If you’re in a tough position, don’t give up: this happens not just in STEM but at work in general. If you feel cornered in a work situation, don’t give up! Communication is key and it’s important to stand strong in what you believe in. Take a deep breath, keep calm and state your case. If at the end of the discussion, the team chooses to go in a different direction, always know that there will be other opportunities, other assignments, and other projects.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing June Sugiyama.
June Sugiyama has been the Director at Vodafone Americas Foundation for the last 20 years. She is responsible for leading and providing strategic direction for Vodafone’s corporate foundation in the United States. As part of her role, she supports projects that advance the use of technology for social good by assessing community and nonprofit needs. June also created the Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology solutions to address critical global issues. The competition has identified cutting-edge innovations in digital health monitoring, diagnosis, data collection, financial literacy, and economic development. This project has now successfully transitioned to a partnership with MIT Solve.
In addition, she helps support the incubation of social innovation start-ups; stimulate & nurture technology funding by developing funder & nonprofit education programs; and searches for innovative ways to harness mobile data for nonprofits to serve the community faster, better and safer while emphasizing the importance of considering privacy and security.
June has also launched several programs and a new platform for employee engagement to better connect and serve employees and their communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Itook the helm at The Vodafone Americas Foundation over 20 years ago right after the AirTouch-Vodafone merger. The Foundation is a global nonprofit and part of Vodafone’s global network of 26 foundations that aims to foster social change in global and local communities through innovative technology solutions. With the many years of community work under my belt, previously, the combination of my experiences led to a natural progression towards corporate philanthropy. Most people might not know this, but to make a lasting impact, it’s just as important to understand corporate culture and philosophy as well as the diverse needs of the community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I think the most interesting moment for me was when I met an incredible start-up entrepreneur named Nithya Ramanathan. She was the winner of our Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project in 2013, and her company, Nexleaf Analytics pivoted their technology from monitoring open stovetops in developing countries to remotely monitor the temperature of vaccine delivery. She’s a petite Indian-American woman who speaks so strongly and confidently, and also very kind and friendly.
She identified a grave issue of delivering refrigerated vaccines to its destination. She realized the problem, adapted her technology and created ColdTrace, a remote temperature monitoring system for vaccine delivery. Vaccines for diseases like TB and malaria have to be refrigerated to be effective. Interestingly, things like design, manufacturing and distribution were very new to her. In order to support the development of ColdTrace, we connected her with our expert engineer who connected her to other resources she needed to eventually create ColdTrace. Nithya didn’t stop there. Once ColdTrace was implemented, she harnessed the data collected to help improve cold chain performance and delivery of vaccines. Now, Nithya has partnerships with large NGOs like GAVI, helping to save millions of lives.
It is amazing to me that this woman started with a team of a few people in her garage, with only 2 products, now impacts millions of lives. She continuously amazes me.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe it’s our company’s commitment to leveraging our ‘knowhow’ — specifically its technology, people and expertise to help improve the lives of people around the world. It’s extraordinary. Our model is one of a kind with its foundations worldwide all committed to empowering technology for good. Whether it’s the Vodafone Group Foundation’s Instant Satellite Network for post disaster relief to organizations like Online SOS to help survivors of online stalking, we are good at leveraging the very best of technology to help people.
I believe we were one of the first to align our foundation’s strategy with the company’s know how. Our mission has always centered around fostering change in global and local communities through connected solutions. In doing so, we’ve seen the true impact of technology in tackling some of the world’s biggest issues. Over the past few years, we embarked on a new journey to transform the Vodafone Americas Foundation to focus on empowering women and girls through technology. Not only do we aid communities in need, but we also encourage and support our employees around the country to make an impact in their communities.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve had the pleasure of closely working with so many organizations that are entirely committed to social impact and technology for good.
In fact, right now, we’re working with organizations that recently won an award from us, through MIT Solve, an initiative from MIT whose mission is to solve world challenges by supporting social impact innovation. Each year MIT Solve hosts innovative global challenges to find tech-based social entrepreneurs around the world. For the past two years, we’ve partnered with them to create the Vodafone Americas Foundation Innovation for Women Prize — where we award and support organizations that epitomize the solutions, we champion in using technology to empower the lives of women and girls. Those impressive organizations include:
- Maisha improves postpartum depression treatment in Africa through standardized screening practices.
- Cascade of Learning is transforming learning for women and girls in rural communities with the power of technology and social capital.
- D2 is creating opportunities for unemployed Bangladeshi youth by providing access to meaningful work online.
We’re also proud of our partnership with organizations that use technology to save lives as well as open doors to life changes; for example, our partnership with organizations that work to help survivors of relationship violence like Tahirih, Online SOS, and National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). We partner with organizations with out of the box thinking like Nomi Networks that use mobile to train survivors of human trafficking.
Very recently we started working with an employee support organization, Empower Work. Empower Work is on a mission to create healthy workspaces where people are supported, valued, and (just as their name suggests) empowered! The organization is helping to ensure that working people, women — with some of the most challenging and limiting circumstances — have the support, information, and tools to navigate complex work challenges — leveraging the best of real human connection and technology. With the current world condition, this kind of technology becomes key for the working people of today.
Specifically, with the support of the Foundation, Empower Work is looking closer at this incredible data they have from thousands of conversations with their “texters” and putting this dataset in a new infrastructure and environment to inform an approach that can help so many others. Empower Work is developing a new operational dashboard to better understand this data and answer key questions to help us continue to improve outcomes for texters and for volunteers. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Empower Work accomplishes with this interactive operational dashboard by the end of the year, and how it’ll help answer key questions to inform larger support for women.
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?
In the past decade, we’ve seen some great momentum in diversifying STEM fields to create a more inclusive environment for people of all different backgrounds. Despite these efforts for progress, there is still much work to be done. We know that technology and engineering will be the most important and sought-after skills, yet, there is still a gender gap in the field across the world. The gap begins well before women even enter the workforce. It starts with education and exposing girls to technology at a young age and supporting their interest in STEM throughout their educational careers.
Shoring up STEM education for girls is extremely important to create the pipeline for them to enter into the engineering field, however, much more is needed to sustain their interest in the field and create an inclusive, welcoming and supportive environment to continue through college and early on in their careers. Studies have shown that as girls and young women enter the field, they do not stay it in for long.
Organizations like Technovation, a global tech education nonprofit that empowers girls to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers, have found through their work that girls need mentorship but also holistic support from their parents and siblings. Technovation also provides unique challenges for young girls from all over the world to apply the skills needed to solve real-world problems through technology. Challenges like these coupled with programs that support their interest in technology are all steps in the right direction to help girls stay the course through STEM and beyond.
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 addressing this?
In my opinion, the three biggest challenges faced by women in STEM are:
- Funding for female startups. Reports show that only 2.7% of venture capital dollars went towards female-founded companies in 2019, which is not an accurate depiction of the successful female owned startups out there. There are other avenues to find funding, but the lack of diversity and equal opportunity needs to be addressed and changed
- Equality in hiring or promotion to leadership roles. Only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the S&P 500 companies are women. Furthermore, women currently hold 32 (6.4%) of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.
- Lastly, comfortable and safe working environments. Not only do women face the challenge of being seen as an equal in the workplace, they also face harassment at much higher rates. In fact, according to Inc., approximately 54% of women report workplace harassment. Women need to feel comfortable, safe and not afraid of speaking up at work.
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.)
Five lessons I’ve learned as a woman in technology are:
- If you’re in a tough position, don’t give up: this happens not just in STEM but at work in general. If you feel cornered in a work situation, don’t give up! Communication is key and it’s important to stand strong in what you believe in. Take a deep breath, keep calm and state your case. If at the end of the discussion, the team chooses to go in a different direction, always know that there will be other opportunities, other assignments, and other projects.
- Don’t be shy to collect your accolades: Believe in yourself and your abilities. If people compliment your work or skills, accept the compliments and believe it. If you don’t believe you have it in you, no one else will, and you won’t be able to help others on the roads ahead.
- You don’t have to have all the answers: As women, we tend to think we need to have all of our ducks in a row or we need to know everything in order to enter the race, whether it be a project or any work initiative. On the contrary, men generally don’t feel that way, and neither should we. It’s important to remember you don’t always have to be way over prepared. If there is a chance to participate in something at work or jump on an opportunity, go for it and do the best you can to prepare but don’t fret about not being over prepared. Trust your instincts and your knowledge. You know it, you can do it.
- Branch out, ask for help: I’m not an engineer, but there are a lot of engineering skills that would be beneficial for me to know for my work. While it’d be helpful if I had some formal training, I’ve also found that I can learn a lot from my peers and that has helped me a lot throughout my career. If I ran into difficulties or complexities, I was always able to rely on friendly coworkers in the engineering department to take the time and explain it to me. It always benefits to ask for help.
- Don’t be limited by your idea of STEM. STEM doesn’t always come in white lab coats or require you to be a coder. I find that there are multitudes of opportunity in STEM and the world is your oyster. My work — especially when running Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project — to find incredible wireless solutions from around the world, introduced me to “out of the box” thinkers and entrepreneurs who used their skills and knowledge in STEM to create jobs, follow the distribution of vaccines, provide banking for the unbanked, save elephants, save lives through the camera phone by detecting cancer and of course last but not least, create clean toilets. The opportunities are endless, and there is always room to create your own opportunities based on what you’re interested in. Use that to your advantage!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Inspiration can be found from unlikely places. Look around, observe and listen. This may be subtle but big things come from little findings. For example, in your next meeting take note — are you the only female amongst the group, do you have a chance to speak, do others speak over you? By noticing these little subtleties, you can start making changes as a leader or even a participant.
It’s also important to ask questions and ask for help when needed. Don’t hold back. What do you have to lose? If someone says no, then next you ask someone else. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help.
Always make time to help your peers and teammates. Personally, I find it beneficial to use my resources to connect people, rather than just give advice. For example, introducing our nonprofit partners utilizing technologies so effectively to help people, to incubators like FastForward or competitions like MIT Solve is one of my favorite things to do. I feel that as leaders, you’re privy to lots of information and a different overall view. It allows you to share them and provide different perspectives.
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 two individuals who are key to my life and work.
Dianne Omi, a long-time program manager I met at the California Endowment. When I first met her, she was very experienced in the field of health equity and justice. Everyone respected her for her work and truly the passion and care she had for the people of the community she served. I met her at a large philanthropy conference back when I was very new to the philanthropic space. People were stopping right and left to talk to her. I was amazed by how many people admired her and her work. When I was introduced to Dianne, she knew I was new to the field, so she took the time to introduce me to all of her colleagues and peers and made me feel welcomed in any space. We are good friends to this day and I still ask her for advice often.
When a colleague introduced me to Deb Levine, they were so surprised that I’d not met her. She was described as an expert in tech for health. Now knowing her, that description is nowhere near what she really is. I consider her a pioneer of tech for health, especially in her outreach to young people. I know many people agree with me. She was the founder of YTH an organization that used SMS texting to reach out to thousands of youth with information on sex and sexuality. She’s been a thought leader at the intersection of technology and health behavior change since creating Go Ask Alice at Columbia University. She harnessed the power of the internet and mobile early on to provide information to save lives. I traveled with her to Washington, DC when she was recognized by the State for creating the Circle of Six, a mobile app for college-aged students to stay safe and prevent violence before it happens. It was a proud moment to see her on stage with the Vice President and Attorney General amongst other leaders. She’s a rock in the tech health field for young people.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In my many years of experience within corporate philanthropy and my work with the foundation, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with so many inspiring founders from various nonprofits and organizations who believe in using technology for good to combat societal and global issues. I love learning about the innovative ways in which these nonprofits have leveraged technology to address the immediate needs of their community. The most rewarding part of my job is sitting down with these organizations and nonprofits to provide them with options to best position themselves externally. Like I mentioned previously, whether it’s connecting people, reviewing a presentation deck or providing feedback to enhance and strengthen their messaging, I utilize my knowledge of the industry and experience to best service these nonprofits that are positively impacting the world by making it a better and more sustainable place.
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.
Now in this time of Covid, we’ve learned the value of togetherness, which has remained very top of mind for me. We can no longer gather as a community for a festival to hear music, or see art, or collaborate as a team. But what we have found is that we can still find a way to be together virtually — and with that, we could actually have a larger gathering than an in person gathering. We could have a virtual world-wide festival showing that “We are the World,” where everyone is able to see and listen at the same time, in a moment of global unity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the wise words of author and poet Drishti Bablani, “Never underestimate the empowering effect of human connection. All you need is that one person, who understands you completely, believes in you and makes you feel loved for what you are, to enable you — to unfold the miraculous YOU.”
Those of us in the technology sector often speak in terms of products or gadgets and measure in millions and thousands. We tend to forget that there are human beings at the end of these products and gadgets and that it’s important to think about the person. We need to remember that the passion lies in
Many times, I’ve listened to presentations from applicants who’ve created their solutions to “help people,” yet they never spoke to the actual people or included them in designing and creating the product. These products often take more time to develop or don’t even enter the market at all. On the other hand, the solutions created by entrepreneurs who’ve spent time amongst the people who they are creating solutions for, have succeeded immensely and are currently helping millions of lives.
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.
The prominent person whom I mostly admire would like to sit down with unfortunately has already passed away. Her name is Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American artist who exhibited around the world but most intimately around San Francisco with her sculptures at Union Square and Japantown. An advocate for arts education, she worked tirelessly to support programs for children. She’s the co-founder of the Alvarado Arts Workshop for children, which has become the model for the federally funded CETA program. Her work might not be directly related to technology, but it does relate to passion and empowerment of people, especially children. I believe creative thinking and the arts go hand in hand with science. She is a pioneer in creative out of the box thinking as depicted in her life-sized woven sculptures installed in many museums around the world. I would’ve loved to explore her creative mind. If you haven’t checked out her work, I highly encourage you to do so. As I mentioned earlier, we always draw inspiration from unlikely places.