Support early in life crucial for women in IT: Panel

Top women leaders in tech sector offer advice on building a successful career and enabling innovation

Growing up, Gale Blank didn’t have to look far for encouragement and support in anything she tried. In fact, positive female role models surrounded the current Vice-President of IT for Holt Renfrew, urging her to test the boundaries of work and life.

“The message I received was,You are human. There are no barriers. Do what you want.’”

The women instilling this message knew a thing or two about success and determination. Blank’s grandmother belonged to the first class of women admitted to the New York State bar. Her mother earned her pilot’s licence and enrolled in law school.

Clearly, Blank has used such positive fuel to launch a highly successful career – in a traditionally male-dominated industry, no less. In her keynote speech at last month’s Igniting Technology Innovation event in Toronto, however, Blank asserted that it is this very kind of familial encouragement that is too often lacking in young women’s lives today.

“As early as grade six, we’re losing girls” when it comes to interesting them in science and math, she said at the event, sponsored by the Canadian Marketing Association.

During a panel discussion at the event, Kristina Elkhazin, Head of Industry, Retail at Google, echoed Blank’s observation, saying that the primary reason girls don’t study science, technology, engineering and math is that their families discourage them.

The key, Elkhazin added, is not only for families to encourage girls’ interests, but also to help them find mentors, specifically people doing things in tech that interest them.

Blank agreed that mentorship is as important as familial encouragement, citing her own early mentors who taught her by example to follow her own professional inclinations and support others doing the same.

Nyla Ahmad, Senior Vice-President of Enterprise Marketing at Rogers Communications, summed up the importance of both family and mentoring: girls and women need people in their corner who “always see new possibilities for themselves, the world and others and who work to make it happen.”

Elkhazin agreed. “We need to have everyone at the table.”

Elements of innovation

Blank’s positive upbringing and her perspective as a woman, she said, helped inform her view of what’s required within the technology sector, and what some of the key elements are for successful innovation within it. Earlier in her career, while studying change management and being a working, single mother, Blank concluded that, “Most women, because of family life and work, learn how to manage change really well.” And, perhaps more than anything, she added, the tech industry needs people capable of getting others to embrace change.

Innovation, according to Blank, is about making things better and easier. It’s not about automatically creating new processes or products or plans. It’s about constantly changing and using already available resources whenever possible.

Quite simply, “Innovation is not invention,” she said.

Ahmad concurred, adding that an example might be a company reconfiguring their old systems or processes to meet current and future needs, instead of replacing them.

Elkhazin agreed that constant change is integral to innovation, and that the key is to keep experimenting. “Remember that failure is okay – as long as you learn from it.”

Working together

Speakers also identified the need to work together across departments for innovation to truly take place within an organization. That means helping everyone talk to each other, work together and embrace change.

“Share what you learn,” Elkhazin advised, rather than operating in an echo chamber.

Ahmad said leaders must encourage everyone to speak out when they see opportunities for improvement. “Innovation has to be at the core of your company’s DNA. You’ve got to have a vision, strategy and the right people to put them into practice. You need strong leaders motivated to do the right thing for the organization, people who aren’t motivated by ego or personal gain.”

Also published on Rogers Business Forum

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Tags: rogers, executive event, IT, women, leaders, technology, innovation