Ann Arbor SPARK’s a2Tech360 was a week of events celebrating Ann Arbor’s spirit of innovation through experiences, conversations and connections that strengthen and expand the region’s vibrant ecosystem. Events were tailored to a variety of interests and audiences, including entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, businesses, academic institutions, non-profits, job seekers and the public.

On a Women in Tech panel held Thursday, Oct. 7, speakers discussed their experiences navigating the tech industry and propelling their careers as leaders in their respective fields. They shared how to build up career experience, maneuver a room of doubters, and discover your personal success story.

Participants in the panel included Shanley Carlton from CultureVerse, Priya Gogoi from Celsee, and serial entrepreneur Christine Gibbons.  Following presentations from each of these three women, Rep. Debbie Dingell from Michigan’s 12th District and the U.S. House of Representatives joined the group to moderate a Q&A session.

Shanley Carlton

Shanley Carlton wanted the audience to know they are not alone if they ever feel self-doubt – it’s important to keep in mind that your experiences are not isolated and that others are feeling this too.  As an engineering student at the University of Alabama, Shanley and other women made up about 10% of the class.  While it was normal in that environment to experience some self-doubt – “maybe these guys are better at this than me” – Shanley reminded herself that correlation does not mean causation!

She stayed focused on her abilities to work hard and achieve top results, completed the engineering program, and moved on to intern at General Motors with the vehicle dynamics team, a serious ‘car bro’ culture where it can be challenging for any person to fit in with the team.  Shanley took it on and mastered that challenge as well, while at the same time knowing it wasn’t what she wanted to do long-term.  After taking time to travel and explore a few options in the startup world, she has found her place with CultureVerse and feels happy and fulfilled.

Priya Gogoi

Priya Gogoi from the biotech company Celsee spoke about how to rise from setbacks, and also the importance of recognizing that all of us are human beings and deserve respect.  One setback Priya shared was that she didn’t get the dream job she wanted – so she decided to start a company, but didn’t yet have an idea.  Starting from scratch with a small team of colleagues, she spent months making a plan for a new malaria detection product, submitted it to the Gates Foundation for funding… but didn’t get it, another setback. 

From there Priya and her team rebuilt and succeeded in moving the company forward in amazing ways – but then Priya was asked to step away from the startup she founded, in order to help the company grow and evolve as it needed to.  Priya described this as the worst night of her life, and one that resulted in her deciding to reinvent herself, let go of her own weaknesses, and create new ways to measure success.  As Rocky Balboa said: to be a winner it doesn’t matter how hard you can hit – what matters is how hard can you get hit and still get up.  Priya urged the audience to rise through setbacks and weaknesses, recognize your inner strength and spirit, and build something new again.

Christine Gibbons

Serial Entrepreneur Christine Gibbons has devoted her career to learning new skills and approaches, and advises that building teams is the most important thing in forming startup companies.  She admits that startups can be like giving birth, it’s your baby, and that taking companies from the startup phase to the commercialization phase can sometimes be tricky.  In one instance she described feeling like a birth mother watching an adoptive parent raise her child. Her advice to the audience was to read a wide variety of material and embrace your natural curiosity, find your passion and purpose, be authentic, be magnanimous, and look for the higher purpose in what you do.

Debbie Dingell then led a lively Q&A discussion with the panelists and members of the audience, during which she reminded everybody of the need for women to support women – Rep. Dingell pointed out that the boys club is still alive and well and that women need to support each other as well.

Debbie Dingell

Rep. Dingell believes women’s strength is sensitivity and compassion, and it’s vital not to lose that.  She advised the audience to ask for the opportunities and experiences you want, and when making a change, understand your motivations and the reasons why you are making the change. An audience member asked Rep. Dingell to recall something she wished she had known at an earlier point in her career.  Her answer was honest and straightforward: work out and eat better!

In total it was an uplifting and inspiring evening of sharing stories and connecting.  No matter what our background is, where we come from or what we study in school, we all face challenges and it’s all about how you react to them.  Do they wreck you or motivate you?  Do they beat you down or shape you up?

Women in Tech featured strong women overcoming challenges through perseverance and provided valuable lessons-learned and advice for all people to learn and benefit from, not only women.  In that sense, the panel was an overwhelming success: it created a time and place for people to tell their stories and perhaps exceed the limits of what was originally expected.