April 10, 2012
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The New York Times has an article out about encouraging women to enter the field of computer science. The fellow on the left has probably done some useful stuff in computer science, but I know for a fact that the lady on the right has changed my life. And it sounds like I was neither the first nor the last.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Publicly, I was privileged to have Maria Klawe as a Board member at Sunnybrook and BrightSide. Her wisdom during those times rescued the company from disaster on more than one occasion and I am professionally very grateful for her guidance. But that doesn’t even come close to my gratefulness for an even simpler, but much more impactful, act of Maria’s.
Maria was the Dean of Science when I came to UBC for my undergraduate studies. My first few days at UBC were utter hell. Housing had put me into a female dorm thanks to my first name (and then refused to let me into that dorm); and I had suffered in my English admission test, and, as a direct consequence of my linguistic inability, had massively failed the “Physics Aptitude” test to the point that the responsible professor encouraged me to “consider a non-university career.” I grew up in a village in Germany in an environment where few people, including my parents, went to high school much less university. I was in Vancouver for the first time in my life and about ready to go home in defeat after the first week. Then I met Maria.
Actually, I didn’t so much meet her as see her on stage during her welcoming speech to new first year science students. She was juggling on stage, and she sucked at it. That’s when she said the words that would profoundly change my life: “I just started to learn juggling. I am not very good at it yet. But that doesn’t mean that I will never be good at juggling or that I should give up.” So I didn’t give up either. Through her, I met her Associate Dean Lorne Whitehead, who offered me a spot in his lab and would go on to co-found Sunnybrook with me. The rest is history.
That makes Maria responsible for much of my professional evolution. It also makes her the reason why I rarely refuse a meeting request from a person who seeks guidance (including from those who want to develop wooden ‘scaffolding’ to elevate fat cows because that somehow makes them feel better…); why TandemLaunch runs an open internship program where the only qualification is the will to succeed (which in turn, completely organically, led to a gender balanced tech company even at the top leadership – no matter how much the broader tech community decries that as impossible); and why I “waste” countless hours coaching students, children, inventors and aspiring entrepreneurs. What Maria taught me is that often all it takes to enable dreams is to provide a tiny nudge at the right time. I suspect that she doesn’t even realise what she did that day on the stage. But that doesn’t change the fact that I will be forever grateful for it and work hard to do the same for others.