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Alumnae share stories, advice on leading careers in tech industries

“Don’t try to be one of the boys. Earn their respect your own way,” said Christina Kach, E’09, MS’16, as her piece of advice to an audience of current students. Photo by Lauren Scornavacca, E'21, for/Northeastern University
“Don’t try to be one of the boys. Earn their respect your own way,” said Christina Kach, E’09, MS’16, as her piece of advice to an audience of female students entering technology fields. Photo by Lauren Scornavacca, E'21, for/Northeastern University

When Carla Brodley was growing up, she thought her ideal career would be choosing the featured book for the Book of the Month club. So, in college, she started off majoring in English. However, the classes didn’t suit her. While her grades in English floundered, she excelled in economics and, then, computer science.

“I programmed Newton’s method, and that was it. I loved it,” Brodley said, reflecting back on her journey as she addressed an audience of women Tuesday night at an event titled, “Seed to STEM.” Today, she’s the dean of the College of Computer and Information Science. And she’s a strong advocate for women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

After giving opening remarks at the event for alumni, students, faculty, and staff, Brodley introduced a panel of Northeastern alumnae from diverse technology backgrounds. The women shared their own stories of discovering the right careers. They also described emerging technology trends they’re excited about, the best career advice they’ve received, and how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace.

Commanding respect
Google and Uber have made headlines recently as multiple women came forward with lawsuits and articles disclosing personal stories to shed light on a pervasive problem—in male-dominated technology industries, instances of gender discrimination are common, frequent, and dangerous.

Panelist Christina Kach, an associate consultant of continuous improvement methodology at Liberty Mutual, recalled a situation at work in which she had to correct a senior male colleague who had given her an annoying nickname.

“He kept addressing me as ‘young lady’ and I said, ‘It’s actually Christina. I go by Christina,” said Kach, E’09, MS’16. While this wasn’t an overt act of discrimination, it was one example of the many subtle ways women can be made to feel less respected than their male counterparts. Other panelists had similar experiences.

Allison Ventura, CIS’15, a senior software engineer at HubSpot, said, “I don’t have a nightmare story to tell everyone, and I hope none of you ever do.” However, she had experienced situations in which people doubted she was really a software engineer, even going as far as to quiz her on what she knew about the field. “I don’t know if or when it will stop,” she said.

Despite these challenges, panelists encouraged students to command respect by being assertive, avoiding “cushiony” language, and maintaining professionalism.

“Don’t try to be one of the boys. Earn their respect your own way,” Kach said.

Carla Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, gives opening remarks at the Seed to STEM event. Photo by Lauren Scornavacca, E'21, for/Northeastern University

Carla Brodley, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, gives opening remarks at the Seed to STEM event. Photo by Lauren Scornavacca, E’21, for/Northeastern University

Emerging trends
Given that many students in the audience were preparing to enter the workforce, the women also discussed new technology developments they believe are having a transformational impact in their respective fields.

Azita Razzaghi, BHS’88, PharmD’91, is head of safety and pharmacovigilance at Verastem Inc., a biopharmaceutical company. She works closely with physicians to oversee the development of new medical treatments, starting from the first phase of clinical trials all the way to bringing a product to market. Razzaghi said one of the most exciting advancements in her industry has been the adoption of iPads to replace doctors’ notepads. This allows for continuous, real-time data collection that can be harnessed to improve drug safety and efficacy.

Kach described the use of drones to scan disaster areas, ensuring the safety of insurance agents who must appraise damages. She also spoke about process automation—the concept of using robots and artificial intelligence systems to complete menial tasks.

It’s not that robots would replace people, Kach said, but rather that they could allow employees to focus their time and efforts on more critical elements of their jobs. “You can save time and get your hands onto more interesting projects, or maybe just free up your mental capacity and energy so you can be happier at work,” Kach said.

Giving guidance
The panelists closed the event, which was hosted by the Office of Alumni Relations, by offering some words of wisdom. Razzaghi encouraged the women in the audience to view their weaknesses as opportunities to improve, and to look at themselves holistically when defining their skillsets. For example, “If you’re a mother, you’re a manager,” she said.

Kach underscored the importance of being selective in the advice you take. “You’re going to hear it from your friends, your family, your teachers,” she said. “Some won’t resonate. Don’t make it have to work for you if it doesn’t.”

Ventura, the most recent graduate of the panel, spoke of her own challenges facing “imposter syndrome”—that feeling of hesitation and concern that you’re unqualified for the job.

“A lot of people feel like an imposter, but I promise you, you’re not,” Ventura said. “We’re all learning and we will all continue learning.”