From Zero to WITI 30: An Interview with Carolyn Leighton

Sarah Dooley

January 09, 2019

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Conducted by Sarah Dooley
Edited by Julia Opre

Women in Technology International is fresh into its 30th year. This milestone—and WITI itself—would have never come to fruition without the dreams and drive of its founder, Carolyn Leighton. In this interview, Sarah Dooley looks back with Carolyn at her part in creating a pinion of progress for professional women across the globe.

Sarah Dooley (SD): What was your history and background before starting WITI?

Carolyn Leighton (CL): I taught elementary school and adult education. I participated in a unique program at Pacific Oaks College that was about open classrooms and experimental teaching.

When I graduated, I rolled out programs for the Los Angeles district. I worked with parents and teachers to show them how to create and utilize a structured, open classroom.

I was a single mother with two children, and when my younger son, Daniel, became ill, I needed to find a job closer to home so I could be there in case of an emergency. I ended up starting my own business from home in 1979.

[In 1984], I began a company called Criterion Research. I researched employees for core competencies at high-tech and aerospace companies. This research is what led me to become aware of the issues women were having in these companies, and that was part of where I got the idea for WITI.

SD: Were there any significant events or aspirations in your life that inspired you to create a company that gave women a voice?

CL: Yes. When I was getting my teaching credential, I was struggling with a big decision. During one of our breaks, I went into the garden outside the classroom, and I asked myself, "What do I want my life to look like when I turn 80 and look back?" I realized whatever business I went into, I wanted to make sure I was contributing to change in a way that would impact everyone I touched.

I encourage every young person to ask themselves the same question because it helps people consider decisions as you move forward in your career.

SD: Were you involved in the promotion of women in STEM before starting WITI?

CL: I wasn't involved in promoting women in technology before I started WITI. I was unconscious about how women were treated in corporate settings and when they began confiding in me, I found it shocking. At first, I thought, "Well, maybe it's just the way they see things."

These were amazing, talented, well-educated women who were miserable in their careers. It didn't matter how hard they worked or how much they contributed�"all the promotions and great projects in these companies went to the buddies of the guy who had all the power.

More and more women had the same story, and I realized that it was not about any one person; it was about what was going on in corporate environments. I felt strongly that every time a woman could not contribute her best that it was not only cheating them and the company, but also our country.

SD: What got the gears turning for you to create WITI?

CL: While I was going through the draining experience of learning about how career women were being treated through my work with Criterion Research, there was a report published by the Department of Labor—the first "Glass Ceiling Report." It gave statistics showing that even though women were moving slowly into management—if they even got there—that there was nowhere else for them to go.
You know when you're on a path, and you get signs? That article was a sign to pursue this idea I had and help these women.

At the same time, I was doing a lot of work for a partner who worked at Hewlett Packard. I was impressed with the level of diversity in the teams that were assembled whenever they made a new product. These groups were comprised not only of various ethnic backgrounds, but also various careers—a biologist, a teacher, a salesperson, a physicist, etc.

People underestimate the power of having a diverse group of people on your team—it's critical. It is sad and ridiculous that companies do not understand that. Everyone brings a different mindset and different perspective to complex issues.

I said, "That is going to be my model." I decided to start an organization so that women working in every aspect of technology could contact each other if they were working on a project. This cooperation gives them a competitive edge.

I had no idea what was going to happen. I was trying to make a simple, positive change. I started meeting with small groups of women and companies who expressed interest in making this change. When we had our first WITI corporate meeting at Sun Microsystems, we expected 75 people—and 500 people showed up.

I was getting phone calls and emails day and night. Women were emailing me saying, "I want to get involved" and, "I want to do this." It was overwhelming, and I knew I had to make a decision. Criterion Research was taking off, but I decided that I was going to leave Criterion Research and build WITI.

SD: Do you have any significant awards you've received, either before the creation of WITI or after?

CL: Yes, I received awards. I think one year I was nominated as one of the top women in technology.

However, I am much more interested in awards that other women have received because of how WITI has made a difference in their lives. That, for me, is far greater than any award I could receive.

WITI was born from the simple aspirations of a working mom and driven forward by ambitious, intelligent women in a disparate system. As a result, many women have found themselves as part of a global community that enriches their professional and personal lives everyday.

After looking back on WITI's past, one can not help but look forward and wonder, "Where to next?" In our upcoming interview with Carolyn Leighton, we will discuss how this nexus of international networking can keep moving forward into the future with success and grace.

Carolyn Leighton founded WITI in 1989 as a worldwide email network for women in all technology sectors. Due to Ms. Leighton's leadership and vision, WITI has grown to be the premiere brand and worldwide organization dedicated to empowering women worldwide to achieve unimagined possibilities and transformations through technology, leadership and economic prosperity.

In addition to her continuing work with WITI, Ms. Leighton founded and operates Love Dogs Camp in Arroyo Grande on the central coast of California.

Sarah Dooley is a senior at Youngstown State University studying Professional and Technical Writing and Media Design. Upon graduation in May 2019, she hopes to continue studying to be a User Experience Designer in Colorado. She is a technical writer by trade, but a creative writer by heart. She has interned at corporations like WITI, Eaton, and Jacobs Engineering. In her spare time, Sarah is a member of the Theta Upsilon chapter of Alpha Xi Delta and a tutor at the Youngstown State University Writing Center.

Julia Opre is a staff writer and head of project development on WITI's editorial team. She graduated from Youngstown State University with BAs in anthropology and in religious studies. She is a creative thinker who enjoys hiking, solving puzzles, and knitting in her spare time.

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

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