Women in Tech: “When someone closes a door on me, I start building a window”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we 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 Kim Raath, CEO of Topl.
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?
Three years ago, we 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 Kim Raath, CEO of Topl.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Kim Raath, CEO of Topl
As part of the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems (CoFES) and as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow (NSF GRFP), Kim received an MA in Economics while also pursuing a Ph.D. in Statistics at Rice University. She conducted interdisciplinary research allowing her to contribute to large-scale economic issues that impact the availability of and accessibility to basic needs. From growing up in South Africa in the 1990s, Kim witnessed first-hand the inherent flaws of companies alleging sustainability and the corresponding impact on inequality and poverty. Now, Kim and the female-led team at Topl are building a blockchain that allows them to verify these claims on an immutable ledger.
When did you become interested in technology?
I grew up in South Africa during a time of political and economic turmoil, and it gave me a strong sense of justice and desire to make a difference. After I graduated high school I decided to take a gap year and worked with various NGO’s in 18 developing countries. In my travels I saw first-hand the acute need for digital infrastructure in emerging economies and how technological innovation can leapfrog conventional barriers. So my interest in tech is not just the nuts and bolts of how it works or what the tech is, but rather what it can tangibly enable in communities. I am passionate about the marriage of innovation and social impact, where tech is the bridge to enabling change and progress. At Topl we call this ImpacTech.
How did you end up in your career path?
After traveling all around the world and working in some of the most remote regions of the globe, I came to the U.S. on an NCAA Division I Track and Field Scholarship. I studied Mathematics at Arkansas State University, before continuing onto Rice University for my MA in Economics and PhD in Statistics.
My path to Rice University was extremely unconventional, but I really wanted to work for Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum at Rice University and founder of Rice 360: The Institute for Global Health. Rice 360 deploys low-cost, robust technologies to some of the poorest countries in the world co-engineered by Rice students and engineers local to the regions where these technologies are deployed. I had been tracking Rice 360’s activities since coming to the US and the year I asked if I could voluntarily work for her, Rice 360 had made so much progress Rebecca was on the Fortune list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. I can still remember the excitement of receiving a same-day response as well as an invite for an interview, which led to a six year journey at Rice University. After a year of working for Rice 360, I had a lot of questions around tracking and tracing social outcomes and especially how we could use technology to drastically simplify certification processes as well as prove ESG claims.
I quickly enrolled in a joint degree program through the Center for Computational Finance and Economic Systems (CoFES) at Rice where I studied how large-scale economic issues such as institutional voids and information asymmetries impact availability and access to basic needs. At CoFES, I met my co-founders: Chris Georgen and James Aman. At first, the challenge of starting a company like Topl was daunting to all of us, but with each of our unique backgrounds we know how technical innovation can empower communities and economies to improve both quality of life and access to opportunities. We are just getting started at Topl, so it’s safe to say I have more obstacles ahead of me than behind, but I am excited to see how we can help those that are truly changing the world prove that they are actually doing it!
I am passionate about the marriage of innovation and social impact, where tech is the bridge to enabling change and progress.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
My family has always been supportive while encouraging me to push myself. One of the stories I like to share is from when I was a girl and the women’s track event I was supposed to run was canceled. I had my heart set on getting to nationals, so my father lobbied for me to get a chance to run in the boy’s race. Eventually, they let me run and I came in second place. My dad was my advocate and went to bat for me; the power of creating opportunities for others has always stuck with me.
In my career, my PhD thesis advisor Dr. Ensor has been an enormous support and source of guidance. In the five years I was her advisee, I was a witness to her masterclass of working behind the scenes helping to foster better relationships and solutions on a regional and national level, which have a major impact on our everyday lives. I would not have had the grit or resolve to finish my PhD in Statistics and an MA in Economics while fundraising for Topl in 2019 and 2020 were it not for her constant bedrock of support and guidance.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
I think many women can relate to being underestimated or overlooked. When I look back, it’s hard to find a specific example that stands out; the majority have been micro-aggressions. But like that track race, I have found that tenacity and relentless pursuit of opportunities helps forge a path, especially in male-dominated studies like mathematics, economics, and statistics. I just do not believe in giving in, and I absolutely never stop. When someone closes a door on me, I start building a window.
A day in Kim’s life
Topl is a blockchain ecosystem that enables companies to trace, verify, and monetize their sustainable and ethical practices. Our technology empowers organizations to drastically cut certification costs as well as deliver unprecedented trust and transparency around their ESG initiatives.
As CEO of Topl, I start my day thinking of two categories: Our stakeholder (my team, our investors, our current customers, our future customers, and our future funders) and our strategies (product, growth, marketing, commercialization, and technology R&D). I make sure to split up my day 50/50 , but before 9am and after 6pm is where I actually get most of my work done. I review any important emails from the previous day and respond to key emails (even if these are scheduled to be sent later in the week) to make sure my plate is clean and I also review any requests from my team that will create a bottleneck if not immediately acted upon. Then begins a parade of stakeholder meetings at 9am. In order to help myself balance, I divided my week into days for internal meetings and others for specific external meetings. I keep certain blocks of time to myself towards the end of the week to recap on the week and review how we are executing on our strategies. Turing virtual in 2020 was rough, however, while zoom fatigue is real there are some upsides to our virtual reality. For example, just this month I was able to join a large US activist fund meeting in NY in the morning and a Central American movement for emerging tech in the afternoon.
What are you most proud of in your career?
We are social activists who became social entrepreneurs building a social enterprise to drive social change. Every startup wants to be a Unicorn, but Topl is seeking to grow a herd of Zebras; companies committed to both doing business and improving society (purpose and profit). Solving problems of inequality, poverty, and climate change have long been considered the responsibility of governments and non-profits, divorced from businesses and consumer activity, but modern consumers see the connection between good works and responsible purchasing. Unicorns are focused on disruption, but Zebras have the power to change the commerce status quo, to force companies to take responsibility for the impact they generate, and to become contributing members of the communities they profit from.
Topl believes that economic and social goals can be complementary instead of competitive, that profit should drive impact — and vice versa. By building a technology that enables purpose-driven businesses to maximize their profit and their impact, Topl fully embraces our motto: “You change the world. We prove it.”
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
I think the answer here is the reverse question: “why isn’t tech welcoming to women?”. The tech space remains one of the most male-dominated professions because until recently, there’s been little effort to change it. The solution to transforming the status quo is creating supportive networks. My career has benefited from the women who have advocated and gone to bat for me, opening doors others closed on me.
To address the issue, women (and men!) leaders in the space must cultivate inclusive, equitable, and diverse environments, actively recruiting and developing women, and combating the sexist stigmas and realities of the industry.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
So of course, the first challenge faced by women is often being the only woman in the room. This is a hurdle in and of itself, but it brings lots of other little behavioral hurdles too. Because men and women are socialized so differently, women often have to adapt to or accommodate for male-pattern behaviors. For example, where men up-sell, women undersell; women tend to suggest, men make statements; women are more likely to be talked over in meetings; men are blunt and direct with their opinions and feedback. It takes a lot of courage to fight for yourself and your ideas in a room full of men. You can’t expect others to do it for you. Even further, those of us that are in the room have a duty to speak up, not just for our own sake, but for other voices that are still excluded. Being a woman in the tech space means learning how to accommodate, navigate, and hold your ground.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
Around the globe, women are usually the most deeply involved in social mechanics. If sitcom stereotypes are anything to go by (and they’re not), the female capacity to multitask, manage, and track the happenings of her community creates a rich macro understanding of her life. Necessity is the mother of invention, and mothers are often on the front lines knowing what we need. A macro perspective helps ground technology and innovation in real life, so more women in tech means more applications of tech for social deficits. While innovation is valuable as a stand-alone, women can help direct innovation and resources to existing problems, as well as synthesize how its effects ripple.
While innovation is valuable as a stand-alone, women can help direct innovation and resources to existing problems, as well as synthesize how its effects ripple.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
In 2020 the US was faced with another social justice reckoning so my answer on when we will see results, very soon. And I believe we all have to participate. I have a strong belief in the power of representation and mentorship; in people that look like you pulling you up and holding doors open. My career has included many badass women who gave me access and opportunities for growth. Tech and software is a particularly white, male industry— especially blockchain— but I am proud of Topl’s commitment to being a force for a new status quo. Topl’s plan and commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion features a board majority that are now representatives of diverse groups including women, immigrants, and people of color. Other initiatives include, but are not limited to, the Diversity in Blockchain Chapter we are helping build, a commitment to maintaining our 40% female diversity metric, conscious initiatives in hiring and professional development, as well as education outreach programs to underserved populations.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
Women especially get a lot of free advice— take what’s useful, but don’t let the rest shake you. As a statistician, I have a deep appreciation for data points. In general, more are always better, but they shouldn’t all be weighted equally. This was a lesson we learned in the first year of our materials for pitching, sales, decks, etc. We took advantage of our friends and accelerator networks to get feedback and suggestions for our materials, but fell into the trap of trying to incorporate everyone’s comments. Always listen to criticism, but only take the bits that resonate with you, your strategy, and your mission. Trust yourself! Chances are you are underestimating your own skills, knowledge, and intuition.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “The prerequisite is pleasure in problem-solving”
- Women in Tech: “Join meetups and other women tech groups”
- Women in Tech: “Degrees can matter but they aren’t required”
- Women in Tech: “The IT sector requires a lot of energy and will”
- Women in Tech: “I got to be a self-taught, self-managed, problem solver”