“Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap of faith,” says Samantha Walravens, co-author of the book, “Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech,” a collection of stories about the women not just succeeding in tech, but the ones who are changing the game for women entrepreneurs everywhere.
Walravens, a Princeton alum and award-winning journalist with a lengthy history of her own within the inner workings and beginnings of Silicon Valley, decided to give up her career some time ago and focus on her family. But as a mother of four, over time, she began to feel, as she put it, “like a big loser.”
“I had always envisioned myself to be this hitter, professional woman and I was home, literally not sleeping, not dressing, raising four kids and [with] a husband who was gone [a lot]. I was depressed, I was just feeling really badly about myself and I started reaching out to some of my girlfriends from college who were super successful, they were bankers and lawyers — they were like so many people from Princeton that achieved such great professional success, and I reached out to them and I was like, ‘How are you guys doing it? You have two kids; you have three kids, you’re a CFO or Head General Counsel of Goldman Sachs — how the heck do you do it?’ And they all responded to me, ‘Sam, we’re not doing it all, we never wanted to do it all’,” remembered Walravens. “We make choices, we make compromises, you know a bunch who were working full time were like, ‘I don’t see my kids as much as I want to, I have a nanny, my kids are in daycare.’ And the ones who were working part time were like, ‘I’m doing a horrible job, I’m a horrible mom, I’m a horrible professional, I’m doing a half-assed job at both things, I’m not succeeding.’ And the ones who were stay at home were like, ‘I’ve totally given up my career and I’m raising kids and I’m a total failure’.”
“That’s why I wrote Torn,” said Walravens of her first book, “TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood,” a New York Times acclaimed anthology. “I was like, oh my God, we’re all torn, I’m not alone in this and I want to share these stories because I feel so alone in my situation and I want to share with other women that they’re not alone, regardless of what choice you make with career and motherhood. There are people who are struggling and no one is doing it all.”
Walravens’ friend, a tall, attractive blonde, was given not a congratulatory review for her professional successes but rather a warning about how her lipstick was too bright, her style of interaction too aggressive and that she wore too many bracelets.
Through TORN, Walravens found herself resurfaced, impassioned and with a renewed purpose. Soon after publication, Walravens was back in the game, writing about women and their career and work-life issues, working for publications like Huffington Post, Forbes, Modern Mom and appearing on broadcasts like the Today Show. Having started her career as a technology reporter, covering the rise of tech (she actually worked as a coder, doing HTML 1.0 code in 1995, taking all the content for the magazine she wrote for from print to code), Walravens had seemingly now found her true niche until a lunch in 2013 that would culminate in the marriage of both worlds.
In a meeting with a friend who was head of sales for a tech company in Silicon Valley, Walravens learned about how despite her friend’s success at her job, in which she described her team as kicking their “numbers out of the ballpark,” her manager had some interesting comments on her performance review. Walravens’ friend, a tall, attractive blonde, was given not a congratulatory review for her professional successes but rather a warning about how her lipstick was too bright, her style of interaction too aggressive and that she wore too many bracelets.
“She quit that job because she just couldn’t do it,” explained Walravens, “She couldn’t take it anymore and she was in between jobs and she was ready to tell her story. She wanted to get out there and write it and I said well before I do anything, why don’t I just dig in a little bit of this topic of sexism in Silicon Valley and what’s going on.”
And dig she did. Soon it was all too easy to find the stories of sexism in Silicon Valley. Women were willingly and with fervor telling their stories; and there seemed to be no shortage of bad experiences. Walravens had her next book topic – and it was going to be about sexism in tech.
“So I put out a call for submissions, and like tell me your story, I’m interviewing women and one of the women I reached out to was Heather Cabot, who is my co-author, and she was working for Yahoo, and she goes, ‘Sam I’m researching something very similar but from a more positive perspective, of not just the sexism but how woman are succeeding’,” said Walravens who at that time decided to partner with Cabot and try to take control of the narrative for women in tech.
“When you read about women in tech it’s about how horrible it is, how sexist it is, how Silicon Valley is a terrible place for women, so why would you ever want to go into technology and entrepreneurship if it’s so horrible? The mainstream narrative about women in tech is this sort of negative story, so we wanted to flip the table and tell a more positive story,” explained Walravens, adding, “Some of the things women have to endure in the process of starting their companies and raising venture capital and all this kind of stuff, we definitely tell that part of the story too, but we wanted to show that you can get over that and here are some tools for getting over that and getting through that and succeeding.”
Over the next two years Walravens and Cabot conducted interviews with women entrepreneurs and technologists from all backgrounds, from Tracy Chao, the software engineer who wrote the essay “Where Are the Numbers?” in October 2013 that forced the tech industry to address their lack of female representation, to Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a first of its kind engineering toy for girls. Touching on the difficulties each woman faced due solely on their gender, and at times, their race as well, both Walravens and Cabot focused on all their abilities to overcome their difficulties rather than the obstacles themselves and by doing so really painted pictures of some super-hero like women.
“I have two daughters who are now nine and 13, Heather has a little girl who is 11 and we were looking for role models for our daughters. You can’t be what you can’t see, that’s a common phrase, and we were looking ahead at what our daughters could be and there were so few women in those positions of technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs and we’re like how can we tell them, okay this is who you can be if all they saw is Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Elon Musk and all these successful male entrepreneurs? There were no women entrepreneurs who would say this is who you want to be like, so – that’s why we wanted to collect stories of women entrepreneurs and technologists,” said Walravens.
Before the book even began to take shape, Walravens and Cabot started the Geek Girl Rising blog and website, knowing from the start they wouldn’t be able to include all their interviews in one book. In this way they hoped to keep Geek Girls going, knowing full well the stories, and the women, wouldn’t stop at the finish of a book.
“Every week we feature, we call it, Geek of the Week, and we feature a woman on our website and then on social media because there’s so many stories to tell so the digital platform was always part of our plan and we continue to do that on a weekly basis,” said Walravens, “We want to tell as many stories as we can and show as many images of women in tech as we can and just show that they’re not all alike and that they’re diverse and they come from different ethnic backgrounds and they’re creating different technology and they’re just a very diverse group of women. We just want to paint a picture. We want to get rid of the stereotypes and show real life examples of women and show that they’re just like you and me. They like to do yoga, they like to go on hikes, they have kids, they have families, they’re just normal human beings and yes they like to code or yes they’re starting a company or yes they’re investing.”
There’s so many obstacles in your way but if you have a dream, you have an idea, just go for it.
So while the book is now completed, published and out for consumption by the masses, the website goes on, with a lineup of profiles that continue to grow. ABC Studios and Kelly Ripa along with her husband Mark Consuelos, has even optioned the book for a possible TV show, while Walravens and Cabot are talking to Scholastic to make a young adult version of the book that would be available to middle school students, the age it is believed when girls start losing interest in math and science, and help introduce to young girls, and boys, the images of women in tech and entrepreneurial circumstances that seem everyday to them.
“My message is — actually I’m going to quote Reshma Saujani [founder of Girls Who Code] because she said it best, she says that as parents we teach our boys to be brave and fearless and we teach our girls to be polite and perfect. And my goal is to totally disrupt that, shake it up and teach the next generation of girls to take risks, get their hands dirty, to take their idea and make into a reality and not attempt to be polite and perfect and follow all the rules,” declared Walravens, “And that’s been my goal with this book. That’s a bigger vision but that’s kind of what I’m hoping to do – inspire the next generation of women to think big, act bold, take risks, follow your dreams, don’t let anything stop you [through] all the obstacles, because there’s going to be a ton, whether it’s sexism or lack of funding or motherhood, raising kids – there’s so many obstacles in your way but if you have a dream, you have an idea, just go for it. ”
What started out as simply an idea for a book has quickly turned into a movement and method of inspiration and change for Walravens and Cabot. To them, geek girls are not just rising, but thriving.
For more information on the women “shaking up” the tech industry, check out the Geek Girl Rising Blog as they continue to spread the word about the fearless women of Silicon Valley and beyond.