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After detailing her journey in academia and the tech industry—one marked by impressive highs and heart-wrenching lows—Ann Kilzer breaks into a broad smile.

“I always joked that I work at a company that is 33 percent women, 33 percent people named Jeff, and 33 percent people wearing a bow tie every day.”

Kilzer is referring to Curvegrid Inc., a Tokyo-based block­chain startup co-founded by former Goldman Sachs vice president Jeff Wentworth and computer scientist William Metcalfe—the latter known for his near-daily habit of wearing a bow tie.

About a year ago, Kilzer became Curvegrid’s first hire. She was taken on as a software developer to push forward their block­chain app development platform, MultiBaas, which facilitates the creation of decentralized apps and makes the Ethereum network easier to use. Ethereum is an open-source, blockchain-based distributed computing platform.

Today, as the company’s lead software engineer, Kilzer is in charge of a growing team of developers who are paving the way for deployment of MultiBaas later this year.

But she is not just leading Curvegrid’s foray into the brave new world of block­chain, the underlying technology for assets such as crypto­currency. She is also a champion of the rights of underrepresented groups in the tech world.

Speaking to The ACCJ Journal, Kilzer said she is happy about her work at Curvegrid and is proud of her position at the company, as well as the desire of its founders to support her as a woman in tech.

After all, it was at Curvegrid that she received her first promotion as a professional, an act that recognized her talent as a developer and a leader.

When she told Metcalfe that they were the first employer to promote her, he replied, “Oh, in that case, you’ve been undervalued.”

When she started at Curvegrid, Kilzer worked on backend, data­bases, and then front-end development while teaching herself blockchain-based technologies.

While the work itself is exciting, she really appreciates being part of a startup because of the opportunities it offers to shape the future and to do so in an industry that is full of promise.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something from the ground up with people I really believe in and trust. It’s been the best job I’ve ever had.”

Kilzer was born in St. Louis, MO, and raised in Missoula, a small town of some 70,000 in Montana. As a child, she dreamed of pursuing graduate research in math, a subject for which she showed an early aptitude.

When college beckoned, she chose Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where she triple majored and earned two degrees—one a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, the other a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Art and Mathematics, with a minor in German language.

She did her graduate research in computer science at the University of Texas in Austin, and during that time she interned at tech giant Google. Then, when she took the next step into the world of work, she was employed by a transport and logistics company.

After a stint as a software developer at a startup in Austin, TX, she transitioned to employment-related search engine provider Indeed, working in the company’s Tokyo office.

And yet, she ultimately chose to return to work for a startup. Why?

“I really feel that, with startups, if you build a decent culture from the beginning that is caring, you’re going to get a very different culture than if you add it on later as a Band-Aid.”

Kilzer is talking about endemic bias against women, an issue that plagued her early career in academia and the tech world.

Like many women in such fields, she struggled to be res­pected and recognized for her talent. That changed when she joined Curvegrid.

Sadly, though perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, her struggle for recognition began as far back as childhood—and her first love: math.

“For me, math was like a game. It was like candy. It was just fun,” Kilzer recalls, thinking back on how she took to the subject like a duck to water.

“When I was in first or second grade, I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to go to grad school.’”

Kilzer enjoyed art and creativity as a child, but it was the ability she showed in math that pulled her into the gifted learning program in second grade. By junior high, she was the best math student in her school.

But even then, the scales seemed tipped against her. At a local competition of Mathcounts, a national program that provides students in grades 6–8 the chance to compete in-person along­side their peers, Kilzer was pulled aside by her teacher, who explained why she had finished second.

“My coach said, ‘You’ve technically got first place, but one of the coaches for the student at the other school said he answered more questions.’”

Even though Kilzer had answered the more difficult questions, the names had been switched, and so she placed second. The other student, a boy, was placed ahead of her. Had the rules been followed, Kilzer would have been first.

Despite the ruling, Kilzer advanced to the state finals. Still, after all these years, a sense of having been wronged resonates deep in her voice.

“The part that really hurt was, the next day, the local paper published an article saying boys are better than girls at math. ‘Oh, and a boy won at a math competition yesterday.’”

A consequence of having the scales tipped against her that day may have been Kilzer unwittingly internalizing a belief that she was not up to par.

One day, this manifested itself in computer science class. Ironically, the class was taught by a woman.

“I remember a bunch of 14-year-old boys talking about setting up LAN parties, or local area network gatherings, for video gaming. The way one of them was talking made me think, ‘This guy is a networking genius. I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this.’”

But when the results of the class were posted, Kilzer had the highest grade—by a large margin. “I realized that a lot of guys in the class were just bluffing.”

In retrospect, her salvation may have been her math teacher in middle school, a woman who pushed students in the gifted learning stream to reach for the stars. “We had a nice teacher who was like, ‘Come in an hour early and I’ll teach you the eighth grade math.’ That put us ahead by a few years.”

As a result of her accelerated learning, Kilzer took Calculus II at the University of Montana while still a senior in high school.

What she enjoyed most about those classes was being treated like an adult, and having the autonomy and responsibility to follow her true passions.

When Kilzer began her PhD program in computer science at the University of Texas, it seemed that her childhood dream to attend grad school had come true.

The focus of her research was security and privacy. But the reality of doing graduate research as a woman in a largely male-dominated world proved to be very different from what she had imagined. It did not help that she found herself in a university with a student body as large as the small, close-knit town in which she grew up.

Looking back at her time as a researcher, Kilzer said, “It was not at all comforting; you are really on your own.”

So, it came as welcome relief when, during two summers in grad school, she interned at Google.

“Google is very encouraging, and it has lots of smart people. I found a wonderful culture there with a flat hierarchy where even interns were trusted and encouraged to contribute ideas.”

This stood in stark contrast to Kilzer’s life as a researcher. One particular incident had a lasting effect on her.

“I remember being sexually harassed at this conference where I presented a paper.”

Kilzer’s interlocutor was a man who not only made inappro-priate remarks about her private life, but was also intent on browbeating her on questions about computer science.

Kilzer discussed the incident with a peer at the time and reported it to the relevant authorities.

However, she believes the incident was not treated with the seriousness it deserved. Later, she found out that the man was a repeat offender. “I felt that things sort of unraveled in grad school for me after that point, and I’ve always kind of wondered if that had something to do with me dropping the PhD.”

Kilzer confesses that there were other issues that, taken together, led her to leave the program.

After all, a PhD is as much about learning how to do research as it is about having the endurance to overcome challenges.

That said, “If someone can support you through it, that is likely to lead to success.” Some of that support—especially in the form of mentorship—was lacking.

In the end, she walked away with a Master’s Degree in computer science, but with lingering questions as to what might have been.

Having a dream crushed, a career torpedoed, or personal advancement put on ice due to gender bias raises several issues about workplace culture.

One way to tackle such issues, believes Kilzer, who came to Japan before finding a job in Tokyo, is for companies to create executive-level positions for diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals.

“But the person has to be empowered to do their job. They can’t simply be a paper-pusher with no decision-making powers.”

Men, too, must make a genuine effort to find out what the issues are, and how biases—whether conscious or unconscious—affect colleagues.

“There is a certain type of person in the tech world that, instead of just going out and reading up on ‘Feminism 101,’ expects you to teach them why it matters. I don’t have the bandwidth to teach every man in tech, and to bring him along or to coach him.”

For Kilzer, D&I education is not just about women. In the United States, at least, it’s also about African Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, and Latinxs, a gender-neutral term that, in line with the goal of equality, has begun to be used in place of Latinos and Latinas.

It’s also about intersectionality.

“All the challenges I might face as a white woman are going to be amplified for a black woman, a queer person, or someone who is non-binary.”

Ultimately, change begins with hiring and empowering diverse teams, Kilzer believes. That’s what they’ve started to do at Curvegrid.

Columbia Business School professor Katherine W. Phillips, who is director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, and Erika V. Hall, assistant professor of organization & management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School conducted research into the issues women find most challenging in the workplace. Here are five major obstacles they uncovered.

1. Prove-it-Again
Two-thirds of women interviewed said they must prove them­selves over and over, because their successes are discounted and their expertise is questioned.

2. The Tightrope
There is a double-standard when it comes to women in the workplace. They often must behave in a masculine way to be seen as competent, but are still expected to be feminine. As a result, women reported feeling they must walk a tightrope between the two, trying to find a balance between being seen as competent and as likable.

3. The Maternal Wall
When women professionals have children, they often find themselves running into a wall. Their commitment and competence are questioned, and opportunities start to dry up.
In Japan, this may also make it difficult
for women to reenter the workforce.

4. Tug-of-War
It was found that women who encountered discrimina­tion early in their careers often distance themselves from other women. One side effect of this is that the support network breaks down and conflict may arise between women of different generations.

5. Isolation
Also connected to the support network is a feeling that socializing in the workplace damages credibility. The survey found that, in the United States, 42 percent of African-American women said they feel that socially engaging with colleagues may negatively affect percep­tions of their competence. The same response was given by 38 percent of Latinas, 37 percent of Asian-American women, and 32 percent of white women.

Source: Harvard Business Review

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
Ultimately, change begins with hiring and empowering diverse teams.