An Interview with Dr. Laura Reyna
Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum
Davos Task Force 2021
Founder of TechPolicy Lab for Latin America Puentech
Chronologically, how did you get into tech policy?
It was not a straightforward path. I define myself as someone who enjoys problem-solving, incorporating a lens of gender and technology. I am the bridge between technology and public policy. My academic background consists in my two bachelors one in International Studies and another one in political science and public administration finished my bachelors in Monterrey, Mexico. After that I worked for a year to local government the time in my home state Tamaulipas, Mexico. I represented the governor on behalf of other governors and work on institutional relations for a year. I finished that project an entered my first Masters in public policy at Monterey, in which I worked very closely into understand global social movements and how we can learn from them and make local recommendations to start ups and to organisations. I was mainly interested in social start-ups, not start-ups as we know them now, rather social movements as the Arab Spring. This led me to write my thesis on the “emergence of global civil society” published in 2012. My bachelor’s thesis was on e-participation in Mexico in 2009, so I already was writing about the impact of technology and in society 12 years ago, before my professors knew what I was talking about.
Immediately after my thesis was published by Tec De Monterry in Mexico, it became popular. I was invited to national television and local to deliver my opinion. I was very vocal about participating politically to change political parties from inside. I selected one, a very controversial one actually, because I believe that institutions should be changed from inside. This led to me to be invited and appointed when I was 25 years old as Technical Secretary of the Chief Of Staff of a Minister. This was not simply any minister, but the Mexican Minister of the Interior (in Mexico we don't have a vice president, but in that time the administrative is the equivalent of a Vice Presidential figure). That was my job for five years. I worked from governance, to gender, to risk and relief, to prevention of drug and crime. Throughout my time, I knew that something had to be wrong because solutions to social and public problems were outdated. There were existing technologies that address the regular challenges facing so many people, yet few were taking them in account. Almost, no one was thinking about innovation in government. I got really frustrated about the lack of innovation from a political and leadership level. Mexican leaders did not seem to understand the problems of the 21st century, such as how they can use artificial intelligence or technologies or feminism to understand issues and implement change. So, I started my PhD out of my frustration about how data was misused in Mexico. I completed my PhD whilst I was a public servant so I would split my days equally between being a full-time public servant from Thursday to Friday and at Friday 4:00 PM, and becoming an academic on the weekends to complete and write my thesis on “digital identities in Mexico”. Yeah, it's a long crazy path, but I finished my PhD and within my role in a public as a public servant, I discovered that in Mexico we are not having the conversations of how should the 21st century public servants should be looking out for tech-focused programmes. That is the story of how I was selected for Cambridge.
Tell me more about your start-up and how you got into tech.
Within academia, the bridge between technology and public policy has always been in my mind. After completing my thesis and working as a public servant in the Mexican Senate, I started giving classes and teaching. I never left academia! When I renounced to my appointment in the Mexican senate, I decided to finish my thesis on “data from a perspective of public administration”.
A local start-up in Mexico invited me to the position of Senior Manager for Government Relations. I worked for a start-up called “Grin” on mobility and the Internet of Things with local governments. I helped the start-up grow in Mexico and Colombia, opening up two new cities. This was challenging as I left a high-ranking position to work for a scooter start up. However, for me, the decision was obvious. I wanted to understand, as a public servant from a Mexican city, what the problems my city was facing. Problems such as, Uber, AirBnB, the Gig economy, and how that impacts of course their decisions.
“Grin” was the biggest scooter company in Latin America at the time and the company put me in charge of opening in new cities. So I opened in Medellin, Colombia and, Guadalajara, Mexico. I talked to public servants in each city that this was a positive solution. I explained how their decisions and regulations will affect the start-up.
I realised that nobody actually knew how to have that conversation assertively from one side of public servant the local public servants didn't know what they were talking about when they were talking about Internet of Things. The start-up didn't know how to speak to public servants at all because they didn’t feel the need to.
Therefore, I stepped in to bridge the gap. I never thought that I public policy major would help in that. So what happened next, was a lot of people asking me for my opinion. This led me back into lecturing and giving a class on the Masters of public policy for the Mexican Senate. My students, the Mexican senators, would come up to me after I finished my class and they asked about my Twitter. They would say things like, “we know you're working on this, could you explain what is artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things?”
Regulation is constantly evolving. I knew that there was something missing in the world when the public servants in the 21st century did not understand the impact of technology on society and governance. Schools in Mexico and Latin America are lacking in a tech focus.
That is ultimately how I founded my start-up, PUENTECH Lab, a technology policy laboratory for Latin America that bridges the gap between technology and public policy (Spanish: “puente” bridge in English and “Tech” = PUENTECH). I help macroeconomic stakeholders, start-ups, government entities and academia on how to create an ecosystem about what about technology leadership means for the 21st century. I work on creating innovative solutions to solve public challenges by factoring in gender and technology.
What would you say your barriers have been as a woman in tech policy?
The first barrier for technology policy has been to explain what the Cambridge MPhil in Tech Policy is and its relevance in society.
The second one is about being a woman in any space, not only technology. By this, I mean raising your voice and understanding when something is unfair! As a woman you are often going to be unaddressed or not invited or not listened to. I am a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum so when I when I shifted from government academia and then to the start-up world I ALWAYS negotiated my wages. Back when I was a public servant, I earned 50% less than my male colleagues. Even when I ranked higher than them in their own areas, they were still paid more than me. I spoke to my direct boss and he told me “well, there is no money for that”. After that, I said to myself, this is never going to happen again. When I started working for the start-up, I got a negotiated my salary effectively. When I talked to other women in the start-up, I realised I was being paid 70% more than them already. This led me to reflect critically on the gender wage gap in technology. How was this still happening? So a few of my friends from Global Shapers started out own project addressing the gender pay gap and how to eliminate inequality. We created a study and asked a Software Guru magazine to give us the information on the annual incomes of people in the software industry. They gave us the data. We worked closely with Global Shaper Alejandro Maza data scientist and 50 shapers presented a study in which we discovered that women in technology in Mexico earn 30% less simply by virtue of their gender. We presented it with national legislators and made a lot of fuss about it on media and decided to do two things. These two things alongside global shapers where; one to give workshops to women in technology for them to better negotiate their salaries and two how to thrive in the Tech career. On the other side, how to balance this with public service and regulation. The reality is that as a woman there is discrimination. You have two jobs all the time. On the one hand, you have to do your work and on the other one you have to defend what you did. Raising your voice comes at the expense of being called a *****, gaslighting etc. This is absolutely unacceptable. Something I do that has helped a lot, to tackle gender inequality and the lack of representation, is to always, whenever I arrive in a new place, to create a women’s network. This can be as simple as creating a WhatsApp chat of all the women in the organisation. Luckily, I don't have to do this here at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, because we're an all-woman’s college. I did this whilst at the World Economic Forum and all other organisations I have worked for. Such safe spaces for women are absolutely crucial. At least once a week I will try to organise something and come together.
With regards to this, how do you view the representation of women and minorities at the Cambridge Judge Business School?
I always make an active effort to ask all my professors in technology policy, for example, those in my circular economy class in this week, what the impact of our research is on gender. How can the fourth industrial revolution be more inclusive? Not only for women, but for the people who are being affected by the emergence of new technologies. Within my negotiations class, I have asked my professors what the impact of gender is on the negotiations process. The same goes for management of technology or management of innovation process or technology policy concepts and frameworks. I will always raise that question. How does this works in developing countries? Often, my Cambridge professors will be honestly admit they haven’t got an answer. Sometimes, I get replies saying “maybe this is something that you should analyse by yourself” or suggest other professors who might have an answer.
I think that this is something that should be raised more often and that the question should be put in the centre of Tech Policy considerations. Often, I have to explain to many other colleagues and students what I mean when I talk about inclusion. This is a draining and tiring process; one which I do not always have the time or the willingness to explain. I know that it's not my job to educate everyone. I'm learning too. Feminism is a process. I am studying technology policy what I'm bringing in is the gender glasses to understand this and raise that question. I think in that sense that's my contribution to the programme.
Could you list three female leaders that have inspired you?
I have three passions. Public policy, technology and inclusion.
1. Amalia González Caballero de Castillo Ledón
Within public policy, Amalia González Caballero de Castillo Ledón was among Mexico’s first female Cabinet viceMinister and second female Ambassador, working extensively as a delegate to the United Nations. She was born and raised a few miles from my hometown l city Cd. Victoria Tamaulipas, Mexico. Growing up, I would always see her pictures as an Ambassador, shaping Mexico’s public administration, paving a path for women, breaking glass ceilings in the 1930s. She was also a writer and very good friend of artists such as Frida Kahlo.
2. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
The second female leader that has profoundly inspired me in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was a nun in Mexico in the 17th century. She was amazing and wrote incredible poems. She refused to get married so she became a nun – and according to some historians a lesbian. Her perspective on life and visions of how gender equality should be in a country like Mexico, while we were still colonised, were revolutionary.
3. All women in software
Finally, I am inspired by all women in software.
All the work that so many women have done in the area of software, from Ada Lovelace who created programming as we know it, up to women in artificial intelligence today. Women are fighting back to reclaim their space in such a challenging, male-dominated environment.
For example, in Mexico 90% of cloud computing is done by men. 72% of artificial intelligence is done by men. I'm a fan of the 10%, I'm fan of the 28%.
I am currently expanding my analysis of gender wage inequality in Latin America to pose the question, “why does women don't want to get into technology and into software specifically”? Because they are very violent spaces to be in. As a woman in tech, if you are being bullied and undermined all the time, why would you want to go into this industry? I am closely following a PhD thesis from the Oxford Internet Institute around how Hackathons are very toxic places to be in. To become a developer you will often have to learn by yourself. Men won't invite you because you're a woman. Despite the fact that the entire field of software computing was invented by a woman (Ada Lovelace)!
The women that are fighting back and fighting hard back, truly inspire me. For example, the struggles of the prominent artificial-intelligence computer scientist and software engineer, former-Google employee, Timnit Gebru. I am also immensely inspired by Poet of Code, Joy Buolamwini, fighting bias in algorithms and whilst creating poetry.
In Latin America I started PUENTECH when the start-up I worked for went into bankruptcy. This is common with start-ups that often grow and die, in January of 2020. By that time I had University of Cambridge in mind. The start-up requested they shared my curriculum vitae and I agreed. Several start-ups came back with a job offers in that moment. Instead of committing to one, I decided collaborate and start a project with all of them. That's how PUENTECH started as a company. I still don't know how to describe it – I don't know if it's a start-up, if it's a company, if it’s is a consultancy – I think that the best word to say in describe it's is that it is a laboratory. We are trying new things out and seeing what it works in the frontier that is Latin America.
Interview conducted by Anne-Sophie Pasquino.