Fortinet, AWS, Other Experts: Be Your Authentic Self to Thrive in the Tech World

To survive and thrive in the world of technology, it is a good idea to be your authentic self, according to a panel of industry experts and leaders who spoke during the Nov. 3 Women in Technology Hollywood’s (WiTH) SoCal Women’s Leadership Summit, at Nya Studios in Los Angeles.

The panel discussion, “Be Real: Authentic Leadership,” delved deep into the heart of authenticity and empowerment within the tech industry as the panelists shared their personal journeys, insights and experiences on how being your authentic self has helped them in their careers.

The session also provided a peak at how the WiTH Foundation cultivates a community of authentic, bold women who are shaping the future of tech.

“You’re seeing a common thread throughout our presentations today,” moderator Christina Aguilera, president of WiTH Foundation, said at the start of the session. This is a “room is full of really supportive, encouraging individuals that are there to build each other up. So, I hope you’re feeling that.”

She added: “One of the topics that we thought is really powerful we find passionately for ourselves [and it] is about authenticity and making sure that we’re bringing ourselves to the table.”

Aguilera went on to introduce the speakers: Samira Panah Bakhtiar, director of global media and entertainment at Amazon Web Services (AWS); Nikki Johnson, VP, SASE and cloud at Fortinet; and Tara Fournier, chief people officer at Enthusiast Gaming.

“Being authentic to really who we are and bringing ourselves to the table is really critical in making sure that we are building up an environment and a culture that  everyone feels comfortable and welcome to continue to innovate and be who they are themselves,” Aguilera told attendees and those viewing the session remotely.

Bakhtiar has “historically been the ‘only’ in most of the rooms that I’ve been in,” she said, asking attendees to raise their hands if they have ever been the ‘only’ in the room: the only woman, millennial [or] person of color. It’s uncomfortable…. We have privilege because we’re able to be connected and we have platforms. It’s super important to be able to pay it forward so that the next generation isn’t the ‘only,’ and we’re not the last to pull them forward.”

So, with that in mind, I’ve always, um, I haven’t always, but more recently in my career, I’ve really embraced my authentic self.

Bakhtiar added: “I try to bring the fullness of who I am to work and I’m lucky to see some of my colleagues sitting here. And hopefully they can vouch that I try to bring the full Samira to play. And that really became apparent for me when I gave birth to my first child…. I was at a different technology company at the time, I gave birth, I came back from maternity leave after three months and we didn’t have appropriate areas for breastfeeding, and I was really adamant that I was going to breastfeed for a whole year. And I remember having to sneak off to pump in makeshift mothers’ rooms and office buildings. And it came to a head for me when I was at NAB, and I had to pump in a wiring closet on the show floor. Super sanitary…. I just remembered feeling super deflated.”

When she went to work at Amazon and got pregnant again, she said: “I was a lot more confident and I was in a position of even more authority. I was in an executive position and I went out on maternity leave. And I realized that we had an antiquated policy where our stock didn’t freeze while we were on maternal leave. And I came back, and I was like, ‘This wasn’t right. This wasn’t fair. And I’m super privileged, again, to be in a dual income household’ and be in a ‘powerful position.’”

She thought of how different it would be, however, for an individual contributor “who doesn’t have that type of …  platform or power, or doesn’t have a dual income household…. So I remember taking that story, and I banded with a couple other women, and we went back to some of the executives within Amazon, we positioned that the policy was  not the right one,  and they changed it.”

Aguilera asked Johnson to share a personal story of a setback or failure and how her authentic leadership style helped her overcome it.

“Just kind of growing up in this industry and tech space, being the only woman, when another woman would come to the team or the table, I think I spent probably the first 15 years feeling like there was competition there,” Johnson replied.

She added: “I don’t know if that’s just me. I feel like the system was set up for that. I think I was pitted against some of my female counterparts at times and I felt like there was only space for one of us at the table. I don’t think I always handled it well. And I’m a pretty self-reflective person. I believe in therapy…. Over the years and hitting 40 too … does something where you go, ‘Why did I behave like that?’ And also, ‘Why am I trying to be something that I’m not?’ So, I think hitting 40, just growing up, it just made me realize it’s not a pie…. There is room for everyone. And, as a part of that, I’ve just really tried to correct the mistakes of my past and [have been] trying to be very inclusive of women. And that’s helped me along the way.

The annual SoCal Women’s Leadership Summit was presented by Qvest with sponsorship by Softtek, and took place at Nya Studios, located in the heart of Hollywood.

The full-day event, themed “Us, Our Org, Our Community,” offered a dynamic lineup of presentations and discussions.

WiTH, founded in 2014, plays a pivotal role in advancing women in entertainment technology. The WiTH Steering Committee, responsible for selecting Leadership Awards winners, comprises representatives from prominent organizations such as Amazon Studios, Microsoft, Lionsgate, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and The Walt Disney Company.