Find a diverse group of mentors. I have had the privilege of learning from great leaders and great people of different sexes and experiences. Surround your teams with a diverse group of mentors with the ability to come at any issue from any angle.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Golnar Pooya.
Golnar Pooya is an advisor at 7 Gate Ventures who has worked for the past two decades helping F500 enterprises capitalize on opportunities in new disruptive technologies and expand their ecosystems.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Noproblem, thanks for having me! When I entered UC Berkeley, I was determined to pursue a career in international relations and I was looking to become a lawyer. Not too long into my studies I realized that I needed a topic that was less subjective and I was naturally drawn to mathematics, a subject I had excelled at and the very essence of objectivity.
Further, being in the middle of Silicon Valley, I was convinced early on that technology would have long-lasting impacts on our societies, economies, and politics. Consequently, I ended up spending most of my time in the Math and Computer Science departments.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
At some point in my career, I decided to move back to the Middle East with the ambition to create impact in my region of origin. I remember meeting with the president of a quasi-governmental organization to assess how my company could help them remain competitive on the global scale. In that meeting, the president kept looking to the side while talking to me and purposefully avoiding eye contact. Shortly after the meeting, his lieutenant contacted us to say that if we were to continue discussions, we had to hire a man to do the speaking for me. This was the most eye-opening experience and occurred rather early in my career.
At first I was taken aback, offended, and frankly outraged. But as I let the emotions sink in, I realized this was an experience to remember. The way I rose above it, accepted that equality has a long way to go in most regions, and realized that I can still create an impact as a woman while addressing cultural and social rules — no matter how unacceptable they are — was revelatory. After this meeting, I realized that the best way to tackle this unacceptable request was to create impact and let the impact speak to my capabilities.
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 funniest stories is again from early on in my career while at a startup working as a solution architect. We were working with a client from East Asia and I had been communicating through email with many in the client organization before I actually had a chance to meet them. After months, and as the opportunity matured, we met with the client in person for the first time.
My boss at the time, who had spent many years in East Asia, told me that he was willing to bet that everyone was going to be shocked when they see that Golnar is a woman. We did make a bet and, sure enough, I lost the bet as soon as we arrived at our lunch meeting. The clients’ looks said it all, and then the repetition of my name: “Golnar? You are Golnar? Are you Golnar?” Yes, yes, yes, I said.
Later on, this turned into a laughable story and yet again another life lesson. Unconscious bias can lead to misunderstandings and wrong perceptions. I think and hope from that moment on, none of the clients that we were meeting with would make an assumption that a solution architect at a startup must be male.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on quite a number of very exciting projects with leading companies in various sectors. Much of the work I am focused on will have a significant impact. In one case, for example, I am working on a project to reinvent the management of diabetes. On another, I am working to accelerate the shift to new energies for one of the oil and gas majors.
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?
We’ve seen improvement but there is still a long way to go. I think we need to completely reinvent inclusion and diversity in the enterprise at large scale. While progress has been made to address inclusion and diversity issues in corporate America, it is now time to think about the next phase of our evolution.
The next phase will require a new lens and new approaches to help us further advance. This will be possible by providing opportunities to learn, educate and upskill talent before they even get into the enterprise. We need to take inclusion and diversity beyond numbers that get reported to the public. We need to now start tackling the root of the problem and I believe this can be done through educational programs that target not just potential employees or candidates, but an orchestrated effort and collaboration between enterprises to start this education at younger ages.
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?
There is nothing more offensive and demotivating than to feel that your success or your career progress is unduly influenced by your gender. I should know as this is something I have experienced in my career.
I am sure many women in tech have experienced situations when a male colleague, boss, or counterpart has become intimidated by your ideas and by your success. This intimidation will unfold itself indirectly but, nevertheless, it will come to the surface and you will experience it.
My suggestion to all women is to rise above it. Be understanding, focus on educating such people, and strive to create the impact. Let the impact speak for you. In my opinion, the value you can create is the loudest voice.
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.)
Sure, I’ll do my best to fit them into just five responses!
1) Change your mindset in order to change the world. First and foremost, you are a person. Believe in that and speak in that language. I am a brown-skinned, middle-eastern woman — but above all I am a person passionate for making an impact!
2) Be bold, think big, be ambitious. Don’t let the status quo or what your boss wants to hear stop you from evolving your radical ideas. Speak your mind.
3) Do not feel uncomfortable about your gender or your ethnicity. This makes you unique. Take advantage of your uniqueness and let your voice be heard.
4) Find a diverse group of mentors. I have had the privilege of learning from great leaders and great people of different sexes and experiences. Surround your teams with a diverse group of mentors with the ability to come at any issue from any angle.
5) Avoid educating like-minded people. Education is the most impactful way of driving inclusion and diversity. While all-women forums and all-minority forums are important, they can be exclusionary in and of themselves. Our job is to educate people that are not like us, and this happens when we best educate people of non-minority backgrounds to take action and become accountable.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Of course, there are two principles that have been foundational to my career:
1) Transparency and honesty. There is no value and no principle more powerful than honesty. Be honest with your team and be honest with your bosses. Your bosses will appreciate the transparency, and they always prefer to be aware of challenges and issues than to move forward without a good understanding.
2) Openness to criticism and failure. Encourage your teams to fail and encourage your teams to criticize you. I know it might sound strange, but I regularly start my meetings with a request for my team to present at least one critical feedback or thought on my idea. Teams are not there to just listen, rather we are supposed to evolve our ideas together.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
This is a great question. For me, diversity of perspectives is what I have looked for all my career. Diversity drives change and regularly results in big ideas. As you think about large teams, think about creating this diversity of perspectives in the smaller teams you create. Establish a set of rules and guiding principles for ways of working so that your teams understand the boundaries and the rules.
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?
Definitely! I’m incredibly grateful to Mike Heald, Accenture’s Senior Managing Partner. I have known Mike Heald from my early startup days in Silicon Valley. Mike trusted me early on in my career and gave me some unique opportunities to expand our little startup in the eastern US and later in Europe.
Mike is the person who truly taught me that I should bring my passionate and ambitious character into my work. He encouraged me and always pushed me to think bigger and bigger. This became a foundation. Over the years, I have worked for Mike in different companies and in different capacities. Time and time again, he has supported me and offered life-long lessons.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Within my abilities to date I have tried to bring goodness into the world with mentorship programs and educational programs. However, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied since there is always more that can be done and should be done. We should never be satisfied with how much we have done, and should continue to push the limits.
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. 🙂
This is a great question. I’d love to inspire a movement to help people find facts easily and start building trust in some credible sources. We live at a time when finding facts has become increasingly challenging and people are subject to misinformation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself,” — Rumi.
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 🙂
Yes, I’d love to sit down with Yuval Noah Harari. I consider him to be one of the biggest thinkers of our time. No author nor thinker has ever moved me as much as him. He has changed the way I look at the world, and he has convinced me that I should pursue my career in AI.