• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Sarah Friar: Why Getting More Women into STEM Matters to Me

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The Square CFO and conference speaker on her personal experiences in a very male-dominated industry and why she makes a point of talking about her kids’ “Thanksgiving Sing.”

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Square may be justly famous in the tech world for shaking up how payments get processed, but the company is also pretty well known for another a reason — its Code Camp program. An immersion program led by Square staff that encourages young women in high school and college to pursue tech careers, CodeCamp has won plaudits from the likes of Nancy Pelosi and earned the company a reputation as proactive in encouraging diverse voices to enter the industry.

But where did this commitment to inclusion come from? We asked Square CFO and Women 2.0 Conference keynote speaker Sarah Friar about the roots of her interest on a personal level, uncovering her own early experiences with an incredibly male-dominated work environment, her other commitments to getting girls into STEM, and the reason she feels to tell everyone at work when she’s off to attend her kids’ “Thanksgiving Sing.”

Code Camp’s aim is to get more women involved in the tech industry. Can you share your personal experience of why getting more women involved is important?

It’s important for society and businesses to embrace 50% of the population. Clearly there’s nothing preventing women from being great leaders, so the lack of women in business, especially tech, has to be a systemic bias which we should all be fighting to overcome. It starts small and early — talking to our daughters and sons to get them passionate and interested in science and respectful of diverse opinions and thoughts. I already have heard girls in my daughter’s third grade class say they aren’t good at math. That’s a terrible outcome at nine years-old.

I studied Metallurgy in college, graduating with a Masters of Engineering, and my first internship was on a gold mine in Africa. Not a very diverse environment! But it did set a bar of “If I can survive and thrive here, then I can do anything.” In 1998, I came to Silicon Valley and was so excited to be part of such a vibrant community — the U.S. really does feel like a melting pot where anyone can be anything they want to be. We are very lucky to have that, but there is no doubt we can push for more. When companies look like their customers and have empathy, not just sympathy, they respond better in their products and services. It’s fun to watch our Square executive team in action because we all come from different backgrounds, countries, and perspectives.

Some folks argue high school is often too late to start encouraging girls into tech — that by that time many already don’t see themselves in the field. How do you respond to that?

High school is a pivotal point in a young woman’s life when they are discovering the opportunities available to them and thinking about their college career. The idea for High School Code Camp stemmed from a Square engineer who wished a similar opportunity had been available to her — an opportunity that would have exposed her to Computer Science before college. I’m excited that four months into High School Code Camp, we are hearing from several young women that they are now considering Computer Science as a major.

I am also on the Board of a wonderful nonprofit called Spark, which targets kids even before high school (in middle school) with 1:1 apprenticeships in real workplaces. Especially in the Bay Area, many of these apprenticeships take place in STEM fields, so we’ve seen kids build their own app or computer game alongside an engineer at a major tech company, or learn to take a computer apart and put it back together. Providing hands-on experiences in actual workplaces for these even younger students helps them connect what they are learning in the classroom to what they could do in the future.

How about hiring female coders at Square — what steps have you taken to attract and retain female technologists?

We have been very fortunate to attract talented women to join teams across the company and we’re committed to supporting them as they grow their careers. Our internal women’s group, Women@Square, meets once a month to discuss relevant books or articles and to connect women with mentors. We also offer four months of paid parental leave for new mothers and fathers.

But most importantly, at Square, empowering women goes beyond our own employees. We’re committed to empowering women entrepreneurs and small business owners with products that make it easy for them to start, run, and grow their businesses. In America, 30% of small businesses are led or founded by women; 50% of small businesses using Square are led or founded by women. We are proud of our female seller community and want to do more to support them. In March in celebration of International Women’s Day, we’ll be hosting an event for women entrepreneurs and sellers as an opportunity for them to strengthen their livelihoods and learn from experts on topics that are pertinent to their businesses: utilizing social media for marketing, finance 101, recruiting smartly and well even when you are small, and running your business by the numbers.

How optimistic are you about seeing more women working in tech in the coming years — are you expecting a real uptick in the statistics anytime soon?

Programs like High School and College Code Camp, Black Girls Code, and Girls Who Code will help to improve the ratio of women in technical positions. By building a stronger community around women in technology and exposing young women to the opportunities available, we should see an uptick of women in STEM fields.

We also need to lead by example. I often make a point of letting folks know I have to miss a meeting because of the “Thanksgiving Sing” at my kids’ school. The point is to make it okay for women to show a balance between work and home, and also for their partners too. It’s one facet, but an important one for me in my career and for many of the women I mentor.

Want to hear more from Sarah? Join us at the conference! 

JessicaStillman_800x800_20914Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.