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THIS WEEK

I am happy to share a conversation I recently had with Bethany Bongiorno. Bethany is an incredibly refreshing and creative woman to talk to and has a lot to learn from including her ability to trust her instincts, find mentors and mentor others, and take a value-first approach to her life and career. 

Bethany led teams behind some of the company's most transformational products at Apple including iOS, macOS, and the launch of the original iPad. Prior to her time at Apple, Bethany studied physics, worked in astrophysics research, and was a data management and software development consultant. Bethany is now the CEO and Co-Founder of Humane, a company she co-founded with her husband and fellow 21-year Apple veteran, Imran Chaudhri.


Hope you enjoy,
Maya Frai, Founder of Let's Hear It

INTERVIEW WITH BETHANY BONGIORNO
On mentoring a community of women at NYU

BB: I help mentor STEM students at NYU through their GSTEM program. I've been visiting and delivering keynotes for the past couple of years. The question I get asked most of the time from kids in high school is: how do I choose my major? The questions are always around choosing the career that they'd want to go into. A lot of them feel this overwhelming sense of anxiety that the decision that they make today is going to dramatically and radically dictate the rest of their life. And I think for women, there's a second part of the question where a choice can impact her professional career as well as her personal life. Women may not choose to go into certain majors or industries because it could impact them from having a family. We tend to deeply think about our actions and sometimes complicate them to the point where we don't move forward at all because it feels too scary, but we shouldn’t have to. In my presentations, I usually bring up that our path isn't linear. The path to future success is a jumbled process with lots of stops and turns and changes in direction. That's how it should be.
 
On having a helpful mix of mentors

BB: Having a mentor can be super relaxed, it could be someone you meet for 5 minutes. It could be someone you meet for a month, it could be someone who has been in your life forever. I have mentors in my life that are only good at one thing and they're not good at a bunch of other things. I trust them for that one thing and I go to them for those types of things, but not for everything else. I think it really helps to think of them in this way so it reduces the stress of finding that one mentor you go to for everything. The goal is to find a group of people that allows you to really focus on what makes you happy and what brings you joy. Ultimately when we're following the thing that brings us joy, we end up being really good at what we do.
 
On her college experience

BB: I had always wanted to go to NYU and attended for my first two years of college there before transferring to Barnard. My first week of school at NYU was actually during 9/11. I was coming back from class when the first plane hit. I remember feeling so confused about what it all meant. The experience didn't change my feeling about NYU, but it certainly impacted my happiness. I joined a sorority and really loved being a part of the community, but at the end of the day, I felt like the education wasn't clicking. I was studying physics and math but didn't really feel connected to the teachers or the department. I wasn't feeling challenged. I left and went to Barnard and really loved it there. The community there really helped instill a sense of supporting women to take up space and be present. 

 
On being a physics major

BB: I was maybe one of two or three women in my major — not even in my classes, but my major as a whole. There weren't a lot of women in tech or in physics. I had an impromptu support network from the women that were in the physics program. There was one girl who she and I were basically connected at the hip because we were the only two women in the program. I think a lot of the support I needed was more about facing failure in my classes. I was never a super straight-A student. I wasn't that person that everything came really easily. And most of the people in my classes were like that. Most of the people studying physics at Columbia and Barnard were, in my mind, super geniuses that just totally got it. I was working hard to excel and doing whatever I could to get additional help. It’s important for women to know that the road in STEM may be hard, and it’s ok if you have to work hard at it. It’s ok if it doesn’t come easy to you, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there. I believe success is tied to having a growth versus fixed mindset - the willingness to push yourself to build new skills and expand your areas of knowledge.
 
On applying physics to a new career path

BB: I never studied computer science and didn't have a background in it at all. While I was in school, I started doing astrophysics research. I was working at the Museum of Natural History in their planetarium. They had a research program that I got linked up with and started helping two researchers there with data analysis, which relies heavily on math -- so something I knew and loved doing. It was super interesting to work with large amounts of data. And I saw how you have this entire field of astrophysics where you can't touch anything. All you can do is analyze data to learn things. After we published a couple of papers, I was certain this was what I was going to pursue. I initially thought to study astrophysics and get my PhD. But I worried that it might be a really lonely trajectory. I loved working with people too much. So I wanted to take those skills to solve real world problems that impacted people. I started working at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. They had a data management group where we would go to clients who had large amounts of data and try to pull insight from it to better understand their customers and build software and other tools to solve problems. 
 
On being curious instead of nailing down requirements

BB: I learned how much I loved working with teams to build software. I loved the process of understanding the requirements, helping to build and design, and having this human-first intention around it. I brought this insight with me when I started hiring people at Apple. I always used to tell my team that when we're hiring people, don't just look for CS degrees. It doesn't have to be a requirement. They just have to have the same passion and curiosity to solve problems. Technical ability is certainly what we looked for too, but with respect to getting your hands dirty in order to understand how software works and own it. There's so many different skill sets in technology and we just have to be curious to learn. Even for me now, I'm doing all the finances for Humane. I'm the CEO of the company and spend most of my time doing things that I've never done before but have to do whether it’s on the legal or the financial or the fundraising side. 
 
On knowing when to level-up

BB: I've always been someone who wants to level up. I have that drive and I think I felt that at Apple, I had really gotten the grasp and the scope of what I was working on. I was running project management and the software program for iOS and macOS. I had built up a big team of incredible people. I had shipped a number of releases, a number of phones, a number of iPads, a number of Macs. I knew the song and dance and had always dreamt about working in the C-suite. I didn't really see that trajectory for me at Apple in the way that I wanted it to be. I knew there was going to be a time where it was time to go and achieve something on my own. My husband, Imran, had actually been working at Apple for 21 years. We had the opportunity to build many things together throughout our time at the company. One day I called him up and said today's the day, I'm ready to do this. He totally agreed and we resigned on the same day.
 
On making the decision to leave Apple

BB: I think the funny thing is that we had no idea what we were doing. We were jumping blindly into no job, no idea what the next step was. But everyone around me and my mentors were telling me that it was the best thing to do. I still had a lot of fear. I had this amazing job and a lot of responsibility. I would constantly think, "Am I really going to walk away from this?" I remember I went onto Linkedin one late night. I don't even know what I was trying to find but I was typing in things like "women in tech." I came across this company called Women Who Tech. It was founded by Allyson Kapin. She's incredible and super vocal about supporting women. I didn't even know her and she didn't know me, but I shot her a message over LinkedIn and said: "Hi, you have no idea who I am, but I'm about to make like the biggest decision of my career and I'm totally scared and I just need to like talk to somebody about it. Would you be willing to talk to me?" She wrote me back within minutes and said, "Here's my phone number, call me." I picked up the phone and I called her and we had an hour long conversation. I still have the notes that I wrote down. I was asking her a million questions about what it means to start a company and if I should even be doing this. She said to me: "Listen, all I know about you is what you've told me and what I can see from looking at your LinkedIn and your resume. But let me just tell you that you can jump. There's a net there. Go ahead and jump because it's there." She went on to say that nobody can take away what you've done. Nobody can strip you of what you've done. The past is already set in stone. That's yours. You own it and have it to fall back on. At any point, you can go anywhere else and go work and get a job. And so what if it doesn't work out? If you do it and you fail, it's okay. You can still go do the same thing you're doing now. 
 
On supporting women vs being competitive with other women

BB: I think we all need to support other women more. Even if it's for five minutes, just give them that boost to keep them going. With Allyson, it was so powerful to hear support from an objective third party, and I share this story with those I mentor often. As women in this field it’s incredibly important that we are there for one another, that we pick up the phone. One conversation can have an incredible and lasting impact on someone and their career. There’s certainly a broader problem in the industry with women feeling competitive with one another. I think this competitiveness is often caused by the environment. If women see a C-Suite or senior leadership team that is 99% men, it creates fear that there isn’t enough room for every woman at the top. It can cause women to hold other women down, to protect their spot at the top. It prevents women from giving other women opportunities to grow their skillset to be able to move into more senior roles. If we want to really make changes in the industry, equality has to be prioritized from the top first. 
On being values-first

BB: When Imran and I decided we wanted to start a company, the first thing we did was talk about and define our values. We felt it was a critical first step to build a strong foundation on these values before we brought a team together. If you are going to join Humane, you also need to care about and be an advocate for our values. Caring about work life balance is certainly more about taking action than making promises. I think that really helped us in the creation of Humane. We want to not only talk about these things but also put them into practice. At Humane, we're a super small team. We're super happy to see our team grow and we had an intern that just converted full-time. It was really incredible for us to have him as an intern so early and to be able to learn from him on how his generation thinks about work. On Fridays, he would tell us that he's leaving his laptop at the office. And I remember us being like, "You're going to leave it here?" We were so ingrained in working 24/7. Even if you're not actively working, you're connected, you're available. And it was so refreshing to see someone on our team clearly draw the line and be open and honest about it. The new generation entering the workforce are going to be demanding a lot more from their companies. They're holding this hard line and saying that they won't work for a company where they see evidence that people aren't supported, and where they see that the stated values aren’t actually being put into practice.
 
On setting the tone at your company

BB: The team at Humane cares about creating a psychologically safe work environment. That means every single one of us plays an important role in creating a space where everyone on the team feels safe to express their opinion. We all have to believe that the product will be better because of this level of honesty. We also care that the team knows that we prioritize their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing - as much as we prioritize the product. These are all critical aspects of our values and are all at the heart of Humane. 
 
On being passionate both in and outside work

BB: We see a lot of people being interested in exploring their passions in and outside of work. Every single person on our team has creative bones in their body, whether they're a project manager or a software engineer. And a lot of them have things that they love to do outside of work. They have passions that they really care about, things that they're creating outside of work. The company will always be better off when people feel like they're able to bring their whole selves to work and  can bring their outside passions to work. When you're having that sense of joy in your life, it shows in the work and we've built enough things in our lifetime to know that when there's tension, bitterness, and difficulty, people feel it in the product.
 
On being remote

BB: We're now fully remote and have been since March 12th. What's amazing is how much we've learned about remote work how it seems we can be even more productive. Some of our team members are enjoying that they're able to work without a commute or spend more time with family. They can build on their own schedule. It's something Imran and I are really thinking about and are trying to take everything into account when we get back in full swing. We're working on building a new space to accommodate this as well. We have to figure out how to support video conferencing rooms and really invest in making sure that the environment supports it. If it becomes hard when some people want to work from home and the rest are in the office, all we have to do is figure out a way to make communication really fluid between the two groups. When talking as a team, I was telling them that when we get back, we should just give ourselves a week to re-adjust and talk about what we really loved about the WFH period and how we can apply certain things we liked to our regular day-to-day.
 
Feel free to reply with any feedback as well as if you're interested in getting connected with Bethany. 

Learn more about Humane, follow them @Humane.
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