Commentary & Perspectives

Sheila Tejada: GHC 20 General Co-chair

GHC Volunteers like Sheila Tejada help us make our annual Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) a success. Learn more about Sheila and how she got involved with GHC and AnitaB.org. Interested in becoming a GHC Volunteer yourself? See what opportunities are available and apply!

The force is strong with Sheila Tejada.

At six years old, Sheila saw the movie Star Wars for the first time, and instantly fell in love with the droid R2-D2. She wanted to learn more about robots and technology, so her parents enrolled her in a college computer class aimed at kids. Sheila created her first program in BASIC on an Atari computer, and learned several programming languages by the time she went to high school. She even landed a high school internship at Teradata, and later began working with robots in grad school.

“My family supporting my passion for computer science at an early age was important for my future success,” said Sheila. “I have been so fortunate to have many women mentors throughout my career.”

Finding women mentors in tech can be challenging, as the percentage of women in STEM has significantly decreased over time. “During the 1980s,” Sheila explained, “gaming consoles were marketed to men, which spiked men’s interest in studying computer science. Since then, the largest generators of new technologists are universities, where a mostly male student population is taught by men.

“Turing Award-winner Fran Allen said that during her time at IBM, 50% of the managers were women,” she continued. Today, only 20% of executive roles in the U.S. tech sector are held by women.

Thankfully, Sheila not only was able to find mentors to help her throughout her career; she is also now mentoring the next generation of women technologists.

Finding Support and Inspiration

In 1994, Sheila was one of around 500 women to join the very first Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) in Washington, D.C. The event occurred just three years after the Anita Hill hearings, when more companies were addressing the issues of harassment in the workplace. In addition to serious problems like this, GHC also focused on the success and achievements of past and present women technologists.

“It was so exciting,” Sheila said. “This was the largest group of women technologists I had seen at that time.”

Nearly 10 years later, Sheila joined Tulane University in New Orleans as part of their faculty. Unfortunately, soon after she started her job, Hurricane Katrina hit. Sheila remained resilient, staying with the university for two years before the engineering school was finally dissolved. She credits her support group for getting her through this difficult time.

“After Hurricane Katrina, Bill Buckles at Tulane University, Ken Perlin at New York University, and Peter Norvig at Google each sponsored me,” Sheila said. “Without their support, I would not still be in tech today.”

Another 10 years passed, and Sheila found herself attending yet another GHC. The 2015 Celebration, which had grown to nearly 12,000 attendees, featured Megan Smith as one of the keynotes.

“Megan talked about the importance of using technology to serve community and government,” Sheila said. Inspired, Sheila now serves as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Transportation board, advising the city on the effects of artificial intelligence on transportation, and also works on providing further support to her tech community.

Building Robots and Community

Sheila is giving back to the tech world in many ways. She is the Director of the Computing Savvy research group that she started at the University of Southern California (USC), which develops artificial intelligence and robotics for education. “Through Computing Savvy and my company Joy3, I make robot kits to share the joy of creating technology and inspire the next generation of robotists,” she said.

“I would like to see more women in tech realize their value and power to create a future where technology serves the greater good of all people equally,” Sheila added. Her work in USC’s Computer Science Department allowed her to teach and empower thousands of graduate students to change the world through tech.

Sheila also supports women in tech by volunteering with AnitaB.org. She served as the General Co-chair for GHC 19 and will serve again this year. She is also an active member of the AnitaB.org Los Angeles Community, where she both finds and provides support.

“A supportive community is important to me,” she explained. “My current squad are members of the AnitaB.org Los Angeles Community: Jovita Jenkins, the community leader and our west coast ‘Hidden Figure,’ Ruby Gullien, a United Nations representative for women and tech, and Cathy Woo, Senior VP at City National Bank.”

A diverse community feels most natural to Sheila having grownup in a multiracial family that speaks multiple languages. Her father immigrated from the Philippines as a teenager and her mother is a native Angeleno of German, Irish, and Scottish descent with relatives who fought in the American Revolution. “My community helps me develop as a leader who can more effectively advocate for myself and others,” Sheila said.

Sheila encourages women technologists to join a community and find support through AnitaB.org, ACM-W, Black Girls Code, or any other communities they know of. She also encourages male allies to find resources and organizations such as the National Center for Women in IT (NCWIT) to help them learn how to support their female peers.

Sheila reflected, “You are needed to help build the future tech that serves the social good.”