She Got a Tech PhD While Raising Kids in Post-Soviet Russia

November 18, 2014

2:30 pm

In August 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing around her, single mother Hettie Dombrovskaya was in the hospital giving birth to twins.

“We had the radio turned on in the delivery room,” recalls Dombrovskaya, who already had a young son. In the coming months, as the Soviet Union officially fell in December, her world in Russia became a different place. Food was scarce, meat nonexistent, and she waited in long lines to get milk. All the money she had been saving to take care of her family was now worthless due to inflation, and she was stuck in horrible housing.

But still, Dombrovskaya worked away on a PhD in computer science.

“You would think, ‘Why in the world would you want to do a PhD at this time?’ Actually, I realized that it was a necessity for me,” she says. It was personally meaningful; it was something she had to do, ever since she opened up a book called Introduction to Databases. And oddly enough, having kids actually made it easier in the end. For one, she was too busy to fret about how the political changes would impact her life.

“Children are the greatest inspiration because you want to make their life better – you actually want to work, you want to achieve something, you want to have a better job and earn more money because you want to provide for your children.”

Between studying sessions, Dombrovskaya would make baby food and clean diapers by hand. She worked at home sometimes, sent her kids to day care (where, thankfully, they got a meal), or brought them to class with her. 

No single mothers

After five years, Dombrovskaya got her PhD in 1995 and started to look for jobs in the US on the World Wide Web, which was just becoming active. Although she had a job at a university, she figured she could earn more money and get better experience there.

IT was booming in the US, but many companies still drew the line at a woman with children. “People literally said they do not want to take responsibility of bringing a single mother of three and dealing with babies being sick and day care,” recalls Dombrovskaya. One company said so during their first meeting; another suggested she come to the US without her kids and “see how it goes.” “It was what I was expecting because in Russia at the time, people didn’t want to hire mothers. Even now, people don’t want to hire females. I was used to it. I knew I had to be the best – I had to be so much better than a man that they would hire me.”

Dombrovskaya attributes her first US job to a fellow single mother, who happened to be the CEO of the company she was applying for. That CEO recognized something that many men did not: that having kids pushes you to work harder and provide for them, she says. Still, her early days in the US were a struggle, paying $230 a week for day care and saving almost nothing.

Leading like a woman

Today, Dombrovskaya is a database architect/researcher at Enova, where she coordinates a large (and gender-balanced) team. She is an advocate for women in tech and is proud to say that she leads like a woman, which to her means empathizing with everyone’s perspective and making sure they feel heard.

Her skills as a mother come into play here – in fact, she likens leadership to dealing with teenagers. No one wants to be told what to do by a quasi-dictator; they want to feel like they have a voice, able to speak up and disagree. She often asks her staff to argue with her and tell her why she’s wrong about something. This strategy, she believes, ultimately leads to more understanding, loyalty, and satisfaction for the team. 

“Male leaders more often just voice their opinion – ‘That’s how we’re doing this’ or ‘That’s how it should be done.’ I’ve heard many, many times that women try to be nice but when you become a leader, you have to stop being nice,” says Dombrovskaya. “I do not think it’s specifically male/female, I just think it works better when you try to accommodate people’s opinions and take all of them into consideration.”

Dombrovskaya has come a long way since she was turned away for being a single mother, and so has the tech industry. But there’s still a ways to go. She says, “The tide is changing. People are talking about this issue. The industry is aware of its shortcomings. Women are becoming more confident and men are listening. I’m optimistic that one day, ‘women in tech’ won’t have to be its own conversation.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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