Women In Tech With Smitha Kommareddi And Whitney Lauritsen

TLEP 50 | Women In Tech

 

eStreamly is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in technology, which includes leveling the playing field for all genders. That’s why today’s special 50th episode features the company’s female co-founder, Smitha Kommareddi, as well as this show’s co-host, Whitney Lauritsen. Uncover ideas for shrinking the gender gap, overcoming bias, and clearing the path forward for more representation.

Hear about Smitha’s background in technology and the challenges she faced being the only woman in the room. Learn how she became her own boss with a firm and how that led to co-founding eStreamly’s live-streaming platform with Nicolas. Find out what advice Smitha has for young girls who are pursuing a STEAM career and where to find opportunities in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Then gain a deeper understanding of Whitney’s background, including how she became a full-time content creator. She shares how tech and being an early adopter have played a role in her podcasting career and interest in web3. Discover her tips for parents with children who want to be influencers.

 

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Women In Tech With Smitha Kommareddi And Whitney Lauritsen

My special guest is someone you probably have heard before and another person that you have not heard before. Both of them are working with me at eStreamly. I’m so delighted to have Whitney Lauritsen and Smitha Kommareddi joining me for a very special conversation. This is our 50th episode. I’m pretty proud because when we started this journey, I was not thinking we will go that far. I’m so excited to have done that with you and have awesome guests.

We wanted to do something a little different than what we usually do. We want to talk about women in tech. It’s something that probably a lot of you have heard. There is a lot of news around it. There is a real sense of ownership and difference that we are very proud of. At eStreamly, diversity is a big thing among us. That’s a topic that resonates quite well. Let’s start and dive into that. Smitha, how are you doing?

I’m very well. Thank you, Nicolas, for the great introduction.

I’m so pleased to have you. You are originally from India, and then you moved to the US for a Computer Science Master’s degree that you did at Michigan State, correct?

That is correct. I came to Michigan State for a Master’s in Computer Science and Engineering.

From that standpoint, you worked for various companies. One of them being Autodesk, 3M, and Worldpay. As we speak about women in tech, I know it’s a big topic that you and I have talked quite a bit about. Tell us what it felt during those times to be a woman in tech and work among those big companies. Did you see any specific difference?

In my undergrad in India, in my class of 60 students, 20 of us were girls. I came to the US to do my Master’s. I entered my orientation room and was looking out for other girls to sit with. It was probably about 150-plus students doing an orientation which included returning Computer Science grad students and new students. I entered the room and it was a room full of men. There was just one with long dark hair and I walked up to that person trying to sit with them, but that turned out to be a guy also. That’s just the beginning. I was probably the only one or one of a handful of women in almost every class.

In all fairness, all the men I have worked with, they’ve been amazing, but it still has its own challenges. In grad school, if you do assignments, the guys would usually form a group and they work at all hours and wouldn’t want the inconvenience. Maybe it was my projection, but it had its own set of challenges. That being said, people have almost always been nice, even through work in almost every team, I had ended up being the only woman. It’s come to a point where I’m basically blind to that. I don’t think about that anymore.

What strikes me with this story is that, as you say, you came from India where almost half of the class was women, and then you moved to the US and you’re the only one. Why do you think is that such a big difference? Do you feel that the tech job is less attractive for women in the US, or do you feel it’s just a different mentality? Why is that such a big difference between those two countries?

Back home, in the state where I did my Bachelor’s, they promote women. It’s a state mandate that at least 1/3 of all students should be women. It’s more of a mandate, which is why more women are there. That being said, once we start the program academically, girls have always done very well. It’s part of the encouragement that the state gives. Also, the women themselves on our team, we have female developers. It’s an honor having them.

You work with various big companies in the US. As I was mentioning earlier, Autodesk, 3M, Worldpay, nad Georgia-Pacific. Being a woman, did you feel any discrimination mostly toward your possibility to advance with those companies, or did you feel that you were considered as an equal to a man?

It’s hard for me to say. People have always been nice. I’d been in the lead position for a long time and I wanted to be an architect. I had done a lot of interviews and the interviews that I thought had gone very well, I did not get the job. It’s still hard for me to say if it was because people could not see me in an architect role. It’s hard for me to say, but I did get an architect job eventually. I always had very good bosses and people who took chances on me. It’s been a good journey.

You then decide to become your own boss in some way. You started with having your firm where you were a tech partner helping many startups to develop that project. Being a woman in tech and the lead of the company, how was the relationship between vendor clients? Did you feel that being a woman had any benefit or disadvantage through those conversations?

After a certain point, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man, a woman, or someone different. Different people have different thresholds. It’s only in the first few minutes, first few hours, or first few days that it matters that you’re different. Ultimately, the value you bring and the work you do is actually what speaks for itself. I increase my challenge like if I’m applying for a bigger role or if I’m doing a whole new thing, I allow myself a few chances. If I’m applying for an architect job after a lead role, I would allow myself like, “I’m going to do 4 or 5. I’m going to allow myself to fail 3 or 4 interviews, and then I’ll make it to the 5th.” That takes the pressure off a little bit. That has helped me a lot.

TLEP 50 | Women In Tech
Women In Tech: The value you bring and the work you do speak for themselves.

That’s a valuable insight. Don’t put yourself on the goal that you have in your life. Don’t put it as an immediate thing, but put it as a trial and error. Fixing you a number of tests before you decide if it’s a failure or not, and you should move on from that goal. In our audience, we have creators, brands, and partners. I won’t say the majority but a great number of people have kids. I personally have three daughters.

To the parents out there that are tuning in to this show, when your kids are coming to you and showing interest in technology, how would you encourage those kids knowing what you know and knowing that there are still challenges in the US to get more women interested in technology? What would you say to those parents to help them pass on the message that they should continue on the pursuit of that technology aspiration that they have?

As a mother, I would say not just to your daughters, but also to your sons, the biggest difference between people who are able to do a lot and people who are not able to do as much is the availability of opportunities. That opportunity is a privilege. That being said, we can all make the best of what we can. Whenever my daughter expresses interest, I try to articulate complex subjects in a very simple manner and also give her more learning opportunities.

TLEP 50 | Women In Tech
Women In Tech: The biggest difference between people who are able to do a lot and people who are not able to do as much is the availability of opportunities.

I’d like to quote a little incident from my life in this context. When I finished my undergrad and I wanted to come to the US for my Master’s, it was a lot of expense and a huge undertaking for my parents to say the least. I didn’t want to pressure my parents into having to do this. I told my dad, “I could go Master’s but I can apply and find a job.” He said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to study or do you want to take on a job?” I said, “I absolutely want to study.” He said, “You must study then. If you don’t do that now, you may not get another opportunity.” That’s a big parenting decision for my dad. I think in the end, it all comes down to doing the best you can to make as many opportunities for yourself and for your loved ones.

What a wise decision from your dad. I commend him because now we’ve been working together for a couple of years. You are certainly an incredible human being, a tech partner, and a person to be a co-founder with. I’m so grateful for that inspiration from your dad there. Let’s switch gear and welcome Whitney with us. For the audience of this episode, maybe it’s your first time. If it’s your first time, Whitney and I have been co-hosting this show and always had some awesome guests. It’s a new setup here where I get to interview Whitney. That’s really fun. Whitney, how are you doing?

I’m doing really great. Nicolas, you’ve done an amazing job being the leader of this episode. You’ve only done that once or twice without me and I’m very impressed. I want to commend you for that and thank you for this opportunity to talk about something that we’ve touched upon a bit in some episodes, which is diversity in tech. We’ve never harnessed the opportunity to highlight women in this sense.

Certainly, we’ve had female guests on our show. To talk about this, I was looking up in the backend some statistics about women in tech and found that only about 1 in 4 tech leadership roles are held by women to swing it back over to our other guest with Smitha here and to show how important that is. When we look at these numbers about the balance and who’s behind companies and who’s doing this work, to me, it’s eye-opening. It’s showing that we need to emphasize people who are different, who are doing things differently, and who have different backgrounds. I’m grateful for this conversation, Nicolas.

When we look at these numbers about the balance, who's behind companies, and who's doing this work, it's eye-opening. It's showing that we need to emphasize people who are different, who are doing things differently, and who have a different background. Click To Tweet

As you say, women in tech and diversity have always been the big topic. When we select our guests, we always look at how we stand toward diversity. It’s something that we talk about quite often. It’s certainly an awesome topic to take on. Whitney, tell us a little bit. You started your career in the film industry, and you were based in LA at that time already, right?

For the most part, yes. I started filmmaking when I was in high school in Massachusetts and became incredibly passionate about it. I’ve always had a natural strength around technology and felt a lot of pride and excitement around that. I was also very interested in creativity. Because of my father and grandfather’s influence, I started using a video camera when I was quite young.

That was a big part of my childhood. It started to develop more when I was in high school, and then I decided to go to film school, which was in Boston at Emerson College. Emerson College emphasizes working in the production field, whether that’s film, television, or beyond. At the end of your college experience, you can go to Los Angeles and they have a semester of classes you can take out. That’s what led me to Los Angeles. I enjoyed the city and started working there in film and television.

Early on, you already had that creative eyes calling you, it sounds like, and then you fall in love with the vegan and healthy lifestyle. More than that, you decided to document that whole journey. How did that come about?

I decided to switch to a plant-based diet in 2003, so it’s coming up on my 20th anniversary of being vegan. Sustainability was also a big part of my passion from a pretty young age. In 2009, blogging was starting to pick up. I knew about blogging earlier. I had actually dabbled in blogging very casually around my filmmaking career, but I didn’t have an outlet for talking about vegan food and sustainability.

That’s where my content started because I was looking for a way to talk about all of these things. I was learning. I was researching things. I was trying new products. Nobody in my personal life cared. They were like, “Please stop talking about this.” I needed somewhere to put all of that knowledge and passion. I then started blogging back in 2009. It blossomed into a deeper passion than I realized. Shortly after, I started making videos for YouTube. I think it was in 2008 that I started and 2009 was when I started on YouTube and making videos there.

YouTube was only a few years old at that point. People were using it very casually. It was not a career path. There were some viral sensations. There were people back then who are now known as influencers. Back then, the word influencer didn’t exist. They were just doing videos regularly enough that people were starting to get to know them. I started to find people like that very inspirational, so I continued doing that type of content.

For the creator in the audience, I’d love for you to tell us, when did you consider yourself a full-time creator? Did you ever consider yourself a full-time creator? I know you are now, but how long did it take you for saying, “I can live from being a creator?”

That all started in 2010. I realized that I was not happy working full-time for somebody else. I was slowly starting to see people creating careers out of blogging, mostly. Again, even on YouTube back in 2010, I was starting to meet more professionals, but it wasn’t as common. Social media was developing, especially Twitter and Facebook. People were starting to see, “There’s something here.” I just wanted to try. I quit my last full-time job, but I continued to work part-time at the Apple store because of my love for tech. That kept me going with some income for a few years.

In 2012, I left working for Apple to try to make it entirely on my own, which I was able over time to work. It wasn’t quite as easy as some people make it out to be. I think there’s a lot of advice about how to become a successful online entrepreneur and how to become a famous influencer or content creator. It’s never felt that easy for me, but it’s felt easy enough for me to keep going.

The fact that you have two passion, which is tech as well as content creation. Working in an Apple store, I think it’s really fun to get to talk tech every day. In some way, being in an Apple store, it’s no more and no less than providing education about the product and the technology. Apple is changing every six months. You always keep up-to-date on what’s the latest and brightest. When you went full-time creator, for a while, you were not so much involved in tech, and it’s only when you started to get more into the podcasting where that tech started to reemerge again. With the partnership with Podetize, it sounds like, which is in some way a technology partner. Am I right to say that you had paired without tech, or do you feel that you still were cultivating that on the side?

It’s interesting to think back on this because I remember learning about women in STEM or STEAM, depending on the evolution of those terms. Thinking about my relationship with technology, science, and all these facets of areas where there was a lack of gender diversity and where was my role in that. Science has never been a huge passion of mine, but the technology side was.

I find it fascinating. Again, I have a natural skillset for tech that I notice a lot of people don’t have. I’ve always wondered why was it that women don’t seem as competent when it came to computers, software, hardware, and these things I was seeing at the Apple store. We had a good amount of female employees there, but as you pointed out, Nicolas, a lot of them were on the sales side or the education side, not necessarily on the hardware side.

At Apple, you can go there to get things fixed. At my specific store in Los Angeles and San Francisco where I worked, it was mostly men that knew how to fix things, how the machinery worked, and all of that. That’s something that I didn’t want to pursue as a career, but I had an interest in. That has played a role with me purchasing equipment, for example. I’m generally somebody that’ll really understand how a microphone, a camera, or a computer works. I want to optimize it. I’ve noticed a lot of people around me did not have that interest. To answer your question, it wasn’t a huge part of my career directly until more recently, but it’s always been an interest and something that I integrate into my work.

You mentioned Podetize. They’re the company that we actually use to host our show. They offer all different services. I use them immensely for my other show, This Might Get Uncomfortable. They edit the shows and help with all the different elements of podcasting. There’s also a female Cofounder of Podetize named Tracy Hazzard. Also to answer your question in this sense, Nicolas, being involved with other people, I don’t have to be directly part of these things, but supporting them, being alongside them, and watching them. That’s been a big thread throughout my career.

Tracy came to our show. She’s a fantastic woman. It was a fantastic conversation that we had with her. You got to Podetize. In some way, I have a feeling that most creators are early adopters. In some way, when I look at your career and what you’re doing, in 2019, you decided to do a podcast about mindfulness. At that time, it was not a big topic that people were talking about, but still, you go on and start talking about mindfulness, which is as you said, This Might Get Uncomfortable. I think it was a couple of years ago, you decide to take on the journey to do one piece of content a day and to educate about Web3.

That was something that still, at that time, people were talking about. I think everyone had heard about crypto, bitcoin, and all that, but Web3 was still a very new word. Do you feel that being a successful content creator is first and foremost being an early adopter of pretty much everything going on and deep diving into those new topics, regardless of their attack as a human being in life?

That ties into why I started working with you and Smitha at eStreamly. It’s because I see you as early adopters too. Absolutely, that is a huge interest of mine. I often think about, “Why is it that I get very interested in new things?” Maybe it’s the novelty, but I’ve also learned through my career as a content creator that if you can try things and understand them early, you have an advantage, especially if it becomes successful. I’ve talked at length about YouTube. I’ve also spoken on most of our show episodes about TikTok. I joined TikTok in 2019. I even felt like it was a little on the late side for real success.

If you can try things and understand them early, you have an advantage, especially if they are successful. Click To Tweet

In terms of where TikTok has gone in the last few years, 2019 was pretty early. At that time, people were doubting it. They thought, “It’s just a little app.” The number of times I’ve heard that. I remember hopping with Instagram, too. When I was living in San Francisco in either 2011 or 2012, I joined Instagram. People would say the same thing about that for a year or two. It really wasn’t until 2014 or 2015 that the masses started using it. All of a sudden, it became the dominant social media platform. We’re seeing that happen now with TikTok. We saw that happen with YouTube. Hopefully, we’ll see that with livestreaming.

When I have an interest in something, but also have enough data to see a promise in it, that’s a signal that I want to stick with something and understand it because then I get an advantage over understanding and having that history with something. Whereas like right now, people are starting to use TikTok, but I’ve spent years studying it, so now I can advise them on it. I can have a bigger and broader perspective than someone who’s just trying it out.

The idea of being an early adopter, looking at what sticks, exploring the data, and then starting to give you a disadvantage by providing content to your audience. Being that early adopter, we’ve talked many times. You remind me about this conversation that we had with John Roman. He was saying that when he was releasing his box, content creators were brushing to be the first ones to put the content out there. In some way, it’s about providing the maximum value at the maximum ROI. Being an early adopter gives you the advantage of looking at those technologies. It’s given an advantage, but it’s also a lot of work because you have to figure out the whole thing.

TLEP 50 | Women In Tech
Women In Tech: Being an early adopter gives you that advantage, but it’s also a lot of work because you have to figure out the whole thing.

We had Brian Fanzo on an episode talking about NFT, but I’ll bet when he started and where he is now, he grew from his podcast learning and deep diving. He’s probably the wealth of knowledge from day 1 of the podcast to day 365, which is going to close very soon. It must have to be exponentially higher. I think that’s what content creators can bring to the table.

Going back a little bit of what I was asking Smitha which is for all the parents that are in our audience. Back in the day when I was a kid myself, the thing was everyone wanted to be a superstar. We wanted to be a TV star. Now people want to be a creator and an influencer. To all the parents that are like, “My kids are coming to me saying they want to be a creator,” what would you tell them? I’d love to hear your perspective on that.

We could do a whole separate episode on this topic because I have a lot of thoughts. Actually, one of my friends asked me if I could help her son because he wants to start a content creator career for himself. He’s about ten years old. She asked if I could guide him through the steps, but also be a mentor to him. She wants somebody that she can trust that’s not going to take advantage of him, not going to tell him things that aren’t true or get his hopes up. I’ve started thinking that through. How do you guide somebody? How do you help the parents understand this?

Similar to the example you gave, Nicolas. I remember as well growing up I wanted to be an actress and move to Los Angeles where I now live. I didn’t know anything about it. I grew up in a small town and it sounded very appealing. It also felt out of reach. My parents didn’t know how to guide me, so I didn’t actually start doing too much performance for many years because I didn’t have access to it.

Nowadays, it’s a different story because almost every child has access to a computer and/or a phone. Almost every computer has a camera built into it and almost every device. There are still some phones that might not have the best cameras. I would say the great majority of people, especially in the United States, have access to the internet and some camera. All you have to do is record yourself and upload it. It’s easier to experiment and get started with it. What I think the challenge is when it comes to a career. As I mentioned, I got started very early in the content world. I had so much knowledge. I had so many connections. I had everything that I supposedly needed to have this super successful career in content.

It was successful in terms of me being able to pay my bills. It was not the success that I saw really big names happening. That’s the challenge. From the outside, people see a lot of other people going viral, getting tons of followers, then they get brand deals. It seems like it’s smooth sailing. You see young stars on platforms like TikTok who are teenagers. Suddenly, they’re supporting their family with the money that they’re making. They’re on television. They’re getting their own television shows. It almost looks easy, but it’s really not that easy.

From the outside, people see a lot of other people going viral, getting tons of followers, and getting brand deals, and then it seems like smooth sailing. It almost looks easy, but it's really not that easy. Click To Tweet

I think if I were going to advise a parent, I would say they need to set those expectations, but also give their kids the opportunity to play around and experiment because you never know. Some of it is luck. A kid certainly could upload a video to a social media platform or use livestreaming, go viral, and make tons of money. That stuff is very possible. To expect it is a challenge.

From a mental health and mindfulness standpoint, which as you mentioned, Nicolas, is a huge part of my work. There are a lot of issues with mental health in the younger generations right now. That’s a huge concern. People are trying to understand the role that social media and other technology have on mental health, so it’s a delicate balance. The side of a kid having these high hopes, dreams, and expectations. What happens if it doesn’t work out? Are they supported enough emotionally and mentally to be able to build the resilience to handle those types of disappointments? That I think is something parents should focus on too.

One thing that parents don’t realize is that content creation is a draining process. Not so much of a process but it’s a draining behavior by itself. You are posting a piece of content in the hope that it’s going to be viral. Sometimes it is, and you have a lot of excitement, engagement, and things are moving smoothly for you. Sometimes you have no engagement. If it’s one time, it’s okay but what if it’s three weeks in a row that you have zero engagement on all the content you’re producing? Think about all the up and down. We had a guest talking about that specifically. They were talking about the emotion and the drain it is on your mental health.

I can’t remember the name of our guest, but he’s a person that is supporting the Twitch community. He was talking about the notion that a creator has a life spent. The career is not something that you start on zero. When you are 15 and then by 55, you’re still a creator. What he was talking about is that there’s a hype and then it’s slowly going down. You have to think about a career like a sportsperson. The question that he was asking is, “In the livestream world, how long is that period where you are making money versus the one where you’re not making money? How do you optimize your career to be at the top during that period so you can sustain your life for that whole journey?

It’s something you want to think about. For the parents that have kids that have high hope and you see they’re educated and everything, there are some agencies out there that you can work with. Someone like Whitney or you have someone in your family that can guide them. We call that the Multi-Channel Network or MCN. Those people will help you think through the career of the person.

Obviously, it’s not me telling you that you should do that for your kids. That’s actually not the intention here. If you see your kid getting into a position where he starts to be successful or he starts to be more into it, maybe you want to think about how you professionalize his career by having someone that knows how to run the surrounding of it. It’s been a really interesting conversation. We’ve talked about women in tech, diversity, and content creation. Those are topics that we’re all passionate about.

For the audience, this episode has been a little bit different than what we do usually. We will go back to normal on the next episode. For the time being, we are super happy to have you at eStreamly. We have a community, The Live eCommerce Community. You can join us. It’s a place where you can engage with all the streamers, brands, and other people passionate about livestream shopping, content creation, and the creative economy. You can join there and start having dialogues. Without much saying, thank you very much for being here.

 

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