Lucia Gallardo flickered onto my Zoom screen from London, England, where she was stationed after her COP26 marathon earlier that week. Passionate, warm, witty, exhausted, and hungry for the arrival of her chicken order, she is Founder and CEO of her own tech company. Gallardo beat the odds: women only make up a 20% share of the Canadian tech workforce and Latin-American women make up less than 5%.

Gallardo’s company, Emerge, works with global commercial enterprises, governments, public institutions, organizations, and communities to solve complex problems and drive impact-centric digital innovation at scale.

“We’ve worked with the Ministry of Agriculture in Uganda,” Gallardo says as an example, “to map remote areas and issue first-time land titling credentials via a blockchain-based system.”

Making land registries traceable can help mitigate fraud, corruption, and error that often delay the resolution of land cases, leaving people without their source of income.

“We’ve also done some work in NFTs,” Gallardo continues, “to create purely digital asset classes that foster regenerative, rather than extractive behaviour, to protect the environment.” Despite the reported environmental costs of NFTs, innovative uses can help to “track, verify, and reward ecological performance.”

No matter the issue, for Gallardo, the core mission of Emerge is finding “a way to innovate a solution that has real, deep social impact and creates opportunities for international development via the combination of economics and technology.”

“It was hard to find role models who are women.”

Growing up in Honduras, like many women in tech globally, Gallardo did not have one distinct role model. A 2018 chatbot survey, for example, found the vast majority respondents in the U.S. couldn’t identify a “prominent woman” in tech. Only 4% could, and 25% of those said “Siri” or “Alexa.” Similarly, Gallardo notes it was hard for her to find role models who are women. Instead of looking toward fictional, movie, or celebrity culture for inspiration, Gallardo looked to her family.

“I had this composite person that was full of the traits that I respected in people: my dad’s integrity and my mom’s generosity and work ethic, as well as their joint joy, laughter,” she says.

Gallardo didn’t think she would end up in tech, “but while growing up, I realized I wanted to live for myself. I wanted to work hard. I used to live in a country where women would get married early and start families. None of that is bad. It just was not what I wanted for myself.” Indeed, since her youth, Gallardo wanted her work to have an impact. “I’ve always been fiercely passionate about social justice,” she says, “really intense about understanding generational poverty, wealth inequality, other types of exclusion.Keen to turn this passion into a diplomatic career, Gallardo moved from Honduras to Canada for school at 19.

“I felt like I was exacerbating these issues where I had always been fiercely humanitarian.”

After arriving in Montreal, however, Gallardo had a traumatic experience. “Without going into too much detail,” she says, “it really did a number on me. When that happened, I became apathetic about everything.” While coping with this trauma, Gallardo started working in diplomatic affairs for the Honduran embassy on digital identification and undocumented border crossings. This work, however, didn’t make her happy.

“I felt like I was exacerbating these issues where I had always been fiercely humanitarian,” she says. “I don’t necessarily believe that people without documentation should be sent out. So, it became really difficult to do my job.”

That’s when Gallardo tumbled into tech. “At some point,” Gallardo says, “I started getting these weird job offers that were from tech, and I didn’t get it because I’m not tech.”

Although Gallardo had no prior experience or education in tech, her background in international development coupled with her work on digital identities at the Honduran embassy made her a competitive candidate for Canadian start-ups like Hopper, which was looking to expand globally.

“Some companies didn’t really have a good sense of international markets,” she elaborates. “When I was asked if I can help them expand, I said, ‘I don’t get your tech.’ They said, ‘Great, we don’t get the world.’ So really it was a perfect match!”

Once immersed in the start-up environment, Gallardo found the transition from business development to product development fairly easy. Her internal transition from a non-tech role to a similar level tech role highlights a well-established path to move into product design and development (see Product School for more tips).

Working on a product team helped Gallardo overcome her trauma. “When you’re working in product,” she says, “you’re utterly breaking something down and then trying to create a feature out of thin air, something out of nothing. As soon as I turned that inward, it was healing for me. To move away from apathy, I needed to break myself down into what matters to me and then figure out how to repackage myself in a way that I can put out into the world with pride. Going through these product design processes in ways that spoke to internal trauma made it inevitable that I would work in tech for the rest of my life. I fell in love with that process of rebuilding both myself and the product.”

“Real technological justice is democratizing the tool so that anyone can build it no matter where they are based on their current technological landscape, infrastructure, or literacy.”

Beyond rebuilding the product, Gallardo works to redesign the way tech approaches social issues. “We constantly position tech,” Gallardo says, “as ‘the west is going to build something, and other countries get to access it eventually.’” For Gallardo, it’s not enough to democratize who gets access to tech. It’s not enough to say that “we’re democratizing who benefits from tech. Real technological justice is democratizing the tool so that anyone can build it no matter where they are based on their current technological landscape, infrastructure, or literacy.”

Gallardo’s philosophy about democratizing tech also applies to the engagement of women in tech. “It’s not that we should build tech for women,” she says. “It’s not that we need to be more inclusive and allow for designing products in ways that speak to women. It’s really having women build these products — designing them, conceiving them, researching them. And if a woman has not had a direct role in carrying it out, that is not gender-equalizing in any viable or in a meaningful way.”

Indeed, research shows that women often occupy execution and exploitation roles rather than creative and exploratory roles. One study, for instance, found that the top tech position for men is software engineer, whereas the top role for women is project manager.

“Culture can be designed. Who you hire matters.”

For companies looking to make impactful change, Gallardo suggests looking internally to support women transition into more technical roles. “For example,” Gallardo says, “a woman in marketing or communications may have transferrable skills to a product design role. Or, because they hear the complaints more than anyone, there are women in operational roles or customer service roles that would be good at user experimentation and UX/UI.”

Leadership also matters. Gallardo emphasizes, “women need to be put on more board committees, in leadership roles. Setting a stage for women is important.” Indeed a recent study by PWC found that only 13% of the executive team at tech companies in Canada are women, while 53% have no female executives at all.

“If you are a company who doesn’t see enough women in technical roles,” she says, “you need to look at your hiring process, your job descriptions, look at the language that you’re using, look at the culture that you’re projecting.”

Indeed, recent statistics show that almost 50% of women in STEM jobs face gender-based barriers during the hiring process. In addition, women trained in engineering and computer science who are Hispanic or Black have a lower chance of being hired than white women. Although all approaches can have their weaknesses, hiring for potential rather than competencies and training hiring managers about unconscious bias are a few examples of methods industry can use to attract more women.

One final piece of advice Gallardo has for industry is to mitigate “bro culture.” According to a recent study from Trust Radius, 72% of women reported that bro culture is “pervasive” in their tech company. “As a Latin, young, extroverted woman,” Gallardo affirms, “I constantly face encounters that cross the line.”

One aspect of supporting women in tech, Gallardo says, “is moving away from the notions of male tech cultures. And we’re getting there. We’re seeing progress. We need to dig deep into what equity looks like and make sure it is reflected in the workplace.”

Signing off, Gallardo promises: “Culture can be designed. Who you hire matters.”

ICTC is currently working on a project to help organizations support women in tech and promote greater gender equality in management and leadership. The report will be released in 2022. Stay tuned for more articles profiling inspirational women in tech.

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Lucía Gallardo is a Honduran serial entrepreneur building socially impactful emerging technology solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems as Founder & CEO of Emerge. For its work, Emerge has been nominated for the 2018 Global SDG Awards and Newsweek’s 2019 Blockchain Impact Awards. It was also listed as one of Hatch’s 20 Most Impactful Startups in the World. Lucía is on the Board of Directors for Penta Network; Crypto Kids Camp; Rainforest Partnership Board; and, the Caribbean Blockchain Alliance. Most recently, Lucía joined the Board of Advisors for Women Entrepreneurs Global, an innovation studio supporting the world’s female entrepreneurs. She is the Co-Chair of their International Council and heads up their Exponential Technologies Division.