Teresa Carl­son, Donna Har­ris, and Ar­chana Vem­u­la­palli come to­gether for the ul­ti­mate power lunch at Blue Duck Tav­ern to dis­cuss how women are mak­ing DC a hub for tech­nol­ogy and ex­pand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what it can do.

Capitol File - - CONTENTS - by AMY MOELLER pho­tog­ra­phy by RICH KESSLER

Teresa Carl­son, Donna Har­ris, and Ar­chana Vem­u­la­palli come to­gether for the ul­ti­mate power lunch to dis­cuss how women are mak­ing DC a hub for tech­nol­ogy and ex­pand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what it can do.

AS A CITY, we can’t stop talk­ing about all the ways in which Wash­ing­ton has evolved: fash­ion, real es­tate, en­ter­tain­ment, food. But in ad­di­tion to the ex­pan­sion of these life­style as­sets, DC has been qui­etly strength­en­ing its pres­ence on the global stage of the tech in­dus­try. Wash­ing­ton is both sta­tis­ti­cally— and, ar­guably, qual­i­ta­tively—the top city in the coun­try for women in tech­nol­ogy. Donna Har­ris, co­founder of 1776; Ar­chana Vem­u­la­palli, chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer for the Dis­trict of Columbia; and Teresa Carl­son, vice pres­i­dent, world­wide pub­lic sec­tor at Ama­zon, tell us how that came to be.

We’ve been hear­ing that DC is the top city in the na­tion for women in tech. What does that mean?

Ar­chana Vem­u­la­palli: Sta­tis­ti­cally, we have more women in tech here than any­where else. That’s a fact. And it’s prob­a­bly why we have smarter de­ci­sion-mak­ing across the board. There is a huge tech pres­ence, and there is a sup­port struc­ture for women. There is the DCFemTech or­ga­ni­za­tion, there’s a women data-sci­en­tist group, there is an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Learn­ing Code that’s con­stantly train­ing and sup­port­ing more women. But I think that hap­pened or­gan­i­cally.

Donna Har­ris: There are so many women, not just the bal­ance or the ra­tio, but in the top lead­er­ship roles and/or driv­ing the strat­egy. You have more vis­i­bil­ity [as] role mod­els, which cre­ates peo­ple who say, “I want to be a part of that.” It doesn’t come across as “that’s for the guys.” It’s the norm here.

Teresa Carl­son: DC is a city that em­braces fe­males and tech­nol­ogy. What I’d like is to see us do a bet­ter job of trick­ling that down through­out the or­ga­ni­za­tion. I still think we’re strug­gling get­ting young women and across-the-board diver­sity to stick with tech.

What do DC women need to do to en­cour­age young women to stick with tech?

DH: It’s not women’s re­spon­si­bil­ity alone. [We need to get] to a place where peo­ple un­der­stand this isn’t about so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and moral obli­ga­tion. This is about re­turn on in­vest­ment. This is about hard met­rics: When you have a di­verse team, [that] team out­per­forms a non-di­verse team. It has to be men and women rec­og­niz­ing that we all need to do a bet­ter job of mak­ing sure that ev­ery­thing we do re­flects the diver­sity of the com­mu­nity. If you’re hav­ing an event or a panel, or you’re look­ing at your team struc­ture, what does it look like? Let’s hold our­selves ac­count­able.

AV: Ab­so­lutely. If I’m the only woman sit­ting on a team, I can make an ef­fort to bring a sec­ond woman to the ta­ble, but there are 10 more tables where there are no women sit­ting, and the men need to say, “Where do I need to mix it up?”

TC: At Ama­zon, I think our guys are show­ing up. We just had In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, and we had a se­ries of pan­els and groups. I hosted one with some amaz­ing en­gi­neer women, and I looked around the room and I was so ex­cited be­cause it was half filled with the guys. Now, we have a long way to go, but they’re also ask­ing a lot of the right ques­tions, like, “How should I be more in­clu­sive?” And some­times it is coach­ing the male man­agers so that they un­der­stand what they need to be do­ing.

Is op­por­tu­nity or ac­cess an is­sue?

DH: Ac­cess to cap­i­tal is still an is­sue. We’ve had some hard con­ver­sa­tions at 1776 about how we make sure our in­vest­ment port­fo­lio is bal­anced. I know ev­ery other fund in the com­mu­nity is hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions much more ac­tively than any other city. But it takes women at the ta­ble to point it out, and I think once you point it out, there is the in­ten­tion­al­ity of want­ing to solve it.

TC: In the Mid­dle East, both in Saudi Ara­bia and Bahrain, some­thing like 60 per­cent of the stu­dents in com­puter science are fe­males. They’re do­ing hard cod­ing. Some of them are get­ting their ed­u­ca­tion from pro­grams; oth­ers tell me that they’re go­ing on­line to YouTube. There’s a de­sire.

AV: In­clu­sive in­no­va­tion is one of the things the mayor is big on. Be­cause you don’t have to be a cer­tain way, talk a cer­tain way, look a cer­tain way, or have a cer­tain de­gree to be an en­tre­pre­neur or an in­no­va­tor. You can be that mom with three kids

who sud­denly thought of some­thing and went off and built it out. But you need to have the space and the en­vi­ron­ment that sup­ports it. And the rea­son as a city we tend to call it out more ex­plic­itly is be­cause when we’re ex­plicit about it, then you’re aware, and when you’re aware, you’re con­scious. For all For­tune 500 com­pa­nies, less than 5 per­cent have women CEOs. That’s telling. It’s a stark re­al­ity that we’re deal­ing with, but rec­og­niz­ing that is key.

We’re get­ting a lot of kids en­gaged, but you need to teach per­cep­tion for kids early on. I have a 4-year-old son, and I tell him ev­ery day about all the things I do, be­cause I want him to grow up think­ing, My mom can do any­thing, and so can my dad. You have to start at that age.

DH: The bias starts so early.

TC: Ex­actly. Some peo­ple take an in­ter­est for the ac­tual tech, and oth­ers for the im­pact it can have.

AV: I was al­ways in­ter­ested in science, and so it was a ques­tion of whether I wanted to get into life sciences or look at engi­neer­ing. And I ended up pick­ing engi­neer­ing.

DH: I’m not a techie, but what I love is [that] tech­nol­ogy en­ables change. I’m fas­ci­nated with the power of tech­nol­ogy, [but] I don’t have to ac­tu­ally be the one do­ing the cod­ing to be in tech. I very quickly moved into roles like prod­uct man­age­ment, strat­egy, lead­er­ship, start­ing my first com­pany, my sec­ond com­pany, third, fourth, which led to en­trepreneur­ship. Even to­day, I’m not all that tech­ni­cal, but I can­not over­state how much I love tech­nol­ogy and what it can do to change the world.

So how do we get more girls in­ter­ested? We em­pha­size too much that you should study STEM in­stead of talk­ing about what STEM can do. If we can res­onate with young girls that you can change the world and this is the tool, I think more girls would want to study it. Be­cause it’s a means to an end, as op­posed to be­ing en­am­ored with the idea of sit­ting at a com­puter and cod­ing all day.

AV: But I still think you need women to code. DH: I could not agree more. What are the big ques­tions in tech nowa­days? DH: More and more en­trepreneurs are say­ing, “Now that ev­ery­body’s got the In­ter­net in their pocket on a de­vice and [is] con­nected, what do I do with that?” The en­tre­pre­neur in me and the in­no­va­tor in me gets su­per ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­i­ties. But I also fo­cus my at­ten­tion on [mak­ing sure] we’re thriv­ing as op­posed to cre­at­ing more prob­lems for our­selves as a so­ci­ety. Get­ting ev­ery­body on the In­ter­net, get­ting peo­ple con­nected, that’s still a chal­lenge in many parts of the coun­try or the world.

AV: That’s one of the things the city deals with— peo­ple left be­hind. The dig­i­tal di­vide is still a re­al­ity. So when this amaz­ing stuff is hap­pen­ing, you can imag­ine a sec­tion of the city is mov­ing at a break­neck speed, and this [other] sec­tion is get­ting left be­hind quicker. There’s a huge need to bridge the gap.

TC: And this is where I think the pub­lic and pri­vate [sec­tors] can come to­gether and re­ally dis­rupt the way connectivity takes shape. Tech­nol­ogy now is just part of the DNA fiber that we all op­er­ate un­der, and if you’re lim­it­ing that to any group or set, you’re putting them at a dis­ad­van­tage. One of our big goals is not to do that. To let tech­nol­ogy truly be the great equal­izer it is, let stu­dents be trained.

DH: When peo­ple say Wash­ing­ton, DC, we get painted with the brush of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment… TC: 100 per­cent.

DH: … and fed­eral pol­i­tics. It’s the same thing when peo­ple say in­no­va­tion, they say Sil­i­con Val­ley, in the same way you use the word Kleenex to de­scribe tis­sue. But if you look at the econ­omy in DC, we have an enor­mously vi­brant ecosys­tem. It’s top­ping the charts on things like in­creases in cap­i­tal, in­creases in start-ups, start-up growth, start-up ac­tiv­ity, women in tech. The met­rics are amaz­ing.

Peo­ple come to DC be­cause they want to change the world. They used to do that by go­ing to work on the Hill, or work­ing in a think tank or work­ing at the World Bank. Now they’re do­ing it through tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion. The ma­jor­ity of the start-ups we’re see­ing have a gi­ant so­cial ben­e­fit to them. They’re try­ing to solve ed­u­ca­tion, they’re try­ing to fix health­care, they’re try­ing to fig­ure out clean en­ergy. They’re try­ing to fig­ure out the food sup­ply chain and agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy. There’s a pretty large com­mu­nity of change-mak­ers.

TC: Wash­ing­ton, DC, is a place where peo­ple can bring to­gether their knowl­edge of how gov­ern­ment op­er­ates with this vi­sion of mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. You can ab­so­lutely have cap­i­tal­ism nicely em­bed­ded with an abil­ity to make the world a bet­ter place. Make money and drive change—so you have 1776, you have Hal­cyon, you have Mott 37.

DH: Peo­ple for­get how in­ter­na­tional DC is. Yes, we have the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, but that means ev­ery gov­er­nor, mayor, coun­try, ev­ery ma­jor CEO of ev­ery ma­jor cor­po­ra­tion, ev­ery as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing ev­ery in­dus­try is ei­ther here or comes here reg­u­larly. And they’re en­gag­ing in what’s go­ing on here. So it isn’t about the fact that this is where the White House is, and this is where Congress is, it’s about what that means, and what as­sets that brings to the city.

AV: I’ve heard peo­ple talk about in­no­va­tion in other cities, but not the way [our] city has been ap­proach­ing it. None of these guys [here] are com­ing up with stuff that’s “nice to have”; they’re all solv­ing needs. And that’s unique.

DH: And back to why is DC so dif­fer­ent in terms of women in tech—it’s all con­nected. Peo­ple are com­ing here to change the world, they’re mo­ti­vated by that com­mon thread, and there­fore there’s ben­e­fit in col­lab­o­rat­ing. It cre­ates the fer­tile ground for the kind of data that we’re see­ing around in­clu­sive­ness and women in tech.

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