Overture STEM + HD 2017: A Day of (Mostly) Inspiring Women


Last week, Overture held their STEM + HD Conference, a full day of mind-expanding conversations with inspiring female leaders applying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to human development problems.  (Mostly inspiring — I’ll get into details later.)

With all the dumb tech coming out of Silicon Valley and all the dumb people in positions of power these days, it was the conference I needed to remind me that we can still make a positive impact with our technological tools so long as we don’t let ourselves get distracted by the noise.

I was immensely inspired by this conference, so it was hard for me to write this recap because I was so disappointed by the way it ended.  I’m going to start with the last speaker, who was easily the weakest part of the conference and really undermined the human development mission of the day.  Feel free to skip ahead if you want to get to the inspiring stuff.

Maya Choksi Eichler, Senior Product Manager @ Uber

The last presentation of the day was a fireside chat with Maya Choksi Eichler, a senior product manager at Uber.  When I mentioned dumb tech and dumb leadership above, Uber very much falls into this category.  Over the past half year, they’ve been embroiled in public backlash over the way they treat their drivers, the way they treat their female employees, and the overall negative impact they’ve had on the communities they’re active in.  Maya gave a perfectly good and safe talk about product management – but that wasn’t what the audience of a human development conference wanted to hear about.

When asked about their track record with female and minority employees: we hired a VP of Diversity! And consultants!

When asked about their track record with drivers: we take our drivers’ feedback very seriously to make the app more efficient so they can pick up even more fares!

When asked about what they had to say about their human development efforts, given that they’re at a human development conference: well, there are less drunk drivers now and probably less carbon emissions?

To be fair, this is not Maya’s fault – these questions are way above the pay grade of a senior product manager.  It wasn’t fair to put Maya in this position, but it also wasn’t fair to the other pedigreed speakers at the conference or to the audience.  The decision to feature a speaker from Uber – any speaker from Uber – was outright tone deaf.  It makes her look foolish, Uber look remorseless, and Overture look tactless.  Frankly – this conversation was out of tune with the rest of the conference and a jarring way to end the day.

Fortunately, the rest of the day was sufficient to carry the conference.  Inspiring stuff follows!


Rochelle King kicked off the conference wonderfully by illustrating the journey and creative thinking required to get her from her product design role at Spotify to a Board Director for The Center for Justice & Accountability, an organization that prosecutes human rights crimes, with no background in human rights or law.

She touched on a line of thought that’s uncomfortably familiar for me: I make apps and websites for a living.  How can I possibly bring value to human rights advocacy, environmental sciences or any other human development arena?

For Rochelle, she was able to bring value to the CJA team in a way that the lawyers on board couldn’t, because she had extensive experience building international organizations and implementing processes for large teams.  Her skill set was able to expand the capabilities for the organization.  Her advice:

  1. Think creatively: how can you apply your skills into another world?
  2. Be curious: Seek to understand others’ journeys, skills and perspectives
  3. Be bold: All of our collective skills and experiences will be needed to solve the big challenges our communities and environment face today


Roya Mahboob received the Overture Catalyst Award for the education work she does with the Digital Citizen Fund, bringing digital education to girls in Afghanistan. Alongside Seema Kumar, the two discussed their experiences as women trained in technology in societies that otherwise were still fairly resistant to educating women.

I really appreciated the gravity that they brought to the conversation about educating women in STEM: it’s not a conversation about fairness, it’s one about economics – you’re not innovating as much as you can be innovating if only half your workforce is tech educated – and it’s one about complex problem solving – we’ve solved all of our easy problems, and we’re only using half of our collective brains.

My favorite gems among the conversation:

  • Science and technology has created progress for society as a whole, but trust in science and technology is at an all time low – largely because there isn’t enough education for individuals to understand how research and innovation works.
  • Science and technology has not been traditionally inclusive of women, which contributes to the above and also leaves trillions of dollars on the table.
  • We need to teach everyone to view science and technology as a team sport, from scientists to designers to media.  When the Ebola outbreak occurred two years ago, it required collaboration from scientists, journalists, governments, patients and technologists all around the world to find a cure.  Our problems as a society are only going to get more complicated, so we all have to become interdisciplinary and learn tech even if we aren’t technologists.

Seema ended the fireside chat with a career development tidbit that I wish someone had told me when I was still at Goldman Sachs, before my nervous breakdown: you have to  have a personal vision bigger and more satisfying than “making VP”.  Consider what you’re passionate about and how does that align with the organizational values of your company?  Your personal vision has to be something that the world wants and creates impact and value for society.  Use your company to help you achieve it.

Malika Saada Saar, Senior Counsel on Civil and Human Rights @ Google & Lakshmi Puri, Asst Sec Gen of the UN, Deputy ED @ UN Women

In the women’s rights movement, we’ve made remarkable progress in the realms of society, homes, and the private sector, but as we were fighting in these arenas, another circle of power took over: technology.  Malika Saada Saar and Lakshmi Puri  discussed how, as women’s rights activists, we haven’t demanded accountability from technology the way we did with other social structures.

Women’s rights defenders MUST defend the tech space in order to properly defend women.

As it is, technology has become yet another channel for violence against women (see: cyberbullying, doxxing).  Lakshmi highlighted multiple steps we need to take at an organizational level to include women and girls in “the fourth industrial revolution”:

  1. Build movements in society and amongst families to demolish the myth of female incapacity/incompetency in STEM and instill confidence
  2. Inculcate a STEM culture in a gender neutral way, with a special appeal to women and girls
  3. Build room in life and career cycles to reboot skills
  4. Educate and organize for STEM education, including incentives and scholarships
  5. Creating STEM women’s organizations to foster mentorship and community building
  6. Foster STEM work culture to be women-friendly: flexible working hours, childcare, parental leave, shorter work hours, motivational leadership, etc.

Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama @ The White House

It was refreshing to hear from Valerie Jarrett, that despite her former position as Senior advisor to President Obama, she also spent the time from Election Day to Inauguration Day in a depressed funk.  She did a great recap of the movements that inspired her to get back to work:

  • On politics: “We got complacent when Obama won his second term – now it’s time to get back to work.”
  • On workforce diversity: “Companies are finally beginning to understand the benefits of attracting and retaining the BEST pool of talent that they can.  A competitive marketplace requires you to be inclusive.”
  • On sexual harassment in the workplace: “No woman has been surprised by this recent uptick in revelations.  The only way these women will come forward is if they know that our organizations and our laws will protect them.  The best way to make as much money as you can is to make sure that your female employees won’t get triggered by sitting in the same room as a male executive.”
  • On breaking the mold of Silicon Valley bro culture: “80% of purchasing power is women and minorities.  Companies have to build a brand that this demographic is willing to buy from in order to survive.”
  • On showing force: “Look at Run for Something, an organization created by one of the staffers on Hillary’s campaign, and then RUN FOR SOMETHING.  The most important fights are the local ones.”
  • On staying out of reach of the criminal justice system: “You can’t be what you can’t see. Children aspire to the goals set by the adults who love them.”
  • On developing your early career: “Work hard and get people to believe in you and invest in you.”


Cynthia McCaffrey, Director of the Office of Global Innovation @ UNICEF & Kendra Peavy, VP of Corporate Communications @ S’well

In 2015, S’well began partnering with UNICEF to bring clean water to children around the world.  Kendra and Cynthia underscored the importance of real-time information and data with international development, as well as the leverage that’s gained when UNICEF partners with private sector companies.  Main takeaways here:

  • When doing a public/private partnership, make sure you have in depth conversations bout the challenges you are trying to solve – not every potential partner has the right technological solution.
  • Particularly for organizations like UNICEF, the goal of partnership with private sector companies is not money, it’s deep engagement – they’re dealing with complex problems that require partners to take the time to consume, process and iterate on the issues at hand to discover the best solutions (which may not even be the products that these private companies sell!)
  • Always measure impact by the change you’ve created for the actual person on the ground.  Work with local government and create low-tech ways for individuals to check in.

JENNIFER RYAN CROZIER, President of the IBM Foundation & IBM Corporate Citizenship

Jennifer Crozier took us through two corporate citizenship initiatives at IBM that both keeps their employees engaged and generates value for the company; these are excellent case studies for other large corporations to learn from.

The IBM Corporate Service Corps  allows their US employees to apply for four-week assignments doing development work for communities around the world.  Employees leave their teams for four weeks and still get paid, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off for IBM as they have better employee retention, they’ve broadened their employees’ understanding of the company’s impact and the employees get first hand experience learning about new countries and new markets who will be future IBM employees.

IBM’s second initiative, P-TECH, tackles the skills crisis in the US by working with teachers and administrators to open public high schools and create curriculum with private sector partners to prepare them for technology careers.  With customized curriculum, companies also offer paid internships and eventually hire the students into full time roles.

Great case studies of win/win/win corporate citizenry.

Tracy E. Nowski, Associate Partner @ McKinsey

Tracy took us through a deep dive into the STEM section of McKinsey’s 2017 Women in the Workplace study.  The study is available fully online, but one particular takeaway I found interesting was the precipitous drop in interest in STEM in adolescent girls aged 13-17 years old.  Even if they grow up with high interest, most girls have already lost their interest in computer and engineering by the time they get into high school.

Tracy is clear – this is a regression.  There are less women completing STEM degrees than there was 30 years ago.  One theory for the regression looks at university weed out courses: these courses are deliberately designed for attrition and presume a lot of background knowledge that only students with AP Computer Science courses or have computers to tinker with at home have, which today aren’t women.

In addition, for the women who do make it into a technology career, a few interesting things happen:

  • Women make up 36% of entry role positions in technology, but immediately drops to 30% in early management
  • Women who enter on a tech track tend to be steered towards non-tech roles like customer support
  • When women leave a tech company, they tend to move into entirely non-tech sectors into non-tech roles


  • Increase STEM exposure for young girls via toys and formal education
  • Build skill set and capabilities for instructors so that they can teach STEM in an accessible, relatable way
  • Recruit and retain female students and teachers in higher education STEM programs by changing weed out intro courses and creating ramp up opportunities
  • Promote alternative training models like bootcamps and self-taught online courses
  • Tie diversity goals to management compensation
  • Offer flexible work arrangements
  • Revisit what diversity means for your company as a value

Tracy finished with a great reminder: women’s contributions in technology have been historically uncounted, unacknowledged, and uncelebrated – THIS we can start changing today.

Overall, lots of inspiring, mind-expanding women that left me excited to – as Valerie Jarrett puts it – get to work!

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