Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in Kansas City, Kansas, not Missouri. Very important distinction if you’re from Kansas City! I grew up with a very Midwestern lifestyle. My dad is a biologist, my mom was a nurse and a social worker—both of them super idealistic. For most of my childhood I lived on this state park, and my dad was the caretaker but also helping raise the money to permanently save the land. It was this 300-acre plot of original prairie. A lot of my early memories were of him running this summer camp and taking care of all kinds of wild animals and running around on the prairie. I went to college at University of Kansas, so I stayed fairly local. I had planned to go to law school and follow a more idealistic path, follow in their footsteps, but ended up in college falling into video games. And that was the inflection point that changed everything.
Yeah, so you accidentally became the world’s first professional female gamer.
Yes, very accidentally. I was at the University of Kansas living in a dorm on the Honors floor. I had been elected the president of all the dorms, so I was living in this apartment, not a normal dorm room. And I was hanging out with mostly all these guys. I had always had guy friends. They were telling me about this game they were playing and they started getting me playing Doom. I loved it, so I got into Doom with them. Then they started telling me about this other game that was coming out—a sequel called Quake. When Quake came out, we all played together and we formed a clan, which is like a Quake team. We formed one of the very first clans and it was me and seven guys. To me, this was totally normal. Our clan was actually pretty competitive, and we ended up winning the very first clan tournament ever. We eventually moved into a house (though I technically didn’t live there). The eight of us were in this house just playing Quake 24/7. And, we were hosting LAN parties and having all of these people come visit us from all over the country. Other Quake clans would drive from multiple states to come play with us in person. And, this is in the days of 21 inch CRTs that were so heavy, but we were carrying them around competing and playing. So we had this whole scene going on and we all got really good. I was competitive with those guys, with one exception. We had one player who was just phenomenal, one of the best in the world.
At that time we started getting to know some of the guys in Dallas around the shooter scene there, where some of the most noteworthy teams were making first person shooter games. We started getting to know them and that included the developers of Quake. We even drove down to Dallas to talk to them in person. On one of the trips down to Dallas, a friend had met John Romero, who was a designer of Quake. This friend knew I was really good at games, and on my behalf he threw down a challenge. He told Romero, “There is this girl… she could kick your ass, and she wants to play you.”
“There was a ton of harassment and hate and sexism and abuse. People would send me hate email all the time. The emails were not just things like ‘women shouldn’t be in games,’ but very intensely personal and insulting. Every inch of my body was criticized, every aspect of my personality.”
So without my blessing and on my behalf he had thrown the gauntlet down. I had no idea if I could beat the guy or not, but over a couple of weeks we coordinated the time and we ended up going down there for this match. By the time we arrived, a lot of people in the gaming community had heard about it and there was actually gaming press there. We played at his office in Dalla she was like a legend at this point he was kind of a celebrity in the video gaming world. We were playing best out of three death matches and he won the first of the three, and then in the second game we were playing to 25 and he was up like 19 to 3, and I remember at that point he said something sexist. I just remember thinking that I cannot let this happen. I can’t lose. I can’t stomach what’s to come if I lose this match and all of the taunting that will come with it. I can do better than this and I’ve got to turn this around. And just like that I went on a rampage. I ended up winning that match and the next one, so I beat him the best two out of three.
After I won, it turned into “a thing” and I got a lot of coverage in gaming magazines and he had to create an online shrine to me. It just all snowballed from there. I was in gaming magazines. I got an offer of sponsorship from a competitive league to be their first full time paid cyber athlete and help this organization recruit a team of other pro video gamers. I had sponsorships from joystick companies and I got the chance to travel around the world and play in video game tournaments. It was a blast. But, it was not planned. It was very much a surprise.
What were some of the best moments of that time for you. What were your favorite things about that experience?
The thing I remember most about that experience was that it opened up the world for me. I had never been out of the country. I grew up in Kansas City and had been there pretty much my whole life until this point. It opened up all these experiences and other cultures and things I never really even knew were accessible. I got to travel to other countries and people hosted me in their homes. It was a great education. And I had never really thought, “Oh, I’d love to leave the country but it’s not possible.” It’s almost like I didn’t realize it was out there to be experienced. So for me this was an awakening and the first time that I saw the rest of the world. It was also just a surreal experience being strangely internet famous. It came with lots of pros and cons, but it was also a very unique, singular experience that not a lot of people get to have. Thanks to my internet fame, I met a lot of friends and interesting people. It connected me to the world in a way that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.
What were some of the tough parts and the tough lessons to learn?
The worst part was that even at that time it was pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter and all of that even at that time I got a lot of harassment. There was a ton of harassment and hate and sexism and abuse. People would send me hate email all the time. The emails were not just things like “women shouldn’t be in games,” but very intensely personal and insulting. Every inch of my body was criticized, every aspect of my personality. People would dig up old pictures of me in high school and new pictures and write these elaborate multi-page teardowns of every aspect of my being. At one point an ex-boyfriend posted a lengthy insulting, derogatory post on one of the biggest gaming blogs at that time.
It was exhausting because it just felt like I couldn’t escape it even at home. I didn’t get much harassment that went beyond the digital at that point thank goodness, but I did get a few phone calls. It just started to feel like I had all of the downside of being famous without any of the upside—like money. I lost a lot of privacy. But I wasn’t really making much money. I didn’t have any of the upside or protection that comes with some types of fame. There was no real benefit to this. The benefit of connecting with people was so drowned out by how bad it felt to be in the spotlight. It really made me realize that I did not want to live like that. It was not an enjoyable way to be in the world, and it took its toll on my relationships. It just made it made me view people as much more hostile than I had ever thought they might be.
“It just started to feel like I had all of the downside of being famous without any of the upside—like money. I lost a lot of privacy. But I wasn’t really making much money. I didn’t have any of the upside or protection that comes with some types of fame. There was no real benefit to this. The benefit of connecting with people was so drowned out by how bad it felt to be in the spotlight.”
Yeah, for sure. So how’d you get out?
Well, I kind of slowly backed away, you know? I quietly just backed my way out of the room. I was in a relationship—I had ended up dating that designer of Doom and Quake. We were in a relationship and we dated for five years, and it was pretty serious, but I ended up breaking up with him. And when that happened I moved to LA and away from Dallas. I took an initial job in games, but I made a conscious decision that I was going to start to look at other opportunities that would be adjacent but not directly in games. I consciously made an effort to step back from some of the press opportunities. I just slowly backed away from the attention.
It wasn’t an overnight decision. I didn’t do anything dramatic. I just felt like, “I have to get away from this, because it feels miserable and exhausting on a day-to-day basis.” At that time, I was working for Warner Brothers and I met this sales guy, Matt Golden, at a vendor who was selling technology to us. I was making games at WB, but Matt and I really hit it off. I thought he was great, and at one point he called me up and offered me an opportunity to take a junior sales role working for him. I’d never done sales before and I considered myself quite shy. He said, “I think I can teach you to sell, and you’ll be selling a little bit to game companies, but other companies as well.” So I jumped at that chance and that was a fork in the road for me. Ever since then, I’ve touched games, I’ve never completely left them, but I’ve never worked full-time in the industry since that point.
Was there any reaction from the community of, “Hey, where are you, we want to keep abusing you?” Or did they just move on to the next thing?
They just moved on to the next thing. I would occasionally get little pings, positive and negative. Even to this day it’s hilarious to me, but even now I’ll occasionally walk into a meeting and somebody will say, “Hey, I know you. I remember who you are.” Occasionally, things will pop up online or somebody will post about me, and it’s fifty-fifty. Sometimes it’s kind of positive and friendly and other times it’s negative and derogatory. But more than anything, the interest just faded away, and I was grateful for that. It is honestly what I was hoping would happen. It really was a gradual pulling away from the entire thing.
And now you’re an executive in technology. How did all of that experience, good and bad, inform your work now?
It informs my work in so many ways. I have been quite lucky, because that experience in gaming opened a lot of doors. It is still a great conversation starter, or sometimes it’s the reason somebody knows my name and makes a connection. So I took that baseline and went down a different path and found some great mentors. These folks taught me new skills that could build on top of my knowledge of gaming.
One of the biggest things I took away from my experience in gaming is that it was (and still is) a male-dominated culture and industry. But I thrived in that environment and I made some great friends and connections. There were many great things about that experience, and I feel like I learned how to relate and thrive in that very male culture.
Silicon Valley (where I work now) is actually not much different. A lot of my time since those days has been in sales and business development. It is still an extremely male culture. It’s also a culture filled with highly intelligent people. Similarly, gaming culture was filled with extremely bright and passionate people. I see a lot of the similarities between those gamers that I used to socialize with and the people I sell technology to now, even if they’re not gamers. The personality types are similar, the interests are similar, and the way that I’ve been able to relate to them and gain credibility is similar.
In the end, building on that experience has been quite helpful, and it makes me feel comfortable and at ease because this is my spot. Even though I’m still often the only woman in the room, I feel like this is my place, this is what I’ve always been a part of. That comfort level was gained through my experience in gaming.
“I was going into the office everyday and like, ‘Yep, everything’s amazing and this is great and I’m here to crush it,’ and just executing on my job and nobody knew. Nobody knew that at home I had this young daughter who was crying for her dad who no longer was willing to see her, and that I was about to be evicted.”
Throughout this whole time or most of this time, you’ve been a single mom. How is that?
Being a full custody single parent is difficult, regardless of the circumstances. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. Trying to combine being that with being a tech executive has been incredibly challenging. All along I knew what I wanted for my daughter: I wanted to build a career that would inspire her. I also knew that I didn’t want to give myself up. I didn’t want to follow the motto of parenting that says, you dedicate all your time to your child, and you minimize time away. I wanted to have a life, too, because I wasn’t done living. My philosophy on parenting is that you build a life that shows your child how rich life can be, and how great and rewarding a career can be, and how great your friendships and relationships can be. So, I had this idea in my head of building an amazing life so she could see that and have that model. I feel like I’ve mostly done that, but it has been exceedingly hard because I feel like I have lived on a treadmill for the last decade of my life. From the second I wake up in the morning, I have a job. I have a job at home, and I’m a mom and I’m doing that and I go to work and it’s extremely intense and focused. And then I get home and I value that time at home with her so highly and I want that to be quality time. I try to give her that at the level of quality, the level of engagement that she deserves. It’s hard to succeed at that when I am so exhausted from working so hard all day at a challenging job. It’s tough, and trying to keep up the facade at work that I’m fine and I’m not exhausted and I’m not just completely run ragged is not easy.
For the first five years of single parenting, I was also extremely broke. Right after I moved to San Francisco as a newly single mom, I was about 12 hours away from being evicted from my apartment here. And it was absolutely terrifying. And yet, I was going into the office everyday and like, “Yep, everything’s amazing and this is great and I’m here to crush it,” and just executing on my job and nobody knew. Nobody knew that at home I had this young daughter who was crying for her dad who no longer was willing to see her, and that I was about to be evicted. Trying to keep up that dual existence was just incredibly hard, and I am grateful it’s easier now. But I am also acutely aware of the fight that single parents must fight. It’s not easy.
Balancing work and single parenting, I’ve often got this insanely ridiculous challenge going on at home, and yet the second I show up to work, I need to execute at a high level as if I’m just one of the other guys who’s 25 and single. Trying to maintain that level of energy, the enthusiasm, that facade that everything is fine that has been the hardest part.
Where do you find you support networks?
I am extremely independent. I’m not good at asking for help and for the first six or seven years of being a single mom, I really did not ask for help unless it was truly an emergency. I kept to myself and I did not let people help me or even know I might need help. Over the last few years, I made a conscious decision that I need to let more people in, and I have formed this amazing network of really wonderful, supportive friends. I’m working on learning to be more vulnerable and tell them when I need help. They are amazing and always show up for me. The biggest change on this front was actually just a couple of months ago. I moved my mom, who is retired, out from Kansas City and into my house. Now she’s living with us, and we have a three generation female family going on right now [chuckles]
“I am extremely independent. I’m not good at asking for help and for the first six or seven years of being a single mom, I really did not ask for help unless it was truly an emergency. I kept to myself and I did not let people help me or even know I might need help.”
Amazing. I want to go backward a little bit. Just even out of my own selfish curiosity. I deal with a tiny bit of hate that slowly increases every time I do better at something, but I’m learning to not give a shit, and I feel so much better about it since starting to learn that process and apply it. Like the fact that you have had every inch of your body criticized and yet you were able to pose for Playboy—how are you able to go from experiencing what no human really should experience in terms of humanity and then just et it roll off your back? Or does it never roll off your back?
Honestly, it never rolls off my back. As much as I wish I could tell you that I don’t give a shit, I do even when I don’t want to. And it’s really hard. It still bothers me, always. I think it’s unrealistic to expect that sort of harassment or abuse to just roll off. It’s an inhumane task, and I think it puts undue pressure on the receiver of that abuse. What I’ve gotten better at is shortening the amount of time that things bother me. I give myself permission to be upset and be offended and be hurt because I deserve that. I should be offended, and it’s not OK to be treated like that. But then I make a conscious decision that continuing that letting myself feel bad any longer is actually hurting me. So there’s an end to it. I make a conscious decision to move on. I’ve accepted that this stuff is always going to bother me. I’m always going to care. I do make different decisions now, because I know the weight of online abuse. But I’m also extremely competitive, and I firmly believe that the best form of revenge or payback is simply to win. Any time I get upset, any time I’m hurt, I just let it flow through. And then I double back down and I tell myself that I’ve just got to fight through it. And there may not be an immediate victory, there may not be that sweet feeling of revenge right away or a sense that I’ve avenged a wrong. But I know that in the fullness of time, I will succeed and that that will be the proof that the critics were wrong.
“Honestly, it never rolls off my back. As much as I wish I could tell you that I don’t give a shit, I do even when I don’t want to. And it’s really hard. It still bothers me, always. I think it’s unrealistic to expect that sort of harassment or abuse to just roll off.”
What would you say are your biggest motivators?
My number one motivator in life is providing a great life for my daughter. I am a big believer that providing a great life for my daughter includes living a great life myself. That central desire to show her what a great life looks like guides a lot of my decisions. It guides me to take risks and to push myself to go out and even have fun when I might be more inclined to isolate and stay at home. I don’t want her to see me as this person who just isolates and sits on the couch. That idea drives me to push myself in all areas. Beyond that, I am compelled by learning and challenging myself. I love to be challenged and to feel like I’m always growing. I know that when I feel that little hint of discomfort, that I’m probably doing the right thing. I know I’m challenging myself just a little bit in a way that I’m not comfortable with, and I like that feeling because that’s how I know I’m on to something.
How has having a kid and really all of your experiences affected your priorities? Particularly in terms of what you look for in a job and future jobs?
Having a daughter has made me look at opportunities differently than I would have expected. I think I would have expected that it would make me more cautious, but having her actually has made me a little bit more of a risk taker in some ways. I feel a little more compelled to take a shot at things that might seem unattainable. There’s always this balance in my head of risk versus playing the role of the caregiver and sole breadwinner in my family, and needing to ensure our financial security. So there’s always the pull of needing to play it safe with really swinging for the fences for my daughter to watch. And usually that “swing for the fences” desire wins out. I try to push myself in that direction. I’ve never been very good about middle ground. I don’t do well in the gray area. I’m in or I’m out. I don’t like to just hang out and chill. In every role I’m in, if I’m not 100% invested and I am not in it to win it, then I might as well not be there. I’m not really capable of doing the normal 9 to 5 thing. I suppose that having my daughter has intensified both the desire for security and the desire to take risks. But that desire to take risks is the one that usually wins.
What do you love about working in tech after all these years?
I love working in tech because it forces me to be creative on a number of different planes. You have to synthesize so much information, whether it’s about technology or solutions or people. There are so many aspects to consider in a situation, and you’re often solving new problems. There’s no clean template to work from. That multifaceted challenge is what I enjoy. Most of my time in tech has been in some kind of a sales role, and usually I’m doing highly technical sales.
My job often feels like piecing together a puzzle. I love figuring out how to motivate another company with very, very intelligent employees to work with your company and use your technology. It takes more than people skills and it takes more than technical skills. The blend of those two things is really compelling for me. I feel like I’m always having to find a new strategy, and really deeply listen to people to understand how to be successful.
“I love working in tech because it forces me to be creative on a number of different planes. You have to synthesize so much information, whether it’s about technology or solutions or people. There are so many aspects to consider in a situation, and you’re often solving new problems. There’s no clean template to work from.”
Yeah. Let’s go macro for a second. How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What is exciting to you, what’s frustrating to you, what would you like to see change?
I think the state of tech is pretty frustrating. I don’t feel like the situation for women has improved in any meaningful way over the last few years. I see a lot of talk about it, so many tweets and posts and meetups. But my own experience has not improved in that time, and in talking to my peers and my mentors their experiences aren’t improving either. I find that really disheartening.
The reality still is that there are pockets of more diverse teams and there are pockets where there are more women. But I’m not encountering those pockets very often. It’s still a very isolating experience to be a woman in tech for me. There are some brilliant, badass women out there, but in my day-to-day it is rare for me to interact with women.
“It’s still a very isolating experience to be a woman in tech for me. There are some brilliant, badass women out there, but in my day-to-day it is rare for me to interact with women.”
I’m excited about so many of the new technologies that are being built that are going to fundamentally transform the way people live. I want to be a part of transforming peoples’ lives and making them better and easier. That’s exciting to me. What is concerning to me is the dearth of women on the teams building those technologies. Women’s needs and the way we live our lives are not necessarily taken into account in the same way when this new tech gets built. Some of that is intentional, but I think more of that exclusion is simply out of ignorance.
When people design products, they are limited by their own life experience, needs, and perceptions. It’s only natural that men would design experiences for their needs more effectively than they might design for women. I worry that as they become so much more prevalent and so much more mainstream that the divide between men’s and women’s experiences of the world is only going to get bigger.
I appreciate all of the work being done on the “pipeline problem” of bringing more women into the tech workforce. That is important work. However, I strongly believe that the pipeline is not the core problem at this point. There are some deep cultural issues we need to face as an industry to reduce churn before filling the pipe can ever be really effective.
“When people design products, they are limited by their own life experience, needs, and perceptions. It’s only natural that men would design experiences for their needs more effectively than they might design for women. I worry that as they become so much more prevalent and so much more mainstream that the divide between men’s and women’s experiences of the world is only going to get bigger.”
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be here?
I do not think I will live in the Bay Area. I am really fortunate to own a home here, but even being in the top 1% of income earners, I struggle to maintain the type of life I want for my daughter here. It’s exceedingly hard to raise a family here. We’re failing the kids in our public schools here while rich kids just go to private school. Living in the Bay Area and working in tech feels like a treadmill that I can’t quite get off. I’m having fun; I’m still running and I’m smiling, but I’m 39 years old this year and I’m starting to think about how sustainable this is. Can I continue? Absolutely. Do I want to continue to run at this pace with so little gain? I don’t think so. I want to keep building businesses and I want to participate in this, but I also want to change the game for myself. I would love to see myself in five to ten years owning my own company, but not necessarily a venture backed company. I would love to start more of a lifestyle business that I can feel good about and believe in, but is also compatible with having a family, and having a great home life, and enjoying life. Life is short, and I want to enjoy that time and not lose my entire life to this work.
What advice would you give to young women hoping to get into tech?
The number one piece of advice I would give to women in our position would be to be aggressive even if it is not your nature. Get out there and advocate for yourself. You don’t have to change your personality. But you do have to fight for yourself and for your outcomes. There is such a level of reward for aggressiveness and the “cult of the hustle” is so celebrated in the valley. There are some good reasons for that, because hustle is great and it gets things done and it gets you out there and gets your product out there. Relentless hustle is often required to build a successful business. And what I find is that other styles aren’t necessarily as celebrated or appreciated today in this world. Right or wrong, if you want that opportunity you have to adapt and be aggressive and hustle and put yourself out there without apologies. Don’t feel bad about it, don’t be ashamed of it. Ask yourself, “Why not me?” When you look around at different opportunities, whatever they may be, look at the people there and say, “Why not me? Why couldn’t I do that? Is there a real reason that I can’t? Is there something special about them that I don’t have?” And the truth is that almost always there’s not. There’s no reason why you can’t get there. I remind myself of that when I start feeling a little “less than.” I’m every bit as capable and intelligent as my competitors. The other thing that I try to remember is that everybody feels that level of insecurity. That is not abnormal.
“The number one piece of advice I would give to women in our position would be to be aggressive even if it is not your nature. Get out there and advocate for yourself. You don’t have to change your personality. But you do have to fight for yourself and for your outcomes.”
The truth is that we are the adults that we’ve all been waiting for. Everybody feels like they are waiting for the adults to show up, for somebody more competent or knowledgeable, but the truth is, we’re those people. You’re that person. So own it and don’t ever believe you are less than that.