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“Stepping Out Your Comfort Zone”

WIT Interview with Rachel, Graphic Designer, and UI/UX Designer at SomaDetect

Women in Technology WNY is here to feature the stories of women in our local community and the various technology roles they fill, traditional and non-traditional. TechBuffalo is here to highlight these women to encourage others to not only explore technology opportunities but to take advantage of them. Rachel & I chatted about her love of the start-up community in Buffalo, being an advocate for others, and expanding your horizons by stepping out of your comfort zone.

What influenced you to have a career in technology?

In the context of how I got my start in technology, I grew up in a household where I was introduced to technology at an early age. My dad always had computers and gaming systems around, and that was a big part of my life growing up. Once I started my career, I was trying to think about how I could incorporate technology in a way that I was passionate about and wanted to pursue. That thinking put me on the path of digital design. My background is in graphic design, but I graduated with a degree in new media design which allowed me exposure to and experience in areas like animation, video, photography, and so on. When I started in my career, I had a lot of flexibility. My first job right out of college was at a consumer technology startup. In that position, I was learning about technology manufacturing and the ins and outs of consumer technology, not only from an internal product point of view but also from the marketing end of it. In my first position, I worked on our product team working with engineers and I was the only woman on the team at the time. I had to learn many different aspects of not only working for my first job, and working for a startup, which alone has its caveats, but also being the only woman on the team.

Unfortunately, the company did end up closing. I ended up getting a new position, which is where I am currently, at another technology startup in the dairy industry. When you think of a dairy farm, you don’t immediately think of high-tech. But with the company I’m currently at, SomaDetect, we specialize in machine learning and artificial intelligence. SomaDetect was one of the Grand Prize winners of the 43 North startup competition. We originally started up in New Brunswick, Canada, after winning 43North’s competition, they were able to open an office in Buffalo. In my current role, I saddle between the product team, being a UX/UI designer, and between our business operations. I get to expose myself to not only all areas at the company but to also understanding this technology enough to market and design for it. It’s been an interesting road working in the startup community. You get so much more experience wearing so many different hats, but, you know, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What is your day like?
It’s really hard to say because it is always changing. It depends on the current project. Speaking of many hats, manage our social media accounts, but I also design our user interface. I try to stick to a routine, usually starting my day answering emails and Slack messages before diving into a project. On a “regular” day, I spend a lot of my day communicating with different people on our team, whether it’s an executive member or one of my team members. On a day when I’m designing or working on software design or the website, it’s a lot of deep focus time. I spend a lot of time getting into that creative process flow; doing research, trying new ideas and concepts, building them, and testing them, but it varies. I would say my day doesn’t have a regular cadence. I’m very involved in many different areas within my current position, whether it’s working on a new design or working on social media campaigns; it’s all varied.
Understandably it’s the world of start-ups. Speaking of the only jobs you have worked since graduating from college have been start-up companies. What drives you to be and stay in the startup environment?

I love that energy that a startup has, granted I did have an internship back in college where I worked for an agency. It was great, but there is just a certain quality with startups where we’re all in it together. With the previous startup, when I joined they already had 50 employees; at their height, they had over 100. Seeing a startup at that growth stage is very different from a startup with under 50 employees. I love the variety that I get in my days and I like helping build something. Especially with my current position, there’s a lot of camaraderie on the team. Having to pivot quickly, think outside the box, and to be a self-starter are the kind of things I thrive on. I live for challenges. It’s not to say at some point in my career I may leave the startup community, who knows. I know for now, where I am in my career and my path, it’s been incredible. I’ve been able to meet amazing people and expand my skill set. I think most people who work at a startup can agree that it makes you more well-rounded. Whether you’re an engineer or marketer, it pushes you out of your comfort zone.

How do you find the balance between art and technology?
Oh, that’s a good question. I always think of it as a little bit of duality. It’s researching and staying up-to-date on the latest trends for both. I try not to get too far into the analytics but also not too far into the conceptual or the creative end of things. I do realize that while an idea may be artistic or creative, if it doesn’t fit what the need is for the technology or the product, then is it successful? In other words, it may communicate something beautiful, but if the user can’t engage with or interact with it, then it’s not serving its intended purpose.

I don’t know if it’s finding the balance between art and technology, but rather the balance of conceptual versus practicality. I think technology can be incredibly creative. You have a lot of different creative applications that help people design and create beautiful things. And so I think they can exist in the same world. Again, it all goes back to the practicality of it. Some people may disagree with me, saying that creativity is first and foremost, and yes, some ideas are brilliant. But if you cannot execute on those ideas, how much value do they actually have? It can’t just look pretty and not function.

You mentioned earlier that at your last job, you were usually the only young woman in the room. Do you feel as though it has affected the way you were treated in your roles, or how your work was perceived?
I have been fortunate enough to not have it affect me greatly – greatly being the operative word. At my previous company, we were having a brainstorming session on a component or feature of the product. Things were getting pretty heated. This was early in my career, so I would usually listen and learn, but anyone who knows me can attest that I can be an opinionated person. During this particular discussion, I had something specific that I wanted to contribute. I started talking and was interrupted and talked over. Now granted, I am not sure if this was due to me being a woman or being young, or just the heat of the moment. Nevertheless, I stepped forward into the circle and spoke up. I asserted myself because I was feeling left out of a conversation that I was a part of. I wanted to let my voice be heard. That started a recurring trend for me of not shying away from things. I am an advocate for listening when it is time to listen, but I’m also a huge advocate for making yourself heard and asking questions. Especially in any technology field, there are so many different terms and so many different ideas that are pretty foreign, so it never hurts to ask questions.

Funny that you mentioned advocacy and advice-giving. What advice would you give to women looking to explore a career in technology?
Where do I begin? I have a lot of advice. So, the things I mentioned before, asking questions, listening, learning, doing the research, putting in the work, and speaking up. I would say out of all those things, speaking up is important, if not, the most important. I would love to see workplaces welcome people who speak up; who can not only stand up for themselves but stand up for their peers. Not everyone has a voice, feels comfortable, or has the strength to speak up for themselves, so being an advocate not only for yourself but for others as well is extremely important.

Another piece of advice is finding good mentors. Throughout my life and career, I’ve been lucky enough to find many mentors. Some have come and gone, but all have made a lasting impact. Having a mentor who sees something in you that you don’t yet see yourself and allowing it to grow is an extremely important experience to have. But it doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone. Not every person may be in a position where they’re surrounded by great mentors. Getting outside of your comfort zone and involving yourself in your local area and micro-communities does help. I have been inspired and influenced by many mentors. Most of the time, it has been the people that took the time to sit down and have a conversation. I think that we think of mentors as having to be these super successful executives and, in reality, my mentors have been peers, managers, friends, family, and founders. They have been crucial to my career.

Lastly, I think a lot of people like to talk about the professional work that they are involved in, but not about personal work or their personal development. I try to make time for personal and professional development where I find things, whether webinars, podcasts, articles, or exercises, that help me grow in both areas. I’ve had many conversations with managers about personal growth and taking on passion projects. It’s thinking about where you want to take your career. So far, for me, it has been in startups. It is interesting being in industries I knew nothing about prior and then learning everything about them.

In your opinion, how do we get more young women/girls interested in tech-related fields?
To your point, I think it needs to be a multi-pronged approach. For me, it helped me to have exposure to technology early on in my life. I was also fortunate to be in an environment where I could be whatever my aspirations led me.

Unfortunately, being in a supportive household is not an option for all girls. I think having more STEM and Tech related accessible programs in schools would be a good start. I was in Odyssey of the Mind, a STEM competition where you form teams, given a challenge, and then your team needs to solve the challenge. Those sorts of programs spark interest in learning more about STEM. Providing access to those programs and education, I think, would help.

I think another part of the solution is seeing more female leadership in the technology industry. For instance, the CEO and co-founder of SomaDetect is a woman, and I think that is awesome! There are so many female leaders in the startup community. Having public representation and public role models can have a positive influence.

Thank you Rachel for chatting with me. If you would like to learn more about Rachel, visit her LinkedIn page. Also, check out SomaDetect and see how artificial intelligence relates to the dairy industry!