In this week’s installment of our Daring Women Q&A series, we feature Cynthia Tee, senior director of engineering at Nordstrom. Though new to Nordstrom, Tee has been working in tech for more than 10 years, including running Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle-based nonprofit school teaching software development to women and gender diverse people who are typically underrepresented in the tech community.
Read about her mentors, proudest moments and advice to women starting out in their careers.
1. Tell us about the high point of your career. What do you love about your work? Describe your proudest moment.
Running Ada Developers Academy was the highest point in my career. I had never run my own organization — a nonprofit school — before. I am proudest of having grown the Ada program to service three times its original capacity to 100 students a year, serving women and gender-diverse people nationwide (one-third of Ada’s class comes to Seattle and most of them stay), getting them jobs as software engineers. I am proud that the students Ada serves became increasingly diverse, with a higher percentage of black, Latina and Native American students graduating — they are the most underserved among our population. I am proud that Ada’s company sponsors tripled during my time, providing our diverse graduates with pay equity beyond anything they have ever dreamed of. Ada is a game changer, and I’m proud to have led its growth from 2015-17. I have learned a lot from Ada’s students, how to nurture a more inclusive environment, and I carry these lessons with me and apply them in my current job as a senior engineering executive. I look forward to setting a new high point in my career at Nordstrom, to impact a tech company in the same way I impacted Ada’s growth in diversity and demonstrate that it IS possible to hire and grow a diverse team of engineers. Yes, it takes time — but more so it takes intentionality.
2. What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them?
I have faced discrimination and bias that have prevented me from getting promotions, a seat at the table, or rewards equal to my male peers. Throughout my career, I have had to find ways to have my voice heard and defeat the impression that I am not technical enough or experienced enough to run a team, even with demonstrated track record. Companies are not used to hiring women in senior positions. And so they perpetuate hiring who and what they know, without realizing it.
3. Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them?
My former students at Ada inspire me. They chose to change their careers midstream to take on a new, daunting career in a male-dominated industry, knowing they have a steep ramp of one year to enter it. I have never seen so much drive, not only in their pursuit of a development role but also in their career before then. So many Ada students have persisted despite their lack of privilege — challenging financial situations, lack of educational opportunity, lack of role models, even persecution for being different (many Ada students are underrepresented in more than one way, either by race, gender, orientation, religion, etc.). I admire their grit, and it has taken grit to take them through their careers and be their best ally. To this day, this is what inspires me to use my privilege to help them as much as possible — as well as any other underrepresented person in tech who works or seeks mentorship from me.
4. What advice would you give to a woman getting started in her career?
Build a support system as early as you can in your career. This can be a peer network, friends, family. So many times, you will question whether you are worthy to be there, and dealing with the constant surrounding bias is exhausting and draining. You need a support system to help guide you, give you advice, inspire you, and re-energize you. Find it in different places, and from different people.
5. What can women do to improve gender equity in the workplace? What can men do?
Women can support each other better by continuing to reach out and make connections with less experienced women, to remind them they are not alone and to be part of someone else's support network. We bring each other up when we are there for each other. Men can learn how to be allies — intentionally putting themselves in situations where they are the only one, to build empathy. They can educate themselves about the issues women face, and accept it as reality that women who speak up get branded more negatively than they ever will. They need to use their space — and voice — to support others. And sometimes this means giving up that space and volume where they would otherwise take it all up.
6. Tell us about a favorite book/show/podcast and why/how it inspires you.
Black Panther. This was pure empowerment for one of the most oppressed people in our society, and it is also a showcase of the brilliance and nurturing leadership of women. I am inspired by the fact that despite all the historical oppression one experiences, they can find it in their hearts to forgive, persist and be role models for what it means to reach out across the table to lead the world to a better place.
7. Where do you find support and inspiration? How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
I find support and inspiration in many places. One thing I have done to really enrich my network is to find peer mentors and guides who are not at all like me — people from different backgrounds, races, religions, orientations and classes unlike mine. I find this has opened up my eyes, educated me and made me realize that there is so much I can do with my privilege to help others. Being supported — and supporting others — is a virtuous cycle for me. I expand my contacts by reaching out constantly to those who are sometimes less popular, less noticed, less networked — the ones who look at a meet-up as awkward as I feel. I find them, sometimes, to be the deepest, most profound people.
8. What are the most important characteristics of a good leader? What leadership traits are overrated?
A good leader knows the difference between confidence and arrogance. They give guidance by making people feel better about themselves, not smaller or less worthy. They build trust with the ones who are most oppressed and face the most discrimination. They strive to make others better instead of making themselves stand out more.
9. What would you do differently in your career if you had a do-over.
Nothing. I have learned so much at every stage in my career and found inspiration, strong leader role models, even in the most negative of situations. What I’ve done has made me who I am today. I love that I cannot always predict what turn I’ll take a few years from now. I still can’t. I open myself to different possibilities. I didn’t always take a conventional path, and I’m totally fine with that.
10. What would be the title of your autobiography?
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.