The Power of Women in Tech and How Our Communities Can Make Us Even Stronger
As part of Women’s History Month, I had the opportunity to talk with two leaders at Salesforce: Andrea Leszek, EVP and Chief Operating Officer for the Technology organization, and Thanhia Sanchez, SVP of Commercial Solutions & Cloud Sales.
Andrea went to MIT for Chemical Engineering and Linguistics. She was on a path to get her PhD for the latter before she realized academia wasn’t the life for her. Upon her dad’s suggestion to venture into technical writing, she started her career in the field and joined Salesforce over 21 years ago. When she described to me that she started writing product documentation for a “small startup” in San Francisco, it took me a minute to realize she was, in fact, reminiscing a nascent Salesforce. Upon being asked what has kept her here for two decades, she enthusiastically answered, “All of it, really. The culture, the people, the work. There’s never a dull moment. Salesforce is a company that pushes the boundaries and is going after the next thing before people even know they want it. We created a market for it, helped determine what the CRM market is.”
Thanhia started as a programmer before transitioning to roles that allowed her to marry her technical skills with her love for interacting with customers. Now, she has been with Salesforce for almost three years, citing its impressive reputation and company values as what first attracted her. “I wanted to be at a place where I could be really aligned with the values. Then, after I joined, I was surprised to see how serious the company is about its values, the sincerity in which the leadership strives to live those values every single day. I’ve worked for excellent companies in my past, but never in an environment where our values become an immersive experience and come up in everyday discussions and decisions.”
I loved getting to know both women better and the illuminating conversations we had. We dove into career journeys, unexpected stops along the way, how we can elevate those around us, mentors that pushed them into new spheres, and so much more. Let’s look at three key takeaways from these two inspirational leaders:
Create intentional pathways for women to get into tech, wherever they are in their journey.
Thanhia came into Computer Science serendipitously, after earning an ROTC scholarship for Electrical Engineering. “I knew absolutely nothing about the field,” she admits, but “we didn’t have a lot of resources so this [scholarship] was really important.” She quickly learned that the field was not for her and ended up walking away from the scholarship, but not before completing a required computer science course.
“I had no exposure to pretty much anything with respect to computers. At the time, even having a computer in your home was a luxury. So for me to take a computer science course and fall in love with it was one of my a-ha moments. It was new. It took logical thinking but also innovative and creative thought. I could think about the world of possibility, I saw the potential.”
(Thanhia with Astro at a Salesforce event)
While she doesn’t code today, she explains, “I’m super excited about the opportunities that brought me to the present. This is something that I wish for all women. I was fortunate to have taken a course, realized I love it, and then pivoted my whole life to go in this direction.”
Thanhia took a leap of faith and it’s worked out to be an incredible 25 years (and she’s looking forward to many more, as she told me with a laugh, “I’m not ready to go!”) But the question I took from her story is, how do we make it so that people don’t have to chance into it?
“I’m super excited about the opportunities that brought me to the present. This is something that I wish for all women.”
Not everyone will be lucky enough to have an experience as Thanhia did, and they shouldn’t have to be. Rather, we need to help create pathways for women at all stages of their journey and be intentional about education and opportunities.
“We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to do a STEM program for middle schoolers or high schoolers.’ Some people don’t find their way until college, or after college, or some women don’t even go to college. We need to create pathways for women wherever they are, so that anyone with the will and interest can get onto it.”
Andrea also lives out this message, advocating for women at all ages and stages of their careers. “You have to start early and help girls find the interest and confidence [to explore technology].” She is a mentor for Technovation, a program for middle and high school girls that helps them build a mobile app to solve a problem in their communities.
(Andrea at a volunteer event focused on computer education for girls)
Continuing onto later stages, Andrea reinforced, “Futureforce and internship programs are also incredibly important. We have done a great job recruiting women into our Technology team and giving them support when they get here. I do talks with the interns, meet with them, help them get acclimated, and answer questions.”
She was one of the founding members of the Salesforce Women’s Network (SWN) and continues today as the sponsor for the Women in Technology (WIT) subgroup of SWN. Andrea also offers one-on-one mentoring whenever she can.
It’s not only women who need to know about these opportunities or challenge stereotypes.
When asked about what she’s learned from being a WIT sponsor, she replied, “There are two main things. They’re going to sound contradictory, but they’re both important for a group like this. One is that you have to get men involved. You absolutely have to get men involved. A lot of the events WIT hosts are inclusive of everybody and I think that’s really important. The other thing is having a space just for women, where they can connect with each other and provide support on topics that are unique to women or women in tech.”
“You absolutely have to get men involved.”
She continues, “You also want to help men understand what it means to be a sponsor and what it looks like for them to be in that role. Work to widen access to opportunities in tech. Actively think of ways you can equally distribute projects, be an active ally for the women on your team, and speak up as a sponsor on their behalf whenever you can. Invite mentees to a leadership meeting they wouldn’t otherwise get to attend and give them that access and visibility.”
(Andrea with Amy Weaver, President and Chief Financial Officer of Salesforce, at a Salesforce Women’s Network event)
Thanhia also shared a conversation she had with her sister-in-law, who was, at one point, reluctant about her daughter considering technology as a career path. Thanhia recounted, “I shared that it’s much broader than what her initial thoughts were and all that the field can offer. My niece ultimately decided not to go into tech, but it’s no longer because her mom didn’t want her to. I was surprised that we had to have this really rich conversation for her to overcome her own perceptions of the field and the stereotypes.”
Her story illustrated that it’s not only those who are actively making a career decision who need to know about the diverse array of technical roles or challenge biases. As Thanhia put it, “We have to make sure that not only women know this, but also communities and families and schools and counselors and really anyone who can influence women at any stage.”
“There are so many different roles, avenues, and disciplines that women can thrive in the technical field. It doesn’t just have to be one flavor.”
(Thanhia with her family by a lake)
Be mindful of diversity in all its forms, including those that aren’t outwardly visible.
Thanhia reflected on the earlier stages of her career, during which she was both afraid to speak up in meetings and didn’t feel heard during them. It was a cycle that fed into itself, as she got increasingly nervous as more thoughts that someone would ignore her entered her mind. It didn’t help that there weren’t others that looked like her in the space. She recalls having to establish her credibility over and over again simply because she “didn’t fit their image of who she should be based on the role she was playing.”
While she was able to overcome this obstacle and start owning her voice and space, I was curious about her thoughts on what others can also do to practice inclusive meetings, rather than always putting the onus on a single individual.
(Thanhia with her daughter Sadie and a close family friend)
“Recognize that not everyone participates in meetings in the same way. Some folks are great at on-the-spot responses and others need more time to process and reflect. It’s about providing different ways for participants to contribute. For example, share the agenda ahead of time and provide a Quip doc or Slack channel where people can share ideas before the meeting. And as the owner of that meeting, you can say, ‘Hey, Jimin, I saw this great idea you wrote in the doc, can you tell us more about that?’ Think of ways to make folks really comfortable coming into the meeting so they can contribute even more.”
This was a great reminder to be mindful of diversity in all its forms, including those that aren’t outwardly visible. It can make a significant impact on a person, relationships, or even the productivity of a meeting to be, for example, considerate of different personalities or the diverse ways in which individuals become comfortable speaking in front of a group.
“It’s just a matter of showing up and doing your best and pushing through even when you have doubts.”
And for those who may find it more challenging to speak up or are still finding their space, Andrea wrapped up our conversation with a welcoming reminder: “When people talk to me, sometimes they assume and say things like, ‘Oh, you’re so confident! You have it all together,’ and I want them to know that everybody has doubts. Everybody has insecurities and I do, too. It’s just a matter of showing up and doing your best and pushing through even when you have doubts. That’s what helps you overcome them. Look for mentors who don’t look like you, find a supportive group of colleagues or friends who can also help you, and you’ll make it through.“
(Andrea enjoying the outdoors)
Through it all, the drivers of change end up being each and every one of us. Andrea and Thanhia have had admirable, impressive career journeys so far and are actively helping other girls and women have similar opportunities. Beyond their individual efforts, it’s also clear that we all have the power to support one another. Whether it’s a dad who suggests technical writing, mentors who help open new doors, or an aunt who helps shatter stereotypes for her niece — we are always stronger when we are together. Women are incredible. We already have the power to do so much. Imagine how even higher we all could soar when there’s a community of advocates, partners, and mentors alongside and supporting us.
At Salesforce, we are committed to advancing gender equality in the workplace and in society. If you’re interested in a career at Salesforce, visit our careers page.
Editor’s Note: Thanhia Sanchez is now EVP, Sales