"I want to make a mark so I'm not the last female, African American in the room."
PowerToFly member Gina Tomlinson sat down with us to talk about her recent appointment to Google's US Government Innovation Advisory Board and her prior work building tech solutions in the public sector and corporate America. From discussing the discrimination she's had to rise above as a black woman in tech, to what it's like to always have to be more polished and prepared than the men in the room, Gina gave us an inspiring look into how women can't be afraid to fail and how we should all stop aspiring to be superwomen.
Tell us a little bit about your background and experience so far? What led you to work in the public sector?
In 2007, when I joined the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) as a Deputy Director, it was a complete 180° from my past experience working at Fortune 500 companies like Clorox and HP, where I helped run their Data Center Operations. There were successes and there were mistakes, but I learned a lot along the way. What it ignited in me was the passion to serve - a passion I didn't even know I had. I discovered that I derived an immense amount of satisfaction from seeing people from all walks of life use the technology we implemented - at bus stops, parks, libraries, parking meters, etc. And with it, the realization of how much still needed to be done became a driving force.
Your favorite project so far?
I've had some fabulous opportunities with organizations like Sphere3D Corporation, City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) in CIO and CTO roles. But the most job satisfaction I've had is in my work in the nonprofit sector, enabling organizations aimed at helping homeless and domestic violence victims get back on their feet by teaching them computer skills and technology.
One takeaway from your work in the public sector?
I once commented on a LinkedIn post from the CIO of the City of Palo Alto. We were discussing the public sector's desperate need for more talent -- true technologists who can innovate, people with the passion and energy to make a difference and inject newness. While there's no denying the desire to change, the government can be antiquated and move slowly. In 2012, I represented the City of San Francisco as one of the White House Innovation "Champions of Change," and have been honored with other national/local awards, not so much for the solutions we created...innovative as they may be, but for being able to make it work within this bureaucratic, laborious environment.
How did your appointment to Google's US Government Innovation Advisory Board come about?
When the exec team at Google decided to form this board, they sought former Government IT executives and my name was put forward by former colleagues.The work we'll be doing will have nation-wide consequences and we'd be representing Google when we talk to people in the federal, state and local governments.
What are your plans/hopes for your time on the board?
The appointment is for a year, it'll be a lot of travelling, meetings - online and in-person, and brainstorming sessions. I'm excited to see what comes.
What brought you to STEM? And what kept you there when so many others have given up?
From when I was a kid, I loved science and math, and had a constant thirst to learn more. At age 11, I was in the newspaper of my small town in Ohio for building a computer. Despite all the praise and encouragement, I've felt the sting of discrimination. It can be maddening, disheartening, temporarily defeating - but I leverage it as an opportunity to show my skills and capabilities. My gender and race set me apart and I was going to make the most of it. My product and branding had to be impeccable, my delivery and services perfect. The knowledge that I had to be on my game more than my Caucasian and male counterparts made me sharpen my skill set. I like proving that it's no big deal to be the only female African American in the room. I want to make a mark so I'm not the LAST female, African American in the room.
Advice for other women in STEM?
Be confident in what you know, be ok in what you have yet to know - that you have more to learn. That confidence resonates. It's important for women to come across as confident, assured and comfortable with themselves in their space. I say that not just for STEM, a woman needs that in whatever field she chooses. I'd also say, don't be afraid to fail. We feel we have to be superwomen - we don't. I've butted my head against walls and made bad decisions. But I was able to eventually transform those into success. And lastly, no one does this alone. We all have to have some help and we have to help each other.