10 Women in Innovation to Keynote Your Next Event


April 10, 2018

by Carla Johnson

While women formed the backbone of the early days of the tech industry, that’s certainly not the case today. Apple, Facebook and Google now have a tech workforce population that’s more than 75 percent male.

If we shift from looking at the employee population to founders, the view gets even more grim.

While about 30 percent of small businesses are owned by women, only 10 percent of the 2017 Inc. 500 fastest-growing private companies in America had female founders. To top that off, women only hold 6.4 percent (that’s a count of 32) of the CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.

Yes, these numbers are clearly out of whack. But it’s not just the numbers that matter. It’s the tremendous struggle that a lack of gender diversity brings to business performance.

Harvard Business Review noted that when at least one member of a team has traits in common with the end user, the entire team better does a better job of understanding that end user. Since women control 70-80 percent of all consumer purchases through their buying power and influence, we need more women on teams that identify, develop and deliver products, services and experiences to customers – a majority of whom happen to be women.

Both men and women have great ideas. But when it comes to moving the big ideas forward, there’s a huge funding gap for innovation that leaves women behind. Women don’t apply for public funding as often as men, and private funding for innovation largely goes to men. In the United States, when women at certain stages of their career are eligible for competitive grants, they’re less likely to apply. In fact, only three percent of venture capital funding went to businesses with a woman CEO between 2011 and 2013.

I’m not saying that if women don’t go after the funding, that men shouldn’t get it.

What I am saying is that we need more women to look up to when it comes to innovation to show people – both women and men – what’s possible when different genders, ethnic backgrounds and varying characteristics go after funding. Because when diversity increases in a company, business performance skyrockets.

And that means we have to put more women on stage to talk about their experience with innovation.

Innovative intellect and creative confidence

I asked Karen Bartuch how she got started in speaking. Karen and I met three years ago when I spoke at a technology event for Motorola Solutions and moderated a “Women in Technology” panel on which she participated.

One of the things that I admire about Karen is her relentless pursuit of new ideas, approaches and outcomes. As a former Chicago Police Officer, she’s had her fair share of speaking up on her behalf in male-dominated situations.

How did you get into speaking?

Well, I used to be terrified of public speaking. But over time, I realized I had a point of view (probably too many!) and as I moved along in business it became a necessity. And then speaking became something I enjoyed and was exhilarated by – especially when it came to talking about my career path (and numerous missteps) as a way to help others in their careers. If what I have to say resonates with one person then I am happy – hopefully it is more though! 

What’s the one piece of advice that’s been the most helpful to you as you build your speaking career?

Be authentic. And for me, that means injecting humor into my talks as well as vulnerability and honesty. And as creative as I try to be, I always use evidence (e.g., data and insights) to back up what I am imparting on the audience. 

Why is it particularly important to bring women’s voices to the stage for innovation?

Recent headlines (Forbes and Techcrunch) spotlight the disparities in the entrepreneurial community. Gender differences is an area of research that I study and science suggests women are, of course, different. But that means women bring a different and distinct and awesome point of view which is crucial for innovation – in both idea generation and idea sponsorship. 

 I just completed my dissertation research which examined creative self-efficacy (aka creative confidence), culture and innovation behavior in organizations. In a post-hoc analysis of the data, I found that women rate themselves lower on their creative confidence and ultimately innovation behavior – so clearly something is going on there. By having female leaders on the stage for innovation, that provides a path for other women and hopefully mitigates some of the doubt that women may be experiencing. 

The idea makers and breakers

Women have a great deal to bring to the innovation table. But in order for people to recognize our role in that chair, we need to become more familiar with seeing women as the representatives for innovation. Here are 10 women that would inspire any audience when it comes to delivering bigger outcomes from better ideas.

1. Karen Bartuch, Director, Strategy & Research, Sandstorm Design

Karen double times it with her leadership role at Sandstorm Design and as an adjunct professor at DePaul University’s Charles H. Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. Before she joined Sandstorm Design, she led the charge to develop and execute the go-to-market strategy for PwC’s Global Intelligence practice within the Advisory (management consulting) business. She leads all innovation, growth, marketing and communications work for the global team. She owns the delivery and oversight of complex multi-million-dollar business intelligence engagements for Fortune 500 companies across various industries and sectors including technology, healthcare, financial services, consumer products, retail and more. Karen’s experience spans both the public and private sector, which includes the second largest police department in the country, a Fortune 500 telecommunications corporation and one of the top consulting firms in the world. A doctoral candidate, she’ll complete her Ph.D. in June 2018. Her research includes topics such as innovation and creativity, leadership, gender, communications, social media and humor. Read more on her LinkedIn profile.

2. Alice Zhang, CEO and Co-Founder, Verge Genomics

Named one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30, Alice has already received plenty of attention and accolades. In 2012, she received a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, given to immigrants and children of immigrants who have made major impacts in their fields. Like many world-class innovators before her, she left a prestigious university (UCLA’s PhD program) to follow her dream. She launched Verge Genomics, which uses machine learning to develop drugs for complex diseases. Verge brings together mathematicians, neuroscientists, computer learning experts and biotech professionals to accelerate the understanding of disease and push for novel solutions. Right now, Verge is focusing on neurodegenerative disorders, and recently announced several public-private partnerships to create massive databases of information on ALS and Parkinson’s disease. Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow Verge Genomics on Twitter.

3. Therese Tucker, Founder, CEO, Blackline

Terese has been described as “a blazingly intelligent and impish 56-year-old.” Her company, BlackLine, is a nine-time Inc. 5000 honoree that analysts credit with inventing a new market for accounting software. The Los Angeles company, which had $123 million in 2016 revenue and went public a few years ago, has seen its stock outperform other seemingly hipper tech IPOs. Blackline isn’t a household name, but its customers are. Therese counts Coca-Cola, Under Armour, United Airlines and eBay, among them. Blackline’s IPO turned Therese into one of the only female founder-CEOs running a public tech company. Read her LinkedIn profile or follow Blackline on Twitter.

4. Alisyn Malek, Co-founder and COO, May Mobility

The next time you take public transportation and notice that you’re on a driverless bus, Alisyn is one of the people you can thank. May Mobility is helping to bring fleets of automous vehicles to the streets of Detroit—and soon, the world. Late last year, her company piloted a self-driving bus service in downtown Detroit, and it plans to launch a permanent service in the summer of 2018. This makes it the first company of its kind to replace an existing transportation system with a self-driving one. Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

5. Lu Zhang, Founding Partner, NewGen Capital

Lu Zhang’s date with success was set when she walked off the plane from China seven years ago and soon headed for Stanford University as a materials science and engineering grad student. Later, after she sold her medical device startup for more than $10 million, Lu opened her own venture capital shop, NexGen Capital. As of 2017, NexGen has raised $92 million in funds and made 38 investments. Lu is another Forbes magazine’s Top 30 under 30 recipient. Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

6. Donna Morton, Co-Founder and CEO of Change Finance

Donna has spent more than 30 years working on using business to solve climate change and promote social justic6. e, indigenous rights, and women’s leadership. In 2009, she co-founded First Power, which creates partnerships to put energy, jobs, and equity in the hands of indigenous communities. These days, she’s CEO of Change Finance, a majority-women finance company that is creating affordable, easy-to-access investments that democratize impact investing. This pending B Corp recently launched the first fossil-free, diversified, impact-focused exchange-traded fund on the New York Stock Exchange. Read her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

7. Rhonesha Byng, Founder, Her Agenda

Her Agenda is a digital media platform that bridges the gap between ambition and achievement for professionally ambitious millennial women. Rhonesha provides access to information to help them move their career to the next level. She won an Emmy Award as part of a break news team for NBC New York, as well as awards from the AP and other news organizations. Proving that great ideas can come from anyone of any age, Rhonesha has spoken at the White House and is also a Forbes magazine’s Top 30 under 30 winner. Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

8. Nonny de la Pena, Award-winning CEO and Founder of Emblematic Group

An AR/VR pioneer, Nonny started her career as a journalist, working for Time and Newsweek, before creating documentary films and television projects. Her work on a documentary project made her determined to up-level her programming abilities. She paired this with her storytelling abilities and created an innovative virtual reality short that was featured at the Sundance Film Festival. Also along the way she founded a narrative virtual reality studio, Emblematic. It was this work that firmly entrenched her in her field. She was invited to a meeting of entrepreneurs in Britain, which took them to an event with British royalty. Since then, Forbes dubbed her the “godmother of virtual reality,” Fast Company named her one of its most creative people, and for 2018 she was named a New America Fellow. Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

9. Rebecca Kantar, Founder, Imbellus

Another dropout making good on her dreams, Rebecca left Harvard after two years to launch Imbellus, a company that hopes to bring down standardized testing as we know it. She’s interested in developing tests that measure the problem-solving ability of students, not just whether an answer to a specific multiple-choice question is right or wrong. The company recently raised $4 million in venture capital, and has partnered with CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. Rebecca and her team hope to begin by creating skill-assessment tests to help people looking for jobs make their search easier to guide. She thinks improved assessments could ultimately help improve the entire education system, which in turn could perhaps develop “minds capable of saving humanity from man-made extinction.” Rebecca told Business Insider: “The SAT and most other assessments have made the mistake of comparing everyone to an average that is no one. The problem is that grading model doesn’t take context into account. You don’t necessarily need the same set of skills to apply for a job at Goldman Sachs as you need to be successful at the Rhode Island School of Design.” Read more on her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

10. Lynelle Cameron, President and CEO of the Autodesk Foundation and VP of Sustainability at Autodesk

After 10 years working in the nonprofit sector, Lynelle read “The Ecology of Commerce,” by Paul Hawken. She realized that to create the transformative environmental change she wanted, she needed to work in the private sector. She earned her MBA and landed a customer service representative job at Hewlett Packard. Then, Lynelle wrote a letter to the CEO of Autodesk, which makes design software, about the opportunity the company had to integrate sustainability into its business. It worked. For the past 10 years, she has led the charge to incorporate a sustainability lens into a wide variety of what the company offers. This includes programs that invest in, and support people, designing the answers to today’s most important social and environmental challenges. Lynelle helped launch the Autodesk Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in entrepreneurs and innovators who are designing a sustainable world. In addition to this, Autodesk’s sustainable design education has reached over 2 million students and professionals worldwide. Read her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter.

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Photo credit: Pixaby

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.