‘Hold the Door Open’: Five SF Women Leaders Offer Advice to the Next Generation

From the mothers of suffrage to contemporary movers in social justice, San Francisco is no stranger to woman leadership. Built In SF sat down with five tech leaders to gather their advice on managing the next generation of tech professionals.

Written by Jenny Lyons-Cunha
Published on Dec. 29, 2022
‘Hold the Door Open’: Five SF Women Leaders Offer Advice to the Next Generation
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In a glassy, multi-level building tucked away in Jackson Square, one of San Francisco’s newest executive clubs is buzzing. Start-Up Chief’s sweeping 8,600 square-foot clubhouse is adorned with artwork from a local women-led company, offers a private mothers’ room — and is the city’s first executive clubhouse open exclusively to women. 

While men are welcome in the building, its membership is reserved for women executives, and the demand is high: Well over 2,000 of the collective’s members are local to the Bay Area. The clubhouse’s opening signals an important shift in the leadership behind San Francisco’s tech landscape. 

For a city steeped in women’s history — from hosting mothers of suffrage in the early 1900s to contemporary Women’s Marches down Market Street — leadership in tech is a natural frontier for The City’s women leaders. For those managing the next generation of tech professionals, carving out space for women is long overdue. 

“There have been many ‘almost didn’ts’ in my career: Almost didn’t pursue computer science classes at Berkeley, almost didn’t apply for that internship, almost didn’t step into machine learning,” Robust Intelligence Machine Learning Engineer Lead Finn Howell. 

“If I hadn’t pushed to get my foot in the door at multiple points over the years, I wouldn’t be where I am today — I was lucky to have incredible female mentors that encouraged me to be bold,” she added.

“Hold the door open,” Canva Head of Content & Discovery Silvia Oviedo chimed in.

“Celebrating who you are and holding the door for those who come next sends a powerful message,” Oviedo countinued. “It creates space for others.” 

As the women of Canva, Robust Intelligence, Unity Technologies, Vouch and Evidation Health made clear in their conversation with Built In SF, this generation of leaders is committed to creating space where it hasn’t existed before — and they are eager to share the roadmap with those who hope to follow in their footsteps.

 

 

An image of Canva employees smiling in front of a Christmas tree.
Canva

 

Silvia Oviedo
Head of Content & Discovery • Canva

Canva is a free, online tool designed to empower users to create social media posts, presentations, posters, videos, logos and more. Head of Content & Discovery Silvia Oviedo strives for a selfless brand of leadership. “It’s tough to hear or give constructive feedback or make a mistake, but, sometimes, we need to give the spotlight to those around us or pass that Lego we’ve been holding on to for a while,” Oviedo said. “Leaving our ego at the door makes us so much more effective.

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

Currently, I oversee the content, discovery and print organizations at Canva — and it feels like the biggest and most fun challenge of my career. My team helps people discover, find and use the most amazing templates and content, making the design process an absolute breeze. 

I love how we meet the universal need for creativity and fulfill our mission of empowering the world to design. 

I have always thought of my path to tech as slightly unconventional. I grew up in a rural area of Spain and wasn’t really exposed to technology until high school. When my family got our first computer and a modem — it was love at first sight for me. 

I started my career at Yahoo, then went on to start my own company doing content strategy. After moving to the US in 2010, I joined eBay for a few years, before joining Pinterest to help expand their footprint to a global audience.

When you’re the only person in the room that looks, talks or acts like yourself, don’t change.”

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

Leading with empathy and clarity. Leading with empathy means creating the space to truly hear and appreciate other perspectives.

Leading with clarity means being unequivocal about expectations — what’s going well and what’s not. And, perhaps most importantly, communicating it effectively and in a way that everyone around you understands. This also means spending the time to make sure people feel brought along into the vision.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Be yourself. I had a manager that taught me how important it was to lean into my strengths — and my weaknesses — rather than trying to change who I was. When you’re the only person in the room that looks, talks or acts like yourself, don’t change. 

Don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Celebrate your wins, learn from your mistakes and learn how to move forward with compassion.

 

 

Aurore Dimopoulos
Director of Real-Time Learning • Unity

 

Unity Technologies is a platform for creating and operating real-time 3D (RT3D) content. Unity is designed to empower creators — ranging from game developers to artists, architects, automotive designers and filmmakers — to bring their imaginations to life. In her career, Director of Real-Time Learning Aurore Dimopoulos has learned the importance of making tough calls, a skill she hopes to pass along to others. “I made the mistake of always compromising, trying to find the average decision to avoid making the tough call,” Dimopoulos told Built In SF. “Spoiler alert: You will never make everyone happy.” 

 

Briefly describe your career journey.

I began my journey at university where I studied every aspect of game development. I got my first job at Unity as a community manager over a decade ago. This role grew my passion for helping users progress and succeed — which led me to become the producer on a team that creates Unity’s tutorials. This role combined my love of creating games and teaching. I grew within that team, eventually managing the developers, artists and instructors.

Now, as director of real-time learning, that team is one of several within the department I lead that is responsible for every aspect of learn.unity.com — including product, learning content, Unity examples, web development and driving inclusive economic opportunities in the real-time industry.

Building relationships is essential.”

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager?

Not knowing when to make the hard decision, like canceling or pivoting a project or cutting a feature leads to wasted time, frustrated developers, an inferior outcome or all of the above. As a manager, this can lead to loss of direction in your plans and team, a loss of trust in your leadership and an unhappy team. 

Having the courage to make the tough call, have the difficult conversation, doing the thing that is hardest has made me a better leader.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Building relationships is essential. Find people you can trust to be a sounding board and provide feedback. This can be your boss, colleagues or even peers in other companies. Becoming and being a manager is difficult, and there is no step-by-step guidebook. Every situation is unique, so having those people around you that you trust to mentor and guide will help you build your management frameworks.

 

 

Team members spend time at the office.
Robust Intelligence

 

Finn Howell
Machine Learning Engineer Lead • Robust Intelligence

 

Robust Intelligence strives to eliminate risks introduced by AI technologies. Its product, RIME, is designed to monitor and detect AI weaknesses and failures. Machine Learning Engineer Lead Finn Howell draws leadership inspiration from previous managers. “I’ve been influenced by qualities I’ve liked and not liked in my past managers,” Howell said. “I have learned that you must balance being on the ground working and having those higher-level conversations to understand an individual’s motivations.”

 

Briefly describe your career journey.

Prior to Robust Intelligence, I worked at a health tech company for over four years. I started as an intern and then as a full-stack engineer building a core health tech product — a database of all patient’s health data. The company was in an exciting growth stage and went public in early 2020. 

While building machine learning models within the healthcare landscape, I grew concerned with how laissez-faire ethics are in machine learning (ML). There is a lack of emphasis on data constraints, drift, bias and a strong emphasis on “productionizing” anything ML related. 

Robust Intelligence (RI) was solving exactly these types of problems. I started at RI in January of 2022 on the machine learning team. The team was 30 people and growing rapidly. One of my first projects was implementing bias and fairness testing for ML models. A few months later, I led a team working on solutions to problems such as governance, compliance and general pre-production validation of ML models.

Staying in touch technically is crucial.”

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

Staying in touch technically is crucial. Robust Intelligence is small enough that managers are still individual contributors. Managers are coding and solving problems. This helps understand the team’s pain points firsthand, such as removing unnecessary recurring meetings and processes.

People work best in areas they are passionate about, so make time for those explorations to better position your team’s productivity and happiness. We are all busy people, and it is easy to work on autopilot to focus on getting things done. I have learned to always be in touch, approachable and ask a lot of questions. If team members are not excited about a particular project, things can fall through the cracks easily. Tap into that motivation. While the team and company may shift, people will always remember their managers.

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

My key piece of advice to women is not to feel intimidated by a barrier to entry. Everything comes with a learning curve, and it’s always worth a try if you are passionate. While it may appear that everyone had a clear, easy path to get to where they are today, I can assure you that is not true. 

If you aspire to take on a management role — push for that. If you already manage people — push for your reports to pursue areas they may feel uncertain about and encourage them.

 

 

Eloise Jones
Engineering Manager • Vouch Insurance

 

Vouch strives to provide startups and founders insurance and risk solutions with tailored insurance designed for technology startups. Engineering Manager Eloise Jones’ leadership is driven by one of her favorite quotes by Brené Brown: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Jones described the concept as transformative in all of her work relationships. “It affects my decision-making, my management style and has caused me to get very honest with myself about a core weakness I bring to the table: I am likely to hedge or soften my message,” Jones said. She shared that she actively works to strengthen this element of her leadership daily. “Tip: Go to therapy,” Jones added. 

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

The truth is I didn't mean to go into software engineering as a career. My college degree is in Russian and Eastern European Studies. My interests tend toward music, theater, math and linguistics. 

But I happened to pay for college by doing tech support. When I graduated, I discovered that businesses wanted to pay me for those skills instead of my ability to speak Russian — go figure. I spent time in tech support, customer service, UX and QA. 

All the while, I was writing scripts — building apps and websites just happened to come up in the course of my life and work. I used those skills on the side to help a friend launch a private art auction site, and spent 12 years helping with all aspects of that company’s development needs.

Only at the age of 34 did I get hired for my first role entirely for my development skills as an integrations architect. Next, I was given the title of software engineer and transitioned to being an engineering manager.

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

When it comes to verbally delivering clear and direct feedback, I have been too socialized in the importance of keeping other people comfortable to trust myself. But those who report to me deserve as much clarity in what I think and expect as I can give them. 

It is something I am working on, but in the meantime, I work around this weakness by writing all important feedback in a doc before I meet with someone. I email the doc to the individual when we begin our discussion, and I read directly from it as we look at it together. It holds me accountable.

Like everyone else, you deserve to direct your own career and act on behalf of your goals and happiness.”

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

Being a woman in tech will inevitably affect your transition to or from management. In some environments, it may be harder for you to transition to management. Or they’ll try to route you toward something “less technical,” like project management. And you may ultimately need to leave if managing a tech team is your goal.

In other environments, you may get significantly more pressure to move into management than your male counterparts, whether to meet DEI quotas or to meet more genuine goals of affecting representation at the leadership level.

If you do become a manager, you may feel pressured by yourself or others to stay there, knowing that you are one of the few women in that position and how important that representation is to all underrepresented minorities within tech. Ultimately, manage if you want to manage. Stop when you want to stop.

Like everyone else, you deserve to direct your own career and act on behalf of your goals and happiness. You are not beholden to anyone to take advantage of leadership opportunities or to stay in management. 

 

 

Susmita Kundu
Director, Software QA • Evidation

 

Evidation Health aims to create new ways to measure and improve health in everyday life. Built upon a foundation of user privacy and control over permissioned health data, Evidation’s consumer platform is designed to bring people individualized, proactive and accessible healthcare. Director of Software QA Susmita Kundu homes in on communication in her leadership. “Open communication has helped me drive collective creation across the team,” Kundu told Built In SF. “Listening to diverse team members, experiences, viewpoints and solutions has helped identify a common set of values.”

 

Briefly describe your career journey and your current role.

As a software engineer, my career commenced in a series of startups, working in automation, test engineering and tools development. In the last 12 years, I have worked in various product engineering leadership roles in diverse domains ranging from imaging, finance, high frequency trading, mobile apps, payments and now in healthcare. As a leader, I have built and scaled engineering teams — hiring, mentoring and growing successful global engineering teams at companies of all sizes. 

 

What’s one really important lesson you’ve learned in your time as a people manager, and how has that made you a better manager?

As a leader who has interacted with diverse teams in multiple geo-locations, I have realized that the key to being a successful leader of people is to enable teams to communicate effectively. 

The key to managing an effective team is to listen and bring a sense of belonging and ownership.

Building a fully engaged team requires an articulated purpose. This involves asking questions, listening and reflecting.

Enabling the team to problem solve by sharing learned experiences leads to collaborative work environments. Having open interactions with team members builds a culture of respect — it empowers team members to have a voice.

Be an agent of change and execute the vision with confidence and empathy.”

 

What advice do you have for other women who manage tech teams, or aspire to?

My best advice to other women who aspire to or are leading teams is to always have a mission for your team. Be an agent of change and execute the vision with confidence and empathy. 

Lead by example and bring your authentic self to work. Your trust in yourself is key to driving forward on goals. Always plan for the future but execute in real-time towards fulfilling long term goals. 

Provide a healthy, safe, diverse and inclusive environment where team members feel valued. 

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Vouch, Canva, Evidation Health, Unity, Robust Intelligence and Shutterstock.

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