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Alexandra McCuien

Women Who Inspire: Melissa Risteff

In our Women Who Inspire series, we’ll be talking to influential women who are making a difference in their communities and the world at large. Through their leadership, we are inspired to do better, work smarter, and continue to create opportunities for women in STEM.

There is a serious disparity in the amount of available STEM occupations and the workforce that is prepared to fill them. To help meet the increasing demand, Melissa Risteff, Co-Founder and CEO of Couragion, developed her company to build awareness of what’s possible in STEM, provide role models for students and increase the likelihood that students seek careers in STEM. Take a look at how this executive came to thrive in the education technology space:

What inspired you to pursue a STEM-related career? 

As a kid in the ‘80s, I really enjoyed video games and remember earning my Computer Fun badge in Girl Scouts. Growing up rural, I am surprised that we even offered computer science at our school, but I remember inquiring about the course and was told that CS wasn’t for kids in the AP track. I enrolled in business college – albeit a very innovative one with an excellent computer science program – and ultimately majored in Marketing. In my first job at GE I quickly identified a need for automation for which there was no product available off the shelf. I hired and managed a team of consultants to build the software and found myself as the welcome recipient of a crash course in user experience design, requirements management, data modeling, technical writing, quality assurance, and project management. I never looked back.

What do you love most about your job and your field? 

I am impatient and am a big fan of immediate gratification. I love being able to conceive of a new product that gets built in weeks and months – not years. Especially when you are solving real problems. In software development, we don’t sit around and endlessly plan every facet and detail. We talk about speed, minimally viable product, value proposition, product/market fit, iteration, course correction (yes, failure is OK) and user acceptance. It’s gratifying to see your users engage with a product you’ve built. And it’s OK if they don’t love everything - it’s that feedback loop that only makes your products better and better. I do love when I see a student’s face light up in the classroom when they find a career that fits their interests and values. 

What advice can you give women who are seeking a career in a STEM-related field? 

Don’t start by thinking about a field of study or college readiness. Think instead about the kinds of problems you want to solve, the types of people that you get energy being around, and the level of flexibility or mobility you’d like to have in your role. I’ve seen far too many people seek a degree path with no clear understanding of the actual job opportunities. Look deeply at your interests, your values, and the desired characteristics of a particular job. I repeatedly accepted positions because I was excited to be working with and learning from amazing people – but there was always something lacking. It took me a long time to understand that having a greater purpose in my work was crucial to me. 

Which female leaders do you admire and why?

In the past few months, we’ve participated in the Village Capital Education accelerator and the AT&T Aspire Accelerator. All of these organizations have impact driven missions in education technology and in closing the STEM skills gap for underrepresented populations. Suffice it to say we all get each other. In those 17 companies, there are 13 female co-founders or founders. Each of them is strong and vulnerable, articulate and caring, and passionate and driven. I’m proud to learn from them and to help them achieve their personal goals.

I was also fortunate enough to have an executive coach about 15 years ago who had recently left an executive role at a major telecommunications company. I was fortunate to be one of a handful of her clients before she ultimately returned as CEO in industry. She taught me things like how to exercise tolerance as I didn’t suffer fools well. She also taught me the importance of being less transactional in my relationships – and to manage my peers as well as I managed my bosses and direct reports. My work back then was transformational and ultimately led to my promotion into an executive role of a large technology company. So inspired by the realizations and concepts, I sought my graduate work in Organization Development, Organizational Learning and Training, and ultimately my Masters in Technology Management.

Who are some of the women you think are game-changers in the Technology industry right now?

Kimberly Bryant, the founder and CEO of Black Girls Code, is doing amazing things.  She’s on a mission to change the face of technology by introducing girls from underrepresented communities to coding through a series of workshops, hackathons and summer camps. She’s one of the AT&T Aspire Accelerator mentors that I was fortunate enough to meet in San Francisco a few months ago. Her advice to me: “Don’t stop!” 

What advice do you have for women technologists who are struggling on all-male teams or are hesitant about pursing STEM because they are entering into a male-dominated arena?

I recently saw a quote that said “everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” On my first trip to Asia 15 years ago, I was chairing a conference in Singapore. I was excited. I recall being prepped for the event in that I’d be introducing all the speakers and then doing a live wrap-up of my observations of the day. And then I got really nervous. It wasn’t because all of the other speakers were all men or much older than me. It was because I didn’t have any context of how to pronounce anyone’s name – and I should have thought of this in advance. While slightly untraditional, I greeted every speaker as they came onto the stage with a hand shake and a request to please pronounce their full name (sometimes twice). As a trailblazer, you can’t be prepared for every one of life’s challenges.

Like any team there are going to be different dynamics, personalities, and idiosyncrasies. No matter what the gender – set your personal boundaries, communicate clear expectations, don’t be afraid to deal with conflict directly, and be compassionate – you have no idea what’s really going on in the lives of your co-workers. I’ve stayed in jobs too long in the past where the team environment wasn’t positive. Don’t feel threatened or trapped in a situation that you can’t influence or right. 

Why do you think women are leaving the STEM arena? And what can employers do to retain more women in STEM?

I think the lucky few who have a professional role model and pursue a degree in STEM aren’t necessarily making a career decision – they are making a commitment to their education. Women leave STEM careers because they don’t feel a sense of belonging – which could be the result of a stark aesthetic, cultural norms around teaming, or a boss with poor boundaries who doesn’t bring out the best in people. Employers need to understand the preferences and values of the incoming workforce in order to not only attract but to retain a diverse workforce.  

What do you think will have the strongest impact on closing the gender gap in STEM-related careers?

Raising confident and courageous women who believe they can be whatever they put their minds to – that means we need to get rid of the unconscious bias that we all have in prescribing and enduring gender roles. When we first started our business, a Couragion role model and mechanical engineer by trade shared how a career assessment administered by high school counselors told her that she should be an event planner even though math and science were her greatest strengths. Thankfully she followed her father’s footprints and became a thriving engineer. Many legacy career exploration tools use the past to predict the future. Wake up call – the past doesn’t mirror a diverse demographic and isn’t illustrative of the future workforce we want to create. Only 27% of the current STEM workforce are women.

Connect with Melissa on Twitter.

See more Women Who Inspire and learn more about the women of AT&T.

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