How Nine Women Broke Through Tech’s Glass Ceiling
These female tech leaders in Hawai‘i describe how they navigated through what has been a male-dominated industry and how other women can take advantage of the greater opportunities today.
Executive Director for Consumer Products & Sales, Hawaiian Telcom
“I went to a meeting once with a colleague, and I was his boss, and we flew to meet people at another company. When I went into the office, they asked me if I was his wife,” Vaai says.
“And they welcomed me and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea while I waited outside for them to have a meeting. It really made me think about how people really still can’t quite wrap their heads around” the idea of women leaders in tech, she says.
Vaai says even if it’s an honest mistake, it speaks about pervasive attitudes – even attitudes held by some women. She says many women don’t see themselves in leadership roles, but she hopes to challenge them to rethink their attitudes. She hopes her example and that of other women leaders will normalize society’s attitude about women in decision-making roles.
Early in her career, she was a marketing manager for a wireless internet TV provider in American Samoa. Among her proudest achievements was growing with the company and being promoted to manager of all American Samoa operations.
“There were 55-year-old men who had been in tech for a long, long time, and I was like a 28-year-old brown woman. So I definitely had a blast. I learned a lot and am very proud of some of those achievements,” Vaai says.
Vaai says she moved to Hawai‘i to give her two daughters a chance at a better education. She says she is encouraged by the STEM opportunities available to them in elementary schools here and she will continue to advocate for her girls, as her family did for her.
Filifotu’s Advice: “Mentors encouraged me to try different things and not be limited to what a ‘typical island girl’s’ route might have been, and to be OK with traveling the road less traveled, even though there were not a lot of women in tech.”
President, Integrated Security Technologies
Lanning first realized there was a shortage of women industry when she was at a trade show and there wasn’t a line for the women’s bathroom.
“You know how it is when you go to an event, there’s always a line for the women’s restroom. Guys have no problem. It was the one time in my life where I was like, ‘Yes, I don’t have to stand in line to use the restroom,’ ” she says with a laugh.
Electronic security has an even lower percentage of women than other tech fields, like IT, says Lanning. When she began in the industry, she says, only 10% of any given group would be women.
“Many people along the way kind of discouraged me from those fields, saying, ‘Maybe you should be in HR or you should be in accounting. That may be more your speed,’ ” she says.
Lanning says that in her 23 years in the electronic security industry, she has only been able to hire two women, because there hasn’t been a large enough field to pick from.
By hiring female technicians, “The other guys would all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh, wow, she does a really good job. I better step it up,’ ” Lanning says. “So, we started to get more quality in the field. And people started to take more pride in their work. And that was really good.”
Lanning says she and her husband, Andrew Lanning, are part of the Security Industry Association’s Women in Security group.
“What I loved about it is when they first started putting it together, they realized we can’t just have a bunch of women in this group. Men have to be a part of the conversation because otherwise it becomes exclusionary instead of inclusionary,” she says.
Christine’s Advice: “For employers: If you’re not considering women or minorities, then you’re missing out on half the pie. If you want to be a great place to work, you better make sure you’re including women in that conversation.”
Assistant Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, UH Mānoa
While an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Zhang was drawn to on-campus meetings of the Society of Women Engineers club because they always had good, free food.
Now as a professor, she advises young women in UH Mānoa’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers to pursue degrees in tech.
She says the local chapter meetings are a chance for female freshmen and sophomores to talk with more senior engineering students about issues they may be reluctant to bring up in class discussions.
“You may have 40 male students and 10 female students in class, and so the ones who are most likely to speak up happen to be male,” Zhang says. “It’s not necessarily that men speak up more often than women, it’s just the way the numbers work.”
Zhang says that she notices more female engineering faculty members than ever before. “I think that if a student feels more comfortable working with a female professor versus a male one, you now have the option,” she says.
Zhang, who moved to the U.S. from China when she was 9, says she is used to environments where she doesn’t “fit in.”
“We didn’t have very many Chinese immigrants when I came to Georgia, so nobody at the school I went to spoke Chinese. I guess in that sense, it prepared me for dealing with this unbalanced gender ratio because I’m used to being in an environment where I’m not the norm,” she says.
June’s Advice: “There are a lot of opportunities when you are a minority student in engineering, such as scholarships and internships. It’s a double edged sword. Regardless of gender representation, or any representation, you stand out more. And if you actually do an excellent job, that stands you out even more.”
Faith Geronimo, President & CEO, Hawaii Information Services
Colleen Yasuhara, Chief Operating Officer, Hawaii Information Services
Geronimo and Yasuhara say they couldn’t do their jobs without each other.
They have been friends for almost 30 years and they approach the work environment at Hawaii Information Service with the same attitude. And that’s to treat everyone in the company equally.
“The philosophy we share is, we are just who we are. We would come to work every day like we would at any other job, whether we were an employee or even now as an executive. And it’s just all about getting the best job done,” says Geronimo.
Both say they paved the way for themselves. Yasuhara started at the bottom in sales at the company. Yasuhara now holds the record for the company’s largest sale, Geronimo says proudly.
“One of the things I say around here is, ‘How hard can it be?’ And everybody laughs,” says Yasuhara.
Geronimo says one of her favorite quotes about the company came from Hawaii Business Magazine’s Best Places to Work confidential survey. One employee wrote, “Hawaii Information Service is the hardest job I’ve ever had, the best job I’ve ever had.”
Faith’s Advice: “Technology is not scary. It’s complex, but it’s not scary.”
Colleen’s Advice: “What you think you might want to do, might turn out to be not what you want to do. So, I would get the framework and the language down and ask lots of questions.”
Phan says it was a team of women at DataHouse who led development of LumiSight, which was used by airports and universities in Hawai‘i, to screen people for symptoms of COVID-19.
“It’s one of those opportunities where I felt it was important to engage our younger female team,” Phan says. “They were all women, everyone from project coordinator to project manager to engineer were female … and I wanted them to feel the accomplishment.”
Phan says she has been working in the IT industry for over 25 years – eight in Hawai‘i. She is now working in San Diego for DataHouse, a Hawai‘i company, but says she has always been drawn to Hawai‘i for its potential to expand as more resources become available to the Islands.
“With the recent change in technology, especially now with a pandemic, there are really no walls anymore. It really creates a different opportunity for women because now we can compete not just on the island, we can take our career a lot further,” she says.
Phan, who is wearing a shirt with the Google logo on it, points to it and says, “Technically, anybody that’s on the island that has an objective to work at Google, there’s nothing stopping them anymore.”
Hands-on learning is Phan’s favorite way of continuing to grow. She says she scours the internet at night while most of her colleagues are sleeping, reading up on the latest technology that could potentially lead to new projects.
“I’m not afraid of solving a problem,” she says. “When you help to solve a problem, you’re going to learn it a little bit more. So that’s how I’ve been able to manage and keep up with the technology.”
Hong’s Advice: “Even though the technology has been getting easier … you still need to get the hardcore training and start with the basics. You still want to know how that’s all put together so you can understand and appreciate the technology behind it.”
Chief Experience Officer (CXO) and Head of Finance, HI Tech Hui
“I’m a woman in tech who also practices the law of attraction. I’m a true believer that you can create whatever it is that you want in your life,” Lerch says.
Lerch, a veteran of Microsoft and Zappos, says she always knew she wanted to start a business – she just didn’t know it would be in Hawai‘i.
“I wanted to create a company where I could be with my kids whenever I wanted to, and work from home whenever I wanted to. I wanted to create a culture that I would love to wake up to and be excited to go to work,” Lerch says.
She says she grew up in a family that embraced technology and she never thought she was less capable than her brothers, who are also in tech. Yet when she got to college, there weren’t many programs around to help her to grow as a woman in computer science.
“I’d have about 500 people in my class and five or six of us were girls,” Lerch says. “What supported me was doing a lot of courses outside of the university for personal development. If it wasn’t for those personal development seminars and books that I’ve read, I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have now.”
Customer service and a good work environment are most important to her, she says. As a working mother, Lerch says, she better understands her female employees when they need time off , such as when children were being schooled online during the pandemic.
Ann-Marie’s Advice: “Dream big and know that you can create whatever it is you want. Don’t be afraid of something that you don’t know much about. There are amazing careers in technology, and you can make good money.”
Kelsey Amos, Co-Founder and Director, Purple Maiʻa
Darien Siguenza, Program Manager, Hawaiʻi FoundHer
“We had to ask ourselves, ‘What does the technology industry look like here in Hawai‘i?’ Are we only setting (young people) up for opportunities where they’ll have to leave home? What’s the outlook for them to be able to stay here and work here and be culturally grounded and community serving, as our mission says?” Amos says.
Purple Mai‘a is a nonprofit started in 2013 with the goal of empowering and educating Native Hawaiian youth to code. The program, founded by Amos, Olin Lagon and Donovan Kealoha, began as an after-school class; since then, several technology entrepreneur programs have been added, including Hawai‘i FoundHer.
Siguenza says Hawai‘i FoundHer is a six-month accelerator providing funding and support to Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Asian women and mothers looking to start their own businesses in one of the five core markets in Hawai‘i: tech, fashion, health and wellness, food systems and keiki education.
She says she is passionate about the program because she has personally experienced the effects of gender inequality in the workplace.
“There’s been so many times where I’ve been in a meeting with all men, and when we’re going around the table and doing introductions, they just completely skipped me, or, automatically started assigning me administrative tasks,” Siguenza says. “And that was not a part of my job. I was just having tasks thrown at me and they didn’t see me as an equal player at the table.”
Amos, who began as a grant writer and calls herself an “accidental founder” of Purple Mai‘a, says women may have a harder time breaking into executive roles because they are often stigmatized as only being beneficial in marketing and administrative roles.
“Without generalizing, I think women really care about having a positive impact on our communities and on our state. They have a really good moral compass and I wish we would listen to them and invest in them more often,” Amos says.
Darien’s Advice: “All of us are starting these new initiatives and programs, and being in sync with each other is important, so we should support each other’s efforts and continue to build out from there – like Kelsey said, being intentional with the culture that we want to promote here and not subscribing to all those other practices that stifle women’s growth.”
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.