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Profile: Lauren Woodman, CEO of DataKind

Women in Tech: “It requires grit and perseverance”

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 Lauren Woodman, CEO of DataKind.

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 Lauren Woodman, CEO of DataKind.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Lauren Woodman, CEO of DataKind

Lauren Woodman is the new CEO of DataKind, a global nonprofit which sits at the intersection of data science and the non-profit world to help mission-based organizations with data science expertise and talent in service of humanity. She has spent 25 years working at the intersection of technology, development, and policy. Previously, she was the CEO of NetHope, a consortium of 60 of the largest global nonprofits and tech companies from 2014-2020. Before that, she held a variety of positions in the private sector, government, and the UN, including managing Microsoft’s global education and government programs for more than a decade and serving as an executive at the Software and Information Industry Association. Currently, she is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Board of Stewards for its Initiative on Digital Economy and its Trustworthy Data Collaboration. Lauren holds degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Smith College. She lives in Seattle with her partner and two daughters.

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

Oddly, I wasn’t particularly interested in technology at a young age. I got interested in tech when I was in college. Working in the computer center paid more than washing dishes during my freshman year – and I could work late night hours, rather than early morning hours – so I took a job there. It was so interesting to learn new systems and imagine new processes and ways of doing things. I was hooked.

When I started my professional career, my real interest was international development policy. I could find a job in science policy, though, so I took it. That ultimately turned into tech policy just as the Internet was beginning, back in the mid-1990s. Tech and economic development policy, especially at the international level, are inherently intertwined, and I’ve never looked back.

How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

As I mentioned above, my first job out of college was in science policy, which eventually led me into a tech and policy career.

What fascinated me about technology was the fact that things were constantly changing – new approaches, new business models, new scientific breakthroughs. From a systems perspective, it was exciting and challenging to think about all of the different variables that impacted whether a given community, company, country or region would be able to capitalize on the effective use of technology.

No career path is easy, and if it is, you’re either exceptionally lucky or maybe not setting your aspirations high enough! I’ve run into the same obstacles that everyone faces, women weren’t always welcome in technology, or seen as less capable. I’ve had bad and great managers. I’ve worked for thriving companies and ones that have struggled. But I’ve also had great mentors and champions that provided coaching or were a sounding board when I needed it. I think the more important thing is that you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, and never stop seeking to improve your own skillset. It requires grit and perseverance.

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

Of course. No one exists in a vacuum. My parents encouraged me from a young age to dream big and do what made me happy and taught me to be willing to work for whatever that dream was. I had friends who would call me every two hours to make sure I hadn’t fallen asleep when I was finishing my thesis in school. I have had countless professional colleagues coach me at difficult junctures, provide feedback on new ideas, or recommend me for new positions. My partner has managed our kids while I travelled extensively for work. No one succeeds alone.

I have many role models, but I mostly take inspiration from my mother. She ran several successful businesses on her own while raising two families — there are seven kids altogether. After getting all of us out of school, she went back to school, got her teaching degree, and has had a remarkably successful career in the classroom. She’s been professionally recognized for her innovative use of technology with her students, something you don’t always expect from a teacher who didn’t grow up using tech, frankly. She’s taught me, not just through her words but also her own actions, that if you can dream it, you can do it and do it successfully.

I’m incredibly lucky that I can say there are many things that make me proud, but really, I’m most gratified by the professional relationships that I’ve built.

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

No, not really. I’ve been lucky in that regard. Or maybe I just ignored it.

A day in Lauren’s life

I recently assumed the role of CEO of DataKind, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing data science and AI to the social sector. My typical workday is varied – everything from checking in our various projects underway, to talking with our generous donors, to evaluating our organizational health, to thinking more broadly about how we might evolve as an organization. On any given day, I might learn about how our partners are using data science to keep families living with economic uncertainty in their homes to optimizing vaccine delivery in rural Africa. It’s interesting and intellectually challenging.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m incredibly lucky that I can say there are many things that make me proud, but really, I’m most gratified by the professional relationships that I’ve built. I’ve learned so much from people I’ve worked with and for. Many have become friends. And my professional career has been that much more rewarding because of those personal relationships.

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

I think that there are many reasons there aren’t more in tech, many of which are well documented in the academic literature and anecdotally. We have lost ground since the 1990s – which is disheartening – and we seem to be losing girls at various points in their education. I don’t know what the fix is. What I do know is that while we are seeing an uptick in recent years, we are still very far away from having enough women in computer science.

If the pandemic has highlighted anything, it’s that we need more family-friendly policies in place. We need flexibility in helping women, who still shoulder the majority of responsibility for child care, elder care, housework, and home management, balance work and home. We need to help hiring managers see that taking a break because of family needs is not an obstacle to finding your next role. We need policies to provide for childcare and elder care, so that families don’t have to make impossible choices. We need retraining and reskilling. We need equity in opportunity and evaluation. Work is not the full sum of one’s life, it’s an important part, but not the only thing, and we need workplace and societal policies that enable women to participate fully.

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

There are unique challenges in tech, traditionally it’s been such a male-dominated field that women face all of the usual obstacles: not being given the same opportunities or promotions as men, lack of mentors or role models, or the lack of active efforts to fight both blatant and subtle sexism in the workplace.

If we are willing to embrace change, to be active advocates, to move beyond talk into action, then we will see results much more quickly.

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

It’s exciting to think about how things might change in the face of more diversity in STEM. We know that having diversity of thought and experience yields more representative outcomes. The challenges we have in facial recognition, for example, are well-documented and oft-quoted, but I think it goes further than that. Women bring different experiences, different perspectives to the discussion; we solve problems differently because we have different backgrounds. We know that technology – its creation, deployment, utilization – is critical to solving the challenges we collectively face. Our creativity and aspirations are the only limits on how technology might be used to solve problems; when we limit the source of that creativity and aspiration, we only harm ourselves. Having rich, diverse, and representative talent will ultimately yield tools and processes that better serve us all.

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

I’m not so bold as to guess how long change will take – I’ve been working in social impact long enough to know that change always takes too long and happens faster than you expect. That timeline will ultimately be determined by each of us. If we are willing to embrace change, to be active advocates, to move beyond talk into action, then we will see results much more quickly.

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

Do it. Go for it. Dream big and dive in. A career in tech can be remarkably rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and personally satisfying. You do have to be an advocate for yourself, but that’s probably true in every sector. Leverage your personal networks and join professional groups to find support. And when it gets difficult – and it always does – remember that not only are you pushing forward for yourself and all that you deserve, but you’re making it easier for women that will follow you.

More Women in Tech:

For even more Women in Tech, click here

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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