Women of Vision Share Successes – and Failures – with Tech’s Up-and-Comers

iStock_000014933658XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“By the end of the speeches, you’re going to feel like you haven’t done anything in your career!” This was a statement overheard several times in passing from attendees earlier this month at the seventh annual Women of Vision Awards Banquet in Santa Clara, California, held by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI). The sentiment referred to the continuously high caliber of award winners who have the distinction of receiving an ABI award for leadership, innovation, or social impact.

Yet by the time the speeches were through, the packed ballroom of 800 attendees— which included more than 100 students with attendance sponsored by tech companies and local universities—was clearly inspired, not discouraged. This was due not only to the impressive video bios that recounted the winning women’s achievements, but to the “anti-bios” that each winner bravely shared, directing their advice in particular to the younger women in the audience.

Success Through Failure

“To share my thoughts on success, I must first share with you my failures or my anti-bio,” said Sarita Adve, professor of computer science at University of Illinois and this year’s winner of ABI’s Award for Innovation. “These are the things that nobody wants to talk about in their bio, but really, to be successful one must first learn to risk and deal with failure.”

Though Adve today is widely known in the tech industry for her groundbreaking work on hardware and software memory models, she focused her comments instead on the serious obstacles that she faced earlier in her career. These obstacles led to roadblocks and rejections that made it unclear whether Adve would even be able to publish her research, much less become a leader in her field.

“In my first test in my major, I scored 2 points out of 20,” Adve admitted. “I was denied admission to Wisconsin, the graduate school I badly wanted to attend. I remember crying in my PhD advisor’s office when my first journal paper was repeatedly rejected. At my three-year review halfway through the tenure process, I hadn’t published much and it was unclear I would get tenure.”

After working hard for four years on the Java memory model that she eventually co-developed, Adve recalls contacting her advisor in despair, certain that the industry would never accept her ideas. She also became discouraged after her first child was born. “I remember being so overwhelmed and thinking there was simply no way that a dual academic career family could have children and be successful,” she said.

Jennifer Chayes, winner of ABI’s Award for Leadership, similarly shared career low points on the heels of her remarkable video bio that highlighted a lifetime of incredible achievements. Chayes—who today holds the title of distinguished scientist and managing director at Microsoft Research New England, has co-authored more than 110 scientific papers, and is co-inventor of more than 25 patents—said she wanted women starting off in their own careers to better understand the full picture behind the image.

“Sure, you can present an amazing-sounding bio for me with numerous impressive achievements, but I’ll bet you could make films like that about many of you,” said Chayes. “What you didn’t see there was the other side of it. There’s the profoundly sad and angry high-school dropout. There’s the woman who even now still tries to smash through every brick wall she can find if it lies between her and what she wants, and pisses people off in the process.”

Chayes shared that while she was always good at math, had a nearly photographic memory, and an off-the-charts work ethic, she had an equally long list of “minuses.” She came from an outsider background, had problems with her attention span, and felt overly tuned in to those around her. “I was always taking notice of and monitoring what I perceived that other people were thinking and feeling, which can become pretty disconcerting at certain times, and in any case doesn’t help the attention-span problem,” said Chayes.

Likewise, Sarah Revi Sterling, ABI’s winner of the Award for Social Impact, revealed that her career path has not been failure-free either. As facility director for the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado, Sterling is a leading researcher in the area of information and communication technology, specializing in creating viable technology solutions for international development. Yet she spoke of a rocky beginning, candidly sharing the less glamorous moments of her journey to the award podium.

“The pictures in my video show a very well-adjusted and happy woman,” said Sterling. “There are no pictures between the age of 16 and 26. This is what I call my lost decade. This was the decade of self-discovery through self-destruction: an era of drinking, drugs, bad decisions, fear, selfishness, reform schools, and car crashes—and that was a good year!”

Life Lessons

The award winners went on to say that it was from these seeming deficits in their experiences and skill sets that their true success was born. Adve said that on many occasions, she was tempted to give up, but didn’t. “That’s my first message: you have to learn not to give up,” she said. “I don’t think I was born with a don’t give up gene. And neither did I wake up one fine day and tell myself that from now on I will never give up. Not giving up is more like a habit that I slowly developed.”

Adve also recommended doing things outside of your comfort zone earlier in your career in order to get used to failure. “If you stick your neck out often enough, you will fail once in a while but the successes will be that much more impactful,” she said. “When you are younger, the failures usually do not have major consequences, and it is much easier to get back up while learning important lessons from them. So when you are older, when failures may have higher consequences, you are better equipped to avoid them. Most important, you have developed a habit of working in unconventional and creative corners without worrying about failing.”

Chayes similarly concluded that her apparent weaknesses as a young person turned out to be her greatest strengths. “In my craziness and ADD, I found my creativity,” said Chayes. “In my oversensitivity to others’ feelings, I found the insights to get people to follow me. In the fact that my life had been far from perfect, l found my compassion and my tolerance for risk.”

Sterling referred to her lost decade as symbolized by “the key that locks things away.” Though she said many times she has wanted to throw away that key, she hangs onto it. “I need it to remind me of the powerful games my mind can play on me, and that I need to remember the lessons that I came out of that decade with—and the fire in the belly that I have to make up for lost time,” said Sterling.

These award winners were clearly special not just because of everything they’ve done, but what they failed to do. Their gift to tech’s many up-and-comers in the audience was the reminder that the same would be true for them. “Never, ever let go,” said Chayes. “The key is to keep in the race, lean into the challenges, and know that there are amazing people, like those here tonight, who’ll always have your back.”