Teresa Carlson, Donna Harris, and Archana Vemulapalli come together for the ultimate power lunch at Blue Duck Tavern to discuss how women are making DC a hub for technology and expanding the possibilities of what it can do.
DC now: Pictured here (from left) in the Park Hyatt’s newly renovated presidential suite, Donna Harris, Archana Vemulapalli, and Teresa Carlson are changing the landscape of the tech industry.
As a city, we can’t stop talking about all the ways in which Washington has evolved: fashion, real estate, entertainment, food. But in addition to the expansion of these lifestyle assets, DC has been quietly strengthening its presence on the global stage of the tech industry. Washington is both statistically—and, arguably, qualitatively—the top city in the country for women in technology. Donna Harris, cofounder of 1776; Archana Vemulapalli, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia; and Teresa Carlson, vice president, worldwide public sector at Amazon, tell us how that came to be.
We’ve been hearing that DC is the top city in the nation for women in tech. What does that mean?
Archana Vemulapalli: Statistically, we have more women in tech here than anywhere else. That’s a fact. And it’s probably why we have smarter decision-making across the board. There is a huge tech presence, and there is a support structure for women. There is the DCFemTech organization, there’s a women data-scientist group, there is an organization called Learning Code that’s constantly training and supporting more women. But I think that happened organically.
Donna Harris: There are so many women, not just the balance or the ratio, but in the top leadership roles and/or driving the strategy. You have more visibility [as] role models, which creates people who say, “I want to be a part of that.” It doesn’t come across as “that’s for the guys.” It’s the norm here.
Teresa Carlson: DC is a city that embraces females and technology. What I’d like is to see us do a better job of trickling that down throughout the organization. I still think we’re struggling getting young women and across-the-board diversity to stick with tech.
What do DC women need to do to encourage young women to stick with tech?
DH: It’s not women’s responsibility alone. [We need to get] to a place where people understand this isn’t about social responsibility and moral obligation. This is about return on investment. This is about hard metrics: When you have a diverse team, [that] team outperforms a non-diverse team. It has to be men and women recognizing that we all need to do a better job of making sure that everything we do reflects the diversity of the community. If you’re having an event or a panel, or you’re looking at your team structure, what does it look like? Let’s hold ourselves accountable.
AV: Absolutely. If I’m the only woman sitting on a team, I can make an effort to bring a second woman to the table, but there are 10 more tables where there are no women sitting, and the men need to say, “Where do I need to mix it up?”
TC: At Amazon, I think our guys are showing up. We just had International Women’s Day, and we had a series of panels and groups. I hosted one with some amazing engineer women, and I looked around the room and I was so excited because it was half filled with the guys. Now, we have a long way to go, but they’re also asking a lot of the right questions, like, “How should I be more inclusive?” And sometimes it is coaching the male managers so that they understand what they need to be doing.
Is opportunity or access an issue?
DH: Access to capital is still an issue. We’ve had some hard conversations at 1776 about how we make sure our investment portfolio is balanced. I know every other fund in the community is having those conversations much more actively than any other city. But it takes women at the table to point it out, and I think once you point it out, there is the intentionality of wanting to solve it.
TC: In the Middle East, both in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, something like 60 percent of the students in computer science are females. They’re doing hard coding. Some of them are getting their education from programs; others tell me that they’re going online to YouTube. There’s a desire.
AV: Inclusive innovation is one of the things the mayor is big on. Because you don’t have to be a certain way, talk a certain way, look a certain way, or have a certain degree to be an entrepreneur or an innovator. You can be that mom with three kids who suddenly thought of something and went off and built it out. But you need to have the space and the environment that supports it. And the reason as a city we tend to call it out more explicitly is because when we’re explicit about it, then you’re aware, and when you’re aware, you’re conscious. For all Fortune 500 companies, less than 5 percent have women CEOs. That’s telling. It’s a stark reality that we’re dealing with, but recognizing that is key. We’re getting a lot of kids engaged, but you need to teach perception for kids early on. I have a 4-year-old son, and I tell him every day about all the things I do, because I want him to grow up thinking, My mom can do anything, and so can my dad. You have to start at that age.
DH: The bias starts so early.
Some people take an interest for the actual tech, and others for the impact it can have.
AV: I was always interested in science, and so it was a question of whether I wanted to get into life sciences or look at engineering. And I ended up picking engineering.
DH: I’m not a techie, but what I love is [that] technology enables change. I’m fascinated with the power of technology, [but] I don’t have to actually be the one doing the coding to be in tech. I very quickly moved into roles like product management, strategy, leadership, starting my first company, my second company, third, fourth, which led to entrepreneurship. Even today, I’m not all that technical, but I cannot overstate how much I love technology and what it can do to change the world. So how do we get more girls interested? We emphasize too much that you should study STEM instead of talking about what STEM can do. If we can resonate with young girls that you can change the world and this is the tool, I think more girls would want to study it. Because it’s a means to an end, as opposed to being enamored with the idea of sitting at a computer and coding all day.
AV: But I still think you need women to code.
DH: I could not agree more.
What are the big questions in tech nowadays?
DH: More and more entrepreneurs are saying, “Now that everybody’s got the Internet in their pocket on a device and [is] connected, what do I do with that?” The entrepreneur in me and the innovator in me gets super excited about the possibilities. But I also focus my attention on [making sure] we’re thriving as opposed to creating more problems for ourselves as a society. Getting everybody on the Internet, getting people connected, that’s still a challenge in many parts of the country or the world.
AV: That’s one of the things the city deals with— people left behind. The digital divide is still a reality. So when this amazing stuff is happening, you can imagine a section of the city is moving at a breakneck speed, and this [other] section is getting left behind quicker. There’s a huge need to bridge the gap.
TC: And this is where I think the public and private [sectors] can come together and really disrupt the way connectivity takes shape. Technology now is just part of the DNA fiber that we all operate under, and if you’re limiting that to any group or set, you’re putting them at a disadvantage. One of our big goals is not to do that. To let technology truly be the great equalizer it is, let students be trained.
DH: When people say Washington, DC, we get painted with the brush of the federal government…
TC: 100 percent.
DH: … and federal politics. It’s the same thing when people say innovation, they say Silicon Valley, in the same way you use the word Kleenex to describe tissue. But if you look at the economy in DC, we have an enormously vibrant ecosystem. It’s topping the charts on things like increases in capital, increases in start-ups, start-up growth, start-up activity, women in tech. The metrics are amazing. People come to DC because they want to change the world. They used to do that by going to work on the Hill, or working in a think tank or working at the World Bank. Now they’re doing it through technology and innovation. The majority of the start-ups we’re seeing have a giant social benefit to them. They’re trying to solve education, they’re trying to fix healthcare, they’re trying to figure out clean energy. They’re trying to figure out the food supply chain and agricultural technology. There’s a pretty large community of change-makers.
TC: Washington, DC, is a place where people can bring together their knowledge of how government operates with this vision of making the world a better place. You can absolutely have capitalism nicely embedded with an ability to make the world a better place. Make money and drive change—so you have 1776, you have Halcyon, you have Mach37.
DH: People forget how international DC is. Yes, we have the federal government, but that means every governor, mayor, country, every major CEO of every major corporation, every association representing every industry is either here or comes here regularly. And they’re engaging in what’s going on here. So it isn’t about the fact that this is where the White House is, and this is where Congress is, it’s about what that means, and what assets that brings to the city.
AV: I’ve heard people talk about innovation in other cities, but not the way [our] city has been approaching it. None of these guys [here] are coming up with stuff that’s “nice to have”; they’re all solving needs. And that’s unique.
DH: And back to why is DC so different in terms of women in tech—it’s all connected. People are coming here to change the world, they’re motivated by that common thread, and therefore there’s benefit in collaborating. It creates the fertile ground for the kind of data that we’re seeing around inclusiveness and women in tech.
DONNA HARRIS, COFOUNDER OF 1776
“When I graduated, I wanted to become a financial analyst on Wall Street. I got put on the wrong list for a job interview. It turns out I was interviewing to be a systems engineer and didn’t know it. I got the job offer because they wanted to hire people who had good problem-solving skills.”
TERESA CARLSON, VICE PRESIDENT, WORLDWIDE PUBLIC SECTOR AT AMAZON
“I started a healthcare consulting company, hated it, and ended up going to Microsoft and working in every aspect of the business. I was there almost 10 years, and then Amazon called. I feel now I’ve been in two of the most innovative companies in the world.”
ARCHANA VEMULAPALLI, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
“I’ve been an engineer all my life. I think the good thing that engineering does is give you a strong sense of discipline—the bad thing also being it gives you a strong sense of discipline. I enjoy working with teams, and I enjoy solving problems.”
photography by RICH KESSLER