Some progress over time aside, it’s still damn hard to be a female executive in tech today. But Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council – the largest and oldest tech industry association in Central Texas—takes her role in stride and with a dose of outspokenness.
We sat down for a chat with Brunner to hear her thoughts on all the gender issues making headlines these days, the Austin startup scene, and what makes the Texas Capital so special.
Over the past twenty-five years, Brunner has worked in senior roles for some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Yahoo and Microsoft. She served as the CMO and Head of Strategy for Yahoo’s media division and director of global planning for Microsoft’s MSN business. She’s no stranger to big tech. But she’s also a fierce advocate for women, minorities, and startups in a city that’s been named a top city for startups by media outlets such as Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, and, if you’ll forgive the plug, Crunchbase News.
Brunner has plenty of opinions on the fact that sexism in tech has been all over the news in recent months with accusations of harassment at 500 Startups, Binary Capital and Uber. A Google engineer’s sexist memo (or manifesto, as it’s been more broadly called) led to even more controversy and attention being called to the problem of a lack of gender diversity in tech.
In Brunner’s view, the current discussion touches on different points such as sexual harassment, diversity inclusion, gender identity, gender aptitude, and how women get funded and are treated. And that’s a good thing.
“All of that is in opposition to the chauvinism and bigotry that we’re seeing on the national stage that isn’t tech, and I think this is a great example of the increasing divide in our society,” she told Crunchbase News. There is at least “an intense and complex discussion about all of these things” that were not at the forefront before, Brunner says.
As difficult as those conversations are, Brunner believes the fact that they are even happening is “real progress” in an area that has historically been a great challenge in the tech industry.
“It’s kind of like the dam has burst,” Brunner elaborated. “Women – including myself – have been subject to all sorts of stupid, appalling stuff for years. And all of a sudden this is an issue being addressed in very big ways and people care about it.”
By stupid, appalling stuff, Brunner means hearing comments from male peers about her clothing and statements such as “no one expects a woman who looks like you to be as smart as you are.”
“Men never say that kind of thing to other men,” she said.
The problem extends to female executives being made to feel that they are not team players if they don’t join a predominantly male leadership team to excursions to strip clubs.
“It’s ridiculous,” Brunner said. “But it’s implicit that if you don’t go you won’t be in the crowd of cool kids. And it used to be that we just had to put up with things like this, and you build a sort of armor around yourself and put up with as much as you can take–but that ultimately dampens your enthusiasm and damages your soul.”
While Brunner has a variety of theories on the types of men who behave inappropriately toward women, she is adamant that society can’t attack the problem of sexual harassment in work environments that are unfriendly to women without engaging men in being part of creating the solution.
“The way you change the gender dynamic in companies requires more than having women and minorities, as the less privileged class, regularly call out the wrongs. We must have white male leaders stand up and say, ‘this is harassment, and this isn’t ok, and we won’t put up with it,’” she says.
The industry now appears to be moving in the right direction, Brunner believes.
In the past, she said, nothing would get done when women complained.
“But now we’re beginning to address the most obvious abhorr
ent forms of discrimination against women,” Brunner stated. “I hope the young women that are coming up through tech now will have many fewer types of the experiences that I did.”
When it comes to fair treatment, it’s not just women that she’s passionate about. She believes people of color also face an unconscious bias and hostile environments in the workplace. She’s disturbed by the fact that Austin’s black population is shrinking in what she describes as “a shameful manner.”
“It makes me concerned about the future of our community,” Brunner says.
In general, she thinks tech – not just in Austin, but across the board – needs more underrepresented minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans.
“You don’t have the opportunity to address the differences if everyone looks like you,” Brunner says. “If I were a woman of color graduating from UT [the University of Texas at Austin], I’m not sure I’d want to stay here. I’d want to go to a city with companies where there were more people who look like me.”
Austin’s Mission To Grow
While Brunner acknowledges there are many great things about Austin’s startup scene such as “some great venues for inspiration,” she does feel the city lacks some “think big global perspective.” So while Austin may be a great place for startups, Brunner would like to see the city’s small-to-mid-size companies think bigger.
As part of that goal, the Austin Technology Council is on a mission to help grow 10 Austin tech companies to $1 billion in revenue in 10 years, and 100 companies to $100 million in revenue over the same period.
“I think we’re capable of reaching those goals in this community, especially if we pull together and support existing businesses,” she says. “But we need more global thinking, mentors, and investors to push entrepreneurs to go for the brass ring.”
Austin has its sectors that it does very well in – such as semiconductors, security, marketing analytics, software, and a burgeoning gaming sector. And Brunner believes the city’s tech ecosystem will only continue to grow.
“We have a lot of good people interested in the upward and outward growth of Austin tech,” she said. “But what Austin has more profoundly than anywhere else I’ve lived is spirit of community. The generosity I see from leaders in tech sharing their time and expertise is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. From the moment I set foot here, I was genuinely surprised by how open and willing to share advice people were.”
Looking ahead, Brunner hopes to create Austin as a model for growing female leaders of any color in tech. Towards that end, the Austin Technology Council has launched a sponsorship program to pair women with experienced senior men and have them sponsor their careers.
“I think the way that we can continue to distinguish Austin is our heart,” she says. “It sounds very new-agey, but I do think that you can find good engineers in tech in any market. But you can’t find this sort of heart in leadership elsewhere that you find in Austin.”
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