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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

Rachelle Oribio

Rachelle Oribio

 
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Rachelle Oribio

Job Title: CEO & Founder at ValorUp

Years working in the tech industry: 14

On the ValorUp mission:

At ValorUp we integrate innovation into the heart of business. We drive growth for organizations through inclusively enabling the creation of moonshot products and facilitating partnerships with startups. Change is hard when there are many options, no clear starting point and clashing cultures. Turn what can be a costly, risky and disjointed effort into a more seamless experience. At ValorUp we collaborate with you, safeguarding your business along the journey with assessments, training and actionable advice that we support you in implementing. Our Valor Creators have startup and product expertise and understand the challenges facing corporations in a rapidly evolving environment.

On beginnings — lessons in ethnic barriers:

Although I was encouraged (by my parents) to excel at school, I was told there were only certain jobs for Filipinas. I was told not to hope for more and to only do what was required, because I would not be given an opportunity. If you’re wondering why a parent would say this, know that the Philippines has been occupied by Spain, Japan and the United States. I’ve rallied against this mentality my entire life. However, after reflecting on lived experiences, I realize my family was only trying to protect me, because in some ways they were right.

There was one time in AF class when they split us up into groups as a competition with the goal of cracking a code. The guys didn’t want to listen to me because they were engineers. I cracked the code on my own and gave the answer to the older cadet overseeing our training. He asked the group why they hadn’t worked with me. Nobody had a response.

On facing ethnic/gender stereotypes — Pt 1:

I received the most and probably the largest sum of scholarships in my high school class of roughly 800 students. A large portion of that came from the Air Force ROTC. Joining the military was what I had to do to go to college. My high school counselor tried to talk me out of the entire thing, especially attending Virginia Tech. He didn’t think I would make it through. You see, Virginia Tech is one of two senior military colleges in the United States that has a civilian campus. Doing ROTC there meant being part of the Virginia Militia and surviving the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. I enlisted a few weeks before 9/11. Military school was an entire lifestyle and that included wearing uniforms to class. As the only Asian, female cadet in my year, I felt I owed it to everyone to graduate from the VTCC, so I did.

It wasn’t surprising if I was the only woman, person of color and cadet in the room. In some classes nobody would sit next to me. I felt triple ostracized. It was like I had the plague and that meant working on coding projects alone.

There was one time in AF class when they split us up into groups as a competition with the goal of cracking a code. The guys didn’t want to listen to me because they were engineers. I cracked the code on my own and gave the answer to the older cadet overseeing our training. He asked the group why they hadn’t worked with me. Nobody had a response. This was the norm. Even as an engineer in the defense industry I felt as if I had to compensate to be heard. I remember decorating my cubicle with a silhouette from target practice riddled with holes in his head and crotch. Even then a white-haired engineer told me, in response to me becoming his boss, “you’re a stupid, little girl, and I’m not going to do anything you say.”

On facing ethnic/gender stereotypes — Pt 2:

Nevertheless, some stereotypes have been good. Although I’ve been mistaken for Latina or biracial white, I’m Filipina. Those who assume I’m biracial are in a way right. I come from a mestizo family. My grandfather was basically a white Filipino with a tan. I have conquistador blood flowing in my veins, some western features and am somewhat paler. That means I benefit from colorisim. Those who guess Asian might jump to the conclusion that I must be smart, another bonus. However, some who recognize me as Latina or Filipina might assume that I’m “the help.”

I’m constantly asked where I’m from, and they don’t mean geography. It makes me feel like I’ll never be truly accepted as American, even though I was born in our nation’s capitol and have held a Top Secret Security Clearance. What’s funny is when people go so far as to ask me if I speak English. It makes it even more surprising when they learn I also speak Spanish. People have mistaken me for a college student and asked me if I was the intern. Being Asian, I get this quite often.

On the job: adventures in gender/ethnic stereotypes — Pt 3:

While I was a management consultant in NYC on a banking sector merger, I had a client treat me like his secretary. He would quite literally yell my name across the floor. If people who upset him were not around, he would berate me instead and ask me to relay the message. It so happened that the last woman they had on that team, whom I replaced, refused to speak to that client for the last few months of her time on the project. It was as if the role of the token woman on the team was to be treated poorly.

Clients have also asked me when I was going to quit working and raise a family. I was once at a conference to judge a pitch competition, and a gentleman told me something along the lines of, “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.”

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. What’s important to note is that these experiences have involved both men and women of various races. Also, things are slowly changing. This past February I spoke to the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets during Leadership Lab. It was the first time in the school’s history that all of the VTCC alumni speaking were women.

At multiple places, female leadership organized events to teach us how to not be ourselves, but seemingly, to be perfect people in order to be worthy of being taken seriously despite the unfortunate circumstance of being a woman.

‘There can only be one’ — on an absence of women mentors:

After high school I didn’t have the opportunity to study or work with many women. Oftentimes, I still am the only woman and/or minority in the room. With the exception of one manager I had very early on, higher ranked women have not had an interest in cultivating other women. They have had a mindset of scarcity and tokenism, which I like to think of as the Highlander concept of “there can be only one.” Either that or they have subscribed to the policy that women must have a thick skin, keep their head down, conform and assimilate.

At multiple places, female leadership organized events to teach us how to not be ourselves, but seemingly, to be perfect people in order to be worthy of being taken seriously despite the unfortunate circumstance of being a woman. They went well beyond dress codes to dictate everything from how to do your hair and makeup to the brands, colors, and outfits that were acceptable. It was as if merit and being professional was not as important as looking the part or fitting a mold. Those were lonely places because fitting in does not equal belonging. As such, my mentors have been men who have challenged me to be brave, bold and outspokenly myself.

On discovering a positive role-model:

Last year I had the good fortune of meeting Demma Rosa Rodriguez, Head of Equity Engineering at Google. She mentored and judged at the Google Startup Weekend I was running for Area 120. Though that interaction was brief, it was impactful. When people introduce you to Demma they say, “Demma gets what she wants.” In essence, she finds paths and people to collaborate with to make her dreams into a reality while ignoring the rest as noise. Demma is proudly her whole self every single day, taking pride in being a Black, Boricua Woman. Despite what other people might say or do, she speaks up on issues of diversity & inclusion and empowers others to do the same with tips and techniques. Who she is, is an inspiration, and emulating her spirit gives me even more confidence in my own voice.

On better living through peer support networks:

When it comes to peers, I’ve made it a point to surround myself with amazingly open, empathetic and strong women who lift me up. These women don’t judge other women or impose a set of standards on them. It has been a pleasure to work with them and call them friends. I guess you could say that support network is full of female role-models.

On sexual harassment in the workplace:

I don’t know a woman who hasn’t had to ward off sexual advances in the workplace. I’ve experienced everything from unwanted touching and being asked out to criminal offenses. I had one client who thought it appropriate to buy me a bra…

When I moved to Austin I sat on a plane next to a Latina in her early 20s who was distraught by how she was treated as a woman of color in Austin tech. She had been crying and wanted to vent. She told me how she ruined her smart phone by falling into a water pit on a construction site. To make it worse, it was her birthday, and her male clients and co-workers thought it would be a funny joke to buy her a bikini and give it to her as a present during her birthday lunch. They carried the joke farther, telling her to go try it on. During this nonsense, her father called her to wish her well. The feeling of shame was so great she couldn’t tell him what was happening. The worst part about it was the only other woman at the startup was even more junior. She couldn’t even tell her girlfriends because they worked in other industries and constantly told her she must be misinterpreting events. There was nobody she could go to for help, giving her zero recourse. She broke down in tears at the humiliation. In my head, all I could think was this shit happens every single day and it affects those with the least amount of power the most.

On the next generation of men:

Yes, a shift seems to be coming predominately from male colleagues in their 20s and early 30s. It’s the true millennials, not the xennialsof my generation. These men have not only noticed when I’ve been mistreated due to race or gender, but they have called people out without me having to do it. But even then, if the situation warrants a person to stand up or benefit, often he is not willing to give up personal gain or convenience. It’s a hard thing to put what’s right above your own interests.

I don’t know a woman who hasn’t had to ward off sexual advances in the workplace. I’ve experienced everything from unwanted touching and being asked out to criminal offenses. I had one client who thought it appropriate to buy me a bra…

On whether the #metoo movement has been empowering:

It wasn’t the #metoo movement that helped me regain my voice. Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of running an MBA program for the University of Minnesota. That was such an inclusive environment. I loved how they empowered me and valued me for me. Then in 2015 Techstars lured me back to startup world. Not long after, Techstars signed a commitment to diversity and inclusion at the Obama White House. Those experiences made me feel like I could speak up for both myself and others. Despite those who have tried to silence me, I haven’t stopped since. That’s the thing, once you empower a person, they can no longer be controlled.

On groups/networks that fight for inclusion and diversity:

I’m a co-founder at The Design Thinking Social ATX, made possible by the venue sponsorship of Impact Hub Austin. Upon moving here, I noticed this acute feeling of not being appreciated due to parts of my identity that I cannot change. It was a feeling that I had felt in other communities, but never as strongly as here in Austin. So I and others started a group for our own wellbeing. In this monthly workshop we promote understanding and belonging through the discussion, of what are often workplace issues, using design thinking principles and a diversity and inclusion lens.

On whether significant change is taking place in the culture on gender/diversity issues:

We are experiencing a pivotal moment. You can feel the cultural shift to where women no longer internalize this treatment as right, regardless of whether or not it’s socially acceptable. However, there is still a lot to be done, and I don’t think we will achieve full intersectional feminism until the generation being born now. At this rate we’ll have parity between men and women in tech long before we have proportional representation of minorities of either gender.

On how women can contribute towards lasting change in work culture gender politics:

We can build our own empires. Women create businesses at 2x the rate of men with 8 of 10 of those women-owned businesses being created by women of color. Women of color have pursue this path because they don’t have time to waste on people who bully, discriminate or try to make them feel small. This emerging generation of strong women of color leaders is going to create that lasting shift. Right now the attitude around diversity and inclusion seems to be, let’s just promote a few white women and not really change. Unfortunately, when feminism is not intersectional, it continues to feed oppression. Stand up for everyone.

One more thing — on living a life on your own terms:

My advice to people that don’t fit their industry “norm” is to bring your whole self to work every single day. Don’t worry about fitting in. See your differences as your superpowers and find a place where you can belong. We spend way too much time at work to have it any other way.

I know people need to make money. I’m not suggesting anyone quit without a plan. Others believe you need to play the game. Well who says you can’t make your own game and make money in the process? How much is “winning” in the established game worth to you? Is it worth looking back and realizing you met everyone else’s expectations in life but your own? I prefer to spend my time living life on my own terms.

 
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Janie Gonzalez

Janie Gonzalez

Ingrid Vanderveldt

Ingrid Vanderveldt