Celebrating International Women’s Day – A perspective on diversity as a catalyst to innovation

 

The purpose of International Women’s Day is to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.  Today, we sat down with Nicole Rennalls, a product line general manager at Tektronix to talk about what International Women’s Day means to her, her experiences working in technology, and how she’s seen diversity be a catalyst to innovation.

Amy: Happy International Women’s Day! 

Nicole:  Happy International Women’s Day to you as well!

Amy: I thought we could start with you sharing a bit about International Women’s Day and we can go from there.  What does this day mean to you in particular?

Nicole:  For me, it is also a time to reflect on the progress that has been made for greater equality and representation and explore how I might contribute to that progress in my lifetime.  It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the amazing women that have paved the way at work and in society.

Amy: Who are some of your role models?

Nicole: The women in my family, first and foremost, are tremendous role models.  They are a hardworking, high achieving bunch, starting with my grandmothers.  Both of my grandmothers immigrated from Jamaica, became nurses, and built lives for themselves and their families in the US.  My mom went back to school to become a teacher at a university an hour from our home when my siblings and I were 15, 13, and 10, but still managed to make soccer games and school plays.  From them, I learned focus, determination, and resiliency.

Also, like many people that owned a television from 1986 to 2011, Oprah Winfrey. 

Amy: Diversity in technology has been a hot topic for several years now, with large technology companies publishing their diversity numbers, scandals at VCs and startups, and lots of literature about how diverse teams develop more creative solutions to problems.  As a manager at a technology firm, what’s your take on why diversity is so critical to your business?

Nicole:  I think we’ve seen several public case studies on why diversity matters, but I’ll try to share my point of view.  I had a professor once say that “people tend to scratch their own itch”.  What he was saying is that the people driving the market to find a solution to a problem usually are feeling that problem themselves.  Sometimes they feel it so acutely that they build the technology or business that solves that problem.  That’s where innovation comes from.  That opened my eyes.  I realized three things.  First, that there were likely really big opportunities to innovate all over the place that big technology companies weren’t able to address because they didn’t even know there was a problem. Second, it was likely that those companies did not deeply understand the problems faced by me because they had few women or people of color developing their technology.  And finally, that the technology being developed by those companies was likely not aimed to solve problems like mine and many others.  That’s not to say that no technology has ever solved my problems (as I take a Lyft to my Airbnb), but I think there are big opportunities to deploy technology to solve underserved and unserved markets.  We just have to get more diverse voices at the table. 

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Amy: So essentially you believe there are places that could benefit from innovation that the market is currently ignoring?  What’s an example you’ve seen of that?

Nicole: I don’t know if you can call it ignoring if the market isn’t listening for it. Another role model of mine is Madam C. J. Walker, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who built a business making and selling black hair care products in the early 1900s.  She would feel her hair get dry and scalp get itchy, but there was nothing she could buy to remedy the problem. She had to make it herself.  On her way to solving that problem, she became one of the first female self-made millionaires in the US.  Talk about your underserved markets.

More recently, I attended a conference where the founder and CEO of MM Lafleur gave a talk about what she had learned so far as an entrepreneur.  Her company focuses on professional work clothes for women. She told us a story about how a potential investor once suggested that her target market, female professionals who want to look sharp and put together at work, may be too niche.  I was sitting in a room with over 300 such women and we groaned collectively.

That’s the change I want to be a part of most and why I work in technology.  I want to help find and define the problems we go solve and bring new innovations to market.  That’s what gets me excited about coming to work.

Amy: It’s got to be more than just you.  How do you get more diverse voices at the table?

Nicole:  Well that is the question.  Tek focuses a great deal on bringing in diverse talent throughout its business in the way we recruit and develop that leadership pipeline.  From an inclusion standpoint, Tektronix’ Women in Technology (WIT) group is one of the more powerful engines for diversity I’ve seen.  It was started by volunteers (Selu and Jessica, you’re amazing), is supported by senior leadership, and has grown to Tek sites all over the world.  WIT has managed to create an inclusive community within Tek that has made a new space for women and men to learn, share, and grow through events and programs.  When I was promoted to GM, it was the members of WIT that were the first to give hugs and high fives.  Being in an environment where you are cheered on for your accomplishments and included is a profound motivator when you’re not like everyone else.

Amy: Thanks Nicole for the time!  To wrap up, how are you going to celebrate International Women’s Day today?

Nicole: I’m going to attend a special event on campus and I will call my mom to tell her she’s awesome.

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