Published on Mic.com in June 2013. Note: Since publication, the title of the book has changed to Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology.
I recently encountered a Reddit thread listing “the most intellectual jokes you know.” Many were indeed nerd wit-laden, but one response caught me off guard. It began: “A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer stay in a hotel. The engineer is awakened by a smell and gets up to check it.” A fire emerges in the hallway, and the three must use their expertise to think of ways to extinguish it.
What troubled me was that the default pronoun used to describe the characters — “he” or “him.” This is emblematic of a persistent cultural assumption that women don’t ever become physicists, mathematicians or engineers. Congress’s Joint Economic Committee reported last year that only 14% of engineers are women, and only 27% are working in computer science and math fields. The same under-representation occurs in leadership positions, as only 4% of women make the Fortune 500 CEO list.
Enter millennial entrepreneur Kristen Van Nest and the team of researchers behind Innovating Women: Past, Present, & Future. The ambitious crowd-sourced e-book and surrounding project aim to shed light on why women are underrepresented in STEM and leadership positions. The title gives us a hint: Women encounter obstacles not just when they enter the workforce, but throughout the course of their lives.
“It is important to understand that innovation happens in many ways. We should not get hung up on thinking an innovation is a massive breakthrough. Innovation often comes in a series of steps,” recommends Kay Koplovitz, Chairman & CEO at Koplovitz & Co LLC and the founder of USA Network and creator of today’s cable television business model. Those most successful in entrepreneurship understand that regardless of where they were in their career, acquiring new skills was critical to the innovation process. On a day-to-day basis, they followed their passions on undefined paths, not expecting leaping breakthroughs, but understanding that each step would lead to new opportunities.
For an upcoming book, Innovating Women: Past, Present & Future, co-authored by Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya, top female entrepreneurs shared their stories on how they reached the top, developing the broad, yet specialized knowledge-base necessary to create innovation within their fields. Their anecdotes provide insight as to how aspiring entrepreneurs can educate and prepare themselves to start their own firms.
For Alison Lewis, named one of the Most Influential Women in Technology in 2010 by Fast Company and founder of Agent of Presence, a fashion technology firm, she wanted to create unique experiences using fashion. Lewis realized her graphic design skills were not enough to support her passion of technology-based design. At the age of 28, she learned electrical engineering from scratch: “To step into electronic engineering, it was scary. I just really wanted to make stuff, jewelry that responded when loved ones were thinking about each other, or I wanted to make garments that when you hugged them, they responded to you. The power and the will to want to make something in a space where you feel free to want to make something, makes it a lot easier to learn.” The label ‘designer’ did not limit her, but instead she created an environment in which she could be whatever she wanted to be, surrounding herself with supportive and innovative creators in Parson’s Design & Technology program. This made her comfortable adding ‘electrical engineer’ to her repertoire.