with at the time, was a large real estate franchise that, in their quick growth, needed to scale their corporate university. In 2003, I spent about 9 months trying to figure out what education at scale could look like…and then trying to figure out how you would do that for a pretty tough crowd, like real estate investors.

After we got that university up and running, I had the learning data and the franchise data/business side of things, where I could actually see results. I could see when a learner went in and actually did things and whether or not it impacted their business. You could immediately see the educational journey and the entrepreneurial journey side by side. After 3 months, I became absolutely convinced that intentional, online educational experiences could transform somebody’s life in a really powerful way.

I then decided if I wanted to go all in and study this phenomenon fulltime, so I went back and got my own master’s and then doctorate degrees, essentially trying to identify models that would allow me to see the same transformation, but outside of a closed system. I thought: If you could do it for real estate, could it work for engineering? Or nursing? Or other places?

I spent the next 7 years at the University of Texas at Austin building international models at scale to explore exactly that, and it turned out to be some pretty transformative stuff. The wonderful part of being able to build online education systems when they’re not in a vacuum, is that you can actually see the economic impact it has on the bigger picture.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Our blockchain work is probably the most fascinating and impactful here at ASU, on a serious innovation edge. It asks that we think differently about digital credentials and that we put strength behind the concept of learner agency. We aspirationally tell learners that when they invest in themselves and their time with us, then they will reap rewards much deeper than just those of economic impact. That personal investment has ripple effects on their families, communities and you can see that throughout ASU’s entire charter.

The ability of the blockchain technology to actually make it safe, secure, and intentional and keep in line with privacy issues is some of the most interesting work that ASU has done. We are so deeply committed, that we’re actually trying to be a part of groups that are committed to meeting technology standards and being active contributors to making sure that all plays out.

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?

One of the places I previously worked, gave me colleagues that were not technologists — they were far more business savvy than technology forward. Whenever I used terminology that they didn’t understand, they’d contribute a dollar to the vase they had placed on my desk.

When it filled up, we’d go for margaritas and they’d have a pretty big laugh at me, BUT I got this quantifiable, super fun (and also somewhat humiliating) way of finding out that I spoke like a true technologist. So, I had to figure out how not to lead by my technology brain — it was probably one of the most effective ways to incentivize me to take note of that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Deeply engrained in ASU’s charter is this underlying foundational belief of an egalitarian meritocracy.

I think one of the most amazing things ASU has, is our Earned Admissions Program — the ability for someone, regardless of their GPA, how long it’s been since they were in school or the ability of them to access their transcripts, that if they can actually go and take a few courses and prove to themselves that they can do the work — they have the option to earn their way in. I believe that is the purest, most genuine form of believing in a meritocracy — one that I’ve never seen in the higher ed space.

The notion of “if you do the work, great things will happen” is part of a deeply rooted American principle that ASU holds dear.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One thing that is very unusual about ASU is that we are fearless and very open to experimentation. Since I arrived at ASU, Cintana Education and InStride have been created — both of which have part of their structures with the university but are external companies that benefit other corporations with their own missions and purposes. From a project side of things, the work to partner with both Cintana Education and InStride, has been a fascinating, but unusual thing for a university to do.

We launched InStride, a public-benefit corporation that intends to connect employers and higher education institutions in order to provide workforce education. For InStride, it’s hitting home at the nature of the future of work and how we scale corporate partnerships for the university in a way that develops education as a true benefit opportunity.

Arizona State created Cintana Education, to work with universities in other countries to expand online and campus programs. With Cintana Education, it’s addressing how we take the innovation aspect from ASU and lift up other countries throughout the world to be able to have the same experience. All in all, I think the technology we use works to make that ASU magic.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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?

It’s not super. In the ’90s when I was working, my field was about 10% women. I was hoping we would figure it out by now — certainly in higher ed, but we still have some ways to go.Part of it, I think, is that we have to build from the inside — the projects/initiatives themselves actually have to have the DNA that’s going to then express the fruits of the labor. It can’t be in an equity and inclusion paragraph in a mission statement or a section in a proposal. You actually have to think about who you have at the table, and then ask: Do those stakeholders represent the equity and inclusion that you hope to achieve? If they don’t, what are you intentionally doing to change that? You may have to hire differently or ask someone to go outside of their comfort zone to pull in new people and resources to ensure that you roadmap in the deliberate and intentional sharing of those voices. And yes, it’s hard to do, but it’s necessary to build a STEM community with voices of equity in a broader sense.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Leaders in STEM are typically white males. And unfortunately, they don’t always know when to include you. Women, and anyone in the minority, have the extra task of self-advocating and making sure that their voices are heard in a way that isn’t typical for the men in the room.

Some of that is cultural behavior — like the way we speak or the language and phrasing we use to present ourselves, but in a lot of ways, there are simply not many women who actually embrace being a WOMAN.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

There is a notion that mentors are a good thing but it’s hard to navigate what that means and how you go about actually finding one. Mentorships exist in many different forms so as a leader, I think identifying other women that you find interesting and may be in positions you value, can contribute to the greater good of your team, what they’re trying to do, and where they’re trying to go.

As a leader, one must work to ensure that building those relationships within your network are actual opportunities for your team to thrive. I think that concept is true for a man in STEM, as well — don’t restrict or limit yourself to a female mentor. Look at who can help you achieve your goals and go from there.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

We underestimate the power of technology, even here at ASU. For example, our use of Slack helps with rapidly growing teams. Leaning into technology that allows us to have rapid, responsive, personal, and real relationships is great. And having a culture around how you use those tools is equally as important.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Would love additional context here, if possible.

When I was working in software/doing technology for real estate, I had an epiphany that pushed me to spend the next chunk of my career trying to mobilize all of the work that I do today. I think saying yes to things that may sound crazy and insane and making brave, yet intentional, decisions play a part — having that ability to channel spontaneity helps.

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