WITI 30: Looking Back on My Journey

Carolyn Leighton

December 05, 2018

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In the early 70s, I went back to college to get my teaching credentials.

At that time, I was struggling with personal decisions. One day, during our classroom break, I went out into the garden to ponder my issues and to try to find the best solution.

I asked myself “What do I want my life to look like when I turn 80 and look back?” I have no idea why that question immediately popped into my head, but I am grateful it did because, within seconds, I knew my answer was that I wanted my life to be about making a positive contribution—a positive difference in this world. That’s what I felt I was here for.

I had no idea at the time what a life-changing moment that would be. From that point on, I never stayed in a job unless I felt I was making a positive difference in the world.

Once I started my career as a teacher, I loved it.

My first job after was working for the Los Angeles, Unified School District, training parents and teachers how to structure an open classroom for a new program being rolled out. Pacific Oaks College was known worldwide for the work they were doing in the learning process, and in open classrooms, so the person who hired me thought I would be a perfect fit for that job.

While I loved my work, I was a single mother of two young boys, and this job required a great deal of traveling to schools throughout Los Angeles County.

I soon realized I had to find a job closer to home and found that the only solution that would work for my family was to start a business at home, so I could earn income to support my boys and be available for them.

My mother would always tell me “the universe provides.” She would carry the book The Power of Positive Thinking with her wherever she went, and she lived by these principles. She was the inspiring force in my life.

In 1984, I started a research company called Criterion Research; my client companies were aerospace and technology.

As I started meeting and building relationships with women in those companies, they shared their job frustration with me—how they were overlooked for the choice projects and promotions—instead, they experienced those projects and promotions were going to men less qualified than they were—they felt it was because these men were buddies and went golfing with the managers who made those decisions.

When, at first, a couple of women shared these stories with me, I thought they must have been exaggerating—what company would not jump at the chance to make these smart, well-educated women—women who wanted, most of all, to make serious contributions to their companies—a vital part of their team?

As I continued to meet more women who confided similar stories, I saw the epidemic problem in Corporate America.

I became alarmed that the dysfunctional culture was not only cheating the companies and everyone working there from being the best, but that this situation had to have a negative impact on America—after all, many of these women worked for aerospace companies contracted by our government to work on important government projects—if the best and smartest were not allowed to work at the highest level of these projects, then it weakened not only their companies but our country that we all love.

I organized informal meetings with many of these women so they could meet each other, to feel support. I also had hoped this process would help us uncover solutions to addressing these issues.

I felt like a one-woman missionary who was charged with solving this important problem and that my duty was to help these women, these companies, and our country by solving this problem. After all, my commitment to making a positive difference in this world was always right there with me, guiding me through all decisions.

I know this sounds naive and dramatic, but I truly felt and still feel that everything I described was no accident and that I was being charged with solving a big problem—and I still feel the same way, 30 years later.

While the informal meetings were going on, I picked up a copy of a business magazine whose cover story was something like “why women were not moving to the top of companies.”

I had an opportunity to read many of the articles that said that women were starting to move into mid-management, but they had serious obstacles moving beyond.

In the 80s, while my informal women’s meetings were starting and the research of mid-management women was happening, the internet was coming into the mainstream.

As I read the article, the idea grew—what if I started an online network of women who touched all aspects of technology, that will give each other a competitive edge when there was an opportunity to win a project, get a promotion, etc.

I began having discussions with a close friend, and as our discussions grew, so grew my consciousness about the corporate career problem that women were fully aware of—but I was not—and it began to keep me up at night, wondering what I could do to help the amazing women and make sure our country was not deprived of their talent.

After several coffee shop meetings with women, I organized a meeting at a company in Silicon Valley.

The Silicon Valley companies shaped the foundation of the technology industry, and there was no better place to determine the level of interest in our growing women in technology network than at one of those companies.

One of our early members, Carolyn Turbyfill, then an engineer at Sun Microsystems, helped make the first corporate meeting happen. Everyone told us to expect around 60 people, but instead, around 350 women showed.

Thinking about the level of excitement in the room that night still gives me goosebumps—there was excitement and energy around the idea of starting an organization for women in technology.

The next day, I was bombarded with hundreds of calls and emails from women who wanted to jump in and get involved. And I knew it was time to continue growing my research company or jump in with both feet into WITI.

Before I made a final decision, I consulted with my son, Dave, who had agreed to work with me at Criterion Research when I landed a large contract from Hughes Aircraft. Dave agreed to run Criterion Research and ended up funding WITI for the first five years until we started bringing in some revenue.

The next decision I had to make was how to structure the explosive organization.

I had strong feelings about our mission of advancing women in tech, and I knew if I made WITI a nonprofit, it would perpetuate the stereotype of women doing “charitable work.” I knew we had to insist on women in tech being taken seriously—as amazing innovators, technologists, businesswomen, so it was a no-brainer for me to make WITI a for-profit business.

If Oprah ran a nonprofit instead of the business she built, no one would take her seriously. I was determined to make sure we were all taken seriously.

In 1995, we launched the first United States summit for Women in Technology. We were told to expect about 300 people; instead WITI sold out at 1500.

We are forever grateful for the support of those early companies that believed in WITI: IBM, Dell, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Gloria Steinem, and so many others who made the summit an amazing experience for everyone.

In 1996, WITI launched the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. To date, we have inducted 137 women into the Hall of Fame, many who were unknown outside of their organization, are brilliant innovators, trailblazers, and legacies for the next generation of women and men.

Today, WITI is the leading global association for women in technology. We have WITI networks in the United States and around the globe and growing amazing partnerships.

In 2019, WITI will be building miniWITI (for elementary-aged students interested in technology), NextGen—highschool and college females, and a new membership for executive women called “Be the Change” to work together to get more women into C-Level positions and on boards.

It has been a long, amazing journey and we still have so much more to do.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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