Last year, I spent March 8 in Venice Beach at Google’s Southern California headquarters. I was invited to be part of the inaugural Los Angeles Women Techmakers event taking place there—one of over 225 events in 52 countries that were organized for International Women’s Day under the theme of “Building a New Horizon,” and one which included over 20,000 women in technology.
“We need to reframe our minds,” Olga Garcia said to open the day, “and intentionally build the future.” It was a perfect introduction for our first speaker: Marzia Polito, who leads two teams at Google—of which 40 percent of the engineers are women. She opened up about what inspired her to become a woman tech-maker, and how she acquired the skills to make it happen.
Polito asked us a hard question: “Who inspires you?” But her answers are part of her DNA. Politio’s grandmother taught her to be a problem solver, engaging her in games of Scrabble and challenging her to finish crossword puzzles; her chosen grandfather, Lucio, inspired her to study math. Polito, who grew up to be a girl who played with “toys for boys” in the 1980s, eventually learned, at her father’s side, how to program the newest computer in BASIC.
Polito urged the women in the audience to heed three pieces of advice: “We have something to bring to the table,” she instructed. “No one should tell us we are wrong. We are special because of what we contribute. Be Yourself. Build Alliances. Speak Up.” She called for more self-compassion, not more self-confidence; she encouraged us to spark more empathy, more connection and more compassion.
Women are too often told they’re “doing it wrong” because we tap into our emotions—she told us instead, declaratively, that we are doing it right. She also invited us to involve men and women in the discussion of how do we work together—but warned us not to be mere spectators. Being included, she reminded the women there, “is not a favor to us.” Instead, she directed us to “demand what is due to us as women.”
Natalie Villalobos, head of Global Programs for Women Techmakers, later moderated a discussion between Carrie Shaw, CEO of Embodied Labs; Carolina Castilla, CEO of Massive Act; and Liliana Monge, CEO of Sabio. On stage, the four women shared the stories of their companies and their own journeys to success—discovering, in the process, that the common thread which united them was that they believed that they could figure out the answers, and didn’t hesitate to ask for help, find mentors and think big.
Hearing their personal stories, and glimpsing their resolve, was inspirational for many women in the audience, who talked later about their own desire to launch companies. After hearing from the women gathered at Google’s SoCal HQ, they could better see how to make it happen.
Castilla founded her company because she saw the need. “If no one is helping us,” she remembered thinking, “I am just going to do it.” Shaw was inspired by her service in the Peace Corps, and her mother’s medical issues. Monge wanted there to be more non-traditional tech candidates for jobs in technology. “It is a battle,” she said, to get young ladies to choose tech, often because their families tell them it is not a good match. The video that screened before lunch—“we all have a place in tech”—encouraged us to help turn that tide.
“You can learn more in an hour of play,” Kimberly MacLean, Director of Learning at Speechless, declared that afternoon, “then in a year of communication.” MacLean walked attendees through different confidence-building strategies to gear them up for presentations, pitches and meetings. She talked about building stories—which, science says, are 22 percent more memorable than facts—and then gave us access to 13 more courses that are offered in partnership with CreativeLive, Women TechMakers and Speechless.
Bria Sullivan, who describes herself on LinkedIn as a “Full Stack Engineer on Google Ads Tools by day, Android and iOS Developer by night,” with “diversity and inclusion” listed as her “#1 priority,” followed MacLean with a lightning talk about being one of the only women in the room. For someone like Sullivan—and many of the women, inevitably, in the room—it’s a haunting glimpse into how hard improving the composition of the field could be. Her challenges reminded all of us that there is still so much work to be done to build a new horizon together.
Villalobos closed out the event by telling us how it all began. She created her dream job—and now, she spends her time developing projects to support women all around the world. This year, Google will hold 16 of these summits. Their outreach encompasses 190 countries and touches 100,000 women.
“When you chart your path,” Villalobos told us, “trust your why.” Following our passions and reshaping the industry, she assured us, will “clear the path for the next generation to create something that has never been done before.”