Mentoring, Code Camps Can Help Advance Women in STEM

Read time: 12 mins
Square CFO Sarah Friar

Earlier this year, The Financial Women of San Francisco selected Sarah Friar, Chief Financial Officer of Square, a Coupa customer, as its 2014 Financial Woman of the Year. The award recognizes Friar for her leadership roles in corporate finance and in high technology startups, as well as for her passionate advocacy for the advancement of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

Friar will be honored at a luncheon in San Francisco on October 2. Coupa is proud to be a co-sponsor of the luncheon, which benefits FWSF’s scholarship fund. We had the opportunity to chat with Sarah about her journey from intern at a gold mine in Ghana to managing partner at Goldman Sachs to the C-suite at Square, where she is actively involved with College and High School Code Camps that bring together young women studying or interested in computer science.

Coupa:  It seems that many girls self-elect out of STEM fields at a young age. Why do you think that is? And how were you personally able to avoid that fate?

Sarah: At Square, when we look at just how many female engineers are available to hire, we're looking at about 20% of the class. If you look up the funnel at the high school level,the pool keeps shrinking.

We've thought about how to solve that problem. We started with Code Camp, which is oriented towards undergraduates and bringing a cohort of young women into Square. We do it in January and August and they come for five days. We teach them engineering and leadership. We started with 15 young women. As of today nearly 60 young women have participated.

Then we thought, how do we get more people coming into Code Camp? We looked at high school because one of the biggest drivers of young women going into STEM fields, particularly computer science, is that they feel confident in a college environment, which usually means they did something in high school. So, we came up with the concept of High School Code Camp.

It is still a small program, around 10 San Francisco high school girls. We just looked at schools around us in San Francisco, and we took the AP computer science course and turned it into something that we could teach here at Square.

The interesting thing was, our engineers thought the material was very theoretical. They said, "Okay. We need to make this practical. Instead of talking about code, we actually need to show them how they would do it, because the buzz that you get from creating something with a line of code that impacts your phone or your computer, that's what gets you hooked."

Ultimately we're trying to get further down that pipe. Seeing young girls, even at a very early age, decide they're not good at STEM is one of the biggest problems we need to keep thinking through.

Coupa: Do you think this self-selection is more cultural, or is it the way these subjects are taught?

Sarah: I think it's both. I think we need to remember that people learn in many very different ways. Actually seeing something in action in a job context is very important. I think in addition, it is hard when you walk into a room and you're one woman in a group of 100 men. It can feel a little bit lonely sometimes.

Coupa: So the second part of that question . . . How were you personally able to not self-select out of STEM?

Sarah: I was lucky to have some amazing mentors. I had a math teacher who was slightly crazy, but he really brought math alive. He had no bias. He just wanted the folks who were best at the subject to excel.

Also, I went to a very small school. The classes were tiny, about eight to 10 people by the time we were doing A-levels (16-18 years old). I think there were three of us, three girls, who did physics. We were three out of 10, but that's actually not a bad percentage versus bigger school systems where you would probably be three girls out of 50.

I think by the time I got to university, the foundation had already been laid. I thought I was good at math. I knew I loved physics. I knew I loved chemistry. At that stage, I never felt that sense of, "I don't know if I belong here," because I had already had a really strong grounding. That's why I think it begins very early in our school systems.

Coupa: When you were at Oxford, studying Metallurgy, Economics, and Management, were there many women in your classes?

Sarah: MEM was a very small group. There were probably 20 of us in a year, versus engineering which would have been 100 plus. So when I was in my MEM cohort, it was again, three or four women out of 20-30, still not a bad percentage. But when we went to courses with the broader engineering group, we were definitely walking into a lecture hall of all men. But because you got to come back into a very small cohort, it never got completely overwhelming.

When I left Oxford, even though I did an internship in engineering and thought a lot about it, I didn't do it as a career. That internship, while it taught me a lot, definitely taught me that there were no women. So it just didn't feel like a place I was going to excel.

Coupa: Is there anything that you took away from that internship that still resonates for you today?

Sarah: It was probably the first time in my life where I felt like I couldn't actually do it all. I'd always been that kid that, whatever it was, I was going to stretch and try to do it. The great thing about my parents is they always had such blind faith in me. They certainly never told me anything wasn't possible.

I knew I wanted to do an engineering-focused internship, and I wormed my way into this internship in Ghana. I can't even remember how many people I worked on to get me there. Then I had a "Holy crap," moment.

I got picked up from the airport by Ashanti Goldfields (now part of AngloGold Ashanti). I got driven in a Jeep, probably four hours, to a place called Obuasi where the gold mine was. They dropped me off at this little house where I was going to stay.

In my head, I imagined I was going to live in a dorm, and there would be other people. Suddenly I'm in a foreign country all by myself. It's dark because the electricity doesn't stay on all night. I think I had a flashlight or some sort of kerosene lantern. I was terrified of the insects, which were ginormous.

Then I showed up for work the next day. I felt like a spare wheel. They didn’t really know what to do with me. They ultimately figured out a program that I could work on, but they were very white-glove with me as if they were thinking, "Oh, my God. She's a woman. What do we do with her?"

Coupa: Well, they must have known that coming in, right?

Sarah: You would think. But yeah, it was definitely a bit of an eye-opener, as in, okay, maybe I stretched a little too far. Holy moly. I'm going to have to live with the consequences for the next six weeks, because I can't go home. Terrifying but ultimately an amazing experience.

I got a lot of practical learning about being in an engineering situation. I definitely came back and said, "I don't think this is for me. I just don't see how, as a person but especially as a 20-year-old woman, how I could possibly be successful in this context."

People always say, "You worked on Wall Street. Wasn't that a very kind of male-dominated environment?" To which I say, "You should try working in a mine."

Coupa: So, this was the first time you really had that experience of being the lone woman, but that is the reality many girls experience in STEM classes in school.

Sarah: Exactly, and probably why now, today, I feel so strongly about changing it.

Coupa: What’s at stake here? How can businesses be better by bringing more women into leadership roles?

Sarah: There's got to be a business reason if companies are going to change. First and foremost, it's just talent. I love this Warren Buffet quote: When someone asked him how was he so successful he replied, "Well, for a start, I only had to compete with half the population."

Talent is talent. We've gotten to a point where more than 50% of doctors are female. I think in law, it's a very similar statistic. Clearly, there's a huge amount of intellectual horsepower that you're missing out on if you're not looking at both genders.

Second, you need to look like your customer and feel like your customer if you're actually going to create products your customers love.

Coupa: How do you think women might be able to help with some of the issues in finance today?

Sarah: Corporate finance, I think, is generally improving. There is still not the number of women CFOs that there should be. I've always found that once you do get women promoted to senior levels--this is true of any minority, by the way--people typically get more comfortable.

In my corporate finance group at Square, I think we're over 50% women. I don't walk into an interview and say, "Oh, we have to hire the woman." It just kind of naturally starts happening. Diversity breeds diversity.

I think also recognizing that mentorship, which is what SWSF is all about, is so important. When I was at Goldman, the year I made managing director, I had this wonderful sponsor. About a year out from the whole MD process, which is a pretty big deal at Goldman, she had been assigned to be my mentor.

We had a meeting, and she asked, "So how's the MD process going?" I was kind of coy. I said, "Oh, I probably should ask you. How do you think people think about me?"

She said, "Okay. Enough of that. What are you doing for your MD process?" I was taken back. I said, "I'm just trying to work really hard." She said, "Terrible idea. You need to be very strategic about how you think about this. " I was awed.  No one ever told me this.

I really appreciated that this mentor took me in hand and forced me to stop being coy about something that was actually really important to me and start focusing on it. I think that's one side of mentorship, pushing people out of their comfort zone.

I think the other is the emotional side of it. When times are dark, if this woman or this person, because it doesn't always have to women that are your mentors, if this person went through something similar, and look how successful they are, then of course I'm going to survive, so let’s move on. I think it's a very important part of mentorship.

Coupa: It sounds like it was important that your mentor was a woman, and one of the things that's at stake here, as we bring more women up, is that there are more women available to mentor.

Sarah: Exactly. I mentor a lot of young women that are going on a maternity leave. That's something that a man can't really tactically help you with, because they’ve not experienced it. It's very personal.

I like hearing someone's story and saying, "Okay. I think I could do that, or that doesn't work for me, but maybe there's a nugget in here of something useful." I think that's the point of mentorship. I always say you're creating a patchwork quilt. Everyone's patchwork quilt looks different, but from each mentor, I'm pulling a different shade of material that I'm going to pull together into what is right ultimately for me.

What I don't love when I talk about gender and mentoring is to come across as a complainer, because I think it's not constructive. I’d much rather talk about tactical things people can do to solve the gender gap, and get into the actual practical activities.

We have a value at Square called "Start Small". If you just start small, and you can impact 30 women, then 40 women, then maybe we can get it to 50 women. Maybe we can persuade three other companies to do this. Then you're at 150 women. If you can just step-by-step help individuals, that to me is certainly one way to make a difference.