A 2022 women’s leadership study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. found that American women held 40% of corporate management positions, and women continue to fight underrepresentation when it comes to board positions and CEO roles. They also face gender bias, harassment, and opposition to their management styles.
Here’s how one MIT Sloan alumna has pushed back on those statistics and used what she’s learned along the way to help those behind her.
Amanda von Goetz, MBA ’14, founder and CEO of Fermata Discovery, a software technology firm for intelligence professionals, investigators, and attorneys. Previously, von Goetz was a vice president of private equity and venture capital at real estate investment and development firm Chasella; a web programmer and small businessowner; and an international concert pianist for 10 years.
Given what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about being a woman in your industry?
I think the motivation to learn and grow has been a central theme. I often wonder if this is because I didn’t have a conventional education prior to MIT. I didn’t go to high school — I was traveling as a professional pianist by the age of 13 — and I did my undergraduate studies at Juilliard, which, though considered a preeminent institution by some, is not known for its academic rigor.
Everything I’ve learned has been the result of proactively following my curiosities. Years ago, when I decided to change fields from music to tech, I had no quantitative training, but I did have a strong background in music. I could see that there were quite a few parallels between the structure of music and the structure of spoken language, so I applied the same logic to the structure of computing languages. I learned to code and started my first business, a web development shop. For a couple of years, by day I was learning how to run a small business — how to bid on, scope, and deliver on contracts — and by night I was taking community college classes to build a quantitative background. It was a very busy time, but I absolutely loved it because I had a unique chance to develop my ability to think in a completely different way.
Can you give an example of a time you’ve experienced or witnessed gender bias? How did it affect you professionally? What impact did it have on your job?
As a Korean American woman adopted by a German father and an Assyrian mother, I think I can safely say that I have been on the receiving end of bias a good number of times in my life, including — but not in any way limited to — gender bias.
I honestly don’t pay any attention to it, because in the end, what is bias? It’s someone’s projection about you, based on his or her own scope of experiences and perspectives, which can be infinitely diverse. Is it important sometimes to try and manage that perception thoughtfully? Sure. But the energy I could be spending trying to push back against everyone’s projections is energy that I would rather spend improving, growing, and learning.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected ways did you grow from it?
One of the most pivotal moments of my career happened while I was at Juilliard, before I changed fields. At the time, I had a boyfriend who was from St. Petersburg, Russia. One day I told him that I’d really like to learn Russian, and the idea was met with substantial skepticism. It could very well have been my own projection at that time of my life, but I felt like I was being gravely underestimated and that I was effectively being told that I wasn’t smart enough to get it done.
I simply could not let that stand. I will never forget how fired up I felt in the face of such a new kind of challenge, which had absolutely nothing to do with music. I was so determined that within 18 months, I ended up reaching the ACTFL advanced level in Russian without ever stepping foot inside a classroom.
This experience had a huge impact on my life. For the first time, I realized I could be good at something outside of music, and it made me curious what else might be out there for me. If not for the skepticism that fired me up and the challenge that seemed so daunting at the time, the trajectory of my career would have been different. You never know where a challenge might take you, but it could be somewhere awesome.
What’s one specific way you tend to your well-being, and how do you encourage well-being among your staff?
I like running or biking outdoors whenever possible, and in my free time I enjoy studying languages to free my mind.
Aside from encouraging my team to learn and enrich their minds outside of the office, I also try to support them in doing volunteer work. When time permits, I do deliveries for Invisible Hands, which is an organization where you serve as a free courier to people who aren’t able to leave their homes.
What’s one skill or behavior women can adopt to make their career path more successful and more manageable?
I think developing a view for the long game is very important. Don’t sweat the small stuff; focus on investing energy where you will get the highest return.
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about workplaces, societal norms, or public policies that would most benefit women in the workforce, what would it be?
It would be a true meritocracy. People would be judged solely on their ability to think, create, or build — not only to the benefit of women but of everyone involved. We would all be able to put the focus on creating together and enjoying every step of that process.
At my company, we strive to uphold that ideal, even if we don’t always succeed. We have never set out to meet a specific objective of “hiring a diverse team.” This is in part because we are an early-stage company and we are simply looking to hire the best people to fit our evolving needs. Interestingly, this has resulted in organic diversity. For example, there are five different languages floating around each day, and we encourage people to try to learn a new one. Why? Because there is something beautiful about offering to meet someone on their home turf, to go that extra mile, show appreciation and respect, or even just to learn to express the same business or technical idea in multiple ways.
I think the more we learn about each other, the more we can get outside of our own views and biases. In an ideal world and with continued iteration, transcending all these things will eventually feel natural and we will be able to focus on generating positive momentum together.