“It is a myth that the environment will always be hostile towards women” With Penny Bauder & Britt Skolovy

A big myth is that you need to be “technical,” but there are lots of opportunities in tech that don’t involve coding: Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development, just to name a few. Unfortunately, the gender disparity also exists in those non-technical roles. Companies need to get the word out to talented women — […]

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A big myth is that you need to be “technical,” but there are lots of opportunities in tech that don’t involve coding: Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development, just to name a few. Unfortunately, the gender disparity also exists in those non-technical roles. Companies need to get the word out to talented women — and show them that they’ve created a safe, diverse environment. Another myth is that the environment will always be hostile towards women. There are organizations that foster respect and leaders that champion diverse workplaces and policies that support traditionally marginalized groups.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Britt Skolovy. Britt is the Chief Growth Officer at Kinzoo, an early-stage kidtech startup. She is a senior product leader who champions cohesive strategy and fulfills customer needs in a collaborative, insightful way. She currently oversees product and marketing to deliver against Kinzoo’s vision: to be the most-trusted brand for incorporating technology into our children’s lives. Previously, Britt has driven ecommerce and consumer product growth for Aritzia, Kit & Ace and TELUS.

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

Myfirst professional gig was with a process team at a large telecom company. We started working on a project that included a technology component — and I jumped at the opportunity to lead that initiative. I had no experience with software, but after working alongside a talented development team, I was hooked. I’ve held roles in eCommerce across Digital Marketing, Product Management and Delivery. Together, these roles represent the lifecycle of how customers discover, perceive and interact with your product. Most recently, I joined a tech startup called Kinzoo. I knew it would be an amazing opportunity to build something from the ground up — not only a product, but a community and a team.

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

Part of the challenge in building our product was creating a system for connecting families that was safe and secure for kids — but still user friendly. We had a lot of ideas for how to approach this: we’d land on a solution, show it to parents and realize it was clunky or had too much friction. And then we’d go back to the drawing board. We ended up revisiting this workflow many, many times (and it’s likely there will be more iterations to come). Creating products forces you to be humble and assume your best ideas may not be that great after all. The challenge is to feel energized, not defeated, when you find insights in failure.

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?

When you’re a startup and you’re first setting up your office, it can feel like IKEA is your second home. We borrowed two massive trucks and filled them up with desks, couches, lamps — the works — and we’d spend the weekend building. Finally, after our fourth trip back for more furniture, we decided to enlist the help of a master builder to put it together for us. He accomplished in hours what was taking us days!

As a Product Manager, you learn very quickly that no task is beneath you, whether that’s listening to customer phone calls or triaging a bug. But in this case, getting help was the right call. Building a startup really means building everything — but you don’t need to do it all by yourself!

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

It’s challenging to enter the kidtech space because your key users (kids) aren’t actually your customers. And, most business models intended for adult users are not well-suited to kids. Every day we grapple with how to build the best possible products that’ll delight kids and be valuable for their parents. We know we can only accomplish this if we do research with families and learn directly from them. It’s important to me that kids know how much their opinions matter to us. We knew we were on the right track when one of the kids we were testing with gave us a hug and asked if he could meet with us again. This was significant because it showed me that we were taking steps to understand our users — and also building meaningful connections along the way.

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

We’re in the process of launching our first product — a kid-safe messenger for families. We think it’s important that kids and parents have better, more secure technology at their disposal because kids are spending more and more time with screens. And their introduction to tech is happening earlier and earlier.

For many parents though, screen time is a huge question mark. They’re understandably concerned about online safety and protecting their kids’ mental health, and there aren’t a lot of high-quality products and apps for kids. We strive to empower parents to give their kids the best of technology, without exposure to the worst of it.

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?

While we’ve made progress, I am not satisfied with the status quo because we still don’t have equality in the tech sector. A good way to start addressing this is to encourage young women to be interested — and confident — in STEM subjects. I remember being told that I was not good at math. And when I struggled with a concept, it only reinforced my belief that I was not good at it — and I stayed away from math courses in high school. So when I had to tackle calculus and statistics in business school, I was surprised that I was able to earn strong grades in the courses — simply by working as hard as I did on other subjects. This was eye-opening for me. It turns out that I’m not actually bad at math.

But, encouraging women to study STEM is only the beginning. Of men with STEM degrees, 40% work in technical careers, while only 26% of women with STEM degrees do. Qualified women are falling out of the funnel before they even enter the workforce. What we need to see is an honest commitment to diversity in the workplace. This needs to be a key objective, supported by specific decisions and tactics during recruitment and hiring. And this extends to AI and algorithms that can be biased against women due to the dominance of men in the field.

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?

Women in the tech field are significantly more likely to leave than men. In my opinion, unequal treatment at work and the lack of women in senior leadership positions can create an atmosphere where women feel they don’t belong.

Recently, I went to dinner with several women in senior product roles and it was eye-opening to hear that we each had at least one story about sexism in the workplace. Many were blatant situations, like marital status being brought up in promotion evaluations. And, we didn’t even begin to touch on the issues of unconscious bias, which can create what Emily Chang calls a “brotopia” culture in some tech companies.

I believe we need more role models. Female leaders are poorly represented at the top of the largest corporations and fare even worse in growing public tech companies. In order to see meaningful change, we need to address the two distinct barriers that lead to a cycle of gender disparity: women feel like they don’t belong in the tech industry, so fewer are applying in the first place. And, for the women who do start careers in technology, they’re more likely to leave the industry altogether.

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 big myth is that you need to be “technical,” but there are lots of opportunities in tech that don’t involve coding: Sales, Marketing, Product Management and Business Development, just to name a few. Unfortunately, the gender disparity also exists in those non-technical roles. Companies need to get the word out to talented women — and show them that they’ve created a safe, diverse environment.

Another myth is that the environment will always be hostile towards women. There are organizations that foster respect and leaders that champion diverse workplaces and policies that support traditionally marginalized groups. Netflix, for example, offers a year of unlimited parental leave to its employees, while Slack is making a concerted effort not just to hire women, but to hire minorities and LGBTQ2+ people.

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.)

  1. Recognize your unique contribution. There have been times when I wished I had come to Product Management with a background in Engineering or Computer Science. But, I’ll never forget a developer I respect telling me, “You’re great at what you do.” This helped me realize we need all types of people to build great products. You can always learn more, but playing to your strengths is where you’ll add the most value.
  2. Communicate your goals. I’ve been fortunate to have many male leaders, colleagues or peers who have advocated for me and encouraged me to pursue opportunities that I thought were out of reach. But first, you have to share what you love and what you want to achieve.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be visible or bold. This is something I am still working on. It’s not easy to overcome negative self-talk and the fear of others’ perceptions. But, with the statistics painting a dire picture, seeing and relating to other women is more important than ever.
  4. Build a Personal Board of Directors. As I discovered my love of technology, I had a very supportive colleague and mentor who encouraged me to pursue Product Management. Erin introduced me to the concept of a “Personal Board of Directors” and taught me to understand my value, to negotiate my salary and to evaluate potential career options. I hope to spread her impact by being as much of a cheerleader for other women as she was — and continues to be — for me.
  5. Find a place to work that aligns with your values. You will show up differently if you have a passion for the work, the team and the problem you are trying to solve.

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

Diversity is crucial. Having different perspectives will help you build better products, and even lead to a better financial performance. As more research is done on the true impact of diversity, we’re realizing being inclusive isn’t just the “right thing to do,” it also makes sense from a business and financial perspective. According to a recent study, companies with more ethnic and cultural diversity on executive teams are 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. And this goes beyond gender; blind spots, biases and assumptions are more likely to occur in a homogenous room, so encourage each person to bring their authentic selves to work.

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

I don’t believe there is one “best way” to manage a team — they’re all unique. I would tell each leader to build on the skills that make them unique and to find talented people with complementary capabilities. But with that said, all leaders can practice flexibility, humility and a willingness to learn.

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 husband tells me that I can do anything. It’s special to have someone create a wide-open canvas for you to paint your future. He has shown unconditional support time and again by doing things like taking on more than his fair share of household responsibilities so I can hit a deadline or encouraging me to trust my judgement when navigating difficult decisions. We believe in building a foundation of equality, and I’m so appreciative to have a partner where that’s a given.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think the little moments of support matter. When a woman I know lands an important interview, career breakthrough or salary negotiation, I want to be the one she reaches out to. Given women still make less than men for the same work, these conversations couldn’t be more critical. So, I prioritize those informal coffee meetings, Slack conversations and phone calls because I want to help other women they way my mentors have helped me.

I believe we all have an important perspective to share — regardless of how successful we’ve been by traditional definitions. As women, we tend to see the worth in friends or colleagues more readily than in ourselves. According to a study from the University of Texas, women ask for $7,000 less than their male counterparts in job interviews. But when those same women are negotiating on behalf of a friend or colleague, they asked for as much as men. Sometimes it’s the external perspective that gives us the boost we need to negotiate — so I always go out of my way to be that cheerleader for other women.

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’ve always ascribed to an inclusive definition of the word “family.” For me, family isn’t a nuclear concept. It includes all the people in your life who want you in theirs and the ones who accept you for who you are, whether they’re blood relatives or not. I’d love to see us expand the meaning of family — and embrace all the different kinds of families out there.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quotable life lesson comes from my grandma. She used to open the blinds and say, “Let’s shed some light on the situation.” While she intended this as some lighthearted fun, it stuck with me for a couple of reasons. First, pulling back the blinds (figuratively) and challenge your own assumptions helps you better understand a problem. You need to be open-minded and curious to innovate — and this is a lesson I apply to my work in Product Management. Second, I’ve always admired people who find the positives and can illuminate a new perspective — even in the most challenging situations.

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 🙂

Melinda Gates. She learned how to program in high school and earned her Bachelors in Computer Science and MBA from Duke in just five years. It’s an understatement to say she’s incredibly smart!

She has first-hand experience climbing the ladder in a male-dominated industry and approaches problems from the human perspective. I love how she has used her gift in such a variety of ways (as an author, as the co-founder of a non-profit, as a public speaker) not only to inspire conversation, but to drive change. She understands her power to make an impact at the smallest and largest scale, which is something I admire.

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