Robin Hindery 2013-05-22 07:52:28
Changing the Program Software engineer and entrepreneur Poornima Vijayashanker aims to crack the code to making engineering friendlier to women. Bubbly, outgoing, and proudly feminine, Poornima Vijayashanker does not fit the stereotype of the typical Silicon Valley engineer. But if she has her way, the idea of a “typical engineer” might soon be obsolete. The Palo Alto resident is the dynamic force behind Femgineer, a blog she started in 2006 that has since grown into an increasingly well-known movement in the tech world. Through courses, forums, and other social events, Vijayashanker works to address issues related to women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions, help with career advancement, and promote work environments that are friendlier to females. In August, she’ll be moving to North Carolina to teach a semester-long entrepreneurship course at her alma mater, Duke. Vijayashanker coined the term “femgineer” to help upend the false perception that women in STEM are unfeminine. “I began building an audience, and at the end of last year, I started realizing, there’s an opportunity here, but I’m not sure what it is,” she shares. She quickly figured out that there was a real appetite among aspiring and practicing women engineers for peer support, mentorship, and opportunities to expand their skills and education. Vijayashanker’s Femgineer Forums offer a chance for networking as well as skill-building exercises in which participants practice strategies such as communicating effectively or, in the case of employers, attracting and retaining more women engineers. An April 2 forum in San Francisco called “Fostering Female-Friendly Companies,” for example, drew about 50 people to the offices of CoverHound, an online insurance comparison shopping service. “The whole concept of Femgineer is fostering an environment that is inviting as well as good at retaining female engineers,” says Laura Ku, a software engineer at CoverHound who helped organize the event. “Learning how to create those environments is essential to turning the hand-wringing about the lack of female engineers into action.” Vijayashanker says it took her a while to comprehend the gender gap in her chosen field. “I always did things that were kind of boyish,” she recalls of a childhood spent dismantling and rebuilding computers, vacuums, and other machines with her brother. “I felt like maybe I was just picking activities that men are interested in more than women.” For a long time, she considered her love of building things merely a hobby, and she arrived at Duke intending to pursue a legal career. A computer science class early in college changed her mind. “The satisfaction I got made me want to stick with it,” she says. After graduating with a double major in electrical and computer engineering and computer science, she moved to the Bay Area and soon began pursuing a master’s degree at Stanford—a pursuit she abandoned to become one of the first engineers, and the sole “femgineer,” at Mint.com, a web-based personal financial management service that was acquired by Intuit in 2009 for $170 million. “The success of Mint was helpful, but more than that, I felt I had done a lot with engineering and wanted to understand more of the business side of things,” Vijayashanker explains. In early 2009, she left Mint to start her own company, BizeeBee, which works to help fitness studios and other membership-based businesses manage their customers and finances. (A yoga devotee, Vijayashanker had witnessed firsthand the frustration caused by dated technology at many small gyms and studios.) Vijayashanker has managed to keep one foot in the world of engineering—she still spends much of her spare time writing code—and the other in the world of entrepreneurship, and she hopes to advance a holistic approach to engineering education. “The true early adopters are the folks who want to learn both product development and how to manage people and manage themselves,” she says. After meeting Vijayashanker, it’s hard to envision anything other than success in her future. But if there are a few bumps along the road ahead, she’ll no doubt be just fine. “Rejection, disappointment, failure, and resiliency are easy to handle,” she wrote in a November 2012 guest post on the Women 2.0 blog. “I suck at leading a secure and stable lifestyle.”
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