Don’t Call Me “Girl,” Sir: Women, Tech, and a Chat with Olivia Munn

It is long past time to stop regarding the presence of women in technology as an anomaly—yet achieving widespread acknowledgment of their work remains a challenge. Multiple organizations in New York—including Girls Who Code, Cornell NYC Tech, and L’Oréal—and across the country are taking on this task while also encouraging new generations of women to explore careers steeped in programming languages and data.

Respecting intelligence and professional talent from all quarters is something that gets tested even beyond the technology world. In an episode of the HBO drama series “The Newsroom,” Olivia Munn’s character Sloan Sabbith, a senior financial reporter on the show, finds herself in a heated argument over one of her reports. During the escalating spat, news division president Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, addresses her as “girl”—in a highly confrontational way.

Sabbith firmly responds, “Don’t call me ‘girl,’ sir.”

I met with Munn Wednesday night before she spoke at the L’Oréal USA Women in Digital NEXT Generation Awards Ceremony in New York. The event showcased three women founders of tech companies chosen from a program that gives female-led startups the chance to pilot their ideas with L’Oréal’s brands.

Highlighting the accomplishments of women innovators, Munn says, is part of bringing more diversity to the business and technology landscape. “It is always important to have role models that people can look up to and identify with and relate to,” she says.

Prior to “The Newsroom”, Munn’s other television gigs included co-hosting the cable program “Attack of the Show!” on the G4 channel, which gave viewers weekday doses of gadgets, video games, and digital-media news. She says it is important to give women a voice, when rightly deserved, to help them achieve more parity with their male peers. “In the tech world, new media is predominantly a male-driven, male-led world,” she says. “There are a lot of women who are doing great jobs. When you see somebody else is doing it, it is always inspiring and gives other women hope.”

When portraying hard-working Sloan Sabbith, Munn says she reflects on women from her life who may not have had opportunities to fully pursue their ambitions in the workplace. “Sloan has two PhDs and wants to be as educated and knowledgeable as possible,” she says. “She doesn’t allow other people to tell her who she is.”

Marie, Cassidy, Munn, and Falter at L’Oréal USA's Women in Digital NEXT Generation Awards.

The three women honored by L’Oréal have certainly sought to claim their territory in the technology scene. Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is founder and CEO of Joyus in San Francisco; Kelsey Falter is the founder and CEO of New York-based Poptip; and Heather Marie is CEO and founder of 72Lux in New York. Notable women from the New York tech community also came out to the event, including Dawn Barber, co-founder of New York Tech Meetup, and Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, who has been quite vocal about the presence of women in technology.

Cassidy’s Joyus offers videos of curated apparel and other lifestyle wares, showing consumers how they might adopt the fashion themselves. She says prior to Joyus, she started a financial services software company in 1999. That first time sated her hunger to start a business—for a little while. She later joined Google as president of its Asian-Pacific and Latin American markets. After exiting Google, she built an idea around better connecting with women as end consumers. “I felt that commerce needed a lot more innovation and delight for women,” Cassidy says.

The shopping experience at Joyus, she says, is the business model that allows the company to share information with women. She plans to double down on mobile in the future since it drives more than 20 percent of the company’s revenue, even though Joyus does not yet have an app. “That speaks to the fact that women think about Joyus as snacking content while in front of a TV and looking at a second screen or in between meetings,” Cassidy says.

Poptip, a graduate of TechStars NYC, is a different sort of online play that tries to make sense of the public’s chatter on the Web. The startup created a platform that brands and publishers can use to gather crowd opinions for market research and other needs. Falter says her company’s core technology is a text analysis algorithm that deciphers what people are talking about in social media. With different types of content being shared online, including video, images, and text, she says, it can get complicated for businesses to sort out what the public is saying. “There hasn’t been any innovation in how to process or analyze that many-to-one conversation,” Falter says.

Her introduction to entrepreneurship began with her mother, who launched a company (which she later sold) during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. “If you’re going to start a company you must be extremely passionate about what you do,” Falter says.

Her parents also sparked Falter’s interest in technology on her eighth birthday by giving her a unique gift: a domain name.

“I did not know what that was,” she says. “There was no website.” So during those formative years she learned how to work with HTML forms and developed some rudimentary coding skills. Falter believes more parents should think outside the box when picking gifts for their children. “Instead of giving a Barbie doll, give something like littleBits tinkering sets to make an Arduino,” she says, referring to an electronics kit. “Inspire your children to be creators.”

Marie, the CEO of 72Lux, says she grew up with an interest in technology and a desire to start her own business. She sought experience before founding her own company though, wary of the amount of work it would require, and joined another startup in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I knew it was either going to convince me ‘I can do this’ or scare me to go running in another direction,” she says. “It helped prepare me for being able to do it on my own.”

72Lux, an alum of 500 Startups, developed technology that lets digital content publishers sell products by connecting related online editorial copy to e-tailers. Initially centered on fashion and beauty publications, Marie says the platform also offers categories such as exercise, health, sporting goods, and electronics. “Each new category we open up also opens up new publications and websites,” she says.

These three honorees were chosen from a pool of 1,600 women-led tech companies that applied to L’Oréal’s Women in Digital program, which is in its second year, for the chance to work with the cosmetics maker as well as get introduced to mentors and potential investors.

L’Oréal's Rachel Weiss

Rachel Weiss, vice president of digital innovation, content, and new business ventures at L’Oréal USA, has been championing the program’s efforts to connect with more women-led technology companies. “The lack of women pursuing careers in technology and engineering is alarming to me,” Weiss says, “especially as women will comprise over half the work force in the next few years and are controlling purchase decisions.” That raises questions, she says, about where this disconnect begins.

L’Oréal sees technology at the heart of its connection to customers, Weiss says, making the involvement of women in that aspect of the business more crucial. Much of innovation and technology at play at the company, she says, have been aimed at creating new products. “We’ve only recently started to talk about innovation from a go-to-market perspective,” she says. The company, which has its U.S. headquarters in New York, has interacted with startups before, Weiss says, yet few were led by women.

She says one of her goals with the program is to find new ways to make customers’ experience more meaningful, such as demystifying decisions on makeup. “Technology is a great tool for that,” Weiss says. “You can try on makeup in real-time with your mobile phone or get offers while you’re in stores.”

The Women in Digital program, she says, is about seeing more technology created by women for women. L’Oréal sought early-stage companies that it had not yet worked with but were ready to introduce technologies for interacting with the connected consumer. “We now have, after two years, a pipeline of more than 1,000 women-operated companies in a database we can go to in order to help us solve problems,” Weiss says.

In addition to honoring Cassidy, Falter, and Marie, on Wednesday night L’Oréal also announced a $25,000 college scholarship to be given to a graduate of the Girls Who Code program, one of the latest boosts this particular initiative has gotten.

Last week, Cornell NYC Tech separately announced its partnership in the launch of the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, which hopes to introduce young women in middle school to the technology world. New York-based Girls Who Code is a nonprofit effort to get more young women, initially high schoolers, interested in tech through computer science education and mentorship.

Cathy Dove, a Cornell NYC Tech vice president, says the university had been looking for ways to work with the New York community on the K-12 education front even before submitting the proposal for the engineering campus being built on Roosevelt Island. “We didn’t want to wait until we had a physical campus open to see what we could do,” she says. In looking for partners to help bring technology education to school kids, Dove says, Cornell connected with Girls Who Code. “We homed in on? middle school as a key time in a young person’s life when we should think about making a difference,” she says.

It almost goes without saying that universities want to see more students in their classrooms already primed to learn about science and technology. Reaching out to kids at the K-12 level can help fill the pipeline, she says, though it will be a few years before they are college-bound. With women particularly underrepresented in technology fields, Dove says, there is a need to get them more engaged early on with science, technology, engineering and math education.

Some 20 young women from middle schools will be taught programming fundamentals, robotics, Web development, and other skills in the eight-week program, which is already underway and runs through August 30 in New York. In addition to collaborating here with Cornell, the summer program is also being conducted in Detroit, San Francisco, San Jose, and Davis, CA.

Dove says summer is a good time to kick off this particular program, but the idea should not be ignored during the school year. “Girls Who Code does continuing work over the year, and I’m expecting we will also continue to work with these young women,” she says. “The goal we’re all looking for is to get a much broader group of kids interested in tech.”

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