Feel brave applying for that job you want, even if you’re not 100% qualified. You never know what people will see in you and you never know what may come of that.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gladys Kong.
Gladys Kong is CEO of UberMedia, a mobile location data and insights company, and an expert in mobile technology and data solutions. Since joining the company as its chief technology officer in 2012, and being promoted to CEO in 2015, Gladys has been responsible for assembling a best-in-class data science team and pivoting it from a social media app developer to a leading mobile data and analytics company.
Gladys, an entrepreneur and founder of multiple tech companies, holds two patents in the mobile technology space. Her expertise and passion for innovation has directly contributed to UberMedia being ranked #16 in The Wall Street Journal’s Top 50 Start-ups and listed as one of Fast Company’s “50 Most Innovative Companies”, one of OnMedia’s Top 100 Private Companies, and one of the “Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America” by Entrepreneur magazine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ididn’t know I was interested in technology until I immigrated to the United States, from Hong Kong, when I was 14 years old.
I grew up in Hong Kong and learned English as a second language. When I started 9th grade in the US, I discovered that math and science suited my personality better — partially because there was less language involved and it also felt more objective, I either get it right or wrong, it’s not subject to opinions. Unlike with subjects like English and history, I never felt like I was at a disadvantage when it came to STEM subjects which led me to study engineering at Caltech.
One summer, I had an internship working under the founder of Idealab, Bill Gross. That was my first exposure working in the software and technology realm and I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to pursue that as a career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The first speaking opportunity I was invited to speak at was for a data conference. I’m not the most comfortable public speaker as it is, so I practiced for weeks and threw in a few jokes to try to keep it light-hearted.
After I had finished speaking, a woman came up to me and told me that she was proud of me and thanked me for coming because I was the only woman invited on stage to speak.
It was something I’ll always remember because it was so interesting to see how important my speech was for the women in the room. Not because of the data I was sharing, but because they felt more connected and represented. Now, I try to speak whenever possible so that other women will be inspired to do so as well.
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?
It wasn’t funny at the time, but now when I see management training books or think back on this time, I giggle to myself and appreciate how much I’ve grown since this experience.
When I was a new manager, I found myself in a situation where I had to have a hard conversation with an employee. I wanted to figure out the best way to properly handle it, so I decided to read a few management books and went to other leaders for advice before sitting down with my employee. After our conversation had finished, the employee started crying and left my office without a word. The next day I decided to reach out and see what went wrong. My employee said, “It was like I was talking to a different person. You were speaking to me as a manager and that person was completely unrecognizable which scared me.”
I learned a lot from that experience. It taught me that no matter what the situation is, leaders need to be completely authentic and true to themselves or else your message will fall flat.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
UberMedia isn’t just a data provider. We have built a lot of technology and innovated to make mobile location data actionable.
The team really focuses on solving problems for our clients, not just promoting a one-size-fits-all product. We spent years understanding what our clients and partners in different verticals need and we built our platform to be flexible enough to tailor to different business use cases.. We really try to provide a solution that is suitable for our clients and our partners to help them answer their business questions.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Given the current times, UberMedia has launched a new COVID-19 Resource Center. The resources and research offered will help people understand the impact of COVID-19 on human movement and consumer behavior. We recognize that we are in a challenging and unprecedented time, our partners and clients cannot rely on historical data to make decisions. Our real-time human movement data can help researchers build models for various COVID-19 scenarios as well as help businesses understand the impact of “stay-at-home” orders and reopening in their areas of interest. All of our data and insights are provided to assist researchers, analysts, brands, and the global community with in-depth guides, a research data directory, and regular updates on the latest research using mobile location data.
Ok super. 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?
I think the world is changing and I’m seeing more female faces in conferences but the ratio is not where I would like it to be.
I think girls are intimidated by STEM early in school based on the archaic belief that men are better suited for this style of work/study, so by the time women get to college, only a small percentage actually enroll in STEM programs. This causes the STEM environment to be predominantly male, which can be intimidating and deter women interested in following these career paths.
We need to make the environment a lot less intimidating for women moving forward in order to change the status quo. STEM and tech careers should be represented as a possible future for both women and men from an early age and then continuously repeated throughout their educational life stage.
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?
The biggest challenge is women are always the minority at STEM and tech companies, so women can feel a little on the outside. STEM and tech is predominantly male, so men in these career fields never have that experience of feeling unaccepted or uncomfortable in their work environment.
My company, UberMedia, is rare because we have female employees at all levels of the organizations, in data and product teams as well as senior management. Our recently hired female data scientist told me, “I’ve never been at a tech company where I’ve been interviewed by more women than men, and that made me comfortable.”
Women feel better at an organization when they see there’s a path for advancement for them. If you’re in a STEM or tech field, make sure you’re hiring a diverse staff. Hire an equal representation for men and women, as well as individuals with diverse backgrounds and skills.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
A huge myth about women is that we’re all emotional. Women are not always just emotional creatures. I personally don’t raise my voice when frustrated or when I’m under pressure. I stay calm and logical even in very stressful situations, more so than a lot of male colleagues.
Some women are emotional, just like some men are emotional. We shouldn’t look at those qualities as a negative or as stereotypes, we should see each person uniquely as a human being who brings his/her own personality and qualities to the table.
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.)
- Listen — Always listen before you make a decision or a judgment to understand everybody’s perspective.
- Communicate — I believe that if people actually communicate, the world will have a lot less conflict. If I make a decision, I always bring in people who disagree with that decision to explain where I’m coming from so that I’m as transparent as possible. They don’t have to agree with my decision, but I want them to understand why I made that specific choice so that they feel seen and heard as well.
- Collaborate — You need to collaborate, to work as a team, in order to provide the best solutions. Ten minds working together is better than one mind.
- Trust Your Instincts — Leaders need to be able to make a decision without being driven by emotion or fear. Take a step back, see the full picture, understand the facts, make your decision, and own it..
- Feel brave applying for that job you want, even if you’re not 100% qualified. You never know what people will see in you and you never know what may come of that.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Create trust between you and your team. A team that feels heard and trusted is a team that will go above and beyond to perform to the best of their ability.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Show empathy, if you take time to understand your employees, to speak with your employees, to show appreciation to your employees, they’ll feel more empowered to come to you with problems and solutions. It’s hard to set up a time to meet with everyone when managing a large team, but if you take the time, you’ll see it pay off tenfold.
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?
My mom and my sisters are my role models and biggest support system. My mother taught us everything was available to us. I never grew up thinking there were limitations because I was a girl. I was the third of three sisters, and all of us are strong career women.
Also, Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab. He hired me as an intern in college and inspired me to pursue the career I did. I worked at Idealab for many years and also worked in various Idealab companies. Bill became a business mentor and role model for me, always offering advice and support throughout my career.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
After UberMedia’s first profitable year, we decided to start a tradition to do something charitable every year around the holidays. So instead of a dinner or a happy hour, we would include some type of service component. Since this decision, five years ago, we’ve donated to and volunteered at the local food bank, we’ve made shoes for people in Africa, we’ve put together care packages for military personnel and we’ve built toys for the Humane Society.
Also we try to contribute our data in any way that could help. For the current pandemic, we’ve donated our data and research to show the impact of social distancing to local universities and research centers as a way to help.
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 love to have more women join the STEM and tech industry. I’m a rather shy person and not comfortable speaking to large crowds. I try to stand out in my field and to speak at events in order to inspire women and make them feel empowered. If I can impact getting more women into the technical field because they see someone like them in a leadership role, it would be worth it for me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My sister shared this quote with me years ago and I’ve kept it in my house ever since.
“A genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
In life, you find yourself surrounded by geniuses and smart people, but as you go through life, you’ll realize that the people who are truly successful aren’t successful just because they’re smarter but because they work harder at their craft. Coming from Caltech, I met extremely smart men and women and was intimidated early on, but I would remind myself of that quote and instantly remember that it’s all about the hard work and dedication.
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 🙂
I think Bill Gates would be one. He has built such a successful company, and I admire that most of what he does today is philanthropic and to help the world.
I would love time to just tap into how his mind works. To understand a little bit more about how he built his company and try to see the way he operates and what his thought process is like.