Voice of Experience: Telle Whitney, CEO and President, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology

Telle_WhitneyBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“One of the most important things I’ve learned is how much the ability to influence the ideas of others is so important for your success,” began Dr. Telle Whitney, CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

After earning her PhD in computer science, Dr. Whitney began her career in the Bay Area working in chip design. But it wasn’t long before she realized she had a passion for developing business, which led to her current role with ABI, influencing the world’s largest technology companies and helping women achieve their career aspirations.

“It’s not just about your ideas, but it’s about taking the rest of the world with you,” she explained.

Creating an Influential Career

Dr. Whitney started her career in the mid ’80s. “I had a passion to create technology,” she said. “I worked for a small business in semi conductors for many years, particularly in chip design, before I learned that the real excitement is growing the business.”

She continued, “I met Anita Borg in the Bay Area. I was working on the boundaries of chip design and software and I realized that connecting with other women was important. So I worked with Anita to create the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.”

“We had five hundred women talking passionately about technology. Thinking about how excited they were to talk about technology – it was a life-changing experience,” she recalled.

In the meantime, she said, her company was sold and she began consulting. The Institute was founded and two years later, Borg was diagnosed with cancer. “I agreed to step in for a few months while we searched for a new president. And that was eight years ago,” she said.

Dr. Whitney said, “There’s nothing more satisfying than innovation. And there’s no question that my work makes a difference in people’s lives. The Grace Hopper Celebration has been a life-changing event for thousands and thousands of women. I’m proud of my work in creating that vision.”

She said is also proud of her role in driving the development of the Anita Borg Institute as a whole. “When I see that impact growing, I’m very proud of that.”

Changing the Culture of Technology for Women Globally

She continued, “I feel like I have the best job in the world! During the first few years, we really worked on developing the business model [for ABI]. And in the last few years, we’ve scaled our impact, focusing on changing the culture of technology for women.”

“I really believe that if we want to help women, we have to work in the organizations themselves, which is why, this year, we implemented our new Anita Borg Top Company for Technical Women award – to help companies benchmark their progress.”

The award is designed to showcase best practices and highlight success for companies that want to change, but don’t know how.

And change is needed soon, she said. “If you look at key economic growth over the last fifty years, technological innovation is at the cornerstone. But right now technological innovation is languishing. If fifty percent of the population is women, we need to have them at the table creating technology.”

Additionally, she said, innovation crosses geographic boundaries. “It’s tough to talk about innovation of any kind without thinking globally.”

ABI is expanding its focus beyond North America, she said, particularly into India. “We are working with local organizations there, which makes it that much more impactful and relevant for the women involved.”

Challenges for Attracting and Retaining Technical Women

Dr. Whitney pointed out that interest in computer science has been waning in the past decade – particularly for women. “I just wish more people would be interested in technology, computer science, and engineering. I think the challenge is the image of the work we do.”

She continued, “So much of innovation is about teamwork and collaboration – not just sitting in front of a computer!”

“Another challenge is that mid-career women leave at much greater numbers than their male counterparts. The workplace culture of technology has the most dramatic impact at this time. Women do not feel welcome in the culture.”

She continued, “The most successful companies do find a way to be welcoming to a broad range of people.”

Another challenge is that women tend to have working spouses, unlike their male peers. “Our research also shows that mid-career technical women are struggling to understand how they can do it all. And the best organizations find ways that allow you to participate and be successful and have lives outside work.”

Advice for Women in Technology

“When you’re a technologist almost all of your passion and training is around creating cool technology. It took me quite a few years to see that great tech does not success make!” Dr. Whitney said.

“You need to be innovative, but you also need to understand the problem to solve for the people you are serving. For the really successful technology, sometimes the ideas are quite simple.”

For young women, she advised, “The most important part is to understand your passion. Go back to your inner voice that helps you understand what you’re passionate about. And the other thing is to believe in yourself.”

As women approach a more senior level, Dr. Whitney emphasized the importance of mentors and sponsors. “Go after both,” she said. “Really successful people find mentors in different ways and set up time to find ways to connect.”

She continued, “And the other part is to understand the concept of sponsors – senior people in the organization who are keeping an eye on you. The best sponsors have access to positions you don’t even know exist.”

In Her Personal Time

“I’m a runner – I love to run,” Dr. Whitney said. “About four years ago, we moved into the local mountains, not particularly far from Silicon Valley. But I’m surrounded by trees! It’s very nice.”

She also enjoys making jewelry. “It allows me to take a break from the kind of work I do,” she said.