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Heather Cabot: Geek Girl Rising

The tech industry’s pervasive gender gap isn’t exactly news—but the nuances of the story may surprise you. Journalist Heather Cabot’s been exploring about those complexities ever since she worked as researcher on the PBS documentary Minerva’s Machine: Women and Computing, back in the nineties.

But the landscape’s changed a lot since then, and together with Samantha Walravens, Cabot is the author of Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech. We caught up with Cabot to talk about the power of women’s networks and how all your professional experiences add up to help you do big, cool stuff (book writing included).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Forté: Why did you decide to write this book?

Heather Cabot: I’m a storyteller at heart—I’ve been a reporter all my adult life, and I felt like [the story of women succeeding in tech] one that isn’t being told. At the time I was first curating some of these interviews, the story around women in tech was kind of a dismal one. There’s a lot of truth to that, obviously, because the gender gap is huge, there’s a lot of sexism—but I felt it was overshadowing some of the success stories that could actually be very instructive and maybe even motivational and inspirational for women to go into these fields.

Forté: How would you broadly characterize the overarching story of women in tech?

Cabot: I think there’s tremendous opportunity for women in tech, but the way the industry has evolved into a boy’s club has made it difficult for women to feel welcome. And I think the women who’ve gone outside the mainstream tech industry, the women who’ve have built their own networks and inroads and are helping each other —for a lot of women that’s the way to break into this digital world. Certainly, there are a lot of great mentors inside these tech companies, but that’s not who we focused on in the book—this is not a book about Sheryl Sandburg or Sarah Friar or Marissa Meyer, though we definitely salute them for the work they’ve done. We were more interested in these women who are re-inventing a place for themselves in tech.

Forté: Tell about your career trajectory.

Cabot: I had a very traditional path in TV news for over ten years, covering everything from business to education to the usual crimes, fires, and hurricanes. I went to a small market, then went to a medium market, then a big market, then ended up at ABC. When I left I was the anchor of World News Now and World News This Morning.

I went from ABC to Yahoo for this hybrid job I got to invent as I went along. I was the web life editor, so I was basically their on-air consumer spokesperson and my job was to come up with cool trend segments on how the internet and tech were transforming day-to-day life. I had this mandate to jump into digital with both feet and immerse myself in what was happening online, and I felt lucky to have this bird’s eye view of it all.

The aha moment [around the story of women in tech] was when I learned about this professional women’s network called The Li.st. And I found all these women who were amazing and supporting each other and starting businesses and they were software developers and investors and I thought ‘wow, I didn’t even know this existed!’ And through the Li.st I ended up becoming an angel investor and I did Pipeline Angels, which is a boot camp training women how to invest in women-led social ventures. And that’s how I got introduced to this whole force of women investing in women, which is another part of the story.

So as I was going on my own journey and discovering this subculture, I realized there were lots of parts of the ecosystem that were connected in some way. And that’s what I wanted to do for this audience was to connect the dots to show what people were doing on different battlefronts to level the playing field for women.

Forté: How did your career help you develop the skills that it took to write this book?

The greatest skill I relied on while doing this intense, in-depth work of reportage was having the practice and experience of being a tenacious reporter. There’s a lot of reporting in there and a tremendous amount of fact-checking and tremendous amount of depth of getting people’s stories, and going after truth and accuracy. All my experience came into play here. We had to turn the book around in nine months, so that’s where my TV reporting background really kicked in—I know how to write under deadline!

Forté: How did you balance writing the book with your other work?

Cabot: I’m always juggling multiple projects, and I teach at Columbia part-time, and I’m a mom of twins. When we got the book deal, I stepped down from all my volunteer positions and treated the book as a full-time job. My husband, who’s now an executive at Hearst, has a demanding schedule. So we were very lucky to have help with childcare and house stuff because I don’t think I could have done it otherwise. And he was great—to actually make the deadlines I was writing through the weekends, and he’d take the kids out on excursions, or long-weekend trips, to give me uninterrupted writing time. So he was a huge supporter.

Forté: What advice do you have for young women who are figuring out what they want to do?

Cabot: Every experience you have is valuable and can lead you to that aha-moment of what you love to do. It might not be clear right now, but have faith that it will be at some point.  It’s like with entrepreneurs—you’re not going to be successful unless you’re so passionate about your business. You have to believe it was what you were put on this earth to do. And as you grow up, your goals will change. All these different experiences add up to the person you’re going to become, and the professional you’re going to become.

Join us on Facebook on Dec. 19 at 12PM ET for a live conversation with Heather, hosted by Morra Aarons-Mele. Have questions for Heather, or entrepreneurial insights of your own to share? Drop us a line on Facebook or Twitter with #ForteLive.

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