Ada Lovelace Day - Solo.io founder Idit Levine on progress made, challenges faced and why she's not a fan of gender labelling
On this year's Ada Lovelace Day, a conversation with Idit Levine, founder and CEO of a $1 billion tech start-up, who rejects the widespread label of ‘women in tech’ as “dismissive”.
Ada Lovelace Day, which is held each year on the second Tuesday of October, is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
But one woman who emphatically rejects the use of such labels, which includes that of being a ‘woman in tech’ or ‘female founder’, is Idit Levine, Founder and Chief Executive of Solo.io. The distributed application network management software provider, which she describes as her “proudest achievement”, was set up just over five years ago and is already valued at $1 billion.
Levine explains why she finds gender-focused categorizations distasteful and (perhaps unintentionally) discriminatory:
To me, if someone says you’re a ‘woman founder’, it’s like saying you’re not a regular founder with the same skills and experience as a man. It implies that someone helped you on your way or that someone reached out and said they wanted a woman on their team. So to me, it’s a bit disrespectful. If you look at what I’ve achieved so far, it’s impressive whether I’m a man or a woman, so I feel it’s taking away from my achievements and is dismissive of my capabilities.
Levine was born and raised in Israel, where her grandparents settled after the Second World War. During her military service there, she played professional basketball for Elitzur-Holon, but subsequently followed in the footsteps of her older brother and sister. They had both pursued successful careers in tech after having receiving relevant training during their stint in the army.
In fact, it was by working in the tech sector herself that helped Levine fund her studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, where she read computer and biological science. She explains:
What caught my interest about tech was that I like to solve problems. I’m very logical and I think in steps, so to take a maths book and solve problems is my passion. But why I was drawn to it wasn’t the computer science part. It was about how to make things more efficient…I never specifically wanted to be a computer scientist. I wanted to be a doctor or architect, but it wasn’t that simple as my family didn’t have much money.
‘There’s nothing you can’t do’
Interestingly though, Levine indicates that the tech industry is not hugely dissimilar in many ways to the world of professional basketball, which includes its domination by men - although luckily this situation has “never fazed” her, she says:
In basketball, you rely on your team and the same is true for tech. There’s also that competitive element. You need to be driven to succeed in sports, and technology leaders possess a similar passion. We want to drive innovation, to connect the dots like nobody else has before us, the same way a basketballer wants to be the ‘Most Valuable Player’. Both of these aspects I’ve experienced in different ways in tech and sport but both have helped me reach where I am today.
After completing her degree, Levine moved to the US in 2005. Here she undertook software engineering roles at various start-ups before moving on to more senior management positions at cloud automation and management software provider DynamicOps (now owned by VMWare) and Dell EMC’s Cloud Management Division. Within 12 years though, she had fulfilled her dream of setting up her own company:
My parents always said to me that there’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it. So I never saw gender as a barrier - if I want to do something, I do it. I work hard and if it’s my passion, I’ll do the best I can.
Based on her own experiences though, a key piece of advice she would impart to other women is:
Be loud! In tech, like any industry, asking questions, introducing yourself and speaking up to offer your perspective is key to succeeding. I’ve always been unafraid to speak my mind and have no doubt that this has helped me to get where I am today, from sharing my knowledge as a software engineer to inspiring my team with my vision for Solo.io. Sometimes I surprise people with my confidence but it never fails to bring me to the right conversations.
The challenges women face
One such surprised person was a senior female manager at Dell EMC who came to Levine and asked for advice:
She said ‘how do you do that?’ and I said ‘what?’ She said ‘not be scared to talk and say what you want’, and I said ‘why wouldn’t I? What’s the worst that can happen?’ I’m very confident in myself, so I just think ‘why not?’
But Levine also acknowledges that women working in STEM professions do not always have it easy.
Typically we’re underestimated, and forging those important relationships from the position of an underdog can be an uphill struggle. We often have to be ready to work harder than many of our male counterparts – a reality that isn’t fair.
To illustrate the point, she cites the challenges she faced personally in raising money to fund her start-up in an environment that appeared to be 'an old boy’s network':
Raising money is all about trust, which is usually about personal relationships. I remember there was a venture capitalist who didn’t want to give me money, so I went to his offices to figure out what was going on. I saw someone there that he’d given money to and they gave each other hugs as he left. I felt like an outsider.
Getting there, slowly but surely
But Levine is not convinced that singling women out for preferential treatment is the answer either:
If, for example, a venture capitalist decides to decides to try and invest in at least one female-owned company, it doesn’t mean it’ll succeed. Building a company doesn’t end with getting the money – it’s only the start. You have to set the strategy and make the vision clear to encourage people to work for you, and if you don’t have those qualities, you’ll fail. So to me, positive discrimination doesn’t work…
She cites an example of what she means based on her own experience after first coming to the US specifically to work in the tech industry:
I was a very good engineer but couldn’t write English well. I became frustrated that I wasn’t being promoted and said to my manager, ‘I’m a better engineer than them, so why isn’t it happening?’ They said ‘you’re not good at writing documentation but it’s part of your job, and you have to do the whole job well to get promoted’. So I worked hard and when I got it right, I got the promotion. But it wouldn’t have helped me, or anyone else, to get it before I’d learned everything I needed to know.
As to what Ada Lovelace herself would think of the tech industry today though, Levine believes she would be encouraged by the progress made to date:
I think she’d say, ‘Wow, there’s definitely movement in the right direction, although there’s still a way to go and things could move faster’. She’d be impressed that there are way more opportunities in computer science these days and way more exposure, which is definitely driving more people into it and creating more opportunities. It’s everywhere – not just adopted by a few companies. So things are definitely getting better.