Women in Business: Hettie Dombrovskaya, Database Architect, Enova

03/26/2015 06:09 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015

Henrietta (Hettie) Dombrovskaya fell in love with data in 1983 and never looked back. With more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, Hettie has gained international recognition for her work in database optimization. Currently technical lead for all database developers within the software engineering department at Enova International, Hettie received her undergraduate degree in applied math and teaching as well as Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Saint Petersburg.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My life has deeply impacted how I approach business today. Being a young, single mother with three children during the fall of the Soviet Union - food was scarce and money was valued at nothing - proved very challenging. Yet, with all the difficulties surrounding me, I was determined to keep my career that I was so passionate about while protecting my family from the chaos around us. Frankly, I was fortunate to be able to continue working in my field - many people around me were forced to leave their careers and become street vendors and resellers at flea markets to make ends meet - but I was resolute in my desire to press on. As a result, I also was able to complete my PhD. Learning to push through unfavorable circumstances and succeed taught me an invaluable lesson in perseverance, something that I have carried with me throughout my personal and professional life.

Then in 1996, when I decided to move to the U.S. to pursue a career in data and to provide better opportunities for my family - moving to the U.S. meant being able to afford to buy an apartment for my children and opening up windows to new experiences for our future - I encountered even more obstacles. Most companies weren't enthusiastic about granting a visa to a single mother of three children, until one single mother, who happened to be the CEO of a company I wanted to work for, took a chance on me. That was an important moment for me in that it taught me to always take a chance on people with passion and persistence. Sometimes they just need a chance and a little push.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Enova?
I can pinpoint the moment that I fell in love with data back to 1983 when I read the "The Introduction to Databases," by Chris Date. This book unlocked a passion in me, and from there, I knew I wanted to build my career around data.

As I've explored this passion professionally, I've had a number of employment opportunities - from early stage companies to more mature organizations - that have allowed me to grow my skill set to the point where I am today. I've also been very involved with research in my field, often pursuing it in my own time. Earlier in my career, I participated in the implementation and optimization of the High School Application Processing system of the New York Department of Education. I was one of the driving forces behind the project that went on to receive a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2013.

Knowing that I've contributed to such influential projects during my time in the U.S. is very rewarding. These opportunities also have helped me deepen my contribution to Enova, who fully supports and encourages my research endeavors.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Enova?
Over the course of the last three years, I've been fortunate enough to work with an outstanding team that is being recognized internationally for our work in the industry and delivering data. It's deeply rewarding to work for - and with - a team that is gaining recognition throughout the industry, and I'm very proud to work at a company that's so forward-looking about the value of data and analytics. I've also recently been appointed as Database Tech Lead for the Software Engineering department at Enova. While it has been challenging to take on a new role - with more responsibilities - it has brought me deep satisfaction.

However, one ongoing challenge we see, not just at Enova but industry-wide, is a talent shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. There has long been a challenge of recruiting students to these fields of study, so it isn't a new problem - just an ongoing one. At Enova, we've made big strides towards recruiting graduates with STEM backgrounds - especially women - and also helping them to develop skill sets they might be lacking.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in technology?
The most important piece of advice I can share is to never choose between work and family - you need both to be successful. My family has always been my biggest inspiration to succeed. I learned very early in my role as a parent that it's not the quantity, but quality of time that really matters.

Communicating early and often is also a very important part of leading well. By communicating effectively, you can earn the respect of your team and build the trust needed to establish yourself as a leader. Another key piece of advice is to take the phrase "I can't" out of your vocabulary. You can set an example for employees across the board by showing that there is an answer for everything and negative thinking is not only unacceptable, but also unproductive.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Always lead by example. Never ask any one on your team to do something that you wouldn't do or be something you wouldn't be. By showing your team that you can work alongside anyone, from the top down, you'll achieve greater success and be valued as a strong team leader. Show what success means by embodying it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Work/life is something I have been balancing from my days as a student in Russia, and it takes a lot of planning. My work has always been important to me. It's something I value deeply, and success there contributes greatly to my happiness. Equally important is my role as a parent and my role in the community at large. I've always prioritized my family, and have always had their support in understanding that I was doing what was necessary to provide them with opportunities for our future.

I've always planned very carefully to find time for the things that are important to me. My children understood that I had to work towards achieving professional excellence and I was doing so to provide better lives for them. Now that they are older, they tell me that they've learned the value of working hard and remember falling asleep to the sound of my keyboard strokes and beep of the first modem I had at home. I worked very hard, and sometimes missed things like cross country meets and concerts, but at the end of the day, we knew that we could be together in the evening and share our stories from the day.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The first issue is a numbers problem. For the technology industry, women are outnumbered by men, and the problem starts with not enough female students enrolling in developer or technology-focused programs. The stigma that technology is still a male-dominated industry is discouraging for females interested in a career in technology, and it's something that we have to work to change collectively.

The second issue is confidence. I think the imbalance in how many women are in technology contributes to this problem, but women must not be afraid to speak up and showcase their work. Every developer has a different point of view, and it's important to be heard. I speak up as a woman, and I hope my example encourages my team members to do the same.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had two significant mentoring experiences in my life. The first being with my daughter, who went to college determined to do the exact opposite of what I did in my life. Much to her surprise, she also fell in love with data, in the same manner that I did was I was 20. By the time she graduated in 2013 with a major in Data Analysis, she had about 2 years of professional experience. It has been a wonderful privilege to help guide her thought her career, and see her succeed as a professional in a field that we both love.

I've also had the privilege to connect with a young, female lawyer from Moscow. The single mother of two contacted me after hearing my story of coming to the U.S. with three young children. She'd been accepted to law school and was hesitant to accept, worry about being able to do well in school and also be there for her kids. I told her that she could do it, and that I would help to guide her through any issues that she may have. I've stayed with her every step of the way, and she graduated successfully. Hearing her gratitude has been so rewarding - it shows the effect that encouragement and confidence can have on someone's future.

Mentorship also is extremely important in fostering career development in my work at Enova. I encourage people on my team to build bridges by matching up senior and junior developers for projects. It's a great exercise not only to encourage relationship-building and to help younger staff find mentors, but also it helps bridge the gender gap and pushes people to examine how they communicate with each other.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Pamela Furey, the CEO at the first company I worked at after arriving the in U.S., was a big inspiration to me. She taught me that there was no such word as "impossible" and imparted a critical lesson on the importance of respect and equal treatment. I learned these ideals in watching her work and interact with those around her.

There are two public figures that I also admire as well for the lessons they have indirectly taught me. Sheryl Sandberg has been an inspiration, particularly with her book "Lean In." She encourages women not to put artificial boundaries to their goals and desires, which is a wonderful aspiration. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also has been a great role model for women across all industries. She put a brave foot forward to start her professional career later in life, showing that you are never "too old" to start something new.

What do you want Enova to accomplish in the next year?
I've worked hard to create a uniquely gender-balanced team at Enova and have promoted it throughout the culture of the company. One thing I hope to do over the next year is to continue to build on the gender blind work culture we are fostering here.

In my new role as Database Tech Lead for the Software Engineering department, I'm able to work closely with all departments at Enova, sharing different points of view and big picture thinking, and I'm really excited for what's to come as my role takes shape. I hope to make advancements in our department that have visibility throughout the industry and that position Enova as a widely-acknowledged technology leader among all companies that do business online.