The Leadership ABIE Award recognizes a woman who has played a significant leadership role in advancing technology, with a strong focus on increasing women’s representation and success in the field. Mercedes Soria, Vice President of Software Engineering at Knightscope, is this year’s Leadership ABIE Award winner, and will accept her award as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.
Mercedes is a strong advocate for gender equality in the workplace, and she’s made it her mission to improve the ratio of female employees in high-tech positions. She began her leadership path as a Senior Software Development Lead on Deloitte’s Knowledge Management team. The only woman on a crew of 40 people, she mentored dozens of female technologists across the company. More recently, as part of the State Department’s TechWomen initiative, Mercedes has helped teach, mentor, and educate women in STEM from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. She is deeply committed to gender diversity in her current role at Knightscope, where the staff consists of 25 percent women.
We spoke with Mercedes recently to talk about her award, and the path that brought her here.
What led you to a career in tech leadership?
When I was little girl in South America, my mother and I lived with my uncle, who was an architect. I always liked the structure and the pretty stability of architectural drawings. But then as I got older, I started to get into things like science fiction books and movies, and the closest thing that I could find to making those dreams come true was technology. So when it was time to choose a career, it was obvious to me that it was going to be computer science. Now I have two bachelor’s degrees in computer science, a master’s in computer science, and an executive MBA.
Ever since I was little, I’ve been the person who signs up all my friends for a marathon, or the one who decides we’re gonna do this thing and all of you are invited. That’s the type of person that I’ve always been; my parents tell me I was like this as a little kid. So I figured, at some point, that would come in handy with my career. I found out that although my technical skills were primary, as I go higher in my career those leadership skills are more important, too. Leading people and shipping products is my goal today.
What makes your work at Knightscope important for you, personally?
I like to introduce myself by saying “My name is Mercedes Soria, and I fight crime.” It sometimes makes people laugh, but it’s exactly what I do: Knightscope has a goal of predicting and preventing crime.
I came to the United States in 1994, and I was here when the 9/11 attacks happened. I was on my way to work; I heard the news as I was pulling into the parking lot. Everybody went into the conference room to watch TV. I was shocked: How could something like this happen in the United States?
There’s a direct connection between the feeling I had that September morning and the work we’re doing to keep people safe. At Knightscope, we’re using the latest and greatest technologies—our own artificial intelligence algorithm, our own vision algorithm—to enable robots, roam autonomously and notify security staff if they see anything out of the ordinary.
How does it feel to be recognized for this ABIE Award?
I had a really difficult upbringing; it was hard to get to the point where I am today. I was the daughter of a single mom who would go to work during the day and study at night. Then I came to the States, and everything was so foreign to me. I literally couldn’t understand what people were saying! Completing my first degree in the U.S. was very, very difficult. So now, to have an organization like the Anita Borg Institute—a group of that supports tech—recognize my work is such a validation for me. I couldn’t have hoped for more.
I’m also really looking forward to being at the Grace Hopper Celebration for the first time. I always heard my classmates and colleagues talk about the event, but I was just never able to make it happen. So to be able to attend and meet people from all over the world who talk technology all day long is like a dream for me!
And I’m so excited, because now that I’ve been named as the winner of this award, a lot of people are reaching out to me from different organizations that support girls in tech. I like to mentor people; I would like to show people how to get to where I’ve gotten, to be able to tell girls around the world “Hey, this is what you can do, if you set goals. If you really put your mind to get somewhere, you can!”
Who inspires you?
My mother raised two children as a single mom, and at the age of 65 she earned her Ph.D. When I was little, she told me: “You will never have money but you will have an education. I will do whatever it takes to educate you, and that’s how you’re going to conquer the world.” And now, she’s seventy years old trying to get a second Ph.D.!
The second person that I admire is Hilary Clinton, simply because we share the same goal of shattering that glass ceiling. I liked her dedication to the work, I like her drive. She did whatever it took to get the work done.
I also admire Sheryl Sandberg: She’s the COO of one of the top technology companies, but she’s always at home at 6 p.m. to have dinner with her family. Regardless of what’s happening during the day, how bad work gets, what’s happening, she keeps her priorities straight.
What would you like to see change for women in tech in the coming years?
I would love for us to have a seat at the table. Out of all of the Fortune 500 companies, there are only 30 women CEOs. And that’s it: Four hundred and seventy are men, which, to me, is amazing—it’s incredible. So, my goal is to see women with more opportunities to get to that corner office.
Meet Mercedes during GHC at Change Agent and Leadership ABIE Award Winners 2017 — A Panel Discourse on Thursday, October 5, 2017 from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm in OCCC W300.
Thank you to Liberty Mutual Insurance, sponsor of the 2017 Leadership ABIE Award.