At The Spike Lab we work tirelessly to build a team of world-class coaches. This is part of a series of blogs introducing them to you.
Ayna is a tech product expert, social entrepreneur, and public servant. She has spent the last 8 years in the technology sector, across start-ups and large companies in the Silicon Valley, and co-founded she++, a non-profit to encourage women to pursue technology. After spending a year studying technology policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she is now finishing her MBA at Harvard. She began her career at Palantir Technologies, building software for the US government. Ayna loves talking about empathy in business, design and creative expression, public policy, diversity & inclusion, and animals! She grew up in New Jersey and studied Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford University. She loves any chance to travel, and has visited 40 countries.
1) Why did you become a coach with The Spike Lab?
I become a coach for The Spike Lab because I care about helping students thrive, and I don’t think our current system rewards students for creativity, innovation, ownership, and independent thinking. These are the skills that are important in the modern economy – not memorizing facts and taking tests. As a college student, I felt the pressure to “find a stable career,” so I pursued technology because it was an exciting, new field. However, after I graduated, I realized I had spent so much time focusing on what would be a stable path that I lost track of discovering my purpose and passion. To me, the stability will always follow the passion. And I hope to create the space for students to cultivate their passion and purpose early in life and not get swept up in the traditional systems that usually squash uniqueness!
2) What is your proudest professional achievement?
During my undergraduate studies at Stanford, I interned for a summer at a growing technology start-up in Palo Alto where the female to male ratio in technology roles was around 1:10. The gender gap in tech bothered me a lot and I wanted to do something about it. I worked with a classmate to put together a series of conferences and events to help younger women be exposed to the technology sector, and debunk any myths about how to succeed in the field. At the time, dozens of people from around the world reached out to participate in our events. So we set out to create a documentary to spread the message beyond the Bay Area, something we had never done before. We released our documentary online and translated it into multiple languages. The documentary was screened over 100k times in schools worldwide in order to help inspire young girls globally to get excited by tech. The US State Department ended up sharing the documentary to US Embassies across the world, where they screened it across hundreds of communities in their respective countries. I loved seeing young girls become excited to take their first coding class. I was proud of having taken the plunge to make something that I had no previous skills in!
3) If you could give one piece of advice to your high school self, what would it be?
It’s okay to not have a career path planned out just yet!! I went into the college application process thinking that I needed to become a doctor, lawyer, or frankly, something professional. I needed to set foot onto campus with a plan. However, part of the benefit of a liberal arts schools is that you can explore where different courses take you. At Stanford, I was exposed to design, psychology, philosophy, and computer science — frankly, all courses that were not aimed towards a particular professional school.
I realized I loved creating and making things. Had I been more open-minded about my undergraduate education and careers, I might have discovered what sparked joy in me, instead of at the beginning of my junior year of college!
4) How did you choose Stanford for undergrad?
My best friend in high school had visited California during her college tours and sent me a picture of herself in Napa Valley. In stark contrast to the harsh New Jersey winter I was experiencing back home, it seemed like paradise, and I wanted to go to school with her. So I applied! Little did I know, that Stanford was not in Napa Valley. But, I did learn that Stanford had great academics, was known to be fun and creative, and cultivated a strong sense of community. Having attended a high school with around 30 kids in my graduating class, I knew the transition to a big school would be huge, and I was excited about the tight knit community of Stanford. When my dad told me – “why don’t you go see something different” – I figured there was no better time to experience a new world… the west coast (best coast)!
In hindsight, I wish I had been more thoughtful about my college search. I knew a few well-known colleges based on where previous students in my school had gone, but I didn’t realize how different each would be culturally, academically, and socially. In fact, it’s the little things that matter. For example, our Stanford band is notorious for dressing up in fun outfits, running around the field, and making a parody of some recent topic for our football halftime games. To me, that represents a culture of not taking ourselves too seriously, no matter how brilliant the students were! Or, in the bookstore, many of our professors would write notes under their favorite books. I think that shows how connected professors are to the community, and that they want to guide students beyond the classroom. I feel very lucky to have gone to Stanford (my best friend had good taste!). Were I to go through the process again, I would spend more time visiting and understanding schools. If you can’t do that, then just make sure your best friends have great judgement and get them to do the research and visiting for you!