Don't Wait For an Invitation to the Table: Secrets to Success for Women in IoT

President & CEO of eXalt Solutions, Leslie Swanson, asserts that every venture firm should hire a woman entrepreneur-in-residence. For greater diversity in IoT, we must start at the beginning of the value chain with education and the investment community.

Shannon Lee
Leslie Swanson
Illustration: © IoT For All

Leslie Swanson founded eXalt Solutions in 2001. She has over 30 years of experience in the technology industry and began her career in the still male-dominated field of electrical engineering. As the current president and CEO of eXalt Solutions, she is passionate about bringing diversity to the tech sector in Boston and across the globe. Leslie holds a BSEE from Case Western Reserve University and an MBA from the University of Rochester.

IoT For All (IFA): Tell us about your current role and journey into the IoT/Tech space.

Leslie: As president and CEO of eXalt Solutions, I realized that IoT was directly in our sweet spot of solutions involving an extensive partner sales channel. eXalt’s enterprise customers use our Knowledge Work as a Service (KWaaS) platform to create Knowledge Bots to provide expertise, agility and insight as AI-based co-workers. We see three opportunities in the IoT space for our AI-based Knowledge Bots:

  • eXalt Advisor Bots scale knowledge and expertise to determine the server, software, storage and networking requirements for a vast array of IoT devices, including hardware, software and services.  We believe eXalt’s ability to scale knowledge and expertise through a worldwide channel is a critical ingredient in accelerating IoT adoption.
  • eXalt Administrative Bots work across a vast network of resellers, distributors, vendors and integrators to ensure rapid communication and collaboration for complex integrated projects. IoT requires stitching together thousands of items across hundreds of vendors to create a coherent end-to-end solution. eXalt’s Administrative Bots facilitate the process among many organizations, removing friction and delivering agility.
  • eXalt Analyst Bots analyze data collected by intelligent and remote devices to provide a rich source of knowledge and self-management of IoT devices.

IFA: What do you think about the current state of IoT and its future? What makes it exciting?

Leslie: IoT is exciting because any device, machine, animal or human can become intelligent and have its own IP Address, allowing it to be directly connected to the internet. IoT networks will be both decentralized and centralized with AI:

Decentralized IoT Network AI will be at the edge providing real-time processing for sensors and devices, making industry and homes independent and self-managing for all types of efficiencies. This will cut down on enormous expenses while making the environment much greener.

Centralized IoT Network –  IoT networks will collect unprecedented data that becomes valuable when communicating externally to make requests or combined with other data to detect trends. Some examples include:

  • Patient data transmitting to a central management console, alerting doctors and nurses so they can intervene proactively. By bringing health care to the patient instead of relying on the patient to seek health care reactively, many lives can be saved and the quality of life greatly improved.
  • Data sent by deployed IoT devices, which can be aggregated to detect failure patterns or to do predictive analytics.

IFA: What do you wish you had known prior to joining the industry?

Leslie: I’ve been surprised that the adoption of IoT has been much slower than I expected despite the enormous market opportunity. Security is one of the major factors limiting IoT adoption today. Anything connected to the internet does have the potential to be hacked, meaning everything from connected coffee machines to security cameras can be vulnerable. There have been some recent astounding examples of IoT’s vulnerability:

  • A troll who managed to send white supremacist literature to online printers all over the world simultaneously.
  • Target stores: Hackers entered the network via HVAC and camera devices to steal credit and debit card information from about 40 million customers as well as exposing information for 70 million people, including email and mailing addresses.
  • Bain recently found that enterprises would “buy more IoT devices and pay up to 22% more on average for them if security concerns were addressed.”

IFA: What is the greatest obstacle facing women interested in joining the IoT space today?

Leslie: Showing up. There’s not a lot of women in any segment of the tech industry. At the end of the day, you have to show up and be confident in what you bring to the table, which is a lot. Set goals, show up and work hard. In the past, there were very few programmers from India and there was a lot of resistance to outsourcing. But India’s education system provided a lot of talent to an industry desperate to fill positions. Now, people never give it a second thought and many think India has an advantage in software.  India itself doesn’t – they just had a lot of talented people show up. The IoT industry is just as desperate today to fill positions. If women show up in great numbers, they will be associated with the industry. People drive looking in the rear-view mirror and base future actions on historical trends rather than looking at fundamental drivers. We have to remind people that in the beginning of the software industry it was mostly women who programmed. 

IFA: What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially with your experience in male-dominated environments?

Leslie: I started out as an electrical engineer which is one of the most male-dominated environments in any tech segment and is also stereotyped for high IQ and low social skills. I noticed all kinds of tribalism where different cliques form and groups excluded others. But working in technology means we don’t really live in a subjective environment. We either deliver or we don’t, so we live in a true meritocracy. If you build bridges, have a high tolerance for debate and can advocate for your ideas, you will get traction.

I think women look at the tech industry and see the ratio of men to women and worry that they wouldn’t be welcome or feel truly accepted. But you can’t control the ratio. You can’t change who people are, but you can control your own thinking and perceptions. You can find others who are receptive because technology is blind to human differences. You can present your arguments because if teams don’t deliver a quality solution on time, you will be out of business. But this requires taking a very proactive approach. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re welcomed. Don’t wait for an invitation. Actively seek allies. Find problems that you can solve and you will become a valuable member of any team.

IFA: In a management position, how have you found it best to promote and nurture women in the workplace?

Leslie: I believe in promoting all types of diversity. The strongest teams are those with a diversity of skills unified by a common culture and process. Technology is about disruption and speed of innovation. I believe strongly in debate to survive in this Darwinian environment where technology can become obsolete in just 24 months. I want people who can bring a fresh perspective and that only happens if you have diversity in backgrounds, education and skills to bring fresh alternatives to solving problems. In technology companies, we understand that diversity is a strength. The best way to nurture women is to nurture ALL diversity within a framework of strong business processes dedicated to innovation and problem-solving.

You also have to train management to see homogeneous talent pools as bringing about the worst possible blindness and myopia. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun to work inside of a diverse team.

IFA: Are there particular areas in IoT where you see a lack of women and representation? If so, where and why do you think that is?

Leslie: If we are to have greater diversity in IoT it must start at the beginning of the value chain with education and the investment community.

Nothing will change unless we have a high availability of diverse talent. Technology classes for programming and hardware must become mandatory in education as early as possible. Unless this happens, the problem will persist. We are shifting faster than ever to a Knowledge-Based Economy. Human expertise is the key raw material needed to fuel this growth, and education must ensure that this expertise is uniformly distributed across the population or we risk excluding parts of the population from this massive growth opportunity.

Once education changes, you have to start at the top of the Tech Value chain at the venture community if you want to promote change. Venture capital lacks diversity and this is reflected through the remainder of the value chain of vendors, distributors, resellers and integrators.

Wikipedia shows that the venture community has a significant role in our economy and yet lags the rest of industry in its own diversity: Babson College’s Diana Report found that the number of women partners in VC firms decreased from 10% in 1999 to 6% in 2014.

The Babson report also found that 97% of VC-funded businesses had male chief executives and that businesses with all-male teams were more than four times as likely to receive VC funding compared to teams with at least one woman. In 2017 only 2.2% of all VC funding went to female founders.

Yet women start companies at twice the rate of men and an increase of women’s leadership [on a team] has shown financial outperformance from publicly traded companies down to venture capital backed startups.

According to McKinsey, Women-led companies yield 41% higher return on equity and 56% better operating results. VC-funded women-led companies require less capital while delivering higher returns.

VC firms with women partners are twice as likely to invest in companies with a woman on the management team and three times more likely to invest in companies with women CEOs. Not only are they more likely to invest in women, but recent research shows that when women VCs do invest in women-led startups, they have a 32.1% greater chance of an exit.

It seems that venture capitalists have been blind to a major opportunity for themselves and their limited partners. The fastest and easiest way to promote change at venture firms is to have limited partners push them to change two parts of their structure:

  1. Every venture firm should hire a Woman Entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR):This is key since EIR’s perform due diligence on potential deals. This is not a burden to venture firms since EIRs are hired for short engagements. The benefit is that more diverse deals may be presented to partners and, more importantly, EIRs often move on to executive positions within a portfolio company which creates downstream diversity.
  2. Limited Partners must steer towards venture firms that are consistent with their own principles: Harvard’s endowment recently started divesting from fossil fuel investments for the sole reason that they felt that they were “stealing from future generations.” I hope that endowments and pension funds would view lack of diversity in venture funds from a similar socially responsible lens.

IFA: How are you addressing increasing diversity and inclusion in IoT?

Leslie: I’m on the board of a non-profit called CodeSquad that helps bring diversity to the tech sector in Boston. Though we train both men and women to become successful software developers, 60% of our participants are female! And following CodeSquad, many participants go on to secure technology jobs in Boston.

IFA: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received and one piece of advice you would give our readers?

Leslie: The best advice I was given is to show up, and it is my number one piece of advice for anyone looking to succeed. You will definitely fail if you don’t show up, but if you do show up you have a chance at success. Tech is an industry that’s desperate for talent and people want diverse perspectives when building a team. We are often desperate to get diverse candidates to show up for an interview, and when we do, we are doing cartwheels. My number one piece of advice for women in tech is to assume that you are welcome and show up.

IFA: IoT can be stressful, how do you decompress? Any tips or tricks?

Leslie: To decompress I run, kayak, ski, bike – anything that doesn’t use my mind. This gives my mind a break.

    Shannon Lee
    Shannon Lee
    Former full-time marketing communications professional with a specialization in technology, startup, and corporate communications. Active marketing freelancer and medical cannabis science health professional studying to become a Psychedelic-Assist...
    Former full-time marketing communications professional with a specialization in technology, startup, and corporate communications. Active marketing freelancer and medical cannabis science health professional studying to become a Psychedelic-Assist...