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Women In Tech: What Has (And Hasn't) Changed In 15 Years

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Selina Tobaccowala talks about the changes she's observed in the industry since founding Evite in 1997.

From her first foray into entrepreneurship cofounding Evite out of her Stanford dorm room in 1997, to her current post leading the tech team at SurveyMonkey as the company's VP of product and engineering, Selina Tobaccowala has seen plenty of things change in the tech industry -- and some things stay remarkably the same.

She recently chatted with Women 2.0 about her impressions of the past and future of women in the startup game, and her present gig as a speaker at next week's Women 2.0 conference, offering a tiny sneak preview of her talk.

What have you seen change surrounding women in tech since you started Evite in 1997?

If you look at the numbers, there hasn't been much change in terms of women going into computer science. The one change I have seen is there's more of a movement of women technology leaders trying to get more women in technology and there's more programs aimed at trying to develop women. One example is Hackbright Academy where they take really talented, smart women and put them in a 10-week intensive computer science program. I met the founder of GoldieBlox who is super passionate about the topic. I feel like there are more women trying to make an impression on girls, but the absolute numbers don't say there's been an impact.

If you look ahead to the next 5-10 years, what change would you hope to see?

I personally believe the problem is much earlier, in the sense of how many girls are getting into computer science and engineering and even just feeling successful in math. The ultimate problem is a pipeline of people that are then coming into technology. So, in my mind, the biggest change would be trying to figure out -- and I obviously don't have the exact right answer -- how to get more girls interested in math and computer science at a very young age. Both within our education system and outside our education system, how do you get more girls excited about it?

So you think the primary way to tackle the issue is at the primary and high school level?

Absolutely. Look at myself. Because my father was in computer science, I started programming at 8, 9, 10, and if you look at my contemporaries at Stanford, everybody had done some programming before walking in. So if you were to walk into one of the classes and you hadn't done anything, you'd be pretty intimidated right away.

At the university level, is it mostly too late?

I think that's really in line with a lot of research around girls, which is that girls and women tend to have less self-confidence. The typical example is women always say, "No, I'm not going to put it on my resume until I master it." Men put things on their resumes they barely know. If women are entering college behind from a computer science perspective, then catching up at that level is going to be very tricky.

Does your experience as a woman, or even as a mother, affect how you lead your team?

Those are two separate things to me, being a woman and a mother. I became a mother at SurveyMonkey, and for me is it really forces you to prioritize your time and be a lot more efficient because you have other priorities. That would presumably be true for involved fathers as well. When you're single, you can just work as many hours as you want.

In terms of being a woman, I feel like that in a leadership position, because men and women are different, it's how do you take the skills that you have as a woman and actually use them to your advantage? One of the biggest skill sets that a lot of women bring to the table is much better communication skills, and also a social read on people. As a manager that becomes really important in terms of understanding people, what motivates them, and also being able to communicate effectively across the group.

What about mentoring, support or work-life policies -- does your experience inform how you handle those sorts of things?

The amazing thing about SurveyMonkey -- and this really comes from our leader Dave Goldberg; his wife is Sheryl Sandberg who repeatedly talks about the importance of having a work-life balance -- is it's a place where people feel comfortable leaving to go home to see their kids. A lot of us jump online later -- it's not that we're not working hard, but it is OK to leave a 5:45. When [Goldberg] is in town, he drops off his kids. That's the norm. We try to really inculcate that into the culture, and that has helped bring on some fairly senior women -- Bennett has kids and runs all of our PR, our head of HR, our VP of finance -- really experienced, awesome talent.

You're going to be speaking about entering emerging markets at the Women 2.0 conference. What's one story or insight you're really excited to share?

If you look at the marketplace, the U.S. should be closer to 25-30 percent of your business. At most web companies, except for obviously the Googles and Microsofts, it's not the case. So there's a huge market opportunity to look internationally, but how you actually grow your business internationally is a very tough challenge.

Do founders not think broadly enough about who might use their product?

I definitely think that's something entrepreneurs don't think about enough. I try to help various startups as much as I can, and, from the beginning, people really, really don't think about how do I think about my technology stack to ensure it can scale internationally when I need to. Trying to retrofit your application to work across the globe is actually very difficult. Thinking about that from the start can be a huge advantage when you want to grow.

Selina Tobaccowala will be speaking at the Women 2.0 Conference in a fireside chat with Kara Swisher on February 14 in San Francisco.

About the writer: Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer at Women 2.0. She is based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.

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