Tech superwoman Cathryn Posey ’05 on the social side of tech
Cathryn Posey '05 visited Whitman's campus this week to speak to students about her work in the technology industry. As founder of Tech by Superwomen, Posey advocates for women working in the tech world. But she is also the head of strategic partnerships and alliances for the United States Digital Service, a startup that works within the White House. We asked her how she went from history major to tech superwoman.
You grew up in Alaska, which is poles apart from Silicon Valley. How did you get into the tech industry?
When I was a sophomore at Whitman, I came back to Alaska for the summer. I had an internship doing data entry in this clunky, old, blue-screen database. Then, when I graduated, I was looking for a job in Alaska and my old manager contacted me and said she had a web coordinator position.
I had MySpace, so I could do some HTML—you could trick out your MySpace page with HTML—but beyond that didn't know much. The job actually required me to learn how to program the content, so I had to learn CSS and HTML. I would just stare into the terminal, the black box. But I was falling in love with technology. My career really started to grow from there.
And grow it did. You went on to found Tech by Superwomen and from there to the White House. Tell us about that journey.
In 2012, I went to Silicon Valley and worked while I built Tech by Superwomen. The thread started: Could I do a conference? Could I do a summit? Could I create a platform for productive conversation that addresses the cultural issues at play in tech? I was blessed to find the right partners to make it possible. [Representatives from the] White House came and spoke at the Tech by Superwomen summit. Then they started asking me for my counsel. Finally, I called in to say "I can't be as active with you—I'm taking a new job. But they said, "Your country needs you."
At the time I had my dream job on the line, but I turned it down. It's turned out [the United States Digital Service] has truly been the dream job. The work I do is about helping students, about helping veterans, about helping immigrants. I'm doing mission-driven work for my country.
You have a history degree from Whitman. That's not the educational background most people connect with tech. What can liberal arts students bring to the tech world?
I think there's a huge need for liberal arts students to get involved in tech. The two hallmarks of a good liberal arts education are critical thinking and creative thinking. You can know how to build something, but knowing how to think through the repercussions of it is something that a liberal arts degree can help you establish.
What's an example of how critical thinking can inform technical choices?
Airbnb is a great, popular platform. But the Airbnb hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack pointed out that, for a lot of African Americans, it's not the same experience. Some hosts are actually willing to leave their place unrented rather than rent to people of color. If you have an understanding or appreciation of history, then you know about housing discrimination. You know about a long, deep-seated history around segregation of neighborhoods throughout the United States.
We're going to see things that have always existed in society manifest within technology, and that's why we need deep thinkers. Liberal arts allows you to come in and figure things out.
I've heard Tech by Superwomen has an anthem.
Yes! In "Superwoman," Alicia Keys sings, "Even when I'm a mess/ I still put on a vest/ With an S on my chest." It's this idea that you don't have to be this perfect, fierce warrior who slays the dragon every time. There's a beauty in the humanity that she celebrates: You're going to stumble, and there'll be days that you just don't feel like you've got it down, but the fact that you keep getting up is the thing that makes you strong.
"Superwoman" is singular, Tech by Superwomen is plural. Why's that?
There's another part in the song where [Alicia Keys] is clearly alluding to a "we" concept. And so, while the song is "Superwoman," I made Tech by Superwomen pluralized on purpose, because it's about how we come together and create community.
Everyone wants to feel like they belong. And the truth is, we make culture. There's no reason we can't engineer it to be a place where people feel like they belong. If enough of us take on that mantle, it can happen and it can be really beautiful.
Posey's visit was made possible through the Sava and Danica Andjelkovic Endowment, which provides annual funding for speakers who are accomplished professionals in their respective fields. Posey spoke in a personal capacity at Whitman, meaning her views are her own.