Danielle Applestone, PhD - Geek Girl Rising
Danielle Applestone, PhD

Danielle Applestone, PhD


The Other Machine

Advice: “As women leaders, we are taught that emotions are best left at home, and that your gut isn’t to be trusted, how you feel about something isn’t to be trusted. I actually think it’s a super power.”

Years in Industry? 17

Who or what inspired your career in tech?
As a kid growing up in rural Arkansas, with a dad in a wheelchair (before all the American Disability Act stuff), making things was essential. I remember we built ramps, workbench tables and special things we would mount on the walls. There were all kinds of things that we did, and I was always part of the process. I would have crazy ideas, but my dad would say, “Let’s explore that. Let’s figure it out.” My ideas were really valued. The better I got at science and engineering in school, the more valued they were. All of that was really confidence building for me. When I was in grade school, we had a Gifted and Talented classroom. My GT teacher, Sandra Riley, was one of the most fundamentally life-changing people for me outside of my family. She told me about these free summer camps in Arkansas called Aegis. I went the summers before my 7th, 8th and 9th grades. Then I went to a math and science magnet school for the state that the Clintons championed. I lived away from home my junior and senior years. We did so much project-based learning. The teachers were more challenging than any I had experienced before. It’s called ASMA—the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts.

What’s your best career “hack”?
I feel so lucky because I have so many good people around me that will listen and give me honest advice and things like that. It’s essential. I work with many of my investors on a one-on-one basis. It’s not just like they’re telling me I do a good job, they’re actually telling me I’m doing a shitty job, and really trying to push me in different ways. The people who listen to me and give me advice are the reason that I feel like I’m thriving at this point.

What are your thoughts on “impostor syndrome?”
Oh yeah, I feel it all the time. I think this feeling that women have about inadequacy—like how I could be doing more, or how could I be doing better—is the thing that makes it possible for us to grow. If you go to work and you’re like, “I am killing it! I know exactly what to say and everybody respects me,” that’s way worse. There’s a fine line between having those feelings of self-doubt and being crippled by them. You need to feel those feelings, look at them, and then move on.

What part does the media play in the discussion of gender diversity in tech? 
In the media, we’re bombarded with messages all the time like, “Women have trouble dreaming big,” or, “Women have trouble speaking up at meetings,” or, “Women have trouble raising money.” There are so many negative messages about how hard it’s going to be and how impossible it is. Women need ignore these messages. First of all, they are not true.  Sure, it’s difficult, but it’s possible. It’s hard to tell stories that acknowledge the lack of gender diversity in tech in a way that doesn’t end up perpetuating the problem.

Half of the employees at your company are women. What are your thoughts on gender diversity in tech?
Until I got to Silicon Valley, nobody really ever pointed out my gender. It wasn’t a thing. At MIT, it was kind of 50/50 women to men, at least with the people I was hanging out with. I was on the crew team, which was all women. It’s been well documented that balanced companies perform better, so we’ve gone out to the Society of Women Engineers to recruit there. Women engineers have more women engineers in their networks. We pushed the whole company to let their friends and networks know that we’re hiring, and we just get more female applicants. It’s nice to have a diverse culture, but it’s also just better for business. The decisions you make are more balanced, the products that you make are more welcoming, because you’re not excluding anyone. It goes the other way. If we had an entire company full of women, we wouldn’t be making a product that was as balanced.

What has been your biggest career challenge?
There’s two things really that stand out to me. One I don’t like to harp on a whole lot, but when I was finishing the last couple of years of grad school, I was a single mom with a four-year old. He was six when I finished. That was really difficult. I would do it the same again because it was all worth it, but it’s really hard to know when the right time to have a kid is, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices. It was just difficult because my twenties were consumed with being a mom mostly. The other challenge is having a technical background (I have a PhD in material science) and becoming a CEO. I’m trained to work in a lab and to be the scientist at the table. If you’re a technical person and you take the role of CEO, you really give up that (technical) identity. I had a lot of identity wrapped up in that. Taking the plunge was not an easy decision.

What is your biggest career success?
I guess the greatest success is that other people think what I do matters. It’s making an impact on how other people might make decisions in their life. That’s great.

If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your teenage self?
I would tell myself, “You’re beautiful.” Because it’s something that all adolescent girls need to hear, no matter what they look like or what’s going on. The importance of actually feeling that is really significant.

What’s your advice for the next generation of women in tech?
I would tell them that their intuition is more valuable than they think.  As women leaders, we are taught that emotions are best left at home, and that your gut isn’t to be trusted, how you feel about something isn’t to be trusted. I actually think it’s a superpower. The ability to connect with people and to share part of yourself helps you make decisions with a higher order of dimension than people who don’t. That goes for men and women, but I think that women get the short end of the stick because people look at them like, “Oh, you’re emotional. You cried at work.”  At the end of the day, you’re asking these people to show up and do something risky day in and day out and there’s only two weeks of runway and they’ve got to believe in you. They need to connect with you as a person. They need to know how you actually feel about things. If you hide all that, it’s bad for you. It’s bad for your company culture, too. Your feelings are something that can make you better at your job, not worse at it.