We sat down with Technovation 2011 Alumni, Jasmine Gao to catch up and see what she has been up since her with us as a Technovation Droidette. Jasmine is an entrepreneur at heart, a gamer, and a tech-driven insomniac. She is currently a Data Strategist at bitly and an Enstitute fellow.
You were once a Technovation student. Can you tell us what stands out to you most about your experience participating in Technovation?
When I was participating in the 2011 Technovation Challenge, what stood out to me was how much access we were given to accomplished women entrepreneurs and technologists. I noticed right away that not only were our team’s mentors two incredibly intelligent Google engineers, but they were also super supportive of our efforts in the program — I remember multiple times when my mentor, Mary Wong took out time outside of Technovation to help us out with last-minute changes to our prototype. Looking back, I realize I met two key people in my career path on the same night during the NY Regional pitch contest: Deborah Jackson, my past employer at JumpThru, and Hilary Mason, my present employer at bitly. If that doesn’t speak to how powerful the connections one makes through Technovation are, I don’t know what does.
When you were a going through the program as a student, what app did your team create? What was your team name?
My team, The Droidettes, created a prototype for an app called Trending, which was a mobile aggregator that would collect, organize, and categorize trending fashion items. The idea for Trending came out of a problem I had with my email being regularly cluttered with newsletters from various online retailers and fashion outlets that I had purchased from in the past. There was simply no website, mobile app, or convenient medium that allowed avid online shoppers and fashion enthusiasts to digest trend information, find out what the hottest products were as recommended by industry experts, and make purchases all in one place — that’s where Trending came in.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in Technology?
I’ve been playing video games all of my life and, growing up, my computer was like a third parent to me in that I had learned so much just from a simple dial-up connection. However, up until a few years ago, I had always been a passionate consumer of technology but never thought I could be a passionate producer of technology as well. I also had a long standing interest in entrepreneurship at the time but didn’t know what industry to go into. What changed all of this was my discovery of the NY startup scene while working for Deborah, who was one of the judges on Pitch Night. So in that way Technovation was a catalyst for my career in technology.
What is it like to work at bitly? What was the process like getting a position there?
I got my current position at bitly through my fellowship at Enstitute, which is a two-year apprenticeship program for 18-24 year olds based on the philosophy of learning by doing. The current and first class of fellows consists of 11 pre, mid, and post-college students who have been selected out of roughly 500 applicants to spend two years in NYC working under successful entrepreneurs and executives in technology, media, non-profit, etc. We all live together and many of us, including myself, have actually dropped out of college to do this with the belief that we will get more out of two years working than we could ever going to school. Through a series of interviews with Enstitute, I managed to be paired with Hilary Mason, my first choice, who serves as Chief Scientist at bitly and as a result I work on the science team with her.
Since Hilary has the unique leadership role at bitly of making both technical and strategic business decision for the company, my apprenticeship under her has given me access to the same diversity of projects. In any given week, I could be improving my Python skills on a coding project, leading business development calls with potential clients, phone screening job applicants, playing ping pong, or meeting astronauts. And as Hilary’s apprentice, my work outside of bitly includes anything from joining her at speaking engagements and conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt, sitting in on government meetings with Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, building communities around data science such as DataGotham, reviewing business plans and proposals sent to her, and picking up insomnia cookies for an event.
What do you like best about your job?
Definitely the breadth of exposure when it comes to my work, which can range from programming to market research to product to sales. The projects I get to work on are varied enough where I don’t get bored from doing the same thing for too long. I think I have the best of both worlds as a Data Strategist since it allows me to apply business strategy to our technical products, APIs, and data.
Who are your mentors? How do they help you?
People I consider my mentors are really just past employers, colleagues, and friends from whom I have grown a lot, personally and professionally, under their guidance. One “mentor’”of mine is a woman named Stephanie Louie who is a VP of Operational Risk at Goldman Sachs. Stephanie is an alumna of the same high school I went to, Brooklyn Tech, and we met at a Career Fair I had organized there. She has been giving me advice on everything from business to dating since I was 15, and our mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into a close friendship. When Hurricane Sandy displaced me from the Enstitute HQ, where all the fellows live, Stephanie happily opened up her home for me to crash at.
Another person I consider my mentor is of course Hilary since I look up to her as the business-savvy technologist I hope to be someday. Hilary has not only helped me figure out my strengths and position at bitly but she has also given me access to an incredible network both people-wise and internet-wise (when I was sick at home without access to wifi, she didn’t hesitate at all to give me her mobile wireless hotspot for a week).
What advice do you have for Technovation girls who are considering careers in tech?
Become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Whenever you are learning something new (programming, for example) or entering into a field in which you’ve had little to no experience (technology, as another example), you’re likely to feel nervous, lost, and frustrated, but that is normal so don’t let those natural feelings stop you. I talk more about this in a Women2.0 article you can read here.
As a Technovation participant, you have access to great resources and I encourage you to take advantage of everything that is offered. Most importantly, seek opportunities outside of what is directly made available to you. When my team lost the 2011 NY Regional competition, I made an effort to get each one of the judge’s business cards and emailed them afterwards, which ultimately resulted in the internship with Deborah Jackson that led to my application to Enstitute. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for something. You’d be surprised how open people within the technology community are to helping.
Jasmine was recently featured in the NYT: Check out the article here.