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Grace Series Talks Featuring CEOs, Serial Entrepreneurs, and Professors Continue to Inspire and Empower Students

Women have influenced eras and changed the world. Throughout history, women have made extensive contributions to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The need for women in STEM is ever-growing, and it continues to comprise one of the world’s strongest growing workforces. This semester, the Fall 2019 UT Dallas Grace Series Talks featured three inspiring female members of the tech community, Dr. Janell Straach, a Rice University CS Professor and former UT Dallas CS professor, and one the Grace Series founders, Uni Yost, CEO and Founder of GoAskJay Inc., and Dr. Smita Bakshi, president and co-founder of zyBooks. All three speakers’ talks attracted a full room of eager UT Dallas CS/SE students who wished to learn more about their journeys as leaders and technologists who advocate for women in STEM. This semester’s Grace Series talks showcased discussions on self-determination, goals, and journeys of leading women in tech.

The Grace Series Talks at UT Dallas generally feature a wide range of speakers, including UT Dallas Computer Science and Software Engineering alumni, UT Dallas CS/SE professors, as well as other distinguished female and male technologists in the field. Drs. Pushpa KumarJanell Straach, and Linda Morales conceived the idea of the UT Dallas Grace Series as a result of attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference (GHC) several years ago. The conference, fittingly named after the woman who helped pioneer computer programming, Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, involves presentations designed to bring research and career interests of women in computing to the forefront. Every year, GHC brings together the community of female and male technologists, highlighting the best minds in computing and spotlighting the contributions of women to computing. The UT Dallas Computer Science Grace Series lectures are fashioned after the GHC Conference format.

From the Left: Prof. Laurie Thompson, Dr. Karen Mazidi, Dr. Janell Straach, and Dr. Pushpa Kumar

The Fall 2019 Grace Series began with former UT Dallas CS Professor, Current Rice University CS Professor, and Co-Founder of the Grace Series lectures, Dr. Janell Straach. Dr. Straach delivered her talk titled “20,000+ Days of Learning and Still Learning.” In her talk, Dr. Straach spoke about her career as a lifelong learner since birth and how she continues to keep learning new things each day. Dr. Straach weaves her career path into a journey of learning and compares it to machine learning algorithms, including classification, clustering, perceptrons, dimensionality reduction, and neural networks. Straach spoke about her passion for teaching and her love for learning. She advised students to “keep learning, and don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. You know much more than you think you do! You will figure out what your strengths are and how to leverage them.” Throughout her journey, Dr. Straach’s path has included many career pivots. “Pivots can be scary, but I assure you that they can help with accelerating the learning process,” she noted. Dr. Straach shared that when she first started school, she was told only men do computer science. However, this did not slow her down, and she embraced computer science. Dr. Straach is a proponent for women in STEM, and throughout the course of her career has made it her point to help other women feel included in all fields of tech by fostering a community of fearless women in tech. Dr. Straach’s passion is recruiting and retaining females in technology careers. During her time at UT Dallas, she founded numerous camps specifically for young high school and middle school women who are interested in tech. She is chair of the board of Women In CyberSecurity-WiCyS, which is a national nonprofit dedicated to recruit, retain, and promote women in cybersecurity.

Dr. Straach has a diverse background, including academic and industry experience. She holds a BS in CS degree from Angelo State University, an MS in CS from Texas A&M University, an MBA from The University of Dallas, and a Masters and PhD from UT Dallas. Prior to her current position with Rice University, she was a member of the faculty at UT Dallas. Before her academic appointments, she worked in the industry for IBM and other large corporations. She has taught at the college, university, and corporate levels.

Uni Yost (left) with Dr. Pushpa Kumar (right)

The second speaker for the fall 2019 grace series featured Ms. Uni Yost, serial entrepreneur and CEO/founder of GoAskJay. In her talk titled, “Aligning Technology And Marketing: Influencing Future Career Options” Ms. Yost spoke on the importance of how marketing and technology, although two very different fields, are intertwined with each other making them the perfect pair for one another. “You can’t have tech without business and marketing, and you can’t have business and marketing without tech,” Ms. Yost noted. After 20 years as a serial entrepreneur in technology, consulting, and business, Ms. Yost advised students that “life is short! In this day and age, you need to have guts and passion.” Ms. Yost continued, saying, “It takes a lot of guts to be a woman, let alone being a woman in tech or in my case a woman in tech and business working on creating large-scale companies. If I can do it, then so can you! It just takes hard work and dedication.”

Ms. Yost has been a serial entrepreneur in technology, consulting, and business for over 20 years. She has led and managed multiple businesses that have focused on creating new products and services in numerous industries such as insurance, finance, healthcare, real estate, banking, mortgages, and more. Ms. Yost is the CEO and Founder of GoAskJay, a leading innovative Insurance (Insurtech) and Financial (Fintech) marketplace platform in a $4 trillion insurance industry with a vision for global growth. She is leading a majority women executive leadership team to grow the company in the US and beyond to a multi-billion-dollar company within five years.

From the Left: Prof. Don Vogel, Prof. Laurie Thompson, Dr. Smita Bakshi, Dr. Pushpa Kumar, and Dr. Ovidiu Daescu

The final speaker for the Fall 2019 Grace Series was Dr. Smita Bakshi, President, and Co-Founder of zyBooks. In her talk titled “An Entrepreneur’s Journey: It all Began with a CS/Engineering Degree,” Dr. Bakshi discussed her journey across the distinct phases of her career – academia, technology, and entrepreneurship – and the reasons behind each pivot. Dr. Bakshi highlighted the challenges and lessons she learned throughout her career. Prior to creating zyBooks, Dr. Bakshi was an assistant professor at UC Davis in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She has also spent ten years of her career in engineering, product management, and business development in the software industry. She reminded students of the importance of getting their CS/SE degree, saying, “Your CS Degree will take you anywhere! A great technical background is a great launchpad and base to have. What gives me the greatest confidence is my tech background.”

She spoke about her experience in founding zyBooks and growing it to 80 employees in 5 years. She advised students who wish to start their own company to start small and grow! You don’t have to be like Uber or Lyft, just find your passion and turn it into an idea! Take risks! Join a startup that you find interesting.” She emphasized that one of the most essential concepts she has learned through her journey is to foster your growth mindset instead of the fixed mindset. “Your mindset is a powerful thing. It can determine what the ideas and experiences you’re open to, your success in business and life. Having a growth mindset and understanding the ways your mindset might be fixed can help you grow as a person, you’re your definition of success, and live a happier and more fulfilled life.” In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and, therefore, cannot change. Alternatively, in a growth mindset, people have an underlying belief that their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. “When people believe they can become smarter, they realize that their effort has an effect on their success, and so they put in extra time, leading to higher achievement,” remarked Dr. Bakshi.

Dr. Bakshi co-founded zyBooks in 2012 to empower college students and other learners to acquire knowledge and skills in STEM disciplines with highly interactive learning materials and teaching tools to make university instruction more effective and efficient. zyBooks present a “less text, more action” interactive approach to learning, aimed at increasing student confidence, engagement, and learning. Wiley acquired zyBooks in July 2019. Dr. Bakshi is passionate about STEM education and in particular, promoting technical careers to women.

The Grace Series will continue next spring with more featured guests from both academia and industry.

Since the inception of the UT Dallas Grace Series in the spring of 2015, a total of twenty-four inspiring women and men have spoken, including:


ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT

The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 3,315 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,110 master’s students, 165 Ph.D. students,  52 tenure-track faculty members, and 44 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2019. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.

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