What led you to a career in technology?
I was surrounded by tech from a young age. I grew up with an engineer father who ran a small business selling PCs. I wouldn’t say that I developed a passion for tech immediately, but it felt natural to look for technological solutions to difficult problems.
The idea that you could use technology to illuminate and express the human condition in profound ways made perfect sense to me. So when I went to graduate school in the humanities, technology played a big part in my work. In grad school I also began to think much more about how technology could be applied to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and least privileged. One of the most important experiences I had at that time was traveling through the American South to record oral histories of Southeast Asian refugee women. Over time, my career went from digital humanities to software for social good.
Why are you interested in nonprofit work?
Biography is not destiny, but I can’t deny that one of the reasons I do the work I do is because of my own experience as an immigrant and as a woman. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, my family came to the United States as refugees. Like any immigrant family, we had many struggles. We sometimes relied on the kindness of strangers and services like the hot lunch program at school—but always with a profound sense of gratitude and the desire to give back to our communities. Nonprofit work allows me to build a career and livelihood fulfilling that desire. Selfishly, it also presents to me some of the most interesting and challenging problems to solve as a society: How do we provide resources to those in need where markets might fail them?
You’re using tech to building a stronger social safety net. How is that done?
I can pull out my phone and tell you within 30 seconds where to get a good sandwich within a 5-mile radius. But what if you needed a shelter bed in the next hour or a hot meal for your family living in poverty? Accurate information is critical, but it isn’t easy to find. Our goal is to make accurate and up-to-date information about social services available to everyone who may need them when they need them.
At Benetech, we realized that much of the difficulty in accessing the social safety net stems from the lack of access to good data. It’s hard to maintain reliable info about services that provide critical resources for needs such as food, shelter, healthcare, immigration, job training, childcare, legal, and family support. Our solution is a platform that makes it easier for social services organizations who already do a good job with some data to share and maintain all that information collaboratively so everyone gets a comprehensive picture. Ultimately, our work makes it easier to find and access services people need, decreases costs to manage databases, accelerates innovation and development of new tools, and will help inform research, analysis, and decision making.
What is the coolest thing about your job at Benetech?
As head of Benetech Labs, I spend my time strategizing how technology can solve big problems (and calling it out when it can’t). I’m surrounded by talented and passionate colleagues who are dedicated to doing the right thing, whether that’s making sure kids with disabilities get access to books, ensuring that human rights activists can safely gather information, or weaving a stronger safety net with data.
My Benetech colleagues are also strikingly diverse for a Silicon Valley tech company: 56% women, 26% minority, and 12% with a self-reported disability. It’s very rewarding to work for an organization that serves as a model for diversity in Silicon Valley and beyond.
What can Silicon Valley learn from the social sector and vice-versa?
There are a ton of good lessons Silicon Valley can learn, but perhaps the most important is knowing when you can’t do things “the Silicon Valley Way.” I remember being at a hackathon with some volunteer developers who were working on a project for “low-bandwidth” users but were still relying on speeds that were multiple times faster than the best-case scenario. In other projects, we’ve had to discuss how running a typical beta test with a vulnerable population could put that population in jeopardy in unexpected ways.
In terms of what the social sector can learn from Silicon Valley, my work at Benetech applies key principles that have come out of Silicon Valley’s successes. Practices like agile or lean development, human-centered design, sustainability and scalability models, and data-driven decision making. These are all concepts that come very naturally to the tech denizens of the Valley. But they’ve taken longer to grab hold in the larger social impact or nonprofit space.
I love that Benetech plays a role bridging Silicon Valley to social impact issues. Both worlds benefit when they work together and learn from each other.
What needs to change to make Silicon Valley and tech more inclusive?
Silicon Valley is very good designing, investing in, and growing solutions when it truly believes in there’s a problem to solve or a market to create. There are already some interesting ideas out there about how to get rid of unconscious bias in hiring. But no one is going to apply a solution with the force it needs to be effective unless they truly own that there is a problem. Unfortunately, not enough key decision makers truly believe that inclusion is really valuable, which for many means turning a faster profit or making a better product. More people need to really believe that inclusion is valuable for us to stop simply paying lip service to the idea. We have to keep making the case and show how diversity and inclusion create more opportunity for everyone.
Your piece of advice for women in tech
Know your worth. “Worth” not only means your market value but also everything you can contribute to making change in your world. We all do a great job detailing our failings, but need to spend equal time understanding our strengths and advocating for making the best use of them.