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Ep 27 : Investing in DEI workforce & Empowering Women to leadership roles: Alaina Percival, CEO, VC

Updated: Jul 1, 2023


Hello, This is Sirisha, welcome to my podcast!

Pivoting her career from Retail to Tech Alaina Percival has been a driver in building diverse, inclusive communities enabling more women to step into leadership roles, Alaina founded "Women Who Code" which has grown to 290,000 members across 180 countries in less than a decade. In this conversation, we discuss concrete steps organizations, managers and individuals can take to identify unconscious bias in the hiring and promotion structure. and how they can invest in early, mid-career women and Minorities to build an equitable workforce. We delve into how startups or companies in early phases of growth, can identify and define their organization values. Alaina and I discuss the myth of work-life balance and how we find harmony in these busy lives of ours.

Alaina Percival is a multifaceted woman. She's a co-founder and CEO, of the nonprofit 'Women Who Code'. and is also a Board Member, Venture Capitalist, Adjunct Faculty and let us not forget a Working Mom.

Women Who Code enables diverse professionals to enter the tech space so they can increase their wealth and have a huge impact on their organizations., families and communities. It connects women, enables them to build a network, gives opportunities to enter the tech space, and also exposure to leadership roles.

I hope you step away from this interview with this thought, "What can I or my organization do to empower more women to leadership roles and invite them to have a seat at the Table". Happy Listening!

Come, let's #paintlifetogether!

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Below is a transcript of the episode, slightly modified for reading.


[00:50] Meet Alaina Percival [Jump to section]

[02:46] How Women Who Code got founded [Jump to section]

[04:38] Women's Career Growth Challenges [Jump to section]

[09:45] How to build a diverse and equitable workforce [Jump to section]

[18:23] Women and Venture Capital [Jump to section]

[19:34] Work-Life Balance.. is it it a myth... [Jump to section]

[21:38] Lessons Learnt from a rapid growth Startup [Jump to section]

[25:18] Note to 21-year-old self [Jump to section]


[00:50] Meet Alaina Percival

Sirisha: Hello everyone. I'm excited about today's guest to welcome Alaina Percival. How do I describe her? She's such a multifaceted woman working on so many things. She's a founder, a CEO, and a board member. And the reason that I got to know about her and the impact she has is through her organization, the nonprofit she founded, and she's the CEO of the 'Women Who Code'. It is enabling diverse professionals to enter the tech space so they can increase their wealth and have a huge impact across the organization. And just 'Women Who Code' by itself, in less than a decade is in 134 countries with over 290,000 members. That's just mind-boggling and it connects these women and I've spoken to many of them who enjoy being part of this organization. It helps connect them, build a network, gives them opportunities to enter the tech space, and also get exposure and leadership role. So Alaina, welcome. I'm looking forward to today's conversation to talk about very many things that you are very engaged actively in.

Alaina: Thank you so much for having me here today. I'm just thrilled to be able to reconnect with you.

Sirisha: Thank you. You started 'Women Who Code', but let's take a few steps back and you can just walk us through your journey to how you got here.

Alaina: I didn't start my career in the tech industry. I initially moved to Germany. I had an exchange scholarship between the US Congress and the German Bundestag to increase international Careers. And I started my career over there, ended up staying for an additional three years with Puma, the performance wear company. Then I moved back to the US, did an MBA and got a job at a really small women's performance footwear company. So while feminism and women's empowerment were always valuable to me, it's starting to enter my career at this point. About a year after that, I had the opportunity to move to the bay area.

[02:46] How Women Who Code got founded

Alaina: And it was one of those cities, San Francisco, if you get the chance, go for it, and I did. So I'd had this really strong career up until this point and I got out to San Francisco and was going on job interviews. And I wasn't coming from Facebook, Google or Microsoft, and I was hitting a wall with my traditional background. So, I started learning to code and getting involved in the tech community. And personally just fell in love with spending time with smart women, excited and talking about and learning about technology. I started to get involved more and more deeply with the community and women whose code was just getting started. I stepped up as a leader, it was a meet-up group in San Francisco and about a year and a half, two years later Jasmine and Michelle were the co-founders of "Women Who Code". We realized that it was important for the world to have when the media started talking about teaching girls to code and teaching women to code. We were women who were already in the industry and the needs of women in the industry weren't being elevated or talked about. So, this amazing conversation and movement around teaching girls to code, and teaching women to code was a threat to the women in the industry who were already having to constantly go in and prove themselves day after day, that they were as qualified as they were. They were constantly saying I'm viewed as less qualified than I am. So, if everyone's talking about teaching women to code and you have 5 to 10 years experience and, everyone enters a conversation with you, a technical conversation with you expecting that you are just learning or junior; it's really hard for you to progress in your career.

[04:38] Early...Mid Career Women...Career Growth Challenges

Alaina: And so, I started making career decisions around that time because of women who code. So I went to work for a top technical recruiting company as their head of developer outreach. And I got to run their charitable arm while I was there. And what I saw is that they were recruiting some of the best executive technology roles. So, CTOs, Vice presidents of engineering, and Directors of engineering for funded startups, fewer than 5% of those very empowering career-changing roles were going to women. So I started learning from the people that I was interacting with every day in my job. What were they doing in their career to be more successful? What were they doing outside of it? Who were they speaking with? What decisions were they making? And I started bringing what I was learning into the program around women who code and that's where our mission of empowering diverse women to excel in technology, careers came about. Because there are pipeline breaks throughout the funnel, but getting women into leadership and positions of power so that there are role models for the next generation. So we're creating inclusive and designing for inclusion that needs to be coming from people in power and people at the top and we need to see more diverse women in those positions.

Sirisha: First of all, you had those discussions and what I appreciate is you brought that. For women who want to persevere and grow into leadership roles. , there are very few places where you can gather information, you are not privy to those conversations. And sometimes, when they talk about networks there are certain cliques already that exist and there is no way to break into it. So how do you gather the information? Looks like your conversations help click that, create this organization and its people who are already in those positions and people who are in that pathway there, can connect and understand what it is. How do I grow my career? Like you, I think the other thing you said is, these women were already coders, but no one was putting a spotlight on their achievements and what they were capable of and giving them the opportunities. If you're only looking at the entry-level, then you're losing this mid-career path of people that are already set right there. You just need to give them the hand up to move forward because they're ready to leap and, just clear the pathway for them and that's such a key part of it.

Alaina: Yeah, and women are facing a barrier when you do go into the promotion process, when you are looking to move into your first leadership role, women tend to be judged based on their experience. So if you're coming in as an individual contributor, you haven't been a leader previously you're unlikely to win that role because people have trouble seeing you as a leader, whereas, men get viewed by their potential. And so when they're coming in for their first leadership role 'oh yeah, they're gonna be great in this role. I can already see it. And so that's something that one needs to shift as a culture. But women who code created a space where you can practice leadership, where you can give talks, you can lead projects, can have practice space, you build practice-based leadership skills that make you promotion ready to overcome this bias that you faced. And I've had many women who code leaders say that. Had, for example, one says that when they were interviewing at SpaceX, one of the things that they said, was they were excited to speak with her because she was a leader within women who code, and it also creates that network of allies for you in the industry. And we're also very fortunate in this industry that there's a lot of opportunity. For growth, for high-quality jobs. And so if you are coming up against a barrier and not seeing that upward mobility, having those connections to move to another company or another team within your company makes it much easier, to navigate in your career. And for example, in the tech industry, we expect an additional 50,000 new leadership roles to be created in the next five years. If we can get to a point where women are being considered for and winning half of those roles, we'll start to see huge progress in having women at the top of the leadership funnel.

Sirisha: Yeah, what you said, that network that exists. It also allows connecting with somebody, you don't have to repeat the story or explain it to them. They've lived the experience so they know what you're talking about. So the transition of that comfort zone exists for them to create a pathway forward. And I know you just recently had your Connect conference which, generates a lot of that opportunity for people to speak. I've heard, I've watched some of the videos and it's amazing. There's tech talks there's, career talks. There are just so many ways to gather that experience. To your point, men are judged on the potential for these roles and it's like that unbiased, right?

[09:45] How to build a diverse and equitable workforce

Sirisha: How do we create an equitable and diverse workforce essentially to get leadership roles, as you climb the ladder, the mid to higher director, senior level, The percentage goes down? And if you look at C-suite and board, it's even more significantly less. So what can we do as organizations or governments basically to create these equitable forces? I know women who code help that, but how do companies otherwise, within that organization structure, do you think can enable this change?

Alaina: Companies need to be building practices and designing them for inclusion. They need to be evaluating existing processes and identifying where the breakpoints are. And that means, in the pipeline, when you're hiring people, identify constantly, are you not getting enough diverse applicants. All right, Where can you be posting your job for them? Women who code have a job board? Other communities represent minorities and you can be increasing that pipeline. If when you get through the interview process, you're losing all of your diverse candidates, dig into that, figure out what needs to be changed to make sure that that you are designing for inclusion around that step and then even beyond the hiring process. And I think there are six more steps that I could go into, but I know we only have a little bit of time together. The most important area, in my opinion, for companies to be focusing on is the talent that they have in their company today. It's going to cost an organization, an average of $190,000 to replace an experienced engineer. And that doesn't even include the opportunity costs of their work output. That's just the replacement cost for the engineer and keeping your talent helping them to elevate and navigate their career progress. So, look at things like how are projects allocated. And this is something I've heard from the women who code community. If you have high success, likelihood, high profile revenue earning projects, always going to the top, people who happen to be that, look exactly like the rest of the company, then those are the people who are going to most likely get promoted. They're going to be earning the most. And then if you give your diverse talent, the likely-to-fail projects the back-of-house projects, the cleanup projects they're going to end up progressing at a slower rate. So really think about how projects are being allocated. Had someone at women who Code tell me that she was on this high-profile project, she was getting it started, she'd spent a few months on it. And then the 'IT' team was the team that wanted it. So, she actually had to train them on it, hand it over to them and they missed a huge opportunity to one, bring this talent forward onto this project and excluded the only woman who's going to be on the team, the only diverse woman who was going to be on that team. And so it's really important to think about projects, Look at promotion rates. Men tend to apply for promotions when they have four to six of the qualifications and women wait until they have all of the qualifications. And to be honest from the women that I've had personal experience with, they're often doing the job of the promotion that they're going for before they ask for that promotion. And so if you see, if you run the data and women are getting promoted once every three years and men are getting promoted once every year and a half, make sure that you are informing or putting forward your women for promotions when they deserve to be receiving them.

Sirisha: That's very concrete feedback, for organizations to take forward. What you're saying is, it's a cycle. It's a cycle constantly that goes because if you're already at the top, you're going to keep getting that hand up. And the person who is not getting the opportunity is never getting it because they have never had a chance to prove themselves. And in this case, the organization should be helping. But, let me ask the question a little differently. I know there's a lot of discussion that, obviously organizations hold a huge responsibility, which I completely agree with. But, is there something she could have done or poked at, do you think, to stay on the project? I'm just curious, is there something that as an individual I can do to make sure I do not get excluded? How, as an early or mid-career person, if I was to look for career progression, do I exercise my voice and make sure I have a seat at the table and hold that seat so that, I do not get set aside when things are being considered for promotions?

Alaina: When there's unconscious bias versus kind of overt sexism or racism, it often is much more difficult to recognize, and there's a risk that you internalize it off, oh, I'm being moved off this project because I'm not viewed as good enough, or I'm not talented enough to be on this project and that will cause you to stall out. And to be honest, the company misses out on the best work of this individual and growing this individual, to have someone who has the experience of being on a top project, working with your 'IT' team and growing and being a stronger part of your team. Make sure that you have people around you. So, if you don't already have that network, you can find that network at organizations like women who code. It's a community. You can come in and say, this felt a little weird and it's the small things that if you complained about it, you might be the weird person who complains a lot. But, if you have a safe space to share it, check it. This doesn't feel right to me. You'll hear an echo around you of No, it isn't you. That is a bias that exists. And here are the three or four ways that I handled it. And so you'll have the opportunity when you have people who are experienced around you to make sure that you can recognize things that are external and ways to move around them. And certainly finding allies in the organization, finding people who can help advocate for you is very important. And again, this industry has so much opportunity. If you do go in and advocate for yourself and make your voice heard and you aren't heard. If you're told no, There are other opportunities for you.

Sirisha: You're right, that's where allies and advocates come in. You as an individual, either as a leader or as a peer who notices this unconscious bias, should be able to step in and change the conversation. Maybe not necessarily in the room, if that's not the place to do it, but you can have that conversation offline and highlight 'Hey, I think this person, say Monica, is good. I think she has the experience. We have to give her the opportunity. And maybe in three months, if we think it's not working, then we can reevaluate the position', but you have to be able to, so there has to be allyship and advocates within an organization. And for individuals also it's possible. Women who code is one place where you get your allies, but try and see how you can gather those even within your organization or have people to talk to, or find that space because companies are recognizing that there is unconscious bias. People are acknowledging it. There is more conversation, it's now much more out in the open, so find and see how there is a possibility that can help enable your growth process. You talked about the pipeline and there is a transition, there's pay transparency, there's a lot of discussion. I'm so glad that New York passed a law. There are lots of countries and states. I saw in the UK when you put some company's name, it gave you the pay transparency differences. So, there are ways to find this information. So in that sense, when you're talking about the pipeline for people who have had career breaks, there's already a gap that comes. So when you're talking about promotion, it's not just about the impact of the organization, there is a huge pay component that goes with it. So equity is not just about, Hey, building gender diversity or, whatever diversity you're building, but it economically impacts someone's lives and forthcoming generation. So how you make sure that you get a seat at the table becomes much more critical because your impact is so much more significant than just, oh, I'm growing as a person in my career, but so much more that I'll be doing. So what do you see as the opportunities and challenges when they're talking about all of this, I'm sure you hear a lot of conversations because you are also in the VC space.

[18:23] Women and Venture Capital

Sirisha: So I'm gonna step into my next question and leave it open to you to answer either one of those. So when I look at it, I'm curious how you got into the VC space. And when I read statistics, Very few women, a very small percentage, probably even less than the 5% that you quoted for leadership get funding in the VC sector. So what can people do women get, do to get that funding and how do we need to impact that space as well?

Alaina: So how I got into it is pretty natural. I meet a lot of people by being part of women who code and many of them are building companies, or founders, and for years and years I've kept my ear to the ground with various VCs and what types of companies that they're looking for. And so if I was talking to a founder and they were raising and I happen to be able to connect them, I would. And so eventually a couple of VCs noticed that and said, oh, we want access to your pipeline. So I only wish that I had more time to spend connecting exciting entrepreneurs to VCs that I am connected with and helping to create pathways of access.

[19:34] Work-Life Balance.. is it it a myth...

Sirisha: This leads me to what I was curious about is, you not only do VC, you of course run women who code, you're a podcast host, now you're working in the university as an adjunct faculty, you are a working mom as well, you have your hands full. They talk about work-life balance and first of all, you believe in that concept. How do you prioritize and what has changed over time for you to be able to manage all of this? What do you use as some of your tricks of the trade to manage your life?

Alaina: So for years and years, my answer to this question has been, I'm not good at it. But I've gotten better in the past year or two. And I'm feeling very good about it right now because I had all of last week off of work to spend with my family. So I'm feeling pretty proud of myself, for creating a work-life balance in this exact moment. Ask me in two weeks, I might not give you the same answer. But it's really, I've had to put boundaries in place and not be able to do everything. And also the whole idea of women who code is as you empower more people around you, as you bring in people who are experts in areas that are weaknesses or areas that, need to be developed within the organization. You, as an organization becomes stronger and you can pull up and step back a little bit from that specific work. And it's gonna go better because that person's gonna be better at it, all of their energy focused on it. So really empowering the people around you to take on on pieces and setting boundaries and making sure that you do take time for yourself when you need it is like I'm inching a little bit closer to, work-life balance.

Sirisha: That's great and I couldn't agree more. I think you said it. There are extreme times of perfection, of perfect balance, which is what your last week was. It may tilt a little and then you may have to find it again, but it is making a choice. At different times, there are different things you prioritize and it keeps tipping whichever way you choose to do it.

[21:38] Lessons Learnt from a rapid growth Startup

Sirisha: You started a nonprofit, so I wanna step back on that journey. When you started women who code, it was a completely new space for you. You had to grow and you grew very quickly. So what are some of the lessons you learned that you wish you knew back then, so that someone who's going through a similar journey, be it in a business side or a nonprofit could learn from?

Alaina: I would say you get to choose how you're building your organization. You can design for your values. And that means you can decide to, bring forward the things that are most fun to you and just go back to that last question. So in the United States, there's typically a holiday break at the end of the year. Camped between the Christian holiday Christmas and new year's. We have a mid-year break and that mid-year break is specifically designed to be in alignment with Juneteenth and pride month and give people space to have time and celebrate. And so going back to that work-life balance question, when you are building a company when you are building leadership, you get to design and build the policies and you do them in a way that helps to promote work-life balance for your team and for yourself, you can do it in ways that help to build equity and inclusion inside of your organization. And the sooner that you're thinking through these processes, even, before it's needed, it helps to build an organization that is going to be a place that you and other people want to work at, and it can still thrive. It can still be a powerful force in the world or the community as a nonprofit or a powerful force in the industry.

Sirisha: So you are saying, give it some thought already. When people are starting these organizations, they are very passionate about what they're doing. But go back and think about your values and how you want that structure to look because organizations can ramp at any time at any scale. There's no predicting how they go because sometimes you read how they have, and it's quite challenging to cope with it and there's a lot of growing pains to grow with that. And how do you take away some of the toxicity that can come with it, if you have not structured and thought already of what you want? You're attracting talent, you're attracting people, who wanna come to work to enjoy it and have an impact. So, make them want to come to work and enjoy their experience and their time with their colleagues and go back home refreshed as well.

Alaina: Don't wait to create a parental leave policy when someone is six months pregnant at your company, because you might be able to hire people who aren't 19 - 22 years old. If you already have these policies in place. Don't wait to, build policies and processes for inclusion in other ways. You can start that from the beginning, don't wait until you have a hundred men employees to say, oh, we need women. Start now.

Sirisha: That's very good. I think for anyone who's in that early startup, if you haven't thought of it, go back and figure out your processes and your structure and your values so that you build, a diverse, equitable place because that will not only help with ideas but also help grow the organizations faster. All research shows that diversity of thought and experience and just all the different aspects that it brings ramps up an organization's progress. And even if they were looking at a revenue scale, it does even have an impact on that. So, it's all for the best. Yeah, for people who work there and for the organization, so something to keep in mind.

[25:18] Note to 21-year-old self

Sirisha: So, this is a question I ask all my guests. What advice would you give your 21-year-old self for your career and life, if you were to go back and have a conversation with her?

Alaina: Probably biased, start coding now. But I'm a believer that if you're happy where you are today, the decisions you made are the right ones. But don't be afraid of making mistakes. This is something that I say constantly a well-managed, well-corrected mistake can be much more effective and much more powerful than never having made a mistake because if you can learn from it if you can be human, be humble, and continue to grow. Those mistakes are what make you powerful and make you more resilient because nobody will ever survive without making and no company will ever exist that makes no mistakes.

Sirisha: Yes. And, I think acknowledging the fact that you have made a mistake would also help you figure out how you were able to recover from it and resilience, as you said, so you've done a lot of things. What do you think the future holds for you? What do you think you'll be working on next?

Alaina: Ooh, what will I be working on next? I believe that focusing on getting more women into leadership is the critical piece that women who code are focused on but amplifying how we're able to help people who are on technical paths build those skills more intentionally and scale that I think that's going to be incredibly important. Most of what we do is focused on technical, technology, but my vision is to see a lot more women in leadership roles all over the world.

Sirisha: I wish the same too. Yes. I'm looking forward to that. And do you have advice for people who can support it as allies? As we already talked about, managers or individuals how can they help organizations. When we say organizations, people do make up those organizations. What can they do to enable this?

Alaina: Shameless plug - Women who code is a nonprofit. So, we accept donations. We also partner with companies and we have a job board. Reach out to women who code, whatever reason you're reaching out, we will make sure it gets to the correct person. And make sure that you're elevating and helping the talented, diverse women on your team understand what their growth opportunity is inside of the organization and encourage resources and push them to go for it before they're ready, but when you know, they are.

Sirisha: Yes. And I think that's good advice for managers or managing employees and looking at performance reviews and stuff. I know individuals own their careers, but managers own individual careers as well. So what can you do to ensure you're paving that pathway even though the employee may not think they're ready for that leadership role? Put their name out there and encourage them to do it because I see sometimes hesitancy also for people to take that kind of role. But the way I look at it is if a manager thinks you're capable, then just go for it. At worst, even if you don't perform to the perfection that you're expecting, you are learning something and you're having an impact. It's a good step forward to keep moving. And I will do a shameless plug for women who code as well. You have to connect conference, I like that. You do the applaud thing where you're acknowledging people's impact. It's a great little community and whether you're looking for leadership roles or something, I think it's a great network of diverse people across the globe that you get to connect with. So, you should join that organization, If you're looking for a technical space. Last and final question, what is the one word you would do to describe yourself?



Sirisha: I think that pretty much sums up your journey right now. So Alaina, thank you so much for today's conversation. I am very impressed obviously with what your organization is doing and just your career pathway and what your future holds for you because I think it's gonna impact many people's careers. We also talked about how organizations that people can enable this journey for women to grow into leadership roles in the tech space you grow and have a huge impact. So, I'm looking forward to seeing those impacts as organizations work through it and have some concrete ways and look at their structure and processes and see if they have unconscious bias and work through that. So, thank you for being here today.

Alaina: Thank you so much for having me and helping to share the story and amplify women who code.


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