Taniya Mishra of SureStart: “Women are not technical”

The representation of women in STEM has hardly budged in the last two decades. Less than 25 percent of the tech workforce is female, even though half the market using the products is. At the leadership level, it is even worse. Just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women! […]

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The representation of women in STEM has hardly budged in the last two decades. Less than 25 percent of the tech workforce is female, even though half the market using the products is. At the leadership level, it is even worse. Just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women! This lack of gender-diversity in the tech workforce has perpetuated biased solutions that are harmful to women, communities of color, and regularly penalize already marginalized populations.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Taniya Mishra, PhD, CEO and Founder of SureStart.

Dr. Taniya Mishra is the Founder and CEO of SureStart. She has been an AI scientist for over 10 years, with many peer-reviewed articles, 48 awarded patents, and featured press articles in MIT Technology Review, NBC Learn and The Atlantic.

Taniya is deeply passionate about increasing AI workforce diversity through opportunity equity. This passion led her to create Affectiva’s very popular EMPath AI training program while serving as Affectiva’s Director of AI Research. Now through SureStart, Taniya’s goal is to make this same type of program available to other innovative AI companies who prioritize DEI, so that together they can raise up a new generation of diverse young tech talent.

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

For background, I am the CEO and Founder of SureStart. Our mission is to build early opportunity pipelines for a highly diverse tech workforce through technical skills training and project-based learning.

When I consider where I am in my career today as a machine learning scientist and now an entrepreneur, I know that it is in no small part because of the many mentors I have had.

I was lucky to meet my first real mentor at age 20, right at the beginning of my career: Professor Ann Smith. Ann encouraged me to take my first step into Computer Science, undaunted by the fact that not only did I not know anything about computing, but that I had not even seen a computer until a few weeks before! She took a chance on my grit and ambition.

She not only taught me computing and coding but she helped me build confidence in my skills and belief in dreams. She consistently supported me, made me aware of career-changing opportunities, and repeatedly amplified my voice. Consistently. Everyday for four years.

Now it is my turn to do the same: to mentor, support and amplify the young people, the new leaders of tomorrow!

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

The most interesting thing that has happened to me since I started SureStart is the support I have received from friends, co-workers, acquaintances and the broader tech and AI community. They seem to really resonate with the mission of SureStart to open doors for the young people interested in tech and AI. I think the stories, the faces, the eagerness of the young students who are part of the SureStart family, brings to mind that person — persons — who made each of us realize our true potential; the one who championed us while we traversed the path towards academic or professional success. Our mentor. So now people see it as their turn to be that person for someone else, and that’s exactly what we’re doing at SureStart.

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

In my mind, what makes SureStart stand out is that it brings together the best of online and in-person learning. Our programs are entirely virtual so that people from anywhere in the world can join. But you don’t have to learn alone. Learning happens best with community support. So we intentionally build in several touch-points of human connection for every student, during every day of the program: with mentors, with peers, with industry experts.

This idea of a community of learning and support is core to the SureStart model. This summer, I ran a training cohort at my former workplace, Affectiva, where I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to “incubate” the SureStart model. In that experience, many of the mentors in the program were former mentees of mine. It was particularly heartening to see my first high-school mentee, now a few years later, mentor other students.

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

I am planning a new Spring 2021 AI training cohort, which will bring together a deliberately diverse group of high-school and college students as mentees; grad students and young professionals as mentors; and companies that are committed to developing and nurturing diverse tech talent as partners.

I see it as a win-win-win! The mentees will acquire technical skills; the mentors will acquire mentoring and leadership skills while benefiting from the well-known “protege effect”; and companies will expand their teams’ DEI lens from the ground-up, broadening the perspective of what an engineer, scientist and technologist looks like.

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?

No, I am certainly not satisfied with the status quo. Changing the status quo is one of the reasons that this career scientist decided to jump into entrepreneurship with both feet.

The representation of women in STEM has hardly budged in the last two decades. Less than 25 percent of the tech workforce is female, even though half the market using the products is. At the leadership level, it is even worse. Just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women! This lack of gender-diversity in the tech workforce has perpetuated biased solutions that are harmful to women, communities of color, and regularly penalize already marginalized populations.

To change the status quo, we need more female high-school graduates eligible to pursue STEM majors in college; more female college students majoring in STEM fields, more women launching high-tech careers; and all companies actively focusing on retention of women, so that through career longevity and promotion, women’s share of leadership roles can increase. None of this is new information but I am raising it because it is time for all of us, for each of us, to do the work to make it happen.

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?

Due to the lack of gender-representation in tech, women still don’t fit the normative “template” of what a scientist, engineer or technologist looks like, speaks like, acts like. So unfortunately, I have seen these superficial attributes get in the way of a woman technologist being hired and promoted repeatedly. I have personally experienced it and I have seen other women experience it. It is tiring.

The traditional suggestion would be to tell women to try to change how they look, speak or behave to fit in. But I say no to that. The onus of a narrow perspective lies not on women trying to get hired or promoted but on organizations and the individual decision-makers within them. Companies need to develop strategies to assess unconscious bias at an individual and institutional level, so that hiring and retention strategies put the focus on the skills and ability to do the job rather than the superficial factors.

Hiring and promoting women is not just the equitable thing to do. It is good for business too.

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 myths that I would like to dispel about women in tech:

“Women are not technical”: Now we know that is not true! Female scientists and technologists have made society changing contributions from the beginning of technovation. Grace Hopper, Annie Easley, Radia Perlman, Karen Sparck-Jones and the list goes on. And this trend has continued; women are continuing to contribute to the tech field in resounding and powerful ways. Look at the work by Fei-Fei Li, Timnit Gebru, Julie Shah and once again the list goes on.

There is no gender difference in innate ability. The reason for this myth is lack of representation and societal biases that tend to encourage males to develop technical skills while actively dissuading female children from doing the same.

“Once women have children, they are less productive”: As a woman who has had three children — having the first 6 months after I started my first job as a scientist — I can tell you that no one is more inspired to be productive than moms! We manage our time effectively, we multitask like others breathe, we don’t BS and we work twice as hard because we have twice as many responsibilities. Famous moms who are also data scientists and technologists include Jeanette Wing (Microsoft), Tina Lee (Mother Coders), and Rosalind Picard (MIT, Affectiva and Empatica)!

“Dressing feminine makes you less technical”: In 2010, at my first public press event as a scientist, I was showing off my emotional speech synthesis research work — years before it was commonplace at companies like Google and Amazon. A reporter who was speaking with me suddenly stopped and asked, why I had said “when I built this…”. I didn’t understand the question at first but then to my amazement realized that the reporter was questioning the use of the word, “I.” In the conversation that followed, the reporter explained that she didn’t think that i was the inventor of this technology, but rather the PR professional because I was dressed too stylishly!

How you dress — even in the most stylish outfits — doesn’t impact whether you could code or think technically! What matters is your dedication, inspiration, and encouragement in computing environments!

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.)

  • Stay focused: Focus is an entrepreneur’s most important asset — and it is not easy. I am so fired up about SureStart’s mission that I want to work on a hundred different ideas all at the same time. But the days I get the most done are the days I focus on one most important and one most urgent task. Everything else goes on the to do list.
  • Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back: Like many women, my innate desire is to have 120% of the skills needed for any job I apply for. But my job as a scientist repeatedly brings me face to face with questions that I don’t know the answer to and neither does anyone else. It is often an open research question. So, I just have to try many different approaches and keep trying until I figure it out. Failure is part of the process. Don’t let the fear of something that has not happened keep you from walking towards your big goals. Failure is also a data point. Knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. And finally, getting up after you fall down gives you the confidence to meet your next, perhaps bigger, challenge. Be unafraid of failure. Stay determined.
  • Use your voice: Warren Bennis said “Leadership is about expressing yourself, not proving yourself.” So express yourself. Use your voice. Use it with conviction, emotion and courage. Use your voice to make yourself heard — even when others want to shut you down. Use your voice to share your ideas — even if it is the only one that is different or dissenting; groupthink does not bring about innovation. Use your voice to amplify and empower others, to share your platform and your privilege; we need varied voices around the tech decision-making tables.
  • “Networking” is just getting to know people: We as women are great at building relationships socially. But in professional circles, sometimes we clam up. The word “networking” seems like a big scary thing and I would know. Early in my career, every coffee break at conferences brought on greater stress than defending my thesis. But thanks to some mindset reset, I have started viewing professional networking simply as the collective process of getting to know people in a professional setting. To make it easier, I usually start by noting some questions about the work they may have been presenting and using it to start the conversation, then continue the conversation as any other. After the conversation, I usually follow up with them on LinkedIn or by email to keep the connection. That’s it!
  • “Complete not compete” (Kanika Tolvar): In this age of social media, it is very easy to look at other leaders and feel competitive. But competition, especially the kind that comes from scrolling through social media, is not helpful. It either sucks the energy out of you, or it makes you frantically try to do a million other things outside of your plan or strategy. Both make you lose focus and neither is ultimately productive. So instead, I have adopted this mantra that professional coach Kanika Tolver said, “complete not compete.” Finish your projects and inspire your team to do the same. Yes, sometimes we do have to refine or even pivot. But the reasons for it should be strategy, logic and data, not social media.

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

There are three things that have helped me build cohesive teams, even when we are all remote — which has been my work situation for the last four years, and is the work situation for all of us.

  • Intentionally building your team’s culture. It will not happen on its own and it is hard to retrofit. So from the beginning, create a culture of collaboration, not competition. Research shows that members of the most successful teams take turns, listen to each other, and overall score high on social sensitivity behaviors. Innovation is a team sport.
  • Teams are made of individual people. The most productive work happens when each team-member’s career goals are being furthered as part of meeting the team’s goals and the company’s goals. So take the time to check in with each team member and ensure that there is alignment of goals from top to bottom.
  • And last, always have your team’s back. The first time I meet a new team-member or trainee, I make it a point to tell them I am on their side and that I care about them as people beyond the work that they are doing. Then I show them that at every opportunity. When things go well, I publicly, repeatedly, loudly give them credit. When things go wrong, which it sometimes does in scientific work, I accept the responsibility as the team lead and jump into the thick of it to solve the problem with my team.

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

My advice about managing a large team comes from managing large student and mentor cohorts, consisting of 100 or more people, in person or virtually. And in every scenario, one piece of advice that I have found to work the best is this: Delegate, delegate, delegate.

When you have a large team, you have to delegate. You have to trust your team. When there are many processes and actions happening simultaneously, it can be burdensome to think, plan and do it all on your own. And more importantly, it is not productive, and it is not efficient. Delegating also gives your team room to make decisions, have influence, and feel useful — this inspires people in ways that salary simply does not.

So I try to delegate early before I become a blocker to the overall process. And I try to delegate based on what I think would be meaningful and purposeful to the individuals on my team. That’s the key to large-team management.

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 have already shared the story of how my first mentor in college introduced me to Computer Science, betting more on my dreams, my grit and ambition, instead of being deterred by my lack of prior experience with computing — or even computers!

Another person whose support has been instrumental in setting me on the path I am on today is Rana el Kaliouby. I always had big dreams and a vision for effecting change through service, but I only considered entrepreneurship as a career path after I met Rana. Prior to SureStart, I was the Director of AI Research at Affectiva, a Boston-based AI company. Rana is the co-founder and CEO of Affectiva, and an AI scientist as well. Soon after I started working for her, Rana quickly became more than my boss. She became a friend and champion, both challenging me to take on more complex tasks, and also championing me as a leader.

Last year during Affectiva’s company picnic, I remember telling Rana that while I loved building AI, I loved building up young people to be AI technologists even more. I started the conversation by proposing that perhaps I could prioritize mentorship programs more within Affectiva, or that I could be a consultant… But she pushed me to be more audacious, to think bigger, to be braver than I felt. I did, and she supported me, encouraged me and kept me accountable to following through on my dreams. This support from another woman — who was similar to me in many ways, but also further along on the path I was pursuing — was perhaps one of the biggest factors in getting me where I am today.

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

I am always aware of the success, privilege and access I have, which has only been possible because of my network of allies, friends and mentors. I wanted to continue that chain of goodness forward and I wanted to do it without waiting. So from the very beginning of my career, I have deliberately and intentionally made it part of my work to always give back by mentoring someone who was even newer to the tech field than I was. In the moment, it is a small act, just one person, but over the years I have been amazed at what each of my mentees have done, built and contributed to the world. So, I guess I have brought a small share of goodness to the world, in my way. And I hope to continue that, and scale it, through SureStart.

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. 🙂

The movement I would like to trigger is to “lend a hand while raising your hand!” The core of this movement would be to encourage every person to find one other person who wants to learn something from them: a particular skill or growth hack, how they got the job they have, how they became part of a particular network, anything… and share their knowledge with them transparently, generously and without requiring anything in return. And do it right now. Don’t wait to know more, be more successful or more confident. Do it now — you know more than you know; go share it.

Can you imagine the chain of personal growth, career development and human connection this would trigger? It gives me goose-bumps thinking about the awesomeness that would result!

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

One of my favorite quotes is a new one that has quickly become a favorite: “Wherever you show up, you belong.” It was said by Brenda Darden Wilkerson at the end of the Virtual Grace Hopper Celebration 2020.

It is something I use to empower myself everytime I do something where women, people of color, special-needs parents — all of which I am — are not the norm, and unfortunately in entrepreneurship, there are many such situations. But this quote is also the hope that I have for my children, your children, for young people all over the world, as I build and grow SureStart.

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 🙂

Such a hard question! So hard to choose given all the amazing people with the same passion for opening doors and creating opportunity equity! But if I had to pick, I would love to have the opportunity to speak with Reshma Saujani, the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.

I have long admired Reshma’s commitment to increasing the power and influence of the next generation of women through tech, and her openness and vulnerability in sharing her journey with everyone. It is empowering and inspiring. And I would love to have a conversation with her about my similar passion and path.

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