Mari Baker’s Lessons Learned as a Female Silicon Valley Executive

April 15, 2016

4:08 pm

Mari Photo 1Mari Baker remembers walking into conferences as a CEO in Silicon Valley and being able to count the number of women in the room on her hands.

“There’d be a room of over 500 people, and only a couple women,” she said, speaking over the phone from her home in Palo Alto, California.

Over the course of her career, however, she has seen it get better and better, she said. And her career has thrown her in all kinds of industries.

She rose to Senior Vice President at major software company Intuit, as it grew from 30 to 3,000 people and went from $7 million to $700 million in revenue. She built up BabyCenter, a content and e-commerce website based on supporting mothers, and then sold it to Johnson and Johnson for $10 million. She then served as CEO at Navigenics, a genetics company, and then at PlayFirst, where she successfully pivoted the company to mobile games (like Diner Dash!)

But before all that, she was a college student at Stanford University, with aspirations to become a school teacher, like her father. She grew up in Eugene, Oregon, the youngest of six, with a simple outlook on things, she said.

“I didn’t understand the breadth of things you could do in life,” she said, looking back.

Touching her first computer while at Stanford changed everything. She describes the experience as freeing, almost artistic.

“The most intriguing thing was realizing you could tell it to do almost anything,” she said. “It represented a freedom of expression…whatever I could think about programming, or think about creating, a computer was there to execute those ideas. It could do it in a more powerful way, a faster way.”

Her fascination with computers lead her to take some computer science classes as she majored in economics and sociology. But her main source of education came from a part-time job she took doing tech writing for a team of software developers.

“That early exposure, working with programmers, it really shaped a lot of what I was able to then do in the future,” she said.

Baker is recognized today as one of the more prominent executives in Silicon Valley. She serves on multiple boards, consulting and advising startups in the region such as Cozi, Velti, and HealthTap.

But her true passion can be seen in her work with a group called Women 2.0. The media group creates content, community and events dedicated to training the next generation of leaders in technology. As they write on their website:

“Women 2.0 lives in the future, today – we see no barriers, we see no boundaries, we only see a meritocratic business landscape.”

women2Photo courtesy of Women 2.0

Ask Baker a bit about Women 2.0 and the role of women in the tech industry, and her energy will carry the conversation. Where are the women in technology? How can women be involved? Should they be involved?

The answer to the latter question, Baker said, is a resounding yes. Here’s why, and how:

Hostile Environment: Self-Selecting Out

One reason more women aren’t in the tech industry is because they feel they don’t belong there, Baker said.

She saw it happen with her own daughter, who showed early promise in website development and went to a code school program over the summer. However, by the time she enrolled for a second coding camp and was one of two girls out of 30 students, “she just didn’t want to do it anymore,” Baker said.

“For her, it’s quite too bad. Because as young girl, she felt out of place. She took that message, ‘I’m just not supposed to be here,’” Baker said. “When really, girls absolutely should be there.”

When you are a minority in a situation it creates, by nature, a hostile environment, she explained. When she walks into a conference and sees she is one of only a few women, her natural position is one of defense, not offense.

“It’s not because people are being hostile,” Baker said. “The environment is such that you are a minority… and your body does respond in a way of feeling very out of place.”

For women, this can be especially true in the hiring process. Studies have found that if a woman does not encounter another female in the interviewing process, she will often feel out of place and self-select out, Baker said.

“When a company gets lop-sided, it is a vicious cycle of being hard to get women to join,” she said. “It’s difficult to get those brave souls early on.”

Women Are Buying What Men Create

Where women are not a minority, however, is when it comes to who’s controlling the dollars. Here, women are very much the majority, Baker said.

“Fundamentally, women control the vast majority of spending in the U.S.,” she said. “And yet these products that we are buying — dish-washing detergent, or clothes — most of these things are designed by men and marketed by men.”

This is why women are needed in leadership, and especially in tech, Baker said. They know how to create products that are useful for other women.

“Women have a deep understanding of the usage of these products and need to be involved with the creation of them,” Baker said.

More than that, there is no reason for women not to contribute, Baker went on. For the past 30 years, more women have graduated from undergraduate studies than men. For the past 15, more women have received advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

“The more that the economy goes towards knowledge-based jobs, there should be no reason why [the workforce] is not 50/50,” Baker said.

A Cultural Shift from the Top-Down

Yet, this is not the case, Baker said. In a blog post she published in May 2015, Baker writes that while women represent over half of the bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., they represent only 18% of the U.S. Congress, 16 percent of boards of directors of major corporations, 4.5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s, and 25 percent of university presidencies.

Specifically in the tech industry, the gender gap has become very apparent. Often women represent less than 20 percent of leadership in tech companies.

Change begins with the leaders in the world today – and that means the men, Baker said.

“More men do code than women,” she said. “Men, take the time to mentor young girls. Because there are few women in leadership tech roles.”

One example of a great leader that Baker had was former Intuit CEO Bill Campbell. Campbell did something extraordinary as the CEO; he ran his company around who he wanted his employees to be outside the office, as well.

“He said, I’m not going to call any meetings before 10 AM. I want the men and the women to drop off their kids at school. I’m not going to call any meetings after 5 PM. Because I want all of you to be good dads and good mothers,” Baker said.

His leadership style purposefully broke the stereotypes that are consciously and subconsciously placed on men and women, Baker said. The idea, for instance, that men will work all day and never see their kids. Or that women will always be the one dropping kids off or staying at home.

“Why is it that it we socially accept Dad can come home at 8 PM and miss dinner with the family? Why is it that we think women can only do certain jobs?” Baker asked. “We need to think critically about these stereotypes.”

Career vs. Family: Why Not Both?

baker3

There is, of course, another significant reason why more women aren’t in the workforce. Motherhood.

Baker is a mother of three girls. She understands the hardship of raising children while also juggling full-time jobs. However, part of that hardship comes from the way the workforce is set up, she said. It does not make it easy for mothers to also pursue a career.

“Many women have aspirations for what they want to achieve. And many, not all, have aspirations of having a family. Why do we have a world where those things can’t align?” Baker asked.

For instance, companies could have more FaceTime meetings rather than requiring one get on a plane for a meeting. They could offer an extra stipend for childcare when women are asked to attend national conferences.

Solutions can and need to be found in order to create a more productive society, Baker said.

“It’s a major impact on productivity in this country,” Baker went on. “We have to figure out how we take better use of the majority of population, and over half of the college degrees. 60% of college degrees go to women. And yet we’re not taking advantage of that in the workplace[…]If the U.S. economy needs to grow, and we all want it grow, we have to create work environments that are conducive to women. Right now they are being underutilized…We’re going to have to fix it.”

Did you like this article?

Get more delivered to your inbox just like it!

Sorry about that. Try these articles instead!

A California native currently reporting on the transforming startup community in Fargo, North Dakota.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)
Startup_Mixology_300x250