5 women in LA tech on promoting diversity, overcoming challenges, and honing leadership skills

by John Siegel
August 15, 2018

Businesses thrive when representatives of divergent thoughts, experiences and cultures come together.

For startups, where split-second pivots and radical product shifts can mean the difference between success and failure, this is especially true. Even still, the tech industry proper struggles to shed its “boy’s club” stereotype and fully embrace diversity and inclusivity.

While there’s much to be done, a number of local companies have made inclusiveness a priority. We spoke with five women in tech leadership about the challenges they’ve faced, how their leadership styles have grown and what advice they offer women interested in following in their footsteps.

 

honey ecommerce fintech startup los angeles
photo via honey
Mehrnaz Sadolahy
Director of System Quality and Tooling Engineering

With two degrees in computer science and several years of experience leading tech teams, Mehrnaz Sadolahy’s leadership is paying dividends for DTLA-based Honey as it blossoms into an e-commerce powerhouse. Her hands-on experience in guiding employees is invaluable, and Sadolahy said advice she received early in her career really stuck — and continues to play a major role in how she manages her team.

 

What is Honey doing to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace?

Honey is one of those rare companies that truly values and promotes a culture of inclusiveness. The leadership team plays a huge role in promoting diversity by hiring people who don’t just possess diverse backgrounds but also cognitively diverse talents. Everyone, regardless of their position, can have a voice on projects and goals. All employees are encouraged to stay curious and to challenge themselves to reach their highest potential.

 

What advice would you offer other women on the rise to leadership roles within the tech sector?

A study done at Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. My advice to women: don't sell yourself short. Believe in yourself and your abilities.

The greatest lesson I learned from my mentors was understanding that leadership is not about the position or title — it’s about being at the service of others.” 

How would you describe your approach to leadership?

The greatest lesson I learned from my mentors was understanding that leadership is not about the position or title — it's about being at the service of others. That’s how I lead my team to ensure personal and professional growth and development.  

Additionally, building trust is critical to leading and managing a highly-efficient team. A team that trusts its leader moves mountains to make things work. The most valuable time I spend is building meaningful connections with my coworkers.

 

What’s one recent challenge you and your team worked to overcome?

Honey has a vision for the future of our products and we do our planning so that we’re aligned with that vision. In order to achieve our long-term plans, my team is being transitioned to a new set of goals and responsibilities, which can be quite challenging due to the amount of change that it requires.

I encourage my team to look at the bigger picture, reminding them that growth only happens when we are out of our comfort zone. This will help the team to be open-minded about the obstacles and motivated to overcome them.

 

momentfeed los angeles santa monica tech startup
photo via momentfeed
Carey Bettencourt
Chief Client Officer/Chief Revenue Officer

After 25 years of experience in the software and consulting industries, Carey Bettencourt knows the importance of transparency in the workplace. As MomentFeed’s Chief Client Officer and Chief Revenue Officer, Bettencourt’s responsibilities are numerous and diverse, which is why she places a premium on crystal-clear communication — in both directions.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership?

People appreciate transparency and authenticity in their leaders. I am very direct so my team knows what I expect and how they are doing. I also enable them to make their own decisions while keeping my eye on the end game, from a business perspective. If people want to grow, they will take all feedback if it’s delivered from a place of authenticity and clarity.

 

What is MomentFeed doing to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace?

We hire the right people for the right jobs. That is the right thing to do for the company, for clients and for the person. For us, diversity is baked into our talent pool. We have offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Austin, all diverse cities with great talent. We look for people who have heart, desire and the ability to do the work, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation or age. Inclusiveness is part of our culture; if you are here, you are MomentFeed.

So much of successful leadership comes from confidence. Project it and trust your instincts.”

What advice would you offer other women on the rise to leadership roles within the tech sector?

First, ask yourself, ‘What is it that I want to do?’ Be sure that in your heart, you want to be a leader. It’s easy to become infatuated with the idea of being in management, but managing others is not easy, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Once you decide leadership is for you, be purposeful in your career roadmap. Pursue the right positions and roles that prepare you to lead.

Most importantly, be confident, and throw your hat into the ring. Women are sometimes too self-critical. We think we’re not ready for a role because we haven’t had a lot of experience in one element. Men are less likely to question themselves this way; they just go for it. So much of successful leadership comes from confidence. Project it and trust your instincts. Also, don’t let what other people think or say distract you from what you want. Women, like men, can pursue all their ambitions. Strong women find a way to make it work.

 

Fair autotech cartech fintech los angeles startup
photo via fair
Irene Yeh
Data Engineer

As someone who joined automotive fintech company Fair while it was still in stealth, Irene Yeh was the only woman on her team until the company officially launched and began to rapidly add engineers. Fresh out of UCLA, Yeh said she learned valuable lessons during this time that she’d offer to anyone, regardless of gender.

 

What is Fair doing to promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace?

Fair does a fantastic job at making everyone feel included. I was the only female engineer for a really long time, but I have never felt that I was ever treated differently because of my gender. Work has always been welcoming and fair.

 

What advice would you offer to other women on the rise to leadership roles within the tech sector?

Constructive confrontation is necessary and beneficial. This includes speaking up when you disagree and compromising when your idea doesn’t win. I come from a culture that encourages avoiding conflict. Even though I am not a soft-spoken person at all, I did tend to steer clear of arguments when possible. This often leads to me kicking myself at night for losing great opportunities because I didn’t speak up. For me, the scariest thing is to admit that I would be standing for something wrong after arguing for my idea. Yes, it can get embarrassing sometimes, and yes, the person you’re speaking to might not always be receptive during your discussion. These shouldn’t be the reasons to not speak up, because the truth is, there will be confrontations in life and you are probably going to have embarrassing moments in your career sooner or later. Learning to stay confident in uncomfortable situations is something I’m still learning, but it’s a piece of advice I would offer to everyone, regardless of gender.

Learning to stay confident in uncomfortable situations is something I’m still learning, but it’s a piece of advice I would offer to everyone, regardless of gender.”

What leadership opportunities does Fair offer its employees?

Fair gives employees plenty of opportunities to be a leader on their own projects. Learning the lifecycle of each project is extremely important. Understanding the resources required and prioritizing accordingly can prevent wasted time. It’s not fair to push one’s own expectations on each team member, especially as the team becomes more diverse. Giving each member the flexibility to operate in a way that makes them comfortable will help facilitate trust and communication.

 

What’s one recent challenge that you and your team worked to overcome?

The main challenge our team had was prioritization, which is a common problem for startups. Our product is unique in the market, so everyone is trying to take a crack at figuring out what the best business model for it is. There are a lot of new, amazing features we are building, but due to the amount of work and number of engineers we had at the time, context switching was often unavoidable. Fortunately, the team has been addressing these issues by setting quarterly plans and hiring more amazing engineers and product managers to join the team. We’re definitely improving and moving on the right track.

 

virgin hyperloop one transportation tech startup los angeles richard branson
photo via Virgin hyperloop one
Alisa Han
Director of Software Lifecycle Management

Arts District-based Virgin Hyperloop One is working on a technology that could literally change the world. According to Director of Software Lifecycle Management Alisa Han, the company has made inclusiveness in the workplace a major priority as its roster grows.

 

What is Virgin Hyperloop One doing to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace?

Diversity and inclusiveness is a top priority for the company. One of the initiatives we implemented is a speaker and training series carried out by external groups. A recent company-wide training was a hands-on session to address the unconscious biases that we all have. This helped challenge and change our biases and it was a great step toward creating a more inclusive company.

Don’t be afraid to speak up and don’t let uncertainty or fear take over. Put yourself forward, and when you have something to say, say it.”

What advice would you offer other women on the rise to leadership roles within the tech sector?

Carry yourself with confidence, and feel and act as an equal. Gender should have no place in our minds as we navigate this world. If you approach the world without self-bias, the world will have to follow suit. Don’t be afraid to speak up and don’t let uncertainty or fear take over. Put yourself forward, and when you have something to say, say it.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership?

I believe in leading by example and supporting the teams that I’m working within whatever way I can. I do my best to stand by what I say and be earnest in my communications. My aim is to pull the teams together to our goals as a group, not as individuals within an organization.

 

magnopus los angeles media startup
photo via magnopus
Kenni Lethridge Kaufman
Director of Production Development and Talent

Transitioning into a career in tech often involves several strategic steps, but for many people, the process is a little more serendipitous. For Kenni Lethridge Kaufman, the director of production development and talent at DTLA-based Magnopus, moving from the entertainment industry to the tech industry involved taking a hard look at her strengths and understanding what they could mean to a growing company.

 

What is Magnopus doing to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace?

We make an effort to consciously address diversity and inclusiveness within our company on a continuous basis. We look at a potential employee’s complete package, not just their resume. Our interview process is designed to set candidates up for success. We take great strides to ensure that the process is inclusive, welcoming, balanced and that each individual’s specific background is considered during the process. We promote from within regularly and encourage our team to reach for the stars; there are no glass ceilings here. We see the value that a diverse team brings to our company, and want our employees to know that we want them here for who they are as individuals.

Find your company’s need and be the person who can fill that need.”

What advice would you offer to other women on the rise to leadership roles within the tech sector?

Know your worth. Always have an idea of what you should be making in the current market and understand how to negotiate your salary and compensation package. Most importantly, do the research so that you’re able to support your requests with facts. “I have student loans to payback” and “Rent in LA is expensive” are not solid reasons to ask for more money, and you’ll probably be turned down.

It’s also okay to say no to a company if you feel they’re not seeing your value. On the flip side, know when you’re actually being offered a good deal. Don’t limit yourself based on your professional history, what you feel you might be lacking or what others may think of you. Know — and act — like you belong. Lastly, find your company’s need and be the person who can fill that need.

 

How would you describe your approach to leadership?

I lead how I want to be led — I manage my employees like we’re working together rather than they’re working for me. I take the time to know my staff and adjust my management style based on their individual needs.

 

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