Portrait: Dawn Newton, co-founder and COO of Netki

How to get (and stay) into the tech industry: Tips & tricks for women

Gabriela Motroc
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Dawn Newton, co-founder and COO of Netki.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Dawn Newton, co-founder and COO of Netki.

Dawn Newton, co-founder and COO of Netki

Dawn is a technology startup veteran with over twenty years of experience building teams at innovative companies leading to successful exits. She grew support operations leading to a multi-billion-dollar IPO at NetZero/United Online. Prior to NetZero, she managed technology teams at Microcom (acquired by Compaq), and InterAccess (acquired by Allegiance Telecom). She is currently the Co-Founder and COO of Netki, a blockchain solutions provider focused on digital identity and regulatory compliance.

Dawn recently spoke at TEDx Los Angeles on the challenges facing women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). She was named one of L.A.’s Women of Influence by the Business Journal and one of the Power Women in FinTech by InnoTribe’s Bridging the Gender Gap report. She currently serves on the Boards of The Threshold Foundation and BitGive, as well as being an advisor to the award-winning newspaper, The National Observer.

Since she was very young, she was always curious about how things worked mechanically. Dawn wanted to take objects apart to understand how they worked and then rebuild them herself. Luckily, her dad had a well-equipped workshop in the garage where he allowed her to work on projects with him. This passion followed Dawn into adulthood. Computers held the same fascination for her. They still do. So, when she left college, Dawn headed straight to a tech company that made modems and telecommunication software.

The only woman in the room

I started out my career in tech at Microcom in 1985. This was pre-mainstream Internet. At the time, they were one of the top modem manufacturers and made communication software for mainframes. Back then, computers had yet to be in everyone’s homes, so we had large corporate clients like UPS and Bank of America. I started out managing Tier 1 Support and was promoted to overseeing the entire service team. I moved to InterAccess in ‘96, a regional ISP out of Chicago that was the first commercial DSL provider in the U.S. I knew that the Internet was going to go global and wanted to be a part of this world-changing industry. I went on to scale the support team at free ISP NetZero/United Online, leading up to their multi-billion-dollar IPO.

There have been a lot of times over my thirty-year career in tech that I have been the only woman in the room. Back then, and let’s be honest, still today, there are some people that aren’t always as willing to listen to a female voice. When my input was being ignored, I found male allies who valued my skillset and enlisted their help in promoting and validating my ideas. Afterward, I always took the extra step to ensure everyone remembered the contributions were made by me specifically. Very quickly with most, and over time with everyone else, this made others see the unique value that I was bringing to the discussion and to the business.

Dawn’s passion for the computer industry

I was the first person on both sides of my family to ever go to university and I had a renewable scholarship that would have enabled me to attend for free. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I dropped out of college to work in the computer industry. Needless to say, my parents were not thrilled. “Why would anyone want a computer?” was a serious question they asked. But, while they were not supportive at first, they came to realize that I was clearly onto something and had made the right life choice.

I started #FamousFemaleFriday on Twitter to highlight these amazing women and their significant contributions to technology and the world in the hopes that their stories would inspire other women like me.

My role models have been historical ones: Grace Hopper invented the first computer compiler; Mary Jackson was not only a mathematician and NASA’s first black female engineer, she also focused on diversity so that she could enable more minorities to successfully join NASA; Katherine Johnson who was chosen by John Glenn to personally validate the orbital equations controlling the trajectory of the Friendship 7 mission capsule; and Margaret Hamilton, who wrote the onboard flight software for Apollo 11. These women entered a truly male-dominated field with little to no support. Not only did they persevere, they thrived! Being an Internet geek, I researched all I could find about women in computers. Sadly, I never learned about them in school, so I started #FamousFemaleFriday on Twitter to highlight these amazing women and their significant contributions to technology and the world in the hopes that their stories would inspire other women like me. I was thrilled when Hidden Figures was green lit to become a movie to share their incredible stories.

When I succeeded, several of the naysayers became supporters.

How Dawn made a name for herself

There were several people throughout my career who tried to marginalize me. Rather than be defeated, I took their words as a challenge to do more, to be more, to not give up, and to continue to succeed. Their words strengthened my resolve to continue to work in technology, to learn as much as I could, and to climb the ladder of success. I found allies above me, alongside me, and below me to help navigate the politics and to make a name for myself. Having the perseverance to deal with it mattered. When I succeeded, several of the naysayers became supporters. It also helps to have a sense of humor and to realize that this attitude is more about the person projecting at you than about you directly.

A day in Dawn Newton’s life

I am the co-founder and COO of Netki, a Digital Identity provider for blockchains. Blockchain technology has the ability to not only create significant savings for such sectors as finance and insurance but also to open up new markets. We believe that identity is one of the linchpins to the success of this new ecosystem. It is an enabler for individuals who use it as a way to simplify access and use of services. Additionally, enterprises see it as a way to obtain reliable, validated identity in order to meet the plethora of risk and compliance requirements.

Blockchain technology has the ability to not only create significant savings for such sectors as finance and insurance but also to open up new markets.

In my role, I hone the company’s strategic vision alongside the CEO, design new products to meet industry needs, ensure the business is performing at its peak ability, and direct the legal, financial, compliance, and marketing teams. I make it a point to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to advance within the company. Technical Support Operations is an entry level job that can be a stepping stone into Quality Assurance, Project Management, Product Management, Development, and Security. I worked with the management team of each of the preceding departments so that they would look to fill junior positions internally. As a result, I have a significant number of former employees who are now Vice Presidents at other companies or founders of their own startups.

False narratives

The belief that women leave tech due to work/life balance issues has been proven to be a false narrative in a plethora of recent studies. The recurring reasons, cited over and over again is that women are less likely to be fast-tracked compared to their male counterparts, less likely to have the same standard advancement opportunities and a lack of clarity regarding potential career paths. A recent study by the Center For Talent Innovation specifically about women in STEM found that 80% of them love their work and want to advance their careers, but are consistently held back due to the above reasons.

However, there are companies who are tackling this paradigm head-on who are achieving great success. Intuit realized that women made up 24% of their overall engineering teams yet only 10% of their leadership and actual engineering roles. Further, they discovered that women were three times less likely to be ready for promotions. Intuit’s management team dedicated the time and resources to create a talent pipeline for senior roles. Within one year the promotional readiness gap had been eliminated and, as a result, Intuit saw an improvement in the entire team’s retention and engagement. Intuit’s results prove that women don’t have to rise to the occasion — management simply needs to pay attention and hone the process.

Several studies speak to team diversity resulting in improved job satisfaction and increased productivity. Groupthink has been known to occur more rapidly when the majority of people are rather homogeneous. Having a diverse team positively impacts the bottom line as well. Credit Suisse found that companies with 15% of women in senior management saw a greater than 50% increase in ROE. Version One Ventures stated that women-run tech companies bring in a 35% higher ROI.

The importance of task-based feedback

Research shows that men are consistently critiqued and praised on the exact task they are working on, whereas women are praised/critiqued on their whole person. An employee has the best possibility of improving if they are told specifically how their performance met or exceeded expectations, not just that they “did a great job” or “you need to improve”. Companies that provide task based feedback for improvement have seen a direct impact on both productivity and job satisfaction.

I don’t think there is any real debate as to the value of diverse teams. The issue is more one of how much of a priority is senior management going to make it, and what amount of resources are they willing to dedicate to it. As I stated earlier, Intuit saw a drastic change in one year. All it takes is commitment.

How to get (and stay) into the tech industry: Tips & tricks

If they are still in school, I would recommend being proactive outside of the classroom. Look into STEM clubs on campus and local meetups. Ask teachers if they know of any local companies looking for project-based work, even ask your teacher to solicit project-based work from said companies.

Find open source projects to participate in; doing code reviews is a great place to start. It enables you to do research on local companies to see if there are any in the area making products you are interested in. A lot of startups don’t actively solicit for interns, but if a qualified intern comes to them they frequently create a position. I’ve done it several times as a boss. Seek out the thought leaders in your area, be bold and ask them for advice, mentorship, a job, or a referral.

If they are in the working world, I would say to actively seek out peers and mentors. One of the great benefits of social media is that you can find other people, both in similar roles or in more senior roles that you want to have, in the same field as yourself. I have personally taken on three young women to mentor who have met me through social media or acquaintances. Always ask, the worst someone can do is say no, and you can follow up a no with “Do you know of anyone else?” Even as a COO, I have my own set of peers that I bounce ideas off of, seek advice from, and commiserate with on days when it seems as if nothing goes the way it should. Curating a group of people who truly understand not only the field you work in, but what you actually do, is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Seek out mentors who not only speak to self-improvement but who can provide insight into the concrete steps needed to make career moves and who, themselves, have built impressive networks you can leverage for advancement.

Also, stay relevant. Read the news about your industry to understand what is going on in the space. What new/interesting tech is coming out? Who is entering/leaving the space? Are there any new thought leaders rising to the top? Are there any collectives forming that you want to join? Is there anyone you really admire that you want to work for? Understanding the bigger picture and the market you are in can help you understand the why behind what you are being tasked with and can aid you in any decision making process.

Career advancement isn’t simply about what you know, it is about who you know and how they see you. It is important to be able to ascertain who the decision makers are and who the influencers are to those decision makers. As a young up-and-comer it is very difficult to get face time with decision makers, however, it is possible to impress an influencer. Spend time knowing what they care about, how they see the market, research what they are posting online, and work to become a subject matter expert that they can’t help but notice.


Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc was editor of and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments