Don’t Call Me “Girl,” Sir: Women, Tech, and a Chat with Olivia Munn

7/19/13Follow @jpruth

It is long past time to stop regarding the presence of women in technology as an anomaly—yet achieving widespread acknowledgment of their work remains a challenge. Multiple organizations in New York—including Girls Who Code, Cornell NYC Tech, and L’Oréal—and across the country are taking on this task while also encouraging new generations of women to explore careers steeped in programming languages and data.

Respecting intelligence and professional talent from all quarters is something that gets tested even beyond the technology world. In an episode of the HBO drama series “The Newsroom,” Olivia Munn’s character Sloan Sabbith, a senior financial reporter on the show, finds herself in a heated argument over one of her reports. During the escalating spat, news division president Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, addresses her as “girl”—in a highly confrontational way.

Sabbith firmly responds, “Don’t call me ‘girl,’ sir.”

I met with Munn Wednesday night before she spoke at the L’Oréal USA Women in Digital NEXT Generation Awards Ceremony in New York. The event showcased three women founders of tech companies chosen from a program that gives female-led startups the chance to pilot their ideas with L’Oréal’s brands.

Highlighting the accomplishments of women innovators, Munn says, is part of bringing more diversity to the business and technology landscape. “It is always important to have role models that people can look up to and identify with and relate to,” she says.

Prior to “The Newsroom”, Munn’s other television gigs included co-hosting the cable program “Attack of the Show!” on the G4 channel, which gave viewers weekday doses of gadgets, video games, and digital-media news. She says it is important to give women a voice, when rightly deserved, to help them achieve more parity with their male peers. “In the tech world, new media is predominantly a male-driven, male-led world,” she says. “There are a lot of women who are doing great jobs. When you see somebody else is doing it, it is always inspiring and gives other women hope.”

When portraying hard-working Sloan Sabbith, Munn says she reflects on women from her life who may not have had opportunities to fully pursue their ambitions in the workplace. “Sloan has two PhDs and wants to be as educated and knowledgeable as possible,” she says. “She doesn’t allow other people to tell her who she is.”

Marie, Cassidy, Munn, and Falter at L’Oréal USA's Women in Digital NEXT Generation Awards.

The three women honored by L’Oréal have certainly sought to claim their territory in the technology scene. Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is founder and CEO of Joyus in San Francisco; Kelsey Falter is the founder and CEO of New York-based Poptip; and Heather Marie is CEO and founder of 72Lux in New York. Notable women from the New York tech community also came out to the event, including Dawn Barber, co-founder of New York Tech Meetup, and Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, who has been quite vocal about the presence of women in technology.

Cassidy’s Joyus offers videos of curated apparel and other lifestyle wares, showing consumers how they might adopt the fashion themselves. She says prior to Joyus, she started a financial services software company in 1999. That first time sated her hunger to start a business—for a little while. She later joined Google as president of its Asian-Pacific and Latin American markets. After exiting Google, she built an idea around better connecting with women as end consumers. “I felt that commerce needed a lot more innovation and delight for women,” Cassidy says.

The shopping experience at Joyus, she says, is the business model that allows the company to share information with women. She plans to double down on mobile in the future since it drives more than 20 percent of the company’s revenue, even though Joyus does not yet have an app. “That speaks to the fact that women think about Joyus as snacking content while in front of a TV and looking at a second screen or in between meetings,” Cassidy says.

Poptip, a graduate of TechStars NYC, is a different sort of online play that tries to make sense of the public’s chatter on the Web. The startup created a platform that brands and publishers can use to gather crowd opinions for market research and … Next Page »

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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