Women In Stem: Role Models Needed

            When we fail to include women in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, we are lacking the perspectives of nearly half the world’s populationWomen have been behind countless discoveries such as the conservation of parity principle, identifying Chromosome 17, or winning the Nobel prize “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.”. Universities, employers, and institutions must avoid increasing women enrolled in this industry to simply claim equity, as the issue goes deeper than disproportionate numbers. While there are several issues that may lead to lack of female involvement in STEM, an impactful solution is female leadership.

            When you have an inspiring female leader, it creates a space where other women feel safe and welcomed. That momentum builds on itself; looking at our team at Parlay, we can count a total team size of 9 people, including founders, employees, and contractors; and only two of these people are male. Being a startup with a female founder, we wind up attracting and retaining women partially because there are female role models in place.

“The lack of female involvement is not just a pipeline problem. As an industry, we of course need to help build the pipeline, but we must make our culture welcoming to women and minorities. If you lose too many people along the way, it doesn’t matter how robust your candidate pipeline is,” says our co-founder Rebecca Deutsch. Creating a workspace where the input from women and minorities is not only heard but encouraged, creating an open and transparent work space, we are given the ability to connect, collaborate, empathize, and communicate. These qualities are what push companies forward in the 21st century; women in leadership roles set up organizations for success.When it comes down to it, men and women see the world differentl, regardless of how even we make the playing fields. We should care about the representation for women in these fields for this reason; a male-centric view of science is just that, and how can we expect all voices to be heard when half of them are missing? This may not have been a conscious indifference to input from women, after all it’s difficult to see the status quo when you are the status quo. Although women are statistically underrepresented in STEM leadership, not all STEM fields are lacking female influence. For instance, women earn more than half of the degrees awarded in chemistry and math, yet these fields are still considered “male-dominated” (Mellem).

If women earn more than half of the degrees in these fields, why aren’t we seeing more female influence in the working world of STEM? It may be the result of multiple barriers many women face when attempting to begin their careers. “It can feel like you’re fighting against this ‘believability’ factor,” says Kathleen Vignos, Senior Engineering Manager at Twitter, in an interview with Wired.com. With twenty years of experience in an engineering field, Vignos addresses the blatant sexism and doubt women encounter within their fields. Women divulged on the great disparity they face working on their teams, often as the only female present; “constantly needing to reaffirm their skills and knowledge. They see few role models or paths for advancement.”

With the percentage of female engineers growing by only 7% since 1980, it’s difficult for women to get involved when 88% of their coworkers look, think, and operate differently than they do (according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). In the same interview with WIRED, Erica Baker, a Build and Release Engineer with Slack, discusses that although many companies track diversity, “we don’t really talk much about the inclusion part. What are you doing to make sure that everybody is included and feels safe…and supported and valued in your organization?”

 “Women and girls need help in overcoming the barriers: the raised eyebrows; the isolation of being the only female in the class or office; the double standards in applying for jobs or research grants,” (Inc.com). So what strides are universities, companies, and individuals making to resolve this issue? The San Diego Science Alliance began the BE WiSE program, informing and inspiring young girls to explore options in STEM careers. Author Sam Maggs also wrote an insightful book Wonder Women; striving to give young women role models in a variety of careers within STEM, with careful inclusion of women from all backgrounds and races across history. Addressing common obstacles, this book covers a wide range of topics to effectively inspire women to pursue not only their dream careers, but also recognition for the work they do.

There are undoubtedly many systemic problems that we face in STEM fields. We must continue developing opportunities to de-gender careers and education paths; making all careers more accessible to all genders. Creating an environment that enables women to be heard equally in our organizations, universities, and electorate improves us holistically. It will improve society and enable us to listen to other important voices in all fields. Here are Parlay, we practice what we preach: diversity in leadership breeds innovation

The Innovation Spectrum with Starbucks

The Innovation Time Scale is longer than you think.

Innovation efforts can often be long and tiring. Occasionally they never make it to reality. I’ll use the example of my last full-time job; Starbucks. Many of the projects that I worked on never came to fruition, sadly. Although I cannot talk about the failed, yet to be, or ‘maybe someday’ projects (due to confidentiality reasons), what I can talk about are the handful of projects that are publicly view-able.

Starbucks does commendable job on all the various points along the innovation spectrum. They are constantly introducing new products, seasonal specials, and one off promotions. Starbucks nails incremental innovation. On the other end of the spectrum is what has come to be known as “disruptive innovation.” This type of innovation is extremely difficult to do well; attempting to justify the initial investment and stomaching the inevitable failures along the way are no easy feats. It reminds me of the advertisement supposedly ran by Ernest Shackleton in 1900 when he was seeking shipmates for a voyage to the south pole:



That’s about how it feels working on a project that may or may not make it out alive, with the uncertainty that your work will be worth the effort.

I was part of the technical design team on a robotic coffee brewer; and now, years later, it’s being put into a handful of Starbucks stores. Presumably, if the test goes well (customers and baristas like it, economic costs work out, etc), the machine will roll out to a larger population of stores. Then, over a period of years, it could eventually roll out to all stores. These escalating tests make perfect sense when you consider that each one requires a larger investment of time, money, and resources.

Another example of a project I worked on which is still in a much earlier stage is the bottom fill espresso. There’s only one prototype in existence – as I said, this is a very early test. Coincidentally, I’m enjoying a delicious cappuccino made on this machine. The customers in the coffee shop sure seem to like the product and the experience of watching espresso brew, and milk steam. Who knows – 10 years from now, your local Starbucks store may have one.

I have many close friends who worked on launching the Roastery (including the new line of up leveled Starbucks cafes) and watched their efforts closely over the past few years. It’s a massive undertaking to re-invent a well-known brand and launch entirely new business models.

It remains to be seen whether Starbucks will be able to successfully monetize an experience-driven coffee shop model or invent and launch groundbreaking coffee brewing equipment. The takeaway is that they must try. Companies that continually work to disrupt themselves are well positioned to fend off competitors and upstarts. I have a lot of respect for Starbucks and their innovation efforts – I may not work there anymore, but I’ll always bleed green.

Built for Rapid Innovation in the Cloud

We built Parlay the way we did so your team can innovate rapidly in the cloud. 

Before we started developing Parlay, we had to figure out what the underlying technology would be. There are a host of modern software tools that allow developers to create new products and services. The tricky part was deciding which technologies were best for what we wanted to create: a safe and reliable space in the cloud where innovation teams could collaborate in real-time to fuel rapid innovation. 

 Group of female employees sit around a laptop at a desk to work on innovation efforts. 

The number of hours needed to create a basic web app is shockingly small – of course, a fully fleshed out product takes a lot of effort to design, build, test and iterate, etc. It only took us a couple months to get the first version of Parlay built and published for our initial set of pilot users. 

The biggest driver of ease-of-innovation for web apps is the rise of cloud services like Microsoft’s Azure platform and Amazon’s AWS platform. The existence of these services mean that small companies don’t have to purchase, assemble, maintain, and scale up their own servers. Not only does this save us a huge amount of time and expenses, but it also means that we weren't required to become experts in this technology, which means our efforts can be spent on higher-level activities like designing the product, developing core IP (intellectual property), and working with customers. However, these web platforms aren’t just for smaller companies; for example, Netflix lives in the Amazon cloud. 

While we considered using Amazon AWS, we eventually decided that our needs were a better fit with Microsoft Azure. We had used AWS on a previous project, and felt like Azure had a more refined user experience. Parlay's back-end API was likely to be written in C# (ASP.NET), which has a one-click publish-to-Azure feature. 

One thing the startup community has in common with the broader innovation community is the spirit of openness and sharing of knowledge. To that end, here are the technologies we use. To be clear, any experienced software engineer could easily figure this out by looking at HTML source code and network traffic. I’m just trying to save you the trouble and offer some editorial comments along the way. 

Public website and blog: Squarespace

  • A nice, clean, simple way to make websites. About a million times better than Wordpress. 

Web app front end: AngularJS

  • We had experience with the AngularJS framework, so that was an easy choice over the next logical alternative, React. React is gaining a lot of momentum, so we very well may consider using it in the future. 

API back end: ASP.NET

  • Again, we had experience with this toolset. Writing C# code is just delightful – it’s such a flexible and useful language. 

Database: Azure SQL

  • I know NoSQL databases (such as MongoDB) are all the rage in the startup world. This choice fits in the category of “stick with the thing you know and move on to other challenges.”   

Binary file storage: Azure Blob

  • Pictures and files get stored in Azure’s Blob storage. This is a super neat, fairly new product. We upload the file to the Azure Blob and get a unique identifier to retrieve it. Azure handles all the file management and backups.   

Email system: Sendgrid  

  • We use this for sending welcome emails, daily digests, etc. Sendgrid, which promised an easy integration (and delivered) was recommended by a friend and other options were only briefly explored. 

Payments: Braintree  

  • Now a subsidiary of PayPal, Braintree’s here for the long haul and makes it easy for Parlay to securely accept credit card payments in the app. It has a mature, user friendly implementation for the ASP.NET back end. 

Start-up life is a prioritization game — if you get too bogged down in learning a new database system when the one you already know will do just fine, you're going to miss out on the other million things that need your attention. While we were considering all our options for building Parlay, we generally settled on using the stable, previously released versions we knew would perform well. We’ll certainly migrate to newer versions at some point, but these weren’t fully baked enough for us to start using them. After all, we’re not doing this work for the sake of academic technology exploration – we’re building stable, reliable, production software for our customers.  

Parlay’s software – like most other software – will be constantly upgraded and tested as new versions of our core product will be released. New features will allow us to make Parlay better-looking, faster, and have more features. Layers of innovation from many companies are combining here to provide Parlay customers with an innovative product, which in turn helps create more innovations. It’s an endless, intertwined cycle.

What Everyone Ought to Know About the Parlay Co-Founders

Have you heard of the folks behind Parlay? Founded by LEGO extraordinaire Dan Apone and activist inspiration Rebecca Deutsch, anyone who has met the pair can confirm they make a great team. While their academic and professional backgrounds are similar, their personalities collide in dynamic ways, complimenting the other to create a successful pair. Rebecca is design-focused, detail-oriented, and passionate while Dan is always thinking of the bigger picture, group dynamics, and forward-thinking. Together, they hatched the brilliant idea of Parlay.

 Rebecca Deutsch, Co-founder and CTO of Parlay.

Rebecca was drawn into the world of technology after seeing Toy Story for the first time in 1995. The inspiration to create 3D animated movies with compelling storylines drove her to pursue a computer science degree at Carnegie Mellon. During college, Deutsch found a passion for the intersection of design and technology, leading her to work at Microsoft for ten years, taking part in projects such as Windows and XBOX Video. In Rebecca’s free time she loves to initiate social change through political activism and eat as much chocolate as she can.

 Dan Apone, Co-founder and CEO of Parlay.

Dan has been an engineer at heart for his whole life. LEGO kits led to electronics, which led to larger scale projects such as modifying bicycles. As he grew older he spent his free time modifying cars which led to building a few race cars too. Academically, Dan has pursued a robotics path—finding inspiration where software and hardware collide. In his professional life Apone has been able to utilize his talents in a variety of settings: in the consulting world at Synapse, in the startup world of Impinj, and in large corporate innovation work for Starbucks. When he’s not working on Parlay, he can be found on the golf course or cooking dinner over an applewood-stoked fire.

Prior to the breakthrough of parlay, Dan and Rebecca formed a non-profit in 2006 by the name of Technically Learning, which provided underrepresented students opportunities in the tech world. Technically Learning focused on teaching public school teachers how to conduct exciting STEM activities in their classrooms. The non-profit emphasized in-class activities to reach the full population of a community, as after school activities tend to limit the exposure to groups that have the ability to self-select them—most notably affecting women, people of color, and those of lower-income.

In 2013, Technically Learning Merged into Code.org, and Dan and Rebecca were free to start dreaming up what their next big adventure would be. Read about Parlay's origin story here.

And amidst all their work and projects, they still have time to provide a loving home to their two dogs and three cats. Two of their cats are pictured below:

 Cats of the Parlay Co-founders

Coffee Meets UX Design

 Sarah Rigor, Partner Insight Project Manager at the Starbucks corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington

Sarah Rigor, who has a Master’s degree from IIT—Institute of Design in Chicago, is a Partner Insight Project Manager at the Starbucks corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington. With experience as a previous Starbucks store manager in Chicago, Rigor combines her impeccable people and research skills to pave the way for a successful career in human-centered design.

How do you define UX design?

I would prefer to say “human-centered design,” because when you’re designing, whether it’s an experience or a product, you’re focusing on someone’s needs. So, you do research to find what these needs are and how to solve them.

Why did you go into this field?

I’ve been with Starbucks for a very long time, and I knew I wanted to advance my career and continue to grow with the company. So in 2011 when I was given the opportunity to roll out an Express Store prototype for Starbucks in Chicago in the Loop, I happily accepted. Because my store was the first of its kind, I was asked by the Seattle Design team to observe and interview my customers and partners around their experience with the new store design. As phase two of the prototype was wrapping up, I realized that experience design interested me, so I found a graduate program that would allow me to combine my retail Starbucks experience with moving forward to corporate Starbucks.

What has been your most memorable experience with research and design thus far?

During graduate school, I was accepted into a 5 week long program in India where we conducted research on the current Healthcare situation in Mumbai.  Working on a team with my school mates and along side the Godrej team was a great collaborative effort.  

I enjoyed this because I love traveling so it was a wonderful experience being able to immerse myself in the culture in India and get to know the people I was designing for.

 Sarah Rigor in front of coffee trees growing at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, WA. 

What does your design process consist of?

It starts with understanding real people in real situations through observation and market trend research. From there the process consists of cycles of research and analysis to create and explore concepts. From there we prototype, in some cases through multiple iterations, to get feedback from the user or stakeholder. 

How do you work with other designers?

After graduate school I co-taught an undergraduate design thinking class where the students were of all different disciplines and were introduced to the design principles to solve real world problems and work in a collaborative team to get the most of each team members' knowledge and expertise.  The class taught the students to think outside of the box and come together as a team to solve everyday problems no matter their educational background or level of experience, much like the real world.

Do you prefer to work alone or with a team?

I prefer a team because most of the time it’s better to bounce ideas off each other and collect feedback than work alone. Collaboration creates great content.

What is something useful you’ve learned since coming to Starbucks?

I've learned the power of storytelling and how important it is to influence and communicate through messaging.  

What does it mean and what does it take to be a great UX designer?

Above all, to sum it up, would be empathy. It is imperative to understand who you’re designing for. If you don’t understand who you’re designing for, then there’s no purpose to design that product. You must comprehend feelings, behaviors, and habits of that person and if you put yourself in that person’s position, then you can better design for them.

What do you think will be the next big trend in the UX design industry?

I think designing experiences is the next big trend.  People want more than just a fun gadget, they're looking for an entire experience.  An engaging experience they can make their own and explore over and over again.

How do you stay current on human-centered innovations?

Going online, there are workshops that I’ve been wanting to sign up for to keep me up to date. Also, just networking and connecting with people in the field, people I work with or old friends from graduate school. Facebook is also a good medium to use in my current position.

If you were to design a product and a stakeholder said you couldn’t “do it,” how would you respond?

I would say that anything is possible.  You just have an open mind and the courage to create and innovate. The right solution will follow.

Why Parlay Exists (or "Challenges of Innovation Teams")

Parlay’s origin makes the most sense when you know a little about the two founders: myself and my wife, Rebecca Deutsch. (Read more about us here.) To briefly summarize, we’ve been designing and developing things our whole lives: products, technology, organizations, and elaborate dinner concoctions. We enjoy and thrive in the nebulous world of innovation. Trying to figure out what to do—and then how to do it—is what gets us out of bed in the morning.  

Before starting Parlay, I worked at Starbucks on a team that had one main purpose: innovation. Our charter was to create and flesh out new concepts to the point where it was obvious they should be killed or passed on to another team for further development. If we invented a new technology for freezing ice, we’d hand off the invention to the team responsible for the ice makers. (Yes, that’s a fake example – the real work I did is still largely private within the walls of Starbucks.) 

I loved my time working at Starbucks — it was a great team and a great experience. But no matter how awesome your team is, there are always challenges. Here are a few common ones that many organizations struggle with:  

  • Narrowing down which ideas to work on — People are good at coming up with ideas, and our team was no exception. We always had a large pool of potential ideas to work on, but we didn't initially have a framework for evaluating them. The ideas we worked on were picked somewhat haphazardly, and good ideas sometimes fell off our radar.  
  • Proving the worth of your new concept — Our team would often have to present our new concepts to many different teams, whether they were executive teams approving further development or a peer team that would partner with us. We were always pitching new concepts, and a well-crafted story to accompany a new product is no small task.  
  • No common team language — Disparate educational and professional backgrounds meant that teammates didn’t necessarily have a shared set of vocabulary to develop concepts. I want to note that diverse backgrounds can be a huge benefit for the creative aspect and can create a better product in the end. It's just during the development process, teams need a common language for logistical reasons. 
  • Lack of formal process — The people drawn to innovation teams like this usually see themselves as “creative” and not “process-oriented,” which certainly describes me. The problem is, without some amount of process, nothing ever becomes real. 
 Innovation motivational quote by CEO and Co-founder of Parlay, Dan Apone. 

On top of all these challenges, we were generating a lot of content during our development work: photos of whiteboard sketches, documents ranging from new project proposals to patent applications, meeting notes, endless PowerPoint slides, etc. We tried several different software tools to try and stay organized: IT corporate supplied SharePoint tools, Trello, Confluence, and network shared folders. While they all had their strengths and weaknesses, it was clear to me that they weren’t designed for what our innovation team needed. In fact, they weren’t designed for anything specific at all. These tools are meant to be as generic as possible in order to attract the widest audience. At Innovation Conferences, I would hear rumblings from other companies that they were unhappy with, confused by, or apathetic towards their software tools. 

As Rebecca and I talked about our next big adventure, it became clear to us that there was a good problem to tackle here. Innovation teams all over the country (and world) need a web app designed specifically for their development process. Rebecca had already left Microsoft (after 10 years designing software, including Windows), so we began brainstorming what our new product would look like to help innovation teams flourish.  

In December 2015, I left Starbucks and the two of us set out to research the problem, design a solution, and build an MVP. (Minimum Viable Product is the quickest, cheapest, most streamlined version of a product concept that delivers real value to your target customers.) By March 2016, we had a released product in the hands of some early users and pilot partners. We’re constantly adding features and iterating and learning from our customers. As I write this, we’re building some new dashboards to show a visual representation of your entire portfolio of projects.  

This a thrilling journey that we’re on, and the most exciting part – like all innovation projects – is that we don’t know where this road will take us. Following the road is the only way to find out. We’ve built a lot of momentum so far, and that trend is only accelerating. Come join our community!