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Profile: June Sugiyama, Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation

Women in Tech: “Use what you have and get what you need”

Sarah Schlothauer

Four 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 June Sugiyama, Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation.

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?

Four 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 June Sugiyama, Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation.

Today’s Woman in Tech: June Sugiyama, Director of Vodafone Americas Foundation

June has been in corporate philanthropy sector for over 20 years specializing in identifying the power of technology for social good. She has led the Foundation’s transition towards Empowering Women and Girls through Technology, aligning programs with Vodafone’s expertise in technology & innovation. She also developed the Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project, a competition designed to seek the best wireless technology to address critical global issues; it has identified several winners who are already impacting over 65 Million lives, addressing poverty, health, environment, disaster relief and technology access. Since then, she has transitioned the program to a partnership with MIT Solve.

June served on boards and as advisory capacities for several foundation and nonprofit organizations, most notably on the advisory committee of the Vodafone Group Foundation & United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership’s M Health Alliance, Foundation Center, Learning Equality, and the Frugal Innovation Lab at Santa Clara University. June’s background hails from education, specifically elementary, bilingual, and special education. She received her teaching credential & liberal studies degree from San Francisco State University, pending masters & specialist credential at University of San Francisco.

When did you become interested in technology? What first got you interested in tech?

I first became interested in technology back in 2009 when Vodafone Americas Foundation (VAF) launched its inaugural Wireless Innovation Project, an annual award launched by the Foundation to find the best technology solution to make the world a better place. I believe technology makes a huge impact in the nonprofit sector, and I credit the handful of colleagues that have not only guided me in the beginning stages of this project, but really pioneered this concept of integrating technology with social impact.

Let’s talk about your background. How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

Prior to Vodafone’s merger, I had been at AirTouch so I was already familiar with the technology field. At the time, mobile was gaining popularity and it was a very exciting opportunity for me to continue my work in the technology sector. I’m not an engineer – my initial background is in teaching, which can pose challenges not being versed in the field. Luckily, we had an expert technology advisor within Vodafone who volunteered his efforts to help fill the gap, which was a tremendous help. Aside from this, being a woman in a space dominated primarily by men taught me how to gauge conversations where I would be able to make the most impact and have my voice heard – it’s a delicate balance that I’ve learned to overcome.

Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?

I had a variety of support, from colleagues to leadership, and mentors from the nonprofit side that really supported my work. There weren’t too many people who worked between the intersection of technology and nonprofit compared to today, so the support I received over the years from both industries really helped my work, and I’m grateful for it.

I think if more women were in STEM, we’d have an incredible variety of product innovations.

Did anyone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

In the beginning, there was skepticism from some leaders in the nonprofit side questioning if the challenge model really worked – articles were written on the opposition, and authors were vocal on not breaking the status quo, but there were a handful of organizations that swore by the process and based their whole business model on it. I’m grateful that I talked to them first and learned from them. After we started our competition, we found more and more people using similar challenge platforms and making a difference. For a while, the challenge model was really trending, but we knew this was the way to go and a fit for our Foundation.

A day in June’s life

My position is quite unusual compared to someone solely focused on technology. Technology for social innovation, the cross section between technology and nonprofits – that’s the exciting part of my job. The other part of my work that excites me is engaging our Vodafone employees by providing them with programs and opportunities to volunteer and connect with our work. Our Employee Community Project is an example of one of our programs, a team of employee volunteers get a first land look on our work, they are trained on grantmaking and get a chance to help select grants; we – give them a pocket of funding to gain their own experience in grantmaking.

As far as Vodafone worldwide, we have a very unusual model – Vodafone has 26 foundations, which is an unusual model, but we’re really proud of this and the ability to give our employees opportunities to be proud of what they do and who we are.

What are you most proud of in your career?

There are a lot of moments I’m most proud of! The first year we launched the Wireless Innovation Project and announced the winners is a highlight. Screening every application we get, meeting with all the great entrepreneurs, and building relationships with them – it’s all a very long process – but being able to showcase the important work these entrepreneurs do is very rewarding. Together with these entrepreneurs, we are impacting over 65 million lives.

I’m also proud of the partnerships we’ve forged with similar organizations and the ways we’ve collaborated to drive even more recognition for our foundation winners. We now have a partnership with MIT Solve, through their challenge to find solutions that empower Women & Girls. The partnership came out of similarities in our challenge model and the winners we were selecting were one and the same. The fundamental goals of our organizations matched and since then we have partnered with MIT Solve to transition our Wireless Innovation Project, bringing even more awareness to our work.

Why aren’t there more women in tech? What’s your take on that?

I think we’re slowly making progress – but we can do better. The engineering sector was not welcoming to women before, but it’s different now. I believe improving how we provide support and mentorship to women and young girls throughout their educational and professional careers will have a profound impact in the long run. Look at the work that organizations like Technovation, TechGirz, Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are doing as well at Fast Forward and many other inclusive accelerators and incubators. However, there’s still more work to be done. There are women making it in the field, a lot of women like the angel Investors are starting their own funds and companies like Vodafone are working to improve gender inclusion. Our previous CEO together with UN He for She, publicly announced Vodafone’s commitment to making a difference for women through increasing the number of women in tech, women in leadership and helping to educate girls. I think if more companies followed suit we will definitely see improvements.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

The lack of diversity can certainly be discouraging for women. The tech industry is huge, dominated by men and it’s easy to feel that your voice may not be heard. In the beginning of my career, it was difficult for me to navigate where I could fit in and uncover where I could make an impact. You had multi-levels like culture, gender and age, it makes it even more difficult. I think comparison also takes a toll, especially for women. It’s challenging to imagine what you’re capable of when there still aren’t many women at the executive level to model your goals after. I am not an entrepreneur, I merely work with these great people, I know that female entrepreneurs have a very difficult time, being heard, getting space and getting funding. So I sincerely admire them.

How would our world be different if more women worked in STEM? What would be the (social, economic, and cultural) impact?

I think if more women were in STEM, we’d have an incredible variety of product innovations. Only women themselves know the kind of products and services they need, and I believe their input would spawn more and better-curated products and services. Society benefits greatly from their input. I know in the country where I hail from, Japan, women control the purse strings, so it pays to give them a voice and listen.

Know that you don’t have to take all advice that come your way but only those that fit with you because culture and other personal factors play key roles in how you tackle challenges and success.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current discussion?

I think it will take a while. We really need to give support to women throughout their lives – from childhood education to when they enter the workforce – and we really haven’t seen that yet. There is improvement in diversity, but we have a ways to go. I’m optimistic to have seen a shift, especially in more recent years, where companies are prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion. We have to keep the momentum going – and even accelerate it to achieve radical change.

Vodafone Americas Foundations’ (VAF) mission is to connect an ecosystem of partners that use technology to empower women and girls, and our MIT Solve challenge is an initiative we created with MIT to help find and showcase entrepreneurs all around the world working in tech to solve world challenges women and girls face and make an impact in their lives. Like I mentioned previously, our partners like Technovation, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, TechGirlz, Girls Leadership, World Pulse, Atma Connect and Fast Forward are all making advancements in the world to make sure they are included and they’ve provided voices and opportunities for women. We’re really trying to do our part in making the world, and tech industry, a more inclusive place. We need the rest of the world to keep pushing forward, too.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?

I say go ahead and do it! Finding allies and mentors to help guide you along your journey will be so important, and taking advantage of the types of opportunities, groups, and services available to you to meet fellow peers with the same career goals is critical. Know that you don’t have to take all advice that come your way but only those that fit with you because culture and other personal factors play key roles in how you tackle challenges and success. I want people who relate to my nontraditional background to know that you don’t necessarily need years of educational experience or deep engineering background to make it in the engineering sector. Use what you have and get what you need; my teaching background was certainly a plus in the philanthropy world. There are ways around it, but you do need to be informed of the industry you are trying to succeed in and take every learning opportunity available!

More Women in Tech:

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Author
Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer

All Posts by Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer is the editor for JAXenter.com. She received her Bachelor's degree from Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey. She currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany with her husband and cat where she enjoys reading, writing, and medieval reenactment. She is also the editor for Conditio Humana, an online magazine about ethics, AI, and technology.

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