Celebrating the Women of Cape Privacy - Meet Bessie Chu

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As an innovative tech company, Cape Privacy relies on a diverse and skilled team of professionals who bring their talents to a highly collaborative environment. Through that collaboration we are building a platform that protects security by default with a novel combination of secret sharing and secure multiparty computation.

For women's history month, a number of our strong women talk about what inspires them about working in tech, how they overcame challenges in their careers, and their visions for what the future of engineering should look like. These fascinating conversations demonstrate the power of what's possible when you build a diverse workforce that values the contributions of people with different perspectives.

This women in tech dialogue is between software engineer and technical product manager Jenny LaPierre and Bessie Chu.

Jenny LaPierre: Where are you from? Where do you live now? And feel free to include any other significant steps along your journey.

Bessie Chu: I'm Taiwanese-American. I grew up mostly in California, where I lived and worked and got most of my education. Now I live in New York City.

Jenny: How did you get into this career path? Were you always interested in a career in tech or tech-adjacent fields?

Bessie: I followed my bliss and the market, and I actually feel really lucky. I've always been interested in technology, and I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me and indulged me in interests like letting me build my own computer. So I naturally fell into a tech career.

My first job was actually at a social good startup, and I later spent a long time in advertising and analytics. What's interesting for me is the intersection of technology and culture. As a person, that's what really fascinates me.

I ended up learning to do some programming, computer science fundamentals, and got recruited into a product team based on a research project. So things fell together for me. It was a lot of hard work, but there was always that innate interest, and I've been really lucky to be able to transform that interest in a high-growth field in the U.S. where upward mobility has become more difficult. So I feel really lucky that I had my interests encouraged from a very early age.

Jenny: That kind of leads me to the next question: what is it that inspires you about your role here at Cape?

Bessie: The cool thing about product is combining a lot of different threads and making something that people actually can enjoy and use to solve a problem.

For example, on a given day we'll have meetings on how we should define some UI features for something as granular as a user role, to a larger strategy discussion on identifying markets we should focus on, such as enterprise vs middle market. Those pieces are part of the day-to-day. But what's really cool is when we're bringing together what's triggering social and technological change. That happens when people overlay a product with a vision of what society can be.

We can come up with something that can make people's lives better, and that's really cool. Our product development process is connecting imagination into reality. Multiple aspects of society, like regulation and people's appetite for products that are always changing. And it's so important to have people who are fluent in those different aspects of what goes into building a product.

Jenny: I have a friend whose role is sustaining engineer, but she's described herself as the Rosetta Stone of engineering within her company because she talks to every department. She has to know what the software engineers are talking about, and what the hardware engineers are talking about. So it's definitely a really important role, and it's great to have someone who is passionate, and who can do it well.

Bessie: Thank you. Jenny: What was it about Cape Privacy specifically that you found compelling and gave you a desire to join the team?

Bessie: It was fortuitous timing. At my old job, I had increasingly been building products centered on data ethics and privacy. We were looking for vendors who could do privacy preserving machine learning. When Cape reached out to me, I thought maybe this is a company that we can partner with, or even buy. I saw Cape doing secure multi-party computation and I was like, "Whoa, these guys have something that I have been looking for for quite a while."

And then I thought I'd rather be working on the core technology for something that I believe is so important. Besides the technology, the people I talked to were really great. I went into an IC role here from a Director role, but it was worth it to be a part of what Cape is doing. I liked the culture and wanted to be part of the journey.

And if I were to narrow it down to say what is the most exciting thing about my job? I think being at an early stage and trying to find a fit for a product. I've been through it before, and at times it can feel like an uphill slog, and maybe even a little scary, but when you know success is just around the corner, and what you're doing is going to make a big impact, it's really exciting. And the most exciting thing is building something that solves a problem in the world that needs to be solved.

Jenny: That's great. Digging a little deeper, what kind of impact would bring you the most satisfaction in your work? What kind of impact are you hoping to make?

Bessie: For Cape's technology in particular, and for privacy overall, I would like to see it applied to different use cases in the field. We're at an early stage where we need to find the right product market fit. But what would bring me even more satisfaction than validation is to show the ways we're making big impacts, especially in terms of new applications. By making our core available as open source, and helping people on the bleeding edge of what we do apply our tech in ways we haven't even thought about, I would love to see that happen.

Jenny: That's where my mind is at, too. So, what does a typical day in your job involve?

Bessie: Day-to-day it differs, but every day has something about defining some feature or a direction, and collaborating to narrow it down and figure out the best solution. And also to make sure that we've given every thought a consideration. You have to deal with this kind of high failure rate, and there's always research involved–which is something I really enjoy–into what's going on in the market. Given that we're an early stage startup, there's a little bit of everything in terms of defining what's the culture of a company that we want to be and how we deal with competing priorities and motivations.

Jenny: You talked a little before about what your hopes are for the future of Cape's technology. Could you talk a little bit about your hopes for the future of the field of product management?

Bessie: Product Management is a field that a lot of people want to break into. I'm part of the Women in Product chapter here in New York City. There's just so many people trying to get in who are qualified and very smart. I think I got lucky. There are a lot of artificial barriers to entry. I see all of these posts and people ask me questions like, "Do I need to go to business school? Do I need to learn to code?" I'm like, not really. You need to learn some things about computer science. You need to understand things about memory, like time and space complexity, but you don't need to take semesters of computer science. I think it's super interesting, but I don't know if I would tell you to spend your time doing that as a product person. I wouldn't even say to go to business school unless you have a very specific career track. That's speaking as someone who's in business school. But I keep hearing these questions. So I'm hoping that people are willing to take chances on people who can demonstrate things like good product sense, user empathy, and being able to think in a multidisciplinary way across design, business and technology, while also understanding things like budgetary restraint. I think that'd be great because I feel like technology is a field that gives a lot of people upward mobility.

I don't have all the answers, but I do feel like there are particular problems that create a false pipeline issue, whether it's discrimination or because people don't fit a particular profile. There are artificial barriers to entry where people need to be given a chance to do this kind of work or better ways to evaluate candidates. As a result, companies are losing a lot of really talented people.

Jenny: What attracted you to the field in spite of these barriers? I know you touched on it a little bit.

Bessie: This is the corny answer but it's true, and I think it will resonate with a lot of people. I like technology, and I can't think of any other path I could have gone down. Things have not always been easy, but this path was the one that I was always going to be set on, and I don't know what else I would be doing.

There were a range of choices I could have made, like consulting or banking. And maybe I could have made more money, or the job would be easier. But I'm just not interested in that. I'm interested in seeing how technology works vis a vis culture and society and politics and the law. So that's how I ended up here, in spite of the difficulties, because I think if you're good at something and you're into it, you should pursue it even if it's not the easiest path.

Jenny: You followed your passion; followed your bliss. You mentioned having a lot of support from your parents earlier in the interview. Did you have any other role models or people who helped you along the way, either industry or academia, who helped you on your path?

Bessie: I think women in tech, and especially women of color in tech, who are not from, say, middle class families, need two things: someone to give them an opportunity, and people to encourage them and give them guidance.

There are lists of people I worked with who gave me advice in my first, second, third jobs; advisers that I had in school, and people that I've worked for who gave me opportunities and encouraged me, despite the barriers.

I also think the biggest thing for any woman in technology is to give back in some way. It doesn't have to be some lofty thing, but if someone emails your personal LinkedIn, take ten minutes to give them a call. It seems like a really small thing to you, but for someone starting out, it isn't. I have people in my life who'll say, "It's not a big deal that I helped you," and it may not have been a big thing for them, but it was a big deal for me. Some women that I want to mention in particular I've worked with are Noopur Pandey, Min Poh, Erin B. Reilly, Margo McDowell, and especially Valentina Candelero who has always encouraged me to think bigger than my circumstances.

Jenny: What was one of the biggest obstacles that you faced, either breaking into the field or in your career in general, and how did you overcome it?

Bessie: I was in the right place at the right time, and I was prepared. And that just shows it's a lot about luck. I think an obstacle is staying in tech. A lot of women get flushed out because there is a lot of explicit and implicit discrimination against women in tech. That I don't fit a lot of people's stereotypes about Asian women is something that has been said explicitly to me, repeatedly. And after a while, when people are treating you a certain way, like they don't want to listen to you in meetings; they don't think you're the person in charge of the meeting, or in charge of the group, you can pick up on it's about what you are versus who you are. It's structural. That person is being ignorant, consciously or unconsciously, because of the society they've been used to operating in, and you're working against that structure.

There are easier lives you could live than dealing with that. I've worked in very male-oriented corporate cultures. Society has changed quickly in the last few years for the better, but it was not a good feeling when people treated you badly because they thought you were nobody and made racial comments, and later when I've been in a position of power they totally changed their tune. That's a wild experience to have. I think some people would look at it triumphantly, but I think it's actually quite sad, but you have to be mentally prepared and strong, and know that it's not about you, even if it's hurtful. But I can choose how I react to it, and choose to change things structurally for the better. Unfortunately, a lot of women try to play around with it, be the queen bee, or be the special exception or token.

Jenny: Yeah, and especially not talk over you. Obviously I can't speak to being a woman of color, but I really appreciate that you touched on that feeling; that even if you know it's not about you, that isn't exactly comforting because it just reminds you of that powerlessness, or that feeling of helplessness.

Bessie: It's disappointing to know we aren't where we need to be, and that things don't operate the way they could. Even if it's not our fault, the barriers are real and we can't ignore them, but we can't wallow in them either. We have to actively try to make things better for those who come after.

Jenny: Exactly. To shift gears a little bit, what has been your experience since joining Cape Privacy?

Bessie: It's been an adventure. It's very different joining a startup earlier in your career than joining when you're a little bit further on and have had some experience. I see things more from a technology maturity perspective. We're at a stage that's very interesting. When you're working at a company or with a product that's established, or within a larger ecosystem, you have to know how to scale. Whereas here, we need to know more about use cases, so how do we scale?

There are also some skills I've learned I need to get better at, recognizing the human factors of being at a small company, how much people have staked. The dynamics are very different because, even though I've always worked with people who are very passionate, there's such a personal stake here in wanting to succeed, it's a really cool thing to learn about and negotiate. It is also very different going from working for a big corporation where people are very confrontational and aggressive to a company like Cape that is much more tight-knit and consensus-driven. Learning to operate in that environment wasn't natural to me at first, so it has been a great growth experience.

Jenny: Earlier you mentioned that you took this opportunity because you were interested in personal and professional growth. So it sounds like you're going to get into some things related to this year's theme for International Women's Day, and Women's History Month in general: Breaking the Bias, focusing on forging an inclusive, diverse and equal future among genders.

What would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to achieve this, both at an organizational level to address bias in tech, and also at an individual level?

Bessie: Organizations have to be an active participant. They can't let culture evolve without being intentional, or it might evolve something that you don't want it to.  Company cultures ultimately reflect the norms of the societies they operate in. I think we realize a lot of things are not working, so we have to be clear about setting norms explicitly and implicitly. There's a lot of companies that do performative stuff but where the environments remain toxic. Within companies you have to enforce the norms you want. For example, people shouldn't be talking over women or taking credit for other people's ideas. Companies have to be proactive in bringing about change.

We have to be an active participant in what we do, and not take positive change for granted. Similarly, individuals need to model the behavior that they want. I have a lot more power to influence than I did when I was younger. I have more economic power and positional power, so when things do go wrong, I should be the one to call it out, and avoid putting a more junior person in that position if I can. People should take notice of their relative agency in comparison to others and do something about creating the kind of world you want to live in.

Jenny: Absolutely. What advice would you give to a little girl who might be thinking about joining the rarefied air that is being a woman in tech?

Bessie: I don't agree that we should think about being a woman in tech as "rarefied air." That little girl should pursue what she wants to do. But the advice I'd give her is to work hard and plan for the barriers.

I've had to really think seriously about this as an Asian woman who doesn't conform to stereotypes. It's interesting because when I've worked in Asia, I didn't have the same pushback on my assertiveness compared to working in the U.S. But knowing that, I have to prepare for that.

And the other thing is, when a door is open for you, don't just walk through. Don't shut the door. Hold that door open for as long as you can for others to get through. If I want to live in a world where it's possible for that girl to pursue her dreams, I need to hold that door open for her for as much as I can.

Jenny: I love that. That's great. Oh, and that was the last question. Thank you so much for doing this interview. And then one bonus question to close out: what keeps you occupied when you aren't on the clock? What are your other passions?

Bessie: I'm a total foodie; really into it. Also, one of the cool things about living in New York City is finding inspiration in seeing creative work outside of tech, and allowing that to inform what I'm doing. Something else I'm passionate about is, we're in a once in a generation battle between democracy and authoritarianism. As a Taiwanese person who really cares about preserving our freedom, I'm involved in civic organizations to make sure we protect our nation's democracy and be able to defend ourselves if that situation were to come. That is something that I'm heavily invested in outside of work. But I do think this want for technology to make things better is a pillar of value, which is why I'm here as well.

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