I'm intrigued to find out more about your journey Sylvia, but first tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m currently the VP of Product & Growth at 500px, an online photography community with 10M+ members globally. There I lead multi-disciplinary teams to create delightful products and work on user acquisition, community building, and product monetization. I live in Toronto with my husband and 2 kids, and in my spare time I love to travel, read fantasy fiction, and spending time outdoors.
What were you doing before you joined 500px?
I’ve always been at the intersection of marketing and data - before 500px I held roles at Google, eBay, OANDA, and ScribbleLive leading cross-functional teams to drive business value and growth. I’m also a mother of two, and a breast cancer survivor.
Getting involved in Tech is still a hot topic for women, what was your push into the industry?
I don’t think there was any one specific thing that got me into tech. My dad is an engineer, and he’s always been a strong influence on me. But aside from that, I’ve always been interested in STEM subjects; I like to create and engineer things. Growing up I created games and puzzles for my cousins to play with, and in high school I took robotics and computing classes as my electives. Ultimately my interests led me to select Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo as my undergraduate program, and because it was a co-op program, I ended up getting a wide range of tech experience in my early 20s - from MRI research to extrusion die optimization and CRM consulting. That, of course, kickstarted my entire career in tech.
How have you found your journey so far and what has been your greatest accomplishment?
I’ve worked at amazing places doing great things with great people and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.
Defeating breast cancer at a young age is probably my largest personal accomplishment. Career-wise I’d say building teams and creating programs at companies like Google where my work has lasting impacting is also something I’m proud of. And of course, coaching others is on that list as well - I’ve been fortunate enough to coach some great talent, including Jordan Pierson who made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2016.
What has been the most challenging thing so far?
Given my medical history, balancing health and work / home life has been the most challenging in recent years. Most working moms identify with the challenges of work-life-balance, but for me there is an added layer of worry about getting sick again. On many days it’s a mental game - a positive attitude is required for career success and health, but it’s not always easy to stay positive when the pressure piles on, at work and at home.
What educational route did you take to get to where you are now?
I have a Bachelor of Applied Science from the University of Waterloo and a Masters of Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. But honestly, applied learning is the most important. For me the 6 internships that I did as part of my undergraduate degree was what really helped to stage my career. Learning is a lifelong journey, and continuous reading is a must to stay current, especially in tech. I also wouldn’t underestimate learning unrelated disciplines; the skills you gain there could be the extra edge that helps you to stand out in tech. Currently I’m learning Mandarin in my spare time.
Tell me about your experience working in a male dominated industry?
As a woman in tech I’d have to say that I’ve been super lucky. I’ve only ever experienced support and encouragement from those around me. Even when I’ve been outnumbered as a woman (I was the only woman on the executive staff of ScribbleLive) my peers have been understanding of my needs, be it breastfeeding or working from home to deal with a sick kid.
I have, unfortunately, come across many other women who have not been as fortunate as me. I’ve spoken at various panels and events about gender diversity in tech and invariably women approach me afterward, sharing their frustrations at having been passed over for promotions, harassed, or demeaned in the workplace based on their gender. The answers or solutions to the problems aren’t always clear, so having continued discussion is always a good way forward, and I’m heartened by the increased attention the topic is getting within the tech industry.
What advice would you give to young female entrepreneurs getting ready to enter the tech industry?
Don’t be afraid to fail and jump in! Get mentorship, know that being nerdy is cool, and don’t feel guilty about your choices. And if confidence is something you lack, check out my full list of tips here.
How do you think tech will look in 10 years for consumers and more women getting into tech?
Increased adoption of AI and VR/AR usage in our daily lives will definitely change the landscape. It will become increasingly important for anybody in tech to be flexible and adaptive to change, and I personally think there will be a new emphasis on the creative disciplines that will be harder for AI to disrupt.
Getting more women into tech can only help us to adapt to these technological changes better, especially if the women are in leadership roles. Diversity of perspective is required to make sure that the technology we build is providing a net benefit without unintended economic, social, or environmental side-effects.