‘It is a myth that there is a fixed female leadership “quota” you need to fight to get access to’, With Penny Bauder & Dr. Alessandra Costa

For my fellow women: Think “plenty”. The success of women around us is not to our detriment and does not ruin our odds of being recognized. There isn’t a fixed female leadership “quota” you need to fight to get access to. Abandon the idea of scarcity because the need for leaders in any field — […]

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For my fellow women: Think “plenty”. The success of women around us is not to our detriment and does not ruin our odds of being recognized. There isn’t a fixed female leadership “quota” you need to fight to get access to. Abandon the idea of scarcity because the need for leaders in any field — politics, tech, community — is endless. And cherish women who make it big because they are paving the way for the normalization of female ascendancy. So, support your deserving, fellow women regardless of whether they are your peers, your team members, your leaders, or young women just peeking at the adult world. Help create career opportunities for them, mentor junior team members, tutor students and encourage them to dream big. And embrace the culture of plenty.

As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alessandra Costa, vice president of North America Field Engineering at Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

Dr. Alessandra Costa is a technology leader who has a deep understanding of business and a keen eye for innovation and operational excellence. As the vice president of North America Field Engineering for Cadence Design Systems, Inc., she and her team are responsible for the deployment and support of Cadence tools and solutions for semiconductor industry customers. During her long career with the company, Alessandra has held instrumental leadership roles, both in sales and in R&D, where she influenced software development and new product launches that drove revenue growth, customer success, and overall organizational effectiveness. She has a proven ability for building global organizations from the ground up, where she has successfully scaled the business and worked to create value to maintain high margins. A strong advocate and supporter of diversity in technology, Alessandra founded the Cadence Women of Worldwide Field Operations program to attract, retain and promote female talent in sales as well as the broader Cadence organization. As part of this effort, she created female leadership programs, including an official mentorship program. Under the Women of Worldwide Field Operations umbrella, Alessandra also developed a series of leadership workshops that she has delivered inside and outside of Cadence.

Alessandra is the chairman of the board of directors of the local chapter of AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization), an association that allows more than a thousand kids to play soccer in a nurturing environment. To boost the chapter’s economic sustainability, she drove the creation of the Annual Operating Plan (AOP) and reorganized the chapter’s finances. Alessandra holds an MSEE and a PhD in microelectronics from the University of Genoa.

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

Ichose to pursue a career in engineering because I was fascinated by technology and intrigued by the challenges that came with a rigorous course curriculum. The fact that my father was an electrical engineer played a role, too. Recently, I realized that his job was a precursor to what we know of today as an application engineer. I find it curious that I ended up managing a large, technical team, similar to what my father had done. As an avid reader of psychology literature, the fact that my professional life has come full circle isn’t lost on me!

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

I started my electrical engineering career in Italy, and one of my earliest memories at Cadence Design Systems, Inc. was an engagement I had with a very prominent Italian customer. I was staying in a hotel on business and having breakfast, and I ended up having a conversation with another gentleman there, who was also in town on business. After breakfast, I jumped in my car to drive to my business meeting, parked and walked into the lobby, and I bumped into the gentleman I spoke with at breakfast. It turned out that gentleman was the CEO of the company! There weren’t many female engineers at the time, and he didn’t realize I was an engineer. Oddly enough, I was there to train his team on how to use our software! And, clearly, I had no idea he was the CEO. We were both quite amused by the experience, and it’s one I won’t ever forget.

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?

Early in my career, I moved from Italy to the U.S. When I arrived, I learned that our U.S. office had strict requirements to ensure that the building remained secure at all times. As part of the security initiative, employees were not allowed to let others into the building who didn’t carry a company badge. One day, I got to the office around 7 a.m., which is early for Silicon Valley, and I had someone follow me toward the main building. The person said that he had forgotten his badge, and to comply with company procedure, I told him I could not let him in the building and would need to call security to verify his employment. What was funny is that the person was part of our executive management team! While I followed company procedure, I also learned a valuable lesson in that it’s important to know your management team. So, for engineers, not only do you need to be tech savvy, but you need to be organization and business savvy.

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

Although Cadence is a medium-sized enterprise, management is very willing to provide employees with plenty of room for mobility within the organization. My experience at the company is a prime example of this. I started in our Italian office in Milan as an individual contributor, and in that role, I had the opportunity to interact with several employees in the U.S., both remotely and when they visited our office in person. This is how I got to meet the person who would later offer me a position in the Cadence R&D department in the U.S. My European management was very supportive of my career growth, and, ultimately, of my move to the U.S. Since the relocation, I’ve had the opportunity to move into various roles in our R&D and worldwide field operations departments, climbing the ranks and managing teams. I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to switch roles because it has allowed me to see our business through different lenses.

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

I’ve just launched a pilot “returnship” program at Cadence, which I’m really excited about. We’re proactively seeking people who have had to leave their jobs for an extended period of time for caregiving reasons. This paid program lets people ease back into the workforce, giving them access to on-the-job training, job shadowing and opportunities to get in front of customers. I’m proud of this effort because it provides us with a new way to tap into talent while giving program participants a second chance at achieving their career goals. I see it as a win-win.

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?

There is certainly progress with women pursuing STEM-related fields, but there is still plenty of room to grow. The electrical engineering field, in particular, still has a very low percentage of women.

The key to changing the status quo is to break gender stereotypes and engage girls in STEM at a very young age. It starts in early childhood with everyday items like clothing and toys, for instance. Toys geared toward boys often have often some kind of “engineering” aspect to them, where they build, create and solve problems. Toys and activities geared toward girls are more focused on role-playing and becoming caregivers. I find this limiting, both for the boys and the girls. By the time kids are in primary school, girls often feel left behind and lose interest in pursuing technical interests.

To drive change, we at Cadence are heavily involved with a non-profit organization called Girls Who Code, where high-school-aged girls have an opportunity to spend a summer on our campus learning various coding programs and collaborating on a team project, which they showcase at the program graduation. Girls who participate in this program come from a variety of technical skill levels — some have been participating in STEM for several years, while others have never had any kind of exposure to STEM at all. This program helps girls expand upon their pre-existing passion for technology or uncover a brand-new passion. All this is done in a very safe and nonjudgmental environment where everybody gets to contribute and grow.

In the workplace, we’ve historically seen a significant drop in the percentage of women in mid- to senior-level roles, especially once they’ve started a family. Part of the reason for this drop-off is due to the wage gap between genders. Pay inequality makes it more common for women to take a break when child or elder care requirements come into the picture. Companies need to do the right thing and address the pay gap to keep women in the workforce.

Additionally, returning to work after a long break can be quite challenging, especially for people in a technical career, where trends shift very quickly. Companies really need to get creative when it comes to child and elder care. For example, Cadence offers a concierge service that helps employees find caregiving resources when they find themselves in a pinch.

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 are several challenges that women in STEM regularly face, but the good news is that there are also solutions. Some examples of the challenges and solutions include:

Being in the minority: I’ve been in countless meetings where the women are outnumbered by at least 3:1. And, oftentimes, I’m the only woman in the room. Although the atmosphere in the Valley is very friendly, women need to feel confident in the value they bring even when they are underrepresented in terms of numbers. To gain a confidence boost despite being in the minority, women need to seek great mentors, continue learning, and showcase the great work that makes them stand out without hesitating.

Finding your own voice and being comfortable with it: There’s no denying that stereotypes still exist with regard to what’s considered “good” or “culturally acceptable” female behavior in the workplace, and these behaviors are still tightly associated with success. How can a woman be decisive but not bossy, passionate but not emotional, and kind but not weak? It is a very tight rope women find themselves walking on, and I call that tight rope “the Unicorn Quest”, which consists of yearning for something that does not exist. Embracing your own individuality and using your own unique way of looking at things is the only way out of a minefield of self-doubt.

Seeing imperfections as limitations: Kintsugi is a Japanese art form where practitioners repair broken pottery with gold. The final, imperfect result has much more charm than the original, intact piece. Having the ability to embrace imperfections is fundamental to achieving a successful, rewarding career. Unfortunately, women can be overly critical of themselves — more so than their male counterparts — which sometimes prevents them from thinking big and moving ahead. Rather than viewing imperfections as a limitation, women need to focus on their strengths because those strengths have the potential to move the needle and drive their career forward.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Some of the “myths” that need to be dispelled with regard to women in STEM or tech include:

Scarcity. For my fellow women: Think “plenty”. The success of women around us is not to our detriment and does not ruin our odds of being recognized. There isn’t a fixed female leadership “quota” you need to fight to get access to. Abandon the idea of scarcity because the need for leaders in any field — politics, tech, community — is endless. And cherish women who make it big because they are paving the way for the normalization of female ascendancy. So, support your deserving, fellow women regardless of whether they are your peers, your team members, your leaders, or young women just peeking at the adult world. Help create career opportunities for them, mentor junior team members, tutor students and encourage them to dream big. And embrace the culture of plenty.

No need to turn into “Ms. Hyde”. There is no need to invent a different persona to be successful at work, and you don’t have to mimic your fellow male coworkers either. Embrace personality traits that are yours. The secret to succeeding is finding a job and a company that’s a good fit. Don’t feel pressured to continue in a quest if a certain job just does not feel right.

The drama myth. I find the stereotypical perception that women enjoy drama offensive and quite untrue. My experience interacting with other women leaders has been a very positive one. I have always felt I could have direct conversations, cut through fluff and quickly reach an agreement, even in the presence of conflicting interests.

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) Set priorities that are in alignment with the broader organization. Knowing what your leadership team cares about, starting with your manager and going all the way up to the CEO is of pivotal importance. It helps you to stay focused on what matters and steers you away from “science projects”, giving you the shortest path to relevance and recognition. So, regardless of gender, we should all take time to understand the priorities of the leadership team and the future direction of the companies we work for.

2) Know what’s important to your customers. Whether your role interfaces with the outside world or is more internally facing, we all have customers to serve. And you’d better know what their priorities are. Dedicating time to understand what drives those using your services or buying your products increases both your personal success and that of the company you work for.

3) Get up from your desk! Now! No matter how great we are at what we do, people often make decisions based on relationships. Therefore, building a network of advocates inside and outside the teams and companies we work for deepens our understanding of the organization and increases our chances of seizing opportunities.

4) Take the time to prepare for meetings. We’re all bombarded daily with emails and meeting requests. Make time to look at your schedule ahead of time and be prepared to discuss the topics at hand for each meeting you have. Look at the list of people invited and don’t hesitate to ask for more information. Last, but not least, it’s okay to use the “decline” button if you feel there is no value for you to attend.

5) Don’t be afraid to have conversations about career development. Career conversations are useful for both managers and employees alike. Shying away from career conversations is one of the worst mistakes when managing a team. Although sometimes uncomfortable, career conversations allow managers and employees to align expectations and prevent trouble from brewing. Looking back, I only have regrets about the career conversations I didn’t have!

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

I would advise other female leaders to do the following in order to thrive:

Focus on creating a personal brand. Companies spend a considerable amount of money to build a brand. Branding creates trust, inspiration, customer loyalty and, ultimately, financial value. The same branding concepts apply to people. Creating a personal brand is a great way to be recognized and remembered. I often advise people I mentor to create a mini press release about themselves that they can leverage each time they introduce themselves, especially when meeting upper management. I encourage them to steer clear of acronyms and “team dialects”, and instead focus on the value they bring to the group and the company.

Don’t be afraid of conflict. Welcome disagreement and view it as an opportunity to change your mind in favor of a better idea. It took me a while not to have a knee-jerk reaction of discomfort when my ideas were challenged. I’ve learned that the outcome is liberating as the barriers of pride crumble in favor of a culture striving for the highest level of performance.

Reach out to individual contributors to get a pulse on what’s happening within various organizations in the business. A solid management structure allows you to scale your ability to operate with agility. However, no matter how complex or deep the hierarchy is, I feel strongly about having direct connections with individual contributors within the organization. I personally enjoy skip-level 1:1s as a way to get to know my broader team better and for them to know what I stand for.

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

There are two pieces of advice I’d give to female leaders managing a large team:

1) Build a strong leadership team and make sure that your leadership team does the same. The secret to effectiveness is to surround yourself with people you can consistently rely on to do the right thing. That includes challenging the perspectives of your direct team, their employees and even your own.

2) Be transparent and create equity within your organization. Whenever possible, be transparent and build a culture of equity even when decisions are challenging. Being able to articulate reasons behind the decision-making process motivates others to do the same. Leading by example is the only way to be followed.

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?

I’m very fortunate to have two people who made a strong impact on my career. The first person who helped me get to where I am today is my first U.S.-based manager. When I initially met him, I was an application engineer in Italy, and he wanted me to join his team in the U.S. He had to go against the grain to make the transfer happen, and it was a very challenging process for him. He won the battle, and when I moved to the U.S., new doors started opening for me. I was able to join the R&D ranks where I honed my software skills, and I learned a lot.

After working in R&D, I joined the sales organization in a technical role, and I got to know the second person who made an impact on my career. That person is the highest-ranking person in our sales organization. When I met him, I wasn’t even tied to his reporting structure. He naturally has a passion to motivate people to thrive, and he allocates time to do this. We started chatting one day, and that became the first of a long series of mentoring sessions. I’ve always appreciated his radical candor and the perspective he brings to the conversation with regard to the company’s bottom line. He really enabled me to debunk several myths I had about career development and finding pathways to success.

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

Giving back is a huge priority for me, and it’s been an amazing experience to work for a company that shares my passion for making a positive impact in the community. I pioneered the “returnship” program at Cadence to get people back into the workforce who took an extensive break to provide care for their families. Additionally, I created our Women of Worldwide Field Operations program, an initiative focused on growing and promoting the female talent in Cadence. I strongly believe in mentorship, and I mentor several people inside and outside of my organization. I like helping others discover what makes them happy so they can reach their full potential for greatness. Lastly, my organization does a lot of volunteer work with organizations like Resources for Teachers and Habitat for Humanity. Volunteering as a team brings us closer together while supporting important causes.

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’m passionate about personal branding, and I’d like to see a movement called, “The Woman Behind the Brand”, which would be dedicated to helping women establish a positive professional reputation. Women have a unique opportunity to bring fresh viewpoints to the workplace, and with diversity, comes strength. The more women learn to position their strengths and leverage them, the more power they will have to push their organization beyond its limits and boost their own careers.

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

Rather than sharing a quote, I’d like to highlight a greeting that has made an impact on my life. The greeting I like is, “Namaste”, and it’s not just because I’m a certified yoga instructor! Namaste translates into, “I bow to the greatness in you”. I believe there is greatness in each one of us, and I try to live my life in alignment with this principle. It’s important that we work together to lift one another up so we can collectively reach our full potential.

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 would love to have a meal with Marc Benioff, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Salesforce. He’s very much a servant leader, and I admire that leadership style. He’s a proponent of diversity and inclusion in his organization, and externally, he’s committed to giving back to the community. He’s a great role model for his team, for aspiring CEOs and for humankind in general.

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