Last night we were privileged to attend the Women Innovators Dinner at the Marriot Times Square Ballroom in NYC.

Allison Watson of Microsoft introduced the panel and gave some background on her career and her group—which is 50% female. Watson is a Corporate Vice President of the U.S. Marketing & Operations Group and leads marketing and strategic business development for Microsoft's largest geographic market.

Watson said that this year, the Microsoft Imagine Cup expanded from 30 women to 65 women student participants, with 4 women-only teams (from Brazil, India, Taiwan and Romania). 

The purpose of the panel and dinner was to help get more women involved in technology, and encourage the student women innovators attending to continue on their path, and continue on their technical initiatives. Watson discussed the strong shortage of women in technical fields—a 10% talent shortage worldwide. How do we bring more female students into the field of technology, computer science, biotech, and more?

With that, Watson introduced the panel, which included:

  • Earl Newsome, VP Global Shared Services, Estée Lauder
  • Her Excellency, Meryl Frank, former Ambassador and deputy U.S. representative to the Commission on the Status of Women (appointed by Barack Obama)
  • Zainab Al-Suwaij, President of the American Islamic Congress
  • Dr. Mary Fernandez, Executive Director of Dependable Distributed Computing Research at AT&T Labs
  • Jane Prey, Senior Researcher, Microsoft Corporation

Earl Newsome, of Estee Lauder said that the company believes every woman is beautiful. They transform the world and the way everyone thinks of things, and as a company, they want to help empower women. He talked about knowing, at the mere age of 4 years old, that he was going to be a CIO, and he is focused now on innovation at Estee Lauder, figuring out how to digitize high-touch, and asked the student teams attending the dinner to talk with them if they had ideas.

Dr. Mary Fernandez was mentored by Andries (Andy) van Dam,  who is Brown University’s legendary computer science guru, and the founder of the computer science department at Brown. She said she was drawn to the complete newness of the field—and the fact that her mentor talked about people someday being able to have computers in their home (this was when they were the size of minivans). When he said that eventually we will carry computers on our bodies, she changed her major to Computer Science, and ended up getting a PhD in it. “Besides having a good time, I wanted to be able to take care of myself,” she said, and the field allowed her to make a good income while being at the dawn of a whole new world in innovation. Because her mentors in life were so critical to her success, she started MentorNet, which connects women in science and technology with mentors. She gave the student attendees the advice to stick with science and technology, stick with their education, and to become technically deep with what you are working on. She said that women have an enormous advantage with communication and to seek out a career in computing.  

Zainab Al-Suwaij, spoke next. Originally from Iraq, she said that her very religious family allowed the women to get an education, but not to work. She was the first one to break this rule and her grandfather told her that since her, all the women in the family broke the rule. Iraq was still under Saddam Hussein dictatorship when she grew up. When she was going to school to get her finals, she was called into the principal’s office and was told that she was the only person that was not part of Saddam’s political party, and that she couldn’t take her final exam without this. When she said she refused to have an affiliation, she had to sign a paper saying that she was not associated with any other political party and that she would be killed if that were the case or if she joined one. She was denied her graduation anyway, even after acing the final exams.

She joined the uprising after the Kuwaiti war, during which she accidentally walked into a torture chamber. She then left Iraq and came to the United States where she went to college, started teaching at Yale, and built a family. After 911 happened she co-founded the American Islamic congress to empower rights and women rights. She has gone back to Iraq to help women in Iraq and started lobbying for 25% representation for women where she was told even Sweden doesn’t have 25% representation—but that simply made her want it more. Thanks to her efforts, Iraq has opened 10 schools across the country and has helped teachers who were cut from the outside world. 36,000 teachers have been taught on how to use technology and advance curriculum for students. They run an essay contest every year on human rights and how to use technology.

Al-Suwaij spoke about how technology makes change at a country level and encouraged the guests to use technology to deliver the best for your own country and for others around the world.

Meryl Frank started speaking at her seat, with the microphone and she asked the room, “Can you hear me now?” Then, she stood up, walked to the center of the stage, and boomed into the microphone, “Can you hear me now?” she explained that women are smaller, and when we stand, and speak from the belly, we are heard. She said that most women when they get excited talk too fast and in their throat. She said, “When women talk like this, men stop listening.” As the deputy U.S. representative to the Commission on the Status of Women (appointed by Barack Obama), her job is to empower women. She just came back from working with the women members of parliament of Jordan, Afghanistan, Morocco, and Africa. She said the universally women do not have the ability to speak up, and her role is to give them confidence, and to teach them to promote themselves.

She spoke about how her career has gone down many paths. She had four children and stayed home for 12 years, because, despite having 3 degrees, that is what she wanted to do and felt would be best for her family. She got involved in politics because she got angry and wanted to fix something, and she served as the mayor of Highland Park, New Jersey for 8 years. She got involved in national politics when Obama won and she literally applied online for the ambassador position. She mentioned how her strong network—including her mentors—helped her achieve this goal and help her now in her career. She loves the fact that she can help the world be a better place.

Jane Prey spoke next and started by describing her childhood in a traditional Chinese home where she was told she could be a doctor or PhD of mathematics (her brother only had the choice of being a doctor). Went to graduate school for mathematics and then went into computer science because he parents said it was the newest thing. She spoke about how in her day, they used punch cards since there was no computer on campus. The field was not quite understood yet, nor how important it would be in leading innovation. The IBM 360 mainframe was her first computer.

She became a developer in the corporate world and it was not until she was 40 years old that she went back to finish her PhD. She said this was thanks to a supportive husband who ate a lot of macaroni and cheese as he helped with their 3 children. Prey’s passion, she said, has always been in education and teaching. She worked with the National Science Association and then at MSFT in research. She said that her field allowed her to do all of the things she was passionate about: teaching, policy work, mentoring, and research. She mentioned her mentors and the people who helped her along the way and made her dreams possible. “Play nice in the sandbox, because those are the friends that will help you for life.”

She ended her talk by saying, “You, have the keys to the kingdom.”

After the talks, the speakers sat amongst the students at their tables, while eating a catered dinner. Discussions ranged from details about the Imagine cup projects students were working on, to more stories about the esteemed panels career paths and what there are working on. You could see the mentorship going both ways—something Jane Frey had mentioned as being critical. The generation gap from the women innovators who paved the possibilities, to the students who are taking this foundation and blazing new paths.

An incredible night full of wisdom. Thank you to all the speakers and for all the guests for attending!