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Women Who Tech Are Dangerous: Portraits and Stories in the Age of #metoo

All portraits and interviews by John Davidson

johndavidson-photography.com

Ashley Jennings

Ashley Jennings

 
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Ashley Jennings

Job Title: Program Manager — Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth and Renewal — University of Texas at Austin; Co-Owner, Executive Producer — Spero Labs, LLC

Company website: http://sperolabs.com

Years working in the tech industry: Four

‘The Accidental Entrepreneur’:

I was working in network news in New York, where I was on the ground floor of launching a major, national TV station. That experience alone was pretty incredible. I was one of the youngest in the newsroom and saw opportunity to climb the ladder quickly. We had a woman President (who was my VP at ABC News prior), and I started feeling hopeful for women executives in media and thought that’d be the path I’d take.

Then I started noticing certain “good ole’ boys club” nuances I’d experienced in my previous newsroom. I started examining success stories of women leaders in the industry and realized it may be better for me to create my own opportunity outside of a newsroom, rather than wait for one to be given to me.

I left New York with the intention of starting my own video production company back home in Austin, Texas. A few freelance gigs, some Lyft driving and one major mentor meeting later, I did just that. Spero Labs was born out of Capital Factory, and today we serve businesses like Dell, Dropbox, Winnebago, Vox Media and Circuit of Americas. Most of our clients are tech companies, and we mentor startups on the art of storytelling and marketing on a bootstrap budget.

I like the phrase “accidental entrepreneur.” I relate to that.

On being passed over for career advancement, based on gender:

Sure. I wouldn’t say that my experience in the NYC newsroom was all based on gender, but let’s just say not all of us had that glass of whiskey after the show or a cigar while celebrating a remote, national news live shot!

On the Spero Labs mission:

Spero Labs is a creative video production agency with a passion for telling meaningful stories and creating clear messaging for brands. Our collaborative mission is to champion the next big, bad media landscape. There’s an incredible intersect happening in media tech here in Austin, and you’re seeing more and more growth of companies developing the next generation of media business models and fundraising for large, feature films.

Spero Labs exists on the notion that you can create good, quality content on a bootstrap budget. Throughout my years mentoring hundreds of startup founders on the art of storytelling and power of good marketing, I’ve heard the same thing over and over again, “I don’t have it in my budget to create a good video.” That’s just not true.

It starts with leadership and trickles down from there. It has to be a grassroots effort. At the core, an inclusive work-culture starts with leadership preaching it with their actions and baking it into everyday activities.

On the challenges, as a founder, of creating an open, inclusive work-culture:

The film and video production industry overall is very male dominated. Luckily, I have the most incredible business partner who doesn’t just believe in me and my work but is OK when we have an all-female crew sometimes. Ha!

It starts with leadership and trickles down from there. It has to be a grassroots effort. At the core, an inclusive work-culture starts with leadership preaching it with their actions and baking it into everyday activities.

There are very few women directors, executive producers, directors of photography, but we’re noticing a change. I think with #metoo and #timesup there are awesome conversations happening around what it’s like to be a woman in any industry- it’s not just happening in film and tech. As we all come together under rising tides great change continues to happen.

The high-road side-road — on co-founding DivInc:

While building out Spero, I was looking around for women mentors and advisors and noticed a such a lack thereof. I thought, “Where are my ladies at?!” I started studying where all the VC funding was going across the country (less than 3% goes to women-founded companies). I joined forces with co-founders to help launch DivInc- a non-profit accelerator for women and underrepresented tech founders.

DivInc was built on the notion of that every person should have the same opportunity to resources, mentorship and capital as the rest.

One of the stories that still sticks with me the most was when we were interviewing founders for our second cohort. A woman business-owner said she had been told by two investors in the same office-hour sit down environment, “Why don’t you just ask your rich uncle for that first check?” in which she replied, “I AM the rich uncle! I’m the first in my family to go to college. You’re looking at the ‘rich uncle.’” We hear about this problem far too often. It’s that type of dangerous rhetoric that paints a false picture of today’s reality for women entrepreneurs… especially those fundraising.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat down with someone and they’ve made a comment about my looks or what I’m wearing. I wish I could say I’m shocked at some of the things said to me, but you just become numb to the comments at some point.

On dress codes and innappropriate remarks:

My lifestyle and overall workday strategy is very much, “go, go, go.” I’ve worn the suits and I’ve been in the corporate environment, but nowadays it’s all about convenience and health. Each day I take time to meditate and do yoga, so that means a lot of times I’m walking into a meeting in yoga attire or baseball cap. This is very different for women and men. You can’t be “too” casual as a woman or it’s noticed and you find yourself dressing different the next time. Moral of the story, don’t wear a baseball cap to a fundraising meeting!!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat down with someone and they’ve made a comment about my looks or what I’m wearing. I wish I could say I’m shocked at some of the things said to me, but you just become numb to the comments at some point. I’m so heads down and focused on work that inappropriate moments like this don’t even phase me anymore. It doesn’t make it right, but onward and upward. I have to continue being the change for future generations.

On early inspiraration — Mom gets all the love:

My mom has single-handedly been one of the most inspiring, driving forces behind my career. My mom’s a former journalism and theatre teacher, so it only makes sense I ended up where I am today… constantly pursuing a life of storytelling. At my core I’m a storyteller, and I’ve found the greatest joy in helping entrepreneurs and companies figure out their story — especially creatives and women business owners.

One of the moments I remember most was when I was leaving my job and life in New York to pursue launching my own company. I went backpacking overseas for a while to focus and study photography. I had booked a one-way flight to India to take off for four months. I remember getting in a cab to JFK for that flight, and with tears in her eyes mom grabbed me, hugged me tight and said, “Ashley step away from the camera and be a part of the picture.” Those words have had such an impact on my life and how I live day to day.

Standing on the shoulders of giants — on female mentors:

Oh so many women come to mind when I think of significant mentors in my life… Leigh Christie, Georgia Thomsen, Michele Martel, Jan Ryan, Barbary Brunner, Mandy Reyes, Courtney Santana, Lisa Pearson, Nancy Schrim… just a few who have all made time to have a coffee meeting and listen. That’s the most important thing — to listen and help guide. All are advocates for fellow women in the workforce and continue to lift others up.

Giving back — on mentoring others:

I woke up this morning to a text sent at 4:30 a.m. (EST), from one of my mentees who’s producing at Bloomberg right now. She asked me to call her before she went into a negotiating meeting… so, I did.

I picked up at the phone at 6 a.m. on my way to yoga and I called her. That’s what you do. You constantly show up and give, give, give because others have poured into and given to you so much.

As a mentor I teach the importance of brand awareness and marketing to help grow and scale your business. We also dive into media, press bookings and what it means to build relationship with storytellers across the globe. It’s important to understand PR and where your marketing dollars are going to. Proving marketing ROI is a difficult landscape that we’re all still trying to master.

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We as women can often be intimidated by the act of asking for our worth in business and the workplace.

On pain points for young women — talking $’s:

Another pain-point — sitting at the table, talking about salary. We as women can often be intimidated by the act of asking for our worth in business and the workplace.We have to do better at valuing ourselves more and not just knowing our worth, but standing up so others can find theirs as well.

We have to stop crippling progress by constantly undervaluing our talents and time. I hear from way too many friends who walk into a salary negotiation having already done the research behind what the role’s worth, and they STILL ask for 15–20% less than their male counterparts. Why do we do this to ourselves when setting pay rates? We’ve got to stop.

On new challenges — The Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship:

After two years of building out DivInc I’ve pivoted to helping student and alumni entrepreneurs at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s full circle for me, as I received two undergraduate degree from UT.

At the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, we aim to encourage and empower entrepreneurship and innovation through outstanding teaching, research, engagement and experiential learning. We’re focused on becoming a global leader for entrepreneurial-minded students, faculty and staff. Through our programming, financial resources, mentorship and engagement opportunities we believe we can become the top institute in the country for entrepreneurship.

This month we rolled out an entrepreneurial minor, so our students can earn credit while working in Austin’s thriving startup ecosystem. We want to fully compete with the MITs, Stanfords and Dukes of the world. Let me tell you, student entrepreneurs are dreaming SO. BIG!!

Last word — on being the change for the next generation:

We contribute to change my creating role models for the next generation. If you walk into a room and no one looks like you, it’s hard to envision yourself there. I met a girl scout’s group last month who had an astronaut, a scientist, a teacher and a “Hollywood movie director” in it. That’s AMAZING! It’s amazing that these eight-year-olds are already dreaming those types of dreams; those careers. Now we have to keep creating role models for little girls everywhere to look up to. It starts with supporting and helping lift others up. Onward and upward. When women support other women it’s truly a magical thing.

 
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Caroline Gorman

Caroline Gorman

Amanda Keammerer

Amanda Keammerer