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Heather Combs has had to wear many hats as CRO of 3Pillar Global, a software-development firm with over 800 employees. But one role she’s never felt pressured to play at 3Pillar is that of the “boss man.” Her executive team is 50 percent female, which is staggering for an industry that’s almost 80 percent male.

Fairygodboss spoke to Combs about her role, 3Pillar Global’s diversity and inclusion strategy, and how diversity contributes to the company’s bottom line (which she watches like a hawk). Combs also offered her insight on what’s holding women in STEM back — and how women can help advocate for gender parity in the tech industry.

How long have you been CRO of 3Pillar and what have you enjoyed about the experience?

I've been at 3Pillar since November [of 2016]. I first worked at the company in a consulting role, and then quickly came on full time. I was at a small consulting firm working for multiple companies, and they somehow talked me into giving all of that up and being exclusive here at 3Pillar.

My role is primarily professional services… Technology is just the most interesting aspect of it. It's certainly where everything is going. All of the companies are reinventing themselves.

Tech still lags behind other industries, with women making up only about 20 percent of the workforce. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the industry?

I think [the most significant barrier to female leadership] is the traditional role technology has taken in our society. [The lack of women in the industry] stems from our education system and [the lack of] women who are specializing in science and engineering earlier in their educational careers and going into those jobs early.

Time will solve some of this as more women enter into STEM in the early years of their education. But at the same time, [the lack of women] is not only tied to education. The numbers suggest that women drop out of technology at much higher rates. The amount of women in the workforce just dwindles as you move up in a organization, until you have a majority male workforce in senior technology roles. There needs to be efforts to keep women in STEM so that you then have well-educated, very experienced women to take on those leadership roles.

3Pillar has made serious steps to hire and support women – its executive team is 50 percent female. What do you think are some of the steps companies can take to ensure their workforces actually become more diverse and inclusive?

I think one of them is women can help other women. When we're hiring, I look for other women leaders and I try to support them and where they are in their careers. But I also [try to support] where they are in their personal lives to help those transitions make sense for them. I think that people look for mentors and role models that they can see themselves in. Women will seek supportive female bosses, so I think you'll see an increasingly positive effect and a bit of an upward spiral when managers mentor up-and-coming female leaders.

Overall, companies can make a concerted effort to make sure they are interviewing a wide range of candidates. Just the very act of making an effort to look for qualified candidates instead of looking at numbers can help. Sometimes statistics drown out the outliers who are talented and capable. If you say to your HR department: "I'd like to see four or five candidates that all look very different because they have something different to offer our organization” and then they have to put five very different profiles in front of you, the job search itself will produce diversity. Effort matters.

At 3Pillar, now that we've said to the world, "Oh we're a 50 percent women leadership team," the pressure is on. And that's been a wonderful problem to have. We've spoken our principles and now we need to live up to that. Having certain principles, proudly displaying them, and holding true to them is a good way to give yourself and your company accountability.

Studies suggest that companies with more women in leadership positions are actually more profitable. As CRO, how do you believe diverse hiring at 3Pillar has contributed to the company’s bottom line?

Being in a sales and marketing role, I feel like I see the value of diversity so directly. I believe the studies. When you're hiring your actual sales team, the truth is, people buy from other people. Corporations don't know corporations, so people buy from people. The wider range of salespeople you have who can connect to others, the wider audience of potential buyers you can tap into. I think having a very diverse group of sales individuals is crucial to making more revenue.

And then, I think that especially the millennial generation is sensitive to companies who they believe are good actors in the world. So I think that when they see companies that hire women, that treat women well, that are supportive of working parents, that are inclusive of a wide variety of backgrounds, they are more likely to choose to work with those companies.

And certainly at 3Pillar, [diversity] is something that’s helped me attract female engineers and female buyers. There's a pretty impressive set of female CTOs that buy from us, and we work with a fairly wide set of female engineers. And I think it's because they look in the window, and they say, “That's a place that looks like myself, and I want to work with those people.”

What advice do you have for women looking to help other women professionally?

We should be hiring, promoting, and mentoring other women, so I would encourage women in every role to do that. Because there's always someone more junior than themselves and more senior than themselves. At this point, I still have lots of female mentors. I think we should help each other always, at every step.

And I encourage men to do the same. I think that men need to be interested in having a diverse set of people on their team, whether that's their executive team or in their hiring processes for a team. It’s better for business.

On the flip side, what advice do you have for women looking to be leaders in tech?

Ignore the stereotypes and be yourself. I was recently at a conference and talked to the Head Engineer of a technology company about how way too many women in technology try to act like men to blend in and be seen as one of the guys, especially early in their careers. And while I’m certainly sympathetic to that, I think it’s the wrong way to go.

You can be a successful technologist without having to be like the stereotypical man in a hoodie. Be authentically yourself. Be as loud and proud as a woman as you want to be. Women bring something important to the table without needing to look or act like men.

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