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“When women take charge of their destiny by developing new products that address a greater societal need, they can be commercially successful” With Penny Bauder & Arlene Harris

A friend of mine once said to me that women in leadership roles belong in non-profits because they don’t have big commercial ideas. I think this is unfounded. Historically, women have not been offered a platform to express themselves as leaders and innovative thinkers. But I feel strongly that when women take charge of their […]

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A friend of mine once said to me that women in leadership roles belong in non-profits because they don’t have big commercial ideas. I think this is unfounded. Historically, women have not been offered a platform to express themselves as leaders and innovative thinkers. But I feel strongly that when women take charge of their destiny by developing new products that address a greater societal need, they can be commercially successful. That’s how I’ve found success in my career.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arlene Harris, an award winning entrepreneur, inventor, investor and policy advocate with over 35 years of leadership in the technology industry. Harris was named as a Consumer Technology Hall of Famer (2017) and the first woman inducted into the Wireless Hall of Fame (2007). Harris is currently the Founder of Wrethink, a company that is developing a game changing new technology that will revolutionize how families store, access and share their memories, keepsakes and important documents.


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

I’ve always been interested in technologies that remove impedances to adoption for underserved markets or or help enterprises serve their customers better. While at an early job, I was working in a marketing group for Continental Airlines. We were charged with building data bases on systems that were new. These were the systems that allowed the airlines to scale up when the number of passengers increased with the delivery of wide-bodied airplanes. Everything had to get bigger and faster. It was a challenge that inspired in me the kind of systems thinking that has stayed with me throughout my career. The whole airline industry was about to go through an automation metamorphosis and I was right in the middle of it.

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

The idea for Wrethink started while I was caring for my mother during her final years. I wanted to capture the family stories from our collections of photos and other treasures but wasn’t able to find an easy way to hold on to the important memories those items contained. When we were trying to find a solution, my husband Marty researched multiple pieces of software and we tested it on my mother. It was futile. That’s when I came up the idea to combine several different technologies, a “system” that was integrated for simplicity — a safe and more robust place for people to keep the history of their lives and that of their loved ones. I was already sensitized to the challenges posed by how folks of different generations interact with technologies during the development of a previous company so we could create an integrated offering that would make using the technology as easy as possible.

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

What makes Wrethink unique is that we are incorporating diversity in the design process. The product is created by people who vary in age, gender, perception and strengths. That means our products will have already been user-tested even before official user group testing is underway. To give you some perspective, some of my younger colleagues were shocked to find that older colleagues didn’t intuitively understand that a pencil icon means edit. Many thought it could be interpreted as the button to write a message. We’re glad to have these experiences now so that when the product is ready to launch it is ready for all kinds of users.

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

I’m working on building a product that will revolutionize the way family managers — as we call them — organize the most important information related to their families and day-to-day lives. I inherited a lot of stuff when my parents passed, and I found organizing their important documents to be very cumbersome. It’s a burden I hope I don’t have to pass along to my family members. That’s why I’m building a system that will automate the process by making it easier and more secure than ever to organize my life and preserve my precious photos and papers for generations to come.

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?

Our society has many issues that can be solved through emerging technologies but require an empathetic and new perspective to solve them. I predict women will be the movers and shakers driving societal change with these new technologies, but to do that, more women need to be more involved at every level of a company and the design process of these technologies. In particular, we need to see more women placed in decision-making roles. That means starting young. There are plenty of organizations encouraging young kids to think about technology as a way to solve societal issues. We need to support this effort and encourage students to become subject matter experts and great team members so that they can change the world one day.

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?

So many women have unsung stories. I work with women who have accomplished great achievements but haven’t gotten their writeups. I’m hoping that’s changing. If we talk about the lives of our brilliant colleagues and open ourselves up to their ideas on innovation, we could really change the world for the better. We just need to get more women in front of the right people who can support them.

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 friend of mine once said to me that women in leadership roles belong in non-profits because they don’t have big commercial ideas. I think this is unfounded. Historically, women have not been offered a platform to express themselves as leaders and innovative thinkers. But I feel strongly that when women take charge of their destiny by developing new products that address a greater societal need, they can be commercially successful. That’s how I’ve found success in my career.

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. Be tenacious and stay focused. You don’t have to be Wonder Woman and work long hours with little rest to succeed. I’ve battled heath issues for much of my life, which made it impossible to do that. Instead, I relied on my tenacity to bring projects to fruition and remained focused on the mission no matter what else was thrown my way.
  2. Don’t follow a recipe. I attribute the key to my success to questioning the status quo. Great leaders don’t follow rules. They question them. That’s how you make a name for yourself as a great thinker.
  3. Know your strengths. I know I may not be the best people manager but I can see things and figure out solutions at a grand scale in ways others cannot. This puts me in a position where I can bet on myself. In the past, I’ve been able to take a lot of financial risks to make my ideas work because I trust myself to come up with a solution that works. But I rely on my team members to manage the day-to-day execution. Without that understanding, the big idea could never come to fruition.
  4. Don’t be cowed by a title or role. This is especially important for leaders in the earlier stages of their career. Prove your value by speaking up and when things aren’t working, don’t be afraid to make the changes necessary to set it right. However, I caution leaders from getting too carried away with what their role is. The most efficient teams are formed when all members of the team should feel like they can express themselves and be heard.
  5. People change their minds. Partnerships can be a fickle beast. The most important thing you can do as an entrepreneur is to align yourself with people who buy into your vision and that you can trust will follow it through. I’ve been burned several times before by partners who have changed their minds. Do your research to align yourself with the right people.

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

The most important thing leaders can do to best ensure the success of their team is to take the time to align every team member with the mission. The vision of the company and project mission must be clearly understood by every member of the team or you may find yourself with costly mistakes down the road.

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

I can’t say it enough. One of the most challenging components about managing a large team is level-setting. But it’s the most critical. Manage the promises you make and expectations of your team from the get-go. It starts off projects on the right footing and puts you in the best position to succeed as a team.

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 parents were a major source of support. My Dad was a kickass kind of guy and my Mom was very gentle and supportive. She was endlessly kind, wonderful and loving and he was ornery sun of a gun — in the best way of course. He was incredibly ethical and fair, which drove much of his decision making when it came to his company and raising his children. My parents balanced each other out and gave me the drive to be successful while teaching me to be empathetic to the plights of others.

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

I’m making technologies more inclusive and accessible for all. When I founded Jitterbug, it was a way to disrupt the status quo and build a product that older generations could intuitively understand and use. And I’m still speaking up about developing new technologies that answer real world problems. That’s my plan for building a legacy of goodness.

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 particularly passionate about ways in which we can protect consumer data and build new consumer products with privacy at the forefront of the design. I’m a big proponent of consumers having rights over what data is collected and how their data is used. We should try to return our thinking to the time before technology entered almost every part of our lives and determine what our expectations should be now. How can we adopt all of the help offered without giving up our privacy? The internet and other connected technologies have delivered great advancements but also unintended consequences. We need more companies to come to their senses and develop viable sustainable services that inspire trust.

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

My Dad would say to me every day of my childhood, “make yourself useful.” Since then, I’ve made that the standard for how I live my life and how I think about bringing new technologies into the world. I need to be able to say yes — this is useful and this is how it will solve a greater issue for a wide variety of people.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. 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.

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