Another Technological First
A chat with Crystal McDonald, first-ever winner of the Ada Lovelace Woman of the Year in NOLATech Award.
Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, marked an important milestone for the New Orleans tech industry. On this date, for the first time ever, New Orleans women in technology were finally formally recognized for their work in what has become known as the “Silicon Bayou.”
The first Ada Lovelace Woman of the Year in NOLATech Award went to Crystal McDonald, co-founder and CEO of a local online marketplace for hourly-wage jobs called GoToInterview, in a sold-out event at the LookFar Startup Hub, a hybrid software development/accelerator company based in New Orleans. The award also serves as a celebration of Lovelace, widely recognized as the first computer programmer.
Of more than 20 candidates, including programmers, founders, executives and researchers, a panel of five judges chose to honor three winners, including McDonald and two runners-up: Staacy Cannon, founder and CEO of Grok and Banter, and Ashley Guidry, an engineer who works for NASA. Judges included Adele Tiblier, vice president of marketing at TurboSquid; Carol Markowitz, executive director at NOCHI; Hand Torbert, principal at RLMcCall Partners and EIR at Idea Village; Max Gaudin, COO at Operation Spark; and Tara Allegra Adams, foundation director at Dinner Lab.
Biz New Orleans caught up with Crystal McDonald after the ceremony to ask her a few questions about her journey to becoming this year’s most celebrated women in the NOLATech world.
Biz: What is your background and how did you get started working in tech?
Crystal McDonald: I’m originally from Houston, Texas. My mother is an educator and my father is an engineer. Both were great at their craft, but they both had their own entrepreneurial ventures as well. My mother has a knack for design and ran an interior design business and my dad’s first love was music, so the musician in him opened up a bar that featured live music.
My parents taught my siblings and I to create a business around the things that we loved. So we did. I started my first business when I was 11. It was a babysitting business for all of the moms on my street. Over the years, other ventures followed, including MBA admissions consulting and wedding planning.
Biz: How did GoToInterview come about?
CM: My co-founder (Todd McDonald) and I were in the fast food business and experienced hiring challenges. We needed a way to access and vet candidates quickly. We created GoToInterview to solve that problem.
We got out of the fast food business and into the people business, leveraging technology to help us address the issue in a streamlined, efficient way that benefits employers and job seekers.
Biz: What does this award mean to you personally?
CM: Ada Lovelace was a true visionary. She magically orchestrated math, science and poetry to create the foundation for computer programming as we know it today. I am honored and humbled to be the recipient of this award. It’s so much bigger than me — it represents the women and girls who boldly push themselves because they’re smart and capable — especially in the math and sciences. It’s for the women who came before us and cleared a pathway so that women today can achieve everything that they dream and are destined to achieve. This is for us all.
The award ceremony was held at Lookfar’s Startup Hub, decorated by New Orleans artist, Emily Thomas.
Biz: Since Ada Lovelace’s time, women have struggled to be fully recognized in the technical and scientific world in particular. What struggles have you faced on your journey and how have you overcome them?
CM: Ada Lovelace proved almost 200 years ago that women are incredibly smart and capable of doing anything men can do. Arguably, in some cases we do it better! Being a woman in tech has its typical challenges. Some say you can’t do it all. They assume that because you’re married, because you’re a mother, that you’re less committed to your work. I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. I love my family and my work – I can do both. I navigate these struggles by just delivering.
Biz: Women often have to work harder to be taken seriously when it comes to technical professions, but more and more women are being celebrated for their technical and business acumen today. How have you seen things change in a positive way since you started working in this industry?
CM: I recently read an article that stated, “The next iconic founders will be women.” There are more women executives and CEOs of venture-backed companies than ever before. Newsflash: Women have always been amazing! The progress in celebrating the abilities in technical skill and business acumen is long overdue, but welcomed nevertheless.
The showstoppers that we see today, like Elizabeth Holmes, who has taken Theranos (diagnostic testing) to a $10 billion valuation in 12 years, or Sheryl Sandberg, who in the wake of personal tragedy still inspires over 24,000 circles of women across the globe to “Lean In” to impact their jobs and communities, is nothing short of remarkable. We’ll continue to see the recognition of these accomplishments and the achievements of others as we continue in this journey. It’s really exciting!
Biz: Who are your greatest mentors and heroes?
CM: My greatest hero is my grandmother. She successfully raised five children as a single mother and worked long hours daily; sometimes two jobs, to ensure that her children had everything they needed. She never complained. My grandmother taught me the value of family, hard work and perseverance. Her spirit is laced in everything that I do.
Biz: What inspires you to do what you do? How do you keep things fresh and creative?
CM: We are in the people business. We help people get jobs. When people work they have better overall quality of life as it relates to health care, housing, transportation, food and education. That’s what inspires us — that’s what gets us up in the morning. Plus, this work is fun! To innovate and create through GoToInterview has been one of the most fulfilling endeavors that I’ve taken on.
I keep things fresh by changing my work space often. It’s almost impossible for me to sit still. I usually change work locations two or three times a day. Sometimes I’m inside my office, other times I sit outside and take in the smells and sounds to inspire creativity. I always listen to music for motivation and inspiration.
Biz: Where do you see the tech industry heading in the next decade? How do you see women’s roles in this booming industry growing and expanding?
CM: More women are going to college today for business and STEM than ever before. We will continue to see this manifest in the workforce as well. Women have so much to offer — the world is just seeing the tip of the iceberg for what we can really do.
Created from her need to vet candidates quickly while working in the fast food industry, GoToInterview.com brought McDonald into the tech world and she says she couldn’t be happier.
Biz: What is the most stereotypically “techy” thing about you?
CM: I sleep with my laptop and phone next to me. It’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep and usually the first thing I see when I wake up. Of course, I have an app for just about everything.
Biz: What is the least stereotypically “techy” thing about you?
CM: I still carry a day planner. I keep all of my appointments electronically, but sometimes I just need to see it on paper. I have a true appreciation for handwritten letters and thank you notes. It’s an art that’s losing its way in today’s world. I guess I’m just old school in that way.
Biz: Tell us about the fun side of the tech world.
CM: Can you say disruption, anyone? Uber came into our lives just 5 years ago and has changed the face of ground transportation globally as we know it. Seeing this kind of innovation in our lifetime and knowing that you can achieve it too is incredibly exciting to me. I just love it.
Biz: What is your favorite part about what you do?
CM: I really appreciate the process of identifying a problem and creating an innovative solution to solve it. Sometimes it’s hard to see the value in the process – the hard lessons, disappointments and challenges that surely come, but that’s what makes you better, that’s what makes you great. That’s the best part of being on this journey.
From the runners-up:
“I noticed the first positive change [for women in tech] in college, when more women were majoring in engineering year after year. We are still vastly outnumbered, however, in the field. I think the industry has been ready to accept women for some time now. I know when I started working in the industry, most of my colleagues were excited to be working with a female. They were eager and curious about what I had to bring to the table. It was a good change for them and a sign of progress for our culture. I was well received and welcomed to the tech industry without much hesitation. This tells me that the industry is just waiting to embrace more women in tech fields. Now is the time for more women to take advantage of this opportunity. Companies are actively seeking to diversify their workforce, as this has been deemed a great advantage for collaboration, so now’s the time for women to get involved in the industry and start leaving their mark.
Founder and CEO of Grok and Banter
Seven years ago, I did not love what I was doing and I had to work really hard to be taken seriously. Today, I work really hard because I love what I’m doing. If I’m not taken seriously by someone, I don’t waste my time with them. Just being a part of New Orleans and geeking out on something I love alongside other phenomenal women with the support of the entrepreneurial community — I’m afraid if I pinch myself I will wake up. The awareness that Chris Reade and Lindsay Fox from LookFar are creating now by celebrating women in NOLATech is laying the foundation that will eventually level the playing field. There are women like Julia Ballard, Kristen McEntyre and Jen Medberry who have been pushing through some of the boundaries a woman in tech and a woman in NOLATech have to navigate. They, and others, have made it easier for those of us stepping in now. It was exciting to see the growing community of women in NOLATech at LookFar’s Ada Lovelace event — nominees, judges, sponsors, writers and supporters.