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Cerys Goodall, COO of Vetster in Toronto, came to the tech industry from a background in public relations and marketing.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

It’s no secret that Canada’s tech industry has a woman problem.

More specifically, it has a lack of women problem. According to a 2017 benchmark report by PWC, #movethedial and MaRS, only 5 per cent of Canadian tech companies have a solo female founder, and women comprise just 13 per cent of the average tech company’s executive team.

But Cerys Goodall, COO of Vetster, a virtual veterinary and pet care marketplace, believes there’s a way for the industry to solve this shortage of women in upper-level positions, while attracting even higher-calibre talent. How? By making a simple shift in thinking.

“I’d like to broaden what it means to be a woman in tech,” Ms. Goodall says. And that definition should include people with backgrounds like her own.

Ms. Goodall doesn’t have a STEM degree, nor did she have tech experience before entering the field (as then-COO of WiFi analytics company Innerspace). Instead, she had spent the previous 15 years working with startups in public relations and marketing roles. Now, she helps run a company that virtually connects pet owners to veterinary professionals for video, voice or text chat. And she’s just one of several Canadian women with similar career trajectories who have risen to the top echelons of tech while practicing what Ms. Goodall is preaching.

“We’re now at a place where technology and technological tools are more accessible to the everyday person,” Ms. Goodall says. “This idea that technology is only [about] data science or project engineering is no longer true. If you’re in customer experience, human resources, marketing or public relations, you’re using technology hands-on, and you’re often building with that technology as well. You don’t have to be doing hands-on coding any longer to build product, to build experiences, and even to build a company.”

Thinking outside the STEM box

Marie Chevrier Schwartz, founder and CEO of Sampler, and Stephany Lapierre, founder and CEO of Tealbook, both launched their own tech companies to solve problems they’d encountered while working in other fields: marketing and strategic sourcing, respectively. Similarly, Nadia Hamilton founded Magnusmode to help people like her brother, who has autism, independently navigate everyday tasks like making bank transactions and using public transit.

Not surprisingly, all three share the view that expanding their potential talent pool to include non-STEM candidates can yield benefits for tech companies.

For example, when focusing solely on STEM, companies may miss some of the best qualified candidates. That’s what could have happened when Magnusmode was recruiting for a top position, says Ms. Hamilton (who also comes from a non-tech background).

“We hired an executive director who was put in charge of managing the tech team who had no tech experience whatsoever,” she says, “because she had all of the other skills, and that was the piece we needed to reinforce.” The job offer was contingent on being willing to learn the tech side on the job, with expert help. To that end, “we brought on board some great tech advisors who were able to teach her along the way,” Ms. Hamilton adds.

Similarly, at Sampler, a company that offers digital product sampling, “we will often prioritize industry experience over tech experience,” says Ms. Chevrier Schwartz. “We bridge that gap internally. Because we are a tech company, there are a lot of technical trainings that we offer our team to understand the platform.”

Kelly Stewart, Sampler’s VP of Marketing, whose background is in fashion and PR, is one such example. “My insights from past industries actually became an asset – it gave me greater understanding of how technology enhances the greater picture,” she says.

But even when recruiting for less senior positions, Sampler has begun thinking outside of the STEM box. The company recently hired two young women, both recent non-STEM graduates, following paid work placements made through Ryerson’s work-integrated learning ADaPT program.

A pathway to greater diversity

Another advantage to not limiting recruitment strictly to STEM candidates: In a business climate where diversity gives companies a competitive edge, it opens the door to a much broader array of potential employees.

“When we only look through the lens of having a STEM degree, we’re looking at a very small segment of the population, but we’re also looking at it through a very privileged perspective,” Ms. Goodall notes. “Not everyone has the ability to enter STEM fields from the outset.”

Nor do many people in mid-career – particularly women, who may be juggling caregiving responsibilities – have the luxury of going back to school to get a second degree, she adds.

Ms. Lapierre of Tealbook, an AI-powered company that connects businesses to suppliers, says that women entering tech mid-career can offer employers valuable skills and insights.

For instance, when the Tealbook team was approached by a woman with a finance background who wanted to start coding, “we took her on as an intern,” Ms. Lapierre says. Working hands-on, the new hire “learned a lot of the front end, and she’s now interested in back-end development. And she’s made a huge impact, because she was a bit more mature in her business career,” says Ms. Lapierre. “She asks questions, she’s very curious. And she can make really good judgements because of her background.”

Women with non-STEM backgrounds also have the opportunity to advance in tech companies. Take Morgan Kingdon, who worked her way up from a network success manager at Sampler to director of audience development.

“When you hire someone from outside of tech, they have the potential [to] take innovative approaches to challenges the company is looking to solve, or uncover new opportunities that you might not have seen,” Ms. Kingdon says.

Lessons for the tech giants

While Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Lapierre and Ms. Chevrier Schwartz built their careers in tech by launching their own businesses, there are lessons to be learned for the wider tech industry.

Cerys Goodall says that when it comes to advancing women in the industry, tech leaders could help redress the gender imbalance in more senior roles by looking within the non-tech ranks in their own companies. If companies were willing to “reframe the problem” by “up-skilling” women from other areas of the business, they would have a much bigger pool of women to draw from, she notes.

“Improving access to up-skilling can’t happen only through formal education,” she says. “You have to look across your team and think about who has the aptitude and who has the desire. That can happen anywhere in your company. And how can you then bring that forward?”

Whether it’s through training, funding or simply through on-the-job exposure, employers can bring women into tech instead of just hiring female STEM graduates.

“That’s absolutely how I learned – just poking around and asking questions,” Ms. Goodall says. “But now it really should be formalized, rather than left up to the individuals [to take the initiative],” she adds.

“[If] we can now start to think about what it means to be a woman in tech in a very different way, and we can create the systems and support around that.”

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