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Exploring what’s next in tech – Insights, information, and ideas for today’s IT and business leaders

How these women used their tech experience to fuel their passions

Think a career in technology sets you on a narrow path? Think again. A tech foundation is a strong currency for all sorts of pursuits.

Ask someone why they opted for a career in technology and they'll likely wax on about the fat paycheck, an enviable mix of top-shelf perks, and the ability to innovate and problem solve with an impressive group of peers.

While a high-tech career can promise all that and more, there's another good reason women should give the technology sector strong consideration: Beyond the power posts in AI, data analytics, and cybersecurity, a tech background can open doors and create avenues only loosely connected to day-to-day technical work. Women with a strong foundation in programming, product management, or data science are recognizing that their high-tech chops have currency beyond securing the next interesting data analyst job or a high-profile product management post. Increasingly, women leaders are taking advantage of their technology qualifications to forge carefully crafted career paths calibrated to their personal passion, whether that's a love of fashion, a commitment to sustainability, or the desire to champion diversity and inclusion.

Please read: The struggle to recruit and retain women in tech marches on

Similar to finance or marketing, technology is now so intertwined with a business's success and ability to innovate that it shouldn't be viewed as a specific career path or walled-off industry niche. Rather, a solid technology background can become today's key to the proverbial castle for exploring dreams and nurturing passions, all while achieving professional success.

"STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] gives you a framework for how to think about problems," says Nancy Wang, founder of Advancing Women in Tech (AWIT), a nonprofit aimed at empowering women and underrepresented groups for product management roles. "Studying STEM or having an interest in STEM opens you up to many industries that can be disrupted or enhanced by technology. Technology exposes you to the future."

Need some inspiration? Read ahead for the stories of how Nancy Wang and three other women successfully harnessed technology as a springboard for turning ideals into action and putting pet projects into play.

The great equalizer

As a kid from a rural farming town in northern Wisconsin, Nancy Wang saw how a dearth of training and education thwarts opportunities and promotes the cycle of poverty.

Wang, the daughter of an academic, says money was tight enough that her family didn't pony up for expensive cuts of meat, but given its emphasis on education, she always had enough for books and college prep tests. After high school, Wang was accepted as a Ben Franklin Honors Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied computer science and was taught to emphasize community service. She eventually went on to get a Master of Science degree in biotechnology at UPenn.

"We didn't live in a trailer park, but our house was next to them, and I saw inequality growing up," says Wang, who, in addition to being the founder of AWIT, is the head of data protection services for Amazon Web Services. "I studied computer science in college, but what I'm really passionate about is equality."

That passion, combined with her computer science background, directed her career choices. While many fellow UPenn 2013 graduates headed off to lucrative gigs on Wall Street or at management consultancies, Wang chose a different path, inspired by a conversation she had with a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services executive at a healthcare economics conference on campus. The encounter landed Wang an interview and eventually a fellowship working in the Obama administration on the HealthData.gov website, which aimed to make healthcare data readily available to researchers, government agencies, and the private sector.

Please read: Texas Children's Hospital's Myra Davis on leadership, innovation, and the challenge of looking at things differently

The fellowship led to stints at Deloitte Consulting and Google Fiber, all pretty much pulling on the same thread: providing equal access to resources and promoting education as a pathway. Wang says her computer science background equipped her with a framework for integrated and distributed systems and the ability to think in terms of scale—skill sets essential to growing AWIT, which was incorporated in the spring of 2017 to provide education and training, networking opportunities, and mentoring to empower the next generation of male and female product leaders. The organization has eight chapters around the globe and a membership of around 12,000.

"I've always been passionate about education and access, and that carries on today through my involvement with AWIT," Wang says. "For me, it's about leveraging technology to serve and give access to underrepresented communities."

An interdisciplinary approach to sustainability

Jen Wang (no relation to Nancy Wang) has a background that cuts across sectors. She holds a PhD from Stanford University in an interdisciplinary program that allowed her to combine an environmental focus with behavioral science. Wang taught at the university, lecturing on individual and organizational behavior and diversity. As an undergraduate at Yale, she was a pre-med student, and she has formal training as an artist and performer.

Today, Wang is director of product, responsible for user retention, at ThredUp, an online consignment and thrift commerce site that sells secondhand clothes. It's not love of fashion or fascination with technology that propelled Wang's career choices. Instead, what powered her journey was a deep commitment to sustainability and the environment, buttressed by her ability to leverage a strong set of diverse interdisciplinary skills. "What I care about is sustainability and the environment because, systematically, issues around natural resources and climate change exacerbate every other social issue," Wang says.

After years in academia, Wang landed at ThredUp, when she realized she had a private sector and technology itch that needed scratching. Lacking a clear vision for what she wanted, she conducted more than 100 informational interviews before zeroing in on the online retailer, where she was also a customer. "I really wanted to combine my interests and my passion with what's interesting from an environmental and behavioral perspective," she explains. "People examine individual behaviors around food, energy, or travel, but very few people in the mainstream were talking about the importance of clothing choices in terms of having a sustainability impact."

At ThredUp, Wang is now flexing her behavioral science skills and data analysis insights to better understand customers and push out the company's mantra of thinking secondhand first. "People come to us for many different reasons—to buy clothing, for a love of thrifting, or because environmental impact is their top priority," she explains. "When you're working in a product or any consumer-focused business, you should be obsessed with your users and want to understand their motivations and needs."

Please read: Data for good: Wonderful ways data is making the world better

Wang contends her nontraditional interdisciplinary skills mix makes her perfectly suited for this role. "The benefits of an interdisciplinary background are becoming more salient in ways that weren't apparent earlier in my career," she says. "Bringing in knowledge from adjacent fields and working across backgrounds and functions provides an ability to connect the dots for people, which is critical if you want to influence outcomes outside of a pure technology and a purely corporate role."

Technology as matchmaker