On March 9, 2022, Facilitator Andy Kuo, Senior Program Manager at Google, welcomed San Francisco Unified School District students from Herbert Hoover Middle School and Lowell High School to an IGNITE Womxn in STEM Panel.
After welcoming students and introducing the many benefits of a career in STEM, including bringing greater representation and improving the field for everyone, Andy asked the Panelists to share a bit about themselves.
Karishma Chawla, Principal Software Engineer at Microsoft, has been working as a software engineer for 9 years and wants to be a role model for others going into the field. Karishma grew up in India and didn’t know about most STEM careers until middle school, when engineering was a less well-known career option. She realized in school that she didn’t enjoy memorizing content for exams, and math wasn’t all memorization, so she began to focus on her strengths in math and science. Then she learned that getting an engineering degree would help her get a good job. Doing well in high school didn’t translate directly into college success, and she practiced and kept working very hard to succeed and start out with a position at Amazon.
Raquel “Rocki” Wilson, in Third Party Risk at DocuSign, supports customers using electronic signatures on contracts and other documentation, ensuring that the documents they sign aren’t getting hacked. Raquel was working in food service and decided she wanted to take a different path, after which she found Year Up, which prepares youth 18-26 for careers in tech.
Liz Bander, Senior Program Manager, works on Microsoft Teams. Liz solves weird problems and doesn’t write code for her job. She got into tech because she didn’t fit in at her first high school, a small girls’ school, and spent a lot of time in the computer lab. She transferred to a more STEM-focused school in 10th grade, and didn’t enjoy coding, but has enjoyed networking and problem-solving. Liz has English and business degrees, and works in a totally different field than she anticipated! In her personal life, she loves animals of all types and has several.
Ishita Chatterjee, Director of Engineering at Nordstrom, works on the images, description, and price that you see when you shop through the Nordstrom website or app. Ishita grew up in India, where she moved states due to her dad’s job when she was in school, and always felt like an outsider with a different background. When she was choosing electives in 10th-12th grade, she wanted to impress her classmates by taking science classes. She enjoyed newfound popularity with her success in science classes at the time, and now shares a passion for STEM with her daughter, currently in 10th grade.
Sarah Potter, Senior Technical Program Manager at Amazon, likes to break things apart and figure out how they work. Her mom was a teacher and dad was in the army and then worked at the water department. Her STEM career began at the age of 5 with Legos, and she kept building and creating, and loved her art and English classes too. She graduated from Stanford and still got rejected from 33 interviews before landing her first position with Motorola. Next, she worked in gaming at Xbox to launch consoles. Now she works at Amazon with all the teams that touch a product—finance, legal, public relations, and more, including work on the new, interactive Amazon Glow!
Next, students asked Panelists their questions about working in STEM.
Have you found the gender ratio in STEM fields to be very noticeable? Yes, though it has gotten better. Sarah was the only woman and only minority when she went to the machine shop at Stanford, but now when she goes back she sees many more women. It’s important to consider different types of jobs, and there are typically fewer women as we get more into leadership roles. Rocki, on the other hand, has had many women leaders in her roles at DocuSign. Karishma has noticed a gender imbalance and at the same time has seen many male allies.
Do you think STEM jobs that are non-coding are better or worse than STEM jobs that include coding?
- Ishita says that there are so many avenues to take outside of coding—for example, recruiting, art, or gaming—that pay equally well that do not require coding.
- Rocki shares that her strength is taking complicated things and making them uncomplicated, and that her job doesn’t require coding either.
- Liz says that there are ways to do technical work without coding, if you want!
How did you decide what to study in college?
- Liz started studying electrical engineering, then transferred to English because she loves reading, writing, and arguing! She advises that college is four years of your life—don’t make yourself miserable over it.
- Sarah says to try out as many things as you can, including in high school, to find out what you like. She thought she wanted to do architecture at first and kept trying things until she found what she liked.
- Ishita echoes that high school is a great time to try out many different courses to find out what you love!
- Karishma encourages students to reach out to college professors who study things that interest you.
- Rocki didn’t go to college and encourages students to be open to alternative pathways like YearUp.
What are some things that you wished you knew before entering the STEM field?
- Sarah says that no matter what choice you make, it’ll be the right choice. You learn from your mistakes and failures what you don’t like and what you do like. She wishes she had known her worth.
- Liz shared that impostor syndrome is real, even for people who are very senior in their field.
- Karishma advises young womxn in STEM to know that you belong there. Even if you have things to learn, there are areas where you know more than others.
How did you find what you’re passionate about in life?
- Ishita started out wanting to be the cool kid, and then found out that she really enjoyed biology, math, and chemistry. She was fortunate enough to have multiple options for college, and went with the thing she enjoyed the most. She says: “If you’re not having fun, don’t do it!”
- Liz says it’s OK for what you’re passionate about and what you want to do to change, and moreover, it probably will change.
- Rocki started working in food service, and after having her first daughter, wanted to make a change to improve her options. She now has her dream life with a family and job she loves.
- Sarah says that your passion and what you do for work might not overlap exactly. She chose what she wanted to do for her job by thinking about what she enjoys and what would earn her a living. She believes her passion is about helping people grow and succeed, and sometimes that is at work. She also advises that feeling too comfortable probably means you are not growing.
to keep working in STEM, even when there are challenges relating to gender orientation?
- Karishma originally did not bring difficult situations to her manager at the beginning of her career, and now she does. This support is available to help workers.
- Ishita suggests creating a culture of inclusion by bringing in others and forming connections.
- Liz says “I’m not going to let some jerk push me out of the place I love being.” She says this is a developed skill. She maintains motivation by talking to young women interested in STEM and seeking to leave the field in a better place than she found it.
- Sarah advises to choose your battles. If you fight each little microaggression you’ll be exhausted. Pick the big things to fight that matter the most, and let others know how much they matter. Cultivate allies and collaborators. Assume people are coming from a place of ignorance, not hate. She also recommends learning psychology because understanding how people think is useful.
Do any of the companies you work at do summer internships for high schoolers who are interested in tech? Yes, check their websites and apply!
Lightning round of advice—what do you wish you had known when you were in high school?
- Karishma: Ignore the negative voices and focus on the people supporting you!
- Rocki: Take advantage of the opportunities around you, meet all the people you can meet, and figure out your strengths and focus on those.
- Liz: Change is the only constant—and maybe taxes. Whenever stuff changes within you, take it and work with it.
- Ishita: Follow your heart. Do the thing that excites you and that you enjoy the most. If it is tough, think of it like climbing a mountain—one step at a time.
- Sarah: Don’t forget—tech is fun! It’s cool to make products; it’s fun to be innovative. Have fun, try as many things as you possibly can, find your niche, and just go for it!
Thank you to all the volunteers who made this event possible and shared their passions and experiences with students. Thanks to Facilitator Andy Kuo for moderating the event, and thank you to Panelists Karishma Chawla, Rocki Wilson, Liz Bander, Ishita Chatterjee, and Sarah Potter for sharing their career journeys!
of students are interested in STEM
of students know more about STEM career choices and the benefits of working in a STEM field
of students feel more confident in pursuing STEM
of students gained perspective and feel more hopeful about the future
Here’s what the students thought of the event:
“It gave me advice from people that have experience especially because my parents never attended high school. You have given me motivation to discover and pursue something in STEM.” – 9th grade
“At first, I was nervous about going into STEM since it is such a male-dominated field, but now I feel more comfortable and hopeful for my future knowing that these women made it. I feel less pressure going into college and STEM since there will always be opportunities for me. You are helping the STEM field become more diverse and welcoming.” – 10th grade
“I honestly wasn’t expecting such inspirational and in-depth responses to my question about dealing with workplace oppression, and it was definitely a bonus that the panelists related it to school/my experience. These women came from different backgrounds, have discovered and know what they like, and are eager to leave the industry better than when they got there. Thank you for being here for us!” – 12th grade
“I have a better understanding of how to navigate career choices, college, and work and I saw many different possible career paths from the various presenters. Everyone had great advice and the mentorship you all provided was priceless.” – 11th grade
“It inspired me more to pursue a career in STEM. It made me think more out of the box about STEM careers and the women that are in them today as well as all the opportunities that are available.” – 10th grade
“This event inspired me to explore more opportunities and options I have especially in STEM. I have a chance at any time in my life (not just high school) to find what I would love to do.” – 9th grade
“I really like your attitude about ‘ignoring the negative noise’ and not caring about what anyone says. It’s easier said than done, especially in a professional reality I think, but it was a great confidence booster. I really hope I get to work with you in the near future, and have you as my mentor.” – 12th grade
“I loved how encouraging the panelists were. I particularly resonated with the idea of not letting others push me out of the place that I worked so hard to get to. Another point that I resonated with was taking advantage of all my opportunities so I can continue learning and innovating wherever I go.” – 12th grade
“As someone who is both interested in tech and non-tech majors and jobs, it was inspiring to hear the stories of women who pursued or switched to non-tech majors and then entered a STEM field later. It made me feel more confident about possibly doing that when I go to college. I also learned useful advice, such as to explore your passions and interests in high school and don’t be afraid to try new things.” – 11th grade
“Today’s event inspired me to continue pursuing my interest in STEM even when it gets challenging. It also opened me up to new opportunities and careers I didn’t know about before this panel. Thank you for giving me so much insight into your personal journey and challenges while navigating the world of STEM! Your advice will stick with me as I begin my own journey!” – 10th grade
“What inspired me about today’s event is how some of the speakers didn’t go straight into what their career was but how they had a rocky start and kept trying until they found something they enjoyed. Their unique stories and how they overcame their challenges show that tech isn’t only coding and there are different careers options in tech.” – 11th grade
“Panelists offered a lot of valuable insight. And they showed how there are so many paths in STEM. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and experiences! I really appreciate it!” – 12th grade
“I loved listening to all the guest speakers and hearing about their interests. They really inspired me to pursue my dreams and goals, and I’d honestly like to explore the STEM fields more now.” – 11th grade
“I heard amazing stories that will inspire me to pursue my tech career. The Panelists were very knowledgeable.” – 8th grade