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Ruzena Bajcsy, Surviving Robotics

Elizabeth Moss
Elizabeth Moss

Ruzena Bajcsy, a longstanding professor at UC Berkeley, as well as the previous director of CITRIS, talked to FEM Tech members about growing up in war-torn Slovakia, being the first woman to get a PhD in Electrical Engineering in the country and eventually her journey to the U.S., where she most recently won the IEEE Robotics and Automation award for her innovation in robotics, among other honors.

Bajcsy is a short, humorous woman with stark white hair. She wears a black and white animal print sweater, a turquoise collared shirt underneath that brings out the sea-blue depths of her eyes. A jocund smile delights her face as she pads around the white screen that flashes the facts of her life.

Born in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1933, Bajcsy would grow into a Nazi regime that would kill 40,000 Jews in her hometown – including her parents.

“In those days girls didn’t play with these robots, or circuits. It was the boys.”

Bajcsy went on to detail how she left behind a family – a son and daughter – to pursue a career in the states. Her years were filled with sexism and inequality, (at one point coworkers tampered with a project, a high gain amplifier, she had been working on to make her look bad) but Bajcsy stuck with her passion.

“In those days girls didn’t play with these robots, or circuits. It was the boys,” she said.

She has worked in a number of engineering roles over the years, as well as professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford before joining Berkeley faculty in 2001. She has taught here ever since and currently takes on seven to eight PhD students.

She offered students a key piece of advice: “you have to find your passion.” She continued, “you want to have a job that every morning you are happy to go to. 

“I’m 83 and I’m happy to work, I’m happy to come here.”

Melisa Lin, founder and CEO of Nommery, talks to FEM Tech

Nommery team

Melisa Lin, founder and CEO of restaurant meet-up site Nommery, chatted with FEM Tech earlier this month about her journey from Berkeley student to owner of one of the most promising start-ups in the industry. 

Nommery has its roots in SF Foodies, the other meet-up community Lin started years ago, back when she worked at Veritable Vegetable, the country’s oldest organic produce distributor.

“There was a point when I was thinking, should I be trying to advance my career in the food industry and progress further there, or can I build something out of this community that is exploding,” Lin said. The group was holding 100 events a month, and filled entire restaurants on some nights.

But before Veritable and SF Foodies, Lin was a student at Berkeley studying mostly, well, food: besides selling her own, homemade granola, leading organic gardening at People’s Park and basically majoring in food (B.S. In Conservation and Resource Studies with a focus on Sustainable Food Business), she also helped found the Student Food Collective, the vegan food-haven located on Bancroft.

A veritable violinist (she’s performed on tour in Europe with the Stanford symphony and at the Davis Symphony Hall in San Francisco) Lin says her love of music taught her the discipline needed to get Nommery off the ground.

“As a performer, you learn how to present yourself in front of a large audience, learn how to command, learn how to project your voice.” This skill has invariably helped in talking to big names, like, for instance, the CTO of Coffee Meets Bagel, a user of and mentor to Nommery.

People First, Company Last

Nommery sprouted in a backwards way, launching with a consumer base already established, with little question as to its viability.

“Having a community first, and understanding what they want and building it for them makes it worth it, because you’re saving time, you’re saving money on developing. It just seems like a no brainer to me.”

Lin says there are three things to have established before looking for funding: the minimal viable product (your website), sales and marketing. Sales will prove the viability of your product, which will particularly capture venture capitalists’ interest.

Logging onto Nommery, there are a handful of restaurant meet-ups created by different hosts at different price points. The cheapest meal is a non-inclusive RSVP of $5; the higher priced reservations can climb up to $300, but that includes everything from appetizers to the tip.

She describes the mood at restaurant meet-ups as “warm, open, excited.” The meet-ups have attracted many food business executives from companies like CISCO, Walmart and OpenTable.

“I’m just kind of awestruck, still,” Lin says. “To go to an event and dine with someone, and not have them mention who they are, and then go on LinkedIn later and see that they’re the VP of eCommerce at Walmart, is kind of mindboggling. It’s amazing how down to earth they all are and how humble they all are.”

Nommery has plans to expand into Chicago, New York and Los Angeles as well as overseas in late 2016.

Kanda’s Calling: UX and web designer Michi Kanda talks career with FEM Tech

Michi KandaWalking into Cafe Milano on a Tuesday evening in November, Michi Kanda, a user experience and web developer for Tokyo-based startup Progate, a sort of Codeacademy of the East, wears a sweater advertising her company, a skirt that defies the cold weather settling into Berkeley, and black oxford platforms, a nod to her home country’s eclectic style. She’s with a friend, and as soon as I introduce myself, she walks off to buy a coffee.

Once we settle into our seats, I ask her how Berkeley has been in the first 30 minute she’s spent here since getting off BART. She arrived from San Jose, where she participated as a finalist in Battlehack, a hackathon run by Paypal. She and her teammates won first place in Tokyo in June for talk’n’pick, a video summarization app that processes out less important footage. The prize included free round-trip airfare and a hotel stay in San Jose, plus an ax that glows with blue light (the theme of the competition was Tron). “So far so good,” she says.

Kanda, 25, started coding only two years ago while interning at Life is Tech, an organization that teaches high school kids how to code in Japan. There she learned HTML and Ruby on Rails among other languages. Up until now, her roles have included co-founding two start-ups and landing her current job as a designer at Progate, a website that teaches the public to code and program.

“The best part is that I get to work with the people I admire and also [do the] things that I care about,” Kanda says. “Like helping people who want to code.”

Generally, there are a lot of tasks a UX designer could specialize in. For Kanda, day to day consists of site traffic analysis and making user interfaces, or UI, for new products. Kanda found her interest in coding alone; in school, she wasn’t encouraged by her parents or teachers to pursue a STEM major.

“I wish my parents or a teacher had encouraged me to explore a STEM field, but they never did,” she says. “From elementary school, there are classes for girls. You have to know how to cook, how to make clothes. But I think boys don’t really have to do that.”

She says that girls studying Computer Science at universities in Japan aren’t interested in engineering degrees; they are mostly concerned with becoming “good” wives. Through Progate, she hopes to encourage women towards careers in technology.

Kanda advises to start small when coding for the first time, learning HTML, CSS and the basics of website development. Then move on to harder languages like JavaScript.

“I think when you first start programming, it’s good to have things you actually want to build before. It can be a simple one page website. It’s very important to start small.”

We can all take a cue from Kanda’s book–start small, dream big.

Michi Kanda presented to FEM Tech in November about her career.

Six leading tech ladies you need to follow on Twitter

by Lisanne Marie Van Engelen

With over 300 million users, it can be difficult to find people on Twitter who are actually worth following. Here is a list of some leading ladies in the tech world to help with that search! Some of the women work in robotics, while some others work as CEOs. All impact the tech world while inspiring other girls to get interested in tech. Most of these women post updates on projects they are working on and link tech related articles, especially those that have to do with women in the business. Be sure to add them to your feed and get your daily dose of #womenintech news.

Helen Greiner  @helengreiner

Helen GreinerCurrently, Helen Greiner is CEO of CyPhy Works, a robotics company that specializes in multi-rotor drones. Greiner was also co-founder of iRobot, the company that designs robots like the “Roomba,” the self-aware robotic vacuum cleaner. She received the Pioneer Award from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The award recognizes someone in the field of robotics who has contributed to the development of unmanned vehicle systems. In 2007, she was inducted in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame (WITI), a list that recognizes contributions women have made to the scientific and technological communities. Other notable inductees include Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX and Ruth Leach Amonette, the first female VP of IBM. Greiner tweets funny articles about drones in addition to articles that explore the field of robotics.

 

Heather Knight  @heatherknight

Heather KnightHeather Knight is CEO of Marilyn Monrobot, a company that blends robotics and entertainment by creating robots that are socially intelligent and can perform in front of live audiences.  In 2011, Knight was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list, a list of movers and shakers under the age of 30. You can watch Knight speaking about Marilyn Monrobot and watch one of her robots perform here. Follow Knight for her jokes about robots and tech and photos from her latest robotics projects.

 

Reshma Saujani  @reshmasaujani

Reshma SaujaniIn 2012, Reshma Saujani founded Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that runs programs that teach programming skills to high school girls. Originally a politician, Saujani came up with the idea of Girls Who Code after visiting various schools and noticing a significant lack of  girls in computer science classes. Saujani tweets updates about Girls Who Code, as well as updates of her own life and her exploration into technology.

 

 

Angela Ahrendts  @AngelaAhrendts

Angela AhrendtsForbes ranked Ahrendts the 25th most powerful woman in the world in 2015. The current Vice President of Retail and Online Stores at Apple, in 2014 she was ranked as the 29th most powerful woman in business. Ahrendts actually does not come from a technical background; she graduated college with a Merchandising and Marketing degree and then joined the fashion industry as CEO of Burberry in 2006. She left Burberry in 2014 to join Apple as its only female senior executive. Ahrendts posts about new features and Apple store openings, but also provides insights about cities she’s visiting and links to articles discussing advances in technology.

 

Tracy Chou  @triketora

Tracy ChouThe most popular of our list, Tracy Chou is one of the lead software engineers at Pinterest and is an active women-in-tech advocate. Chou appeared on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2014 and has previously worked for companies such as Quora and Facebook. Chou tweets about student loans, Lululemon and articles that call out the lack of women in technology.

 

 

Hannah Chung  @hchung

Hannah ChungHannah Chung is co-founder of Sproutel, creator of Jerry the Bear, a toy designed to help type 1 diabetic children learn to manage their own blood sugar levels. The interactive toy allows children to learn what foods are the best to eat and what to do if their blood sugar is low. On Twitter, Chung shares photos and developments of the newest Jerry the Bear models. Get ready for lots of cute bear pictures.You can watch a Jerry the Bear demonstration on YouTube here.