Sharon Wienbar, CEO of Hackbright Academy

Editor's Note:  Since DRIVEN launched about six months ago, it's been clear that many of the favorite profiles are those that highlight women who have left one career in order to pursue another.  Sharon Wienbar may have one of the best examples of that.  Sharon left a venture capital firm in order to pursue a CEO role, a decision fueled by a gut-instinct.  Sure, Sharon has the chops to succeed in any role she chooses, but after years and years of taking a more traditional path, she decided that this was her time to pursue what fed her soul.  What I love about Sharon is that her years of wisdom and experience allow for some great advice.  But what I love even more is that the organization she now leads encourages and empowers women to dive-in headfirst to a male dominated industry.  The collective efforts of Sharon and Hackbright Academy will not only #changetheratio, but will undoubtedly change the future of generations of women to come.

Photo Courtesy Sharon Wienbar

Photo Courtesy Sharon Wienbar

{leader of the hack(ers)}

Hackbright Academy is a woman-only engineering school based in San Francisco, and Sharon Wienbar is their fearless leader.

Born and raised in Long Beach, California, Sharon attended Long Beach Polytechnic High—known for its great athletics, academics, and famous students like Snoop Dogg.

At the time, coding and software engineering didn’t exist.  This was pre-Google, pre-Apple, pre-IBM.

Sharon was a smart cookie, though, and her college counselor pushed her to look beyond the confines of geography and consider applying to schools like Harvard and UC Berkeley.

“I was particularly strong in math, (actually captain of the math team!), which got me on a track towards engineering, but I didn’t really understand what the range of engineering jobs were.”

Sharon in middle school after a math competition / Photo courtesy Sharon Wienbar

Sharon in middle school after a math competition / Photo courtesy Sharon Wienbar

{brilliant.com}

Sharon was admitted to Harvard University on scholarship, and was able to skip her freshman year thanks to the myriad of AP courses she had already accrued.  Have I already mentioned how brilliant Sharon is?  Well, let me remind you again.

Three years later, Sharon had graduated Harvard with a degree in systems engineering and was ready to take on Harvard graduate school during what should have been her fourth year of school.  She was 21 at the time.

“Me and another girlfriend, who I am still friends with today, were generally the only women in our engineering classes.”

Companies were chomping at the bit to get this young Harvard engineering school grad inside their doors, but Sharon was admittedly undecided on the path she should take. She worked at Bain & Company consulting for a few years before deciding that she wanted to explore working as a curator and business executive in an art museum.

“Stanford Business School had this unique public management program which is an MBA with a specific focus on managing not for profits.  I enrolled in the program and then started interning at an art museum… and I hated it!”

This experience was a formative one—it helped Sharon begin to narrow down her interests, bringing her back to Bain and then eventually to Adobe Systems as a software and marketing expert.

Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

{to VC...and beyond!}

In 2001, Sharon was presented with this incredible opportunity to join Scale Venture Partners as a “deal-doing partner” with the title of Director.

“Scale Ventures has the most female investment professionals of any venture capital firm in America.”

The purpose of a venture capital firm, as a refresher, is to invest in a smaller company or startup in exchange for equity in that company.

Sharon found the culture of Scale VP to be fairly progressive, a place that supported female investing talent inside and outside of the company.

“While I was at ScaleVP, I was researching an article I was writing for TechCrunch on ‘How to Hire Female Engineers’, and looking at the number of women who had graduated with a computer science degree.  The number was SO tiny, I figured there had to be a place that was dedicated to solving this problem, which is when I called Hackbright.”

 

Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

{#changetheratio}

Inspired by their mission, Sharon scheduled a coffee meeting with the founder of Hackbright, hoping to gain more information and statistics about female engineers for her article.

“At the end of the meeting, I asked him ‘what can I help YOU with?’ He told me that they were in search of a COO.  I walked out to my car and sat there thinking ‘wait a second, I want that job! ’”

 Sharon says that in all her years learning about and investing in hundreds of new companies, never has she walked out of a meeting thinking ‘I want to work for this company myself!’

Hackbright’s mission, is to #changetheratio of male to female engineers in the workforce.  By 2020, it’s forecasted that there will be a million unfilled engineering jobs in America, and the current traditional educational pipeline will produce 60,000 female software graduates. That’s where Hackbright comes in, graduating 200 women engineers a year in their immersive 12-week program.

photo courtesy hackbright academy

photo courtesy hackbright academy

{coders have more fun}

Starting as an advisor, Sharon became CEO of the company that has inspired her both personally and professionally.

“We are growing so rapidly, but quality of our curriculum has always been our first priority.  We have a student/teacher ratio of 4 to 1, which is incredible.  But in order of us to have the impact of changing the ratio that we want to have, we have to dramatically spread our wings and get beyond one classroom of women which is how it was when I started.”

Since joining Hackbright, Sharon has done just that, scaling the number of classrooms from one to three.  

Hackbright’s applicants come from a variety of backgrounds; from a professional soccer player, to an esthetician, to someone who has always been interested in tech, but hasn’t had the opportunity to immerse herself…until now.

Sharon at Hackbright Academy / Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

Sharon at Hackbright Academy / Photo Courtesy Hackbright Academy

{DRIVEN q&a}

What was it about Hackbright and Hackbright’s mission that not only inspired you, but compelled you to walk away from your current job and take an executive role with them?

“It was a combination of good business and a great social mission. The social mission to #changetheratio is very timely—there’s a big societal need for women engineers, which by the way for a VC, we think of it as a big market opportunity. It’s also a topic that I’m very passionate about so it was easy for me to get behind it.”

You went to Harvard on a big academic scholarship.  Why is that so important for you to talk about?

“The truth of the matter is that it was easier for me to attend Harvard than it was to go to a UC school. It’s important for me to talk about that because for young people who are at the top of their class, but at the bottom of the socioeconomic bracket, the most selective schools are actually the least expensive.  The average cost for someone to go to Harvard on financial aid is $13,000 a year.  If you can get admitted, it’s dramatically less expensive to go to Harvard, Yale or Stanford than to a state school.”

What’s your advice for re-inventing yourself in your career?

“I’m a huge believer in separating the decision to leave one place, and go to another, when you’re switching jobs. I think it’s important to emotionally and intellectually give yourself the room to decide where you want to go and be thoughtful about choosing the next direction.  A lot of people go to a job, because they want to get out of the job they’re in. Be thoughtful about what you’re looking for—what do you like, what are you good at, what do you WANT to do, and be honest with yourself in answering these questions.”

You have two college-aged daughters, what’s the career and life advice you give them?

“When you have to make a decision about your life, try to make a decision that will open more doors than it closes. For example, if you love liberal arts…go for it! But ALSO keep up with your quantitative skills, because then should you decide you want to do something analytical, you haven’t closed off that option.”

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?

“The one thing I wish I would have done differently is worked, at some point, in sales.  Sales is an incredibly hard and awesome life-skill to have.  I’ve learned that as you become more senior in whatever career you’re in, it’s all about sales!  You’re either selling yourself to the talent you’re trying to recruit, selling your idea to investors for capital, or selling something to big strategic customers.  I wish I was classically trained in sales methodology at some place that had a really rigorous training program for door openers, process management, and closing.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

"Any time you try something, you give yourself the chance to get feedback on what you like and where you want to go next. Sitting and thinking about what you might want to do is no way to decide—get out there and try it. That was essentially the advice my masters project advisor gave me when I was paralyzed with fear thinking about what to do after graduation. He phrased it in engineering lingo: “a system needs to be in motion to receive and process."

To learn more about Hackbright Academy, click here!

Next week on Driven, it's our final profile before summer-vacation ;)  May is ALS awareness month, and we'll be honoring one of its fighters.  Meet Sarah; she's a mom, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a writer, a runner, and so many other things-- and she's also living with ALS.  We'll hear about her journey and her story next week, on DRIVEN.

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