‘Really momentous changes will happen’: a chat with Kathryn Foster
EarthTech ambassador Kathryn Foster exudes an infectious enthusiasm for STEM. With decades of experience in the software industry, across firms ranging from Microsoft to lean, innovative start-ups, she’s got a unique perspective on what it takes to make something new, and why it’s worth developing the skills to generate your own ‘upwards spiral.’
Q: So let’s start at the beginning – how did you get your start in STEM?
Well, when I started university, I found calculus really hard, and chemistry really hard. So of course I decided I wasn’t good at it, and enrolled in a business path instead.
But after that, I got a job for a mobile phone company. I ended up working on a project where I converted our sales system to a database, and in the process, I rediscovered this passion for computer science. I became a multi-platform systems engineer, basically setting up internet access to buildings and solutions inside companies. And from that, an opportunity came up at Microsoft.
Q: And what was it like inside Microsoft?
At the start, I could go all week and be the only one using the woman’s bathroom. The only females that time were the receptionists, or maybe HR and marketing.
I felt like I had to put on a suit of armour every day going to work – I had to look like one of the guys, wear ripped t-shirts and jeans. I found I had to communicate differently, like a man. I had to stop explaining myself, and just start asserting.
After a while I asked for some professional coaching. The feedback was that I was being inauthentic. So changed the way I dressed. I stopped trying to dress like one of the guys. It wasn’t about the clothes – it was about how I felt. I had to dress the part of an intelligent woman to be authentic, and confident in myself.
Q: So you’re obviously passionate about getting girls into tech. What should young women know about that?
A: I think STEM is a tool, the same way business or languages are a tool. Our solutions we use in this world are designed either by scientists or artists. And the way I see it, STEM is a tool to create that, to get what you want around you. If you want to have a part in it, you need STEM.
Q: What’s stopping more girls getting into STEM now?
A: There’s this subliminal message in Western society that girls are not good at STEM subjects, so you don’t have to try in the first place.
And it’s true that those subjects are hard, and we teach everyone that it’s hard, and of course it’s human nature that when we encounter something hard we want an excuse to turn away to something easier.
But if girls appreciate that STEM is a set of tools they can use to solve the problems they’re actually passionate about solving, it’s in context. It’s still hard, but there’s a reason to not turn away and just put your head down and learn it.
Q: Let’s talk about the project you’re working on now. How does sustainability come into it?
I was born in the 1970s, so my generation is really that single-use, consumable plastic, air-pollution generation. And the reality is that we’ve created this trash problem and environmental problem, so now we need to go fix it.
My project is a data centre that is carbon neutral. I’m doing that because from a business point of view, it’s the smartest thing I can do. The biggest costs of a data centre are power, and internet access. So if I cut the cost of producing my energy by 50 cents on the dollar, it makes business sense. And as a result the environment wins too.
Q: And that’s the world we’re entering – sustainability is no longer a greenie, hippie notion, but now it just makes business sense.
A: Yes, and it’s exciting. It’s a problem to be solved, but it’s not a burden. This old world of business is about taking, but not giving back. I call it the downwards spiral. But this new way is an upward spiral – you’re giving back by giving more opportunities and positive outcomes, which in turn generate more.
Q: And we’re in a huge shift at the moment. Humanity is realising we need to make some fairly significant changes. There’s a huge opportunity for creativity.
A: Well, technology has given power to people who traditionally never had it. All you need is a laptop and an internet connection, and you can make a business that offers a solution and makes money from it.
Everyone was surprised by how Uber disrupted the taxi market, but that’s just one business model. Every industry will be disrupted by the internet. I’m excited to see what happens. It’s going to be messy, but there’s going to be a lot of really cool innovation.
Q: Yes, and turning our industries into a sustainable model will be a massive change.
A: You asked earlier about why I’m passionate about girls getting in STEM – it’s that digital sphere where the really momentous changes will happen.
But in order to create a solution in that space, you have to understand it. Necessity is the mother of invention. So it’s actually awesome that we urgently need to become sustainable and start giving back.
The biggest ‘ah-hah’ moments of my life were those where I realised that to get what you want, you have to be ready to take it. Don’t sit around waiting for people to give you what you want. As a woman you don’t need to wait, regardless of what society says you should do. Sometimes you can be quietly assertive.