In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, we sat down with Coursera’s own Daphne Koller and Lila Ibrahim (both mothers to two wonderful daughters) to talk about how education has changed their lives and contributed to their success in building an open culture here at Coursera, where nearly 45 percent of employees and 50 percent of our leadership team are women.
Daphne is co-founder and president of Coursera and former computer science professor at Stanford University, TED speaker and TIME Magazine Most Influential Person.
Lila is Chief Business Officer at Coursera and Strategic Advisor at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Before joining Coursera in 2013, Lila had a distinguished 18-year career at Intel. She is also the co-founder of non-profit organization Team4Tech. See more from Lila in a recent piece in Forbes.
COURSERA: Can you tell us a little bit about your family background?
DAPHNE: I was born in Jerusalem, Israel. My father was a botanist and my mother was an English teacher. I attended college in parallel with high school, which was rare. I finished my master’s degree in Computer Science at 18 and fulfilled my military service before I applied for PhD programs in the United States.
LILA: I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana as a first-generation Arab-American. My parents are from two different religions and two different countries. They met in the U.S., where they both came for school. My mother had a good upbringing in Jerusalem and my dad was orphaned at the age of 5 in Lebanon. I was raised in a house with a brother and a sister where four languages were spoken on a regular basis. My sister has Cerebral Palsy, so my parents fought the state to have her mainstreamed into schools (good thing, because she’s earned two master’s degrees and is a policy advisor for the U.S. government!).
COURSERA: How did you get your feet on the ground in your careers? Was education a big part of that?
DAPHNE: In retrospect, I look back at my younger self and admire the boldness and resolve of moving to a new country at 21 years old with my boyfriend, who is now my husband. My mentality at the time, and it was certainly my mentality when we started Coursera, was that it’s just something you do. You go into it and start marching forward, and don’t get deterred by obstacles or by not knowing much about what you’re doing. This mentality was how I got through the difficulties of settling down in a new country while being in a challenging PhD program.
LILA: Access to a good education was integral to my upbringing, and it enabled my family to overcome social, economic and ability issues. Education inspired me to be an exchange student during high school in Japan where I was one of two foreigners in a city of 40,000 people. Back at home, I saw my dad with drawings of heart pacers that he would turn into an actual thing that changed people’s lives. He showed me that the marriage of art, math and science could accomplish amazing things. That’s why I chose to study electrical engineering at Purdue University. Early on, I tried to make the most of life by taking every opportunity to learn and to contribute in society.
COURSERA: How do you think education, and education technology in particular, can help make fields like engineering and computer science more diverse and encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM related fields?
DAPHNE: I wish I had a magic bullet for that. One thing we have seen, both at Stanford and at Coursera, is that women are more attracted to the real-world impact of computer science. For instance, how do you use computers to solve societal problems in education and healthcare? By creating a broader sense of what computer science is and tying it more directly to these real-world applications, I think we’re making it more attractive to women. Making computer science more accessible at a relatively young age can also make it more attractive to girls.
COURSERA: How has Coursera managed to create a culture that is attractive to women?
LILA: We have a social mission to bring access to education around the world, making Coursera a very strong magnet across genders and generations. We also have a culture where everyone is encouraged, regardless of age or experience, to talk about ideas and solutions. This is something that I think our founders brought in as professors who were used to working with graduate students. Combining these traits translates to a business and culture that thrives on diversity.
DAPHNE: The fact that we are working on societally relevant problems has allowed us to attract what I think is a disproportionately large percentage of women relative to other parts of the tech industry. That has been very gratifying because I think having more diversity really changes the culture of a company in a positive way. There’s also a friendliness that comes with a more balanced atmosphere. I think that this is a culture that is more welcoming for everyone, including men. The kinds of people – both women and men – who want to work at a company with such a strong social mission also tend to be really nice, caring co-workers, which helps create an awesome culture.