We Can Do It: 8 Tech Leaders Talk About the Women Who Inspire Them

In celebration of International Women’s Day, eight women discuss the influence of their mentors and idols.
Written by Rachael Millanta
March 9, 2022Updated: May 5, 2022

Who inspires you? It’s a simple question with an answer that has the power to change the direction of your life.

In the male-dominated tech workplace, finding strong women in leadership roles isn’t always easy. For Iva Blazina Vukelja, the senior director of product management at Duo Security, meeting a lifelong mentor took some time. “After finishing school and starting my career, I didn’t think about gender ratios in tech for a good while,” she said. “I was just chugging along until one day when I went to interview for a new job and the director of the team was a woman. That was the first time I had noticed it — she was the first woman in a leadership role that I had ever met. And she was amazing.”

According to a 2021 study by TrustRadius, women in tech are four times more likely than men to see gender bias as an obstacle to promotion and career growth. When asked what steps companies should take to support women in tech, 78 percent said that more women should be promoted into leadership positions and 72 percent said that they would benefit from more mentorship opportunities. But for those women who are lucky enough to have found a woman to look up to for inspiration and mentoring, what is the impact on their lives and careers?

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Built In Austin sat down with eight industry leaders to find the answer to that question, and to learn about the trailblazing women who  inspired them to take their professional lives to new heights. 

 

Sirisha Gorantla
Vice President, Data & Analytics • Cloudflare

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I am consistently inspired by Indra K. Nooyi, an extraordinary leader and a compassionate human being. She is the first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company. As an immigrant woman and a mother of two children myself, her story resonates with me. I relate to her pain, guilt, struggles and sacrifices as she juggled motherhood and a demanding career. Her call to action to create better care infrastructure and redefine the breadwinner, caregiver and homemaker roles in society shows her sense of commitment to the empowerment of women.

I relate to her pain, guilt, struggles and sacrifices as she juggled motherhood and a demanding career.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Continuing to build a diverse team, encouraging women to take up new opportunities and bring their perspectives to the table, and providing women with a safety net to give them the confidence to succeed in their career as they juggle many roles with conflicting priorities are some of the things I incorporate into my job. I also realize how important it is to have a supporting manager and a mentor to advance in your career. I am grateful to have found both in my current role at Cloudflare, and strive to be that resource for others.

 

 

Iva Blazina Vukelja
Senior Director Product Management • Duo Security

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I knew I was going to be working with computers ever since my cousin got a Spectrum ZX+ when I was seven years old. As I said earlier, after finishing school and starting my career, I didn’t think about gender ratios in tech for a long time — I was happy to be doing what I loved — until I met the first woman I had ever seen in a leadership role.

This woman knew what she was doing. She had a vision, she was direct, she was firm but kind, and she connected with people on her team — including me, a junior software engineer at the time. Seeing her made me wonder if I could someday be more than a junior software engineer and more than just a part of some big machine — maybe, just maybe, I could even lead a team one day. After we parted ways there, we stayed friends and she remains my life-long mentor. We never worked together again, but we still often talk about work, life, software, kids, careers and everything else. Even when I was making the decision on taking my current job, almost 20 years down the line, I went to talk to her to help me think it through.

Seeing her made me wonder if I could someday be more than a junior software engineer — maybe, just maybe, I could even lead a team one day.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

My whole people management philosophy is just a page out of her book! You can design teams in a theoretically beautiful manner on paper, but then you have to make the team and your business come to life. If you start from a nice picture, your next step is to assess your gaps and go to hire for them. It can work, but you’re taking on several risks — the new people may be awesome or they may not work out, or your current crew may grow unhappy and leave. Alternatively, you can design teams around the people that you already have. The design may not be the most theoretically perfect, but if you’re able to build around the people you have — leveraging their strengths while at the same time providing them room to grow — you may just end up somewhere special.

 

 

Jamie Smith
Senior Director of Homeowner Experience and Brand Marketing • Modernize Home Services, a QuinStreet vertical

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

Kelly Finley, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the women’s and gender studies program, is still my inspiration today. Kelly is an esteemed professor and researcher who also serves on the Ms. Magazine Committee of Scholars, working with scholars across the nation to create curriculum and policies that help women and gender-diverse people. She taught me not only what trailblazing meant, but how to use it in conversations, projects and teams to support the overall mission you are trying to achieve.

She taught me not only what trailblazing meant, but how to use it in conversations, projects and teams to support the overall mission you are trying to achieve.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

In my world, my mission is always to support and advocate for women speaking up, finding their confidence and having their opinions heard. This can be pretty tough in our current world. Women, including myself, have sat back, listened, processed and then potentially lost the opportunity to share their opinions and needs in the business environment. Kelly helped craft opportunities in her classroom and coached us on how to create a strong and supportive environment that supports all — it truly helps me every day to navigate the virtual and in-person world we are in.

 

 

Petra Rosvall
Chief People Officer • M-Files

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

My mother, Mimma Silvennoinen, is a successful entrepreneur and someone who has always followed her own path. She has a master’s degree in business, has lived in several countries and speaks several languages fluently. She has created all of that herself, coming from a working-class home in a small city in eastern Finland. 

I have learned from her that life is an exciting journey and we should try to make the most of it. My mother has always trusted me completely and let me find my own way. Throughout my life, I have always tried to model her courage in every situation and this confidence has allowed me to try new things even when they seemed daunting. For example, when I was younger, I started at a Swedish-speaking high school, even though I didn’t speak Swedish. I learned quickly and within three months I was able to speak with my classmates.

It still amazes me how much my mother believes in me. No matter what I do, she always lets me know that I can do more, which has always helped me develop and driven me to look for the next big challenge.

It still amazes me how much my mother believes in me. No matter what I do, she always lets me know that I can do more.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

My mother’s entrepreneurial spirit has resonated with me throughout my personal and professional life, but especially in my current role at M-Files. Specifically, the elements of being humble — always willing to learn and improve — and ambitious — reaching high and setting challenging goals. At M-Files, we actually coined the term “humbitious” to describe the specific combination of attitudes and mindset that is widely shared by M-Filers across the globe. 

This mindset also plays into our guiding principles — “Make It Happen,” “Help Others” and “Love Customers.” I love that I can bring the lessons I have learned from my mother to my role in supporting M-Filers and improving our culture to ensure that it helps others to thrive. I also feel very connected to the overall mission of the company — when I am doing my job well, we are working together to improve how our customers do business in the digital world. I think my role comes naturally because I have watched how my mother grew her own business. She never lost sight of the importance of working together with others to create value for her customers and she has always known how to have some fun while she’s at it.

 

 

Amanda Gregory
Head of Integrated Marketing • RapidDeploy

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

I have worked with Marni Burger, VP of marketing at RapidDeploy, for almost four years now across two different companies, but I also knew of her when we overlapped time at NI in very different departments. Marni is extremely smart and uses her background as an engineer to really push forward product marketing in the tech and software industries. Marketing is sometimes overlooked in the technology space and I think it is really important to have a leader who has a clear understanding of not only the products and services of a company, but also the messaging of what really resonates with the user and buyer personas, which Marni does extremely well. She has worked in some of the biggest tech companies in Austin and has really taken charge in some startup companies in the vice president role. I look up to her for her infectious positive attitude but also tenacity to always push to exceed company goals and utilize her teams to the utmost efficiency. Not only is Marni an amazing marketer, she is also an amazing person. She is the loving mother to two small children but works all hours of the day to make sure nothing ever gets dropped.

I look up to her for her infectious positive attitude but also tenacity to always push to exceed company goals and utilize her teams to the utmost efficiency.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Marni has pushed me to consistently better myself and learn new skills to make sure I live up to the work she expects. I have learned multiple new platforms to increase my knowledge of marketing and sales software to be an even better marketer. I definitely have more of a traditional marketing background and not so much in the technology space, though I have spent the last seven years in the industry, and she has made me much more aware of the messaging and specific careabouts of the personas that I have gotten so efficient of being able to target through CRMs and marketing automation. 

I always make the correlation that I am the Tony Romo to her Jim Nantz, which most people don’t get unless they are a football person. Marni is the one running the show, but I am the one who provides color or tidbits of information since technically I had the background in marketing first. Marni has also shown me the importance of a healthy work-life balance and is always accommodating remote work from different locations or stepping out for appointments during the day as she knows I will always get my work done.

 

 

Cart.com office with team members working on computers
Cart.com

 

Linda Xu
Co-Founder & Chief Growth Officer • Cart.com

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

My career started in a male-dominated field, as so many of ours do, in private equity investing. One individual stood out from the pack. K was the head of our SF office and she was a true role model, not only because of the 20 year run of successful investing she had or the size of the team she built, but because of the way she treated everyone around her. This made her a real inspiration.

One distinct memory I have of her was when we had landed into PHL after midnight amidst a winter storm. Weary from a few busy weeks and with two hours of driving ahead of us, I was ready to shut my mind off as we entered the car. Still, K stepped into the car and greeted our driver with enthusiasm — energy that she kept for two hours as we got through the snowstorm. At that moment, she knew that the driver needed companionship to settle his nerves as he drove through the harsh conditions and she set aside her own tiredness to help him get through it. 

At the end of the day, it’s the way you treat others, especially those who don’t directly contribute to your own success, that sticks with people. Treat people with kindness, not just when it’s easy and convenient but at all times, especially when it’s cold and stormy.

At the end of the day, it’s the way you treat others, especially those who don’t directly contribute to your own success, that sticks with people.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

I think about that stormy drive often — she taught me two core lessons that night. As my company has scaled from eight to 800 people, I find myself guiding my actions through those lessons daily. 

Firstly, look out for the needs of others, even if it’s inconvenient for you. Being a part of a fast-growing start-up is a roller coaster, but it is important to stay observant, thoughtful and engaged with others even when you’re stressed, worn out or overwhelmed. It’s about self-awareness and recognizing that you’re in a compromised state of mind, taking a step back and ensuring that the hardest moments are also the moments where you keep composure and kindness. Chances are, your coworkers are in the same place.

Second, treat everyone with respect. Valuing every member of my org’s input, whether they just joined a week ago or they’ve been around since day one, is crucial to me. Treat teammates, partners, customers and investors with respect. For my team, that extends to respecting their time, whether that means being flexible and communicative on work schedules or aiming to schedule meetings to accommodate different time zones. It’s the little things that mean a whole lot.

 

 

Allyson Davis
VP Advisory Services • Iodine Software

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

As I consider my career and the direction my path has taken me, I cannot help but highlight the impact that Lisa Malvea had and the inspiration she provided. Lisa is an avid leader with roles from director to president and CEO. Her entrepreneurial spirit is demonstrated in her founding and owning several business solutions. As vice president of sales and marketing, she saw potential in me and was a mentor who invested in my professional growth. Her approach taught me foundational lessons as I transitioned from a purely clinical role into a solution sales role.

She saw potential in me and was a mentor who invested in my professional growth.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

Lisa’s leadership style and how she handled herself in difficult situations were a vital part of how I modeled my leadership style. She surrounded herself with talented people and then supported and promoted their growth and success. I have taken that same approach as I have built a team of experts with extensive knowledge and experience. I have worked diligently to be a mentor, a trusted resource and advocate for my team’s continued professional growth and success, remembering that together we can achieve far more than we ever could individually.

 

 

Zello team photo outside
Zello

 

Vanessa Haughton
Senior Vice President of Marketing • Zello

 

Looking back on your career so far, is there a woman who has consistently inspired you? 

This one is easy — Dolly Parton! She started her own label when her record company wasn’t properly promoting her and she has never looked back. Dolly has sold more than 100 million albums, had 44 top country albums and written over 3000 songs. After refusing to let Elvis record “I Will Always Love You” because he wanted half of the royalties, she went on to make millions from that song alone.

Music is an integral part of my life and few people have done as much to stand up for the rights of musicians as she has. As a woman in business, I stand on her shoulders. Dolly Parton was groundbreaking by advocating for her art as a businesswoman in a time when neither women nor any musician was doing that for themselves. 

Dolly also has a major philanthropic effort where she gives back to both her local community and to the world in ways that tie into her values and passion. One example is the Imagination Library, which she started and still funds. The organization sends out one book a month to enrolled children from birth until kindergarten. They’ve sent out over 174 million books in five countries. Dolly simply does what she believes in and stands behind it without looking for permission or recognition.

My leadership style is to hold a high bar, work hard, show strength and develop the team while still being kind and treating everyone with humanity.”

 

How have you incorporated the lessons and achievements from her life and career into your own?

At Zello, I lead a talented marketing team with diverse experiences and skill sets. I use the knowledge I’ve gained throughout my career to identify each team member’s superpower, look at our programs through a critical lens, guide the strategy, advocate for the resources and mentor the team so that we can have a strategic impact on the growth of the business and the brand as a whole. My leadership style is to hold a high bar, work hard, show strength and develop the team while still being kind and treating everyone with humanity.

Music is foundational to my life, as it is for many others. I believe musicians should have access to affordable benefits, similar to corporate benefits. In Austin, we have a responsibility to care for our local musicians if we wish to continue to be the Live Music Capital of the World. I support organizations like the Health Alliance for Musicians and the SIMS foundation because they support the health and mental wellness of Austin musicians. They need this support to keep us rockin’ and emotionally healthy with their music soothing our souls.

Find your passion, identify a need and give the gifts that you uniquely can give to lift and support others.

 

 

 

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