It used to be that taking time “off” to raise a family, act as a caretaker or volunteer meant you had opted out of the workforce for good. Think again, say these intrepid women charging back into their careers.
Chrissie Kremer, Patty White and Beth Kawasaki sit in a nondescript conference room in Menlo Park when Diane Flynn pokes her head through the door.
“Breaking news!” Flynn says. “Rogene just got a job!”
The room erupts in cheers, as Rogene Klenck appears. Klenck reports that after taking off three years off to help aging parents, she’s gotten a job as an inside account manager for an injection-molding house in Redwood City. Klenck, who’s in her 50s, is beaming.
Klenck found her job through the network she’d had when she was a medical device buyer years before, but she credits ReBoot Accel — a Silicon Valley company that helps women re-turn to the workplace — for giving her the confidence and support she needed to start her search.
Flynn, White, Kawasaki, Kremer and Kristin Vais founded ReBoot in 2015. Since then, it’s helped about 1,000 women navigate the return process through technical skills training, networking support and job-placement programs.
Dana Posey, of Redwood City, is one of them. Posey, 54, had taken 16 years off to raise children before she decided in 2015 to return to work. She no longer had business contacts — her last paid position was as a mechanical engineer in Minneapolis — and didn’t know where to start. But after a friend posted about ReBoot on Facebook, she signed up for the company’s accelerator course. The course covers everything from writing a LinkedIn profile to upskilling in technologies such as Google Docs and Keynote to honing an “elevator pitch” for interviews.
While doing a “returnship” (similar to an internship) at the ReBoot offices, Posey connected with Bonny Simi, who was starting JetBlue Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of JetBlue. Simi offered her a job as their operations manager, and Posey accepted. She’s been there two years now. “I wouldn’t have been ready for it or had the confidence I needed for the interview,” she says, “if I hadn’t gone through the ReBoot program.”
ReBoot is one of several companies nationwide that help women return to the workplace. Among the others are iRelaunch, which offers coaching, and Path Forward, which offers returnships at companies such as Apple, Oracle and Intuit. ReBoot, however, is one of the only companies that offer both skills training and job placement. And, increasingly, it’s shifting focus toward helping companies create more supportive cultures for women.
That’s particularly important in the Silicon Valley, which has a well-publicized gender equity problem. Data compiled in 2017 by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Observer.com illustrates this inequity. Accord-ing to their numbers, Apple’s staff is 30.7 percent female and Intel’s is 26 percent. The biotechnology company 23andMe, headed by CEO Anne Wojcicki, is an exception, with a staff that’s nearly half female
The problem is worse at executive levels. 23andMe is nearly equal. But 26.6 percent of Facebook’s management team is women, Sheryl Sandberg not withstanding. Google’s management team is 12.9 percent women. (These are 2016 numbers and may have changed since then.)
ReBoot currently works with a private equity firm and a number of Bay Area tech companies to improve their culture for women through employee resource groups, as well as better policies on maternity leave and flex schedules. “And that, of course, impacts the hiring, retention, promotion and engagement of women,” says Flynn, ReBoot’s CEO. Of the five ReBoot founders, Flynn was the first to go back to work, almost four years ago, when her husband, then the interim-CEO of GSVlabs, asked her to help his company with marketing. Flynn had been out of the workplace for 16 years raising children but liked the work at GSVlabs so much she stayed on after her husband’s departure and became the company’s chief marketing officer. When her friends saw how successfully she made the transition, they wanted to know how she did it.
Flynn gathered a group of friends whom she knew from volunteering at Atherton’s Sacred Heart Schools or as an alum of Stanford or Harvard Busi-ness School to brainstorm. Kawasaki suggested they start an eight-week course to help women “on-ramp.” The five women created a curriculum and enlisted friends at LinkedIn, Google and Apple to teach technical skills (they now teach the skills themselves). They alerted their friends and the first class was so popular — more than 40 women attended—that they decided to start a business.
ReBoot now offers a number of services, including its signature five-week accelerator course, which costs $495, and ReBoot Talent, its job placement service. The company currently partners with companies such as Visa, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (a private equity firm), Sonim and Agilon Health, placing women in jobs. ReBoot offers scholarships for women who can’t afford the full cost and a free version of their courses, ReBoot Kickstart, is available on-line. (The founders are quick to point out that their services are for all women, not just those with an elite education or background.)
One of the company’s most popular services is ReBoot Connect, which costs $30 a month and offers networking events every few weeks. It’s a way for women to connect and support one another during the return process. It was a big help to Nidhi Sahni, who was a marketing executive in Mumbai, India, before moving to Menlo Park and taking time off to help her family with the transition. “ReBoot was a wonderful place for me to meet and interact with other women who were in a similar space, looking to get back to work,” says Sahni. She’s now working as the director of marketing and alliance at Enquero, a tech company.
Like Sahni, many women returning to work find that connecting with others helps boost their confidence. “What we’ve recognized,” says Patty White, one of the co-founders, “is that the biggest hurdle for women is not learning new technology, but having the confidence to recognize it’s easy to learn.” Flynn agrees. “Many women think, ‘I’m such a dinosaur, who would hire me?’” she says
Turns out, a number of employers would. The unemployment rate in San Mateo County is currently 2.2 percent, and employers are scrambling to find qualified workers. “Returners” have a lot to offer. Many (though not all) are highly educated and have considerable work experience. They have the “soft skills” needed to communicate with or manage people (anyone who can manage a rebellious teenager won’t flinch at a difficult employee). Almost as importantly, says Flynn, “they already live here,” so they don’t have the sticker shock of Bay Area housing prices.
ReBoot has just piloted a job-sharing program with one Bay Area company, pairing a woman coming back from maternity leave with a “returner.” The idea? To study how the two generations work together and mentor each other.
In my experience, returning mothers have been the best possible candidates for a whole variety of roles,” says Bob Plaschke, CEO of Sonim, a San Mateo tech company that produces communication solutions for workers in extreme conditions. “They are supremely organized. They are, by definition, masters at multitasking,” he says, “and they couldn’t be better from what I would call an interpersonal perspective.”
Two of Sonim’s 30-person staff are ReBoot graduates. It’s not just women who benefit when they return to work. The country does too. According to a recent study by the Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit organization, if the 290,000 college-educated women who are currently out of work and want to return did so, they would add almost $33 billion to the productive capacity of the economy. They would also increase the GDP by 0.15 percent.
Elizabeth Gish, 54, recently became one of them. A former Wall Street investment banker, Gish took 15 years off to raise children and volun-teered for East Palo Alto’s nonprofit, All Students Matter, during that time. After attending ReBoot’s accelerator course last fall and participating in ReBoot Connect, Gish realized that her passion for social impact might be valuable to Silicon Valley’s tech companies. She took this newfound confi-dence on job interviews, and, at press time, was in the final stages of accepting a job with the social impact department of a major tech company.
“I would not be sitting here telling you any of this, or feeling this confident, six months ago,” Gish said recently. “ReBoot was just a game changer.”