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Meet the Queen of Laser Radio Tech

Sarah Thomas
11/23/2015

Christina Richards spent ten years in electrical engineering at Nortel before joining AOptix and later switching to a business and marketing role at the vendor, which makes wireless alternatives to fiber-optic cable.

What that means is that she can develop laser-radio technology, combining an advanced form of Free Space Optics with Millimeter Wave Radio Frequency (RF) technology using proprietary algorithms, and then also explain to you what that means in terms you might actually understand. (See AOptix Rejoins the Backhaul Bandwagon.)

It's a skill -- bridging the worlds of tech and marketing speak -- that not a lot of executives can master, but Richards, vice president of marketing at AOptix Technologies , made it a point in her career to cross the divide, and it's a transition she recommends for other women looking to advance in the next-gen comms industry.

"Always be creating value, increasing knowledge and increasing scope," Richards tells Light Reading of her advice for anyone in the industry, but it is advice that perhaps can benefit women the most. Read on for more of her personal story, perspective on the industry and advice for both employees and their companies to help close the gender divide.

Christina Richards, vice president of marketing, AOptix
Christina Richards, vice president of marketing, AOptix


Light Reading is launching Women in Comms as a not-for-profit, independent initiative providing information, networking, mentorship, access to jobs and support for women in the next-gen communications industry in 2016. Visit Women in Comms and get in touch to learn more!


Light Reading: Would you say that it's a good time to be a woman in comms, or are there still formidable challenges for women in our industry?

Christina Richards: It's definitely the best time it's ever been to be a woman in the industry, but, yes, it's still challenging. Things are continuously getting better, but there are still a lot of challenges. Some happen because of the way the industry is set up and the fact that it's still male dominated; some are ones we bring with us into the industry.

Women have a harder time knowing the value they bring to a situation and really speaking up. Whereas a man in the same situation may not hesitate, a woman feels she is being judged. That is what you have to fight against. There are fewer women and there is always going to be that slightly different perspective people take with you when you offer your input. If you believe you bring value, others will see your value as well.

LR: As a leader, what is the number one piece of personal advice you would give to help women achieve their goals in a male-dominated field?

CR: The advice I'd give to anyone, but has specific implementation for women -- always be creating value, increasing knowledge and increasing scope. Start with the value. It's intangible, but you can measurable real value you bring to the table, and it immediately gives you credibility. Always increase your knowledge. If you don't increase your knowledge, you'll get stuck. Always expand your scope. What's the next step? What's the next business relationship to create? How can you provide benefits to other people? If you do those three things, you'll continually find yourself moving forward.

LR: Tell us more about your personal story and how you used this advice to get to where you are today.

CR: I was just having lunch with a female friend in the industry. We were talking about how both of us started as engineers. I moved into business; she into finance. Why she moved was similar to some things I thought. I was at Nortel in engineering and was chosen to be in Leadership Edge, grooming leaders for the next generation of executives. As an engineer, you are so siloed and focused around the technology and product and excited about creating cool technology, but maybe not as aware of the rest of the parameters of the business. When I got the opportunity to see that I thought "wow, there's a whole new world." I was interested in learning more about it. Nortel gave me the opportunity to get my MBA, and I knew I wanted to find a way to move into the business side but still use my technology background as an advantage. Marketing gave me the opportunity to do that.

I've always been in B2B marketing around highly complex technology. So I can use my background to make the complex simple, but can still look at it from a business perspective. How do we move levers on technology to move business forward? If you told me that I would go into marketing when I graduated with my electrical engineering degree, I wouldn't believe you, but when it came, it was natural because I could use my technical background and customer interface.

LR: How can we, as an industry, encourage more women to enter the STEM field?

CR: It really is important to start early. As younger women, if they don't see the opportunities that exist, they are less likely to go in that direction. If you don't get them until college, it's too late. Making the connection between things they care about and things happening in technology can be so powerful. There's a celebrity forum speaker series in the Valley. The American physicist, Michio Kaku, is a futurist that talks about the technology of the future and what it will look like. He held a lecture at the Flint Center where he talked about the hyper-connected health care centers of 2057, where we will have massive amounts of connected health information that will enable us stop cancer before it starts, and through the Internet of Things our lives will be integrated in ways that we can’t even imagine now. Even a tween with different things on their mind, they can really relate to those things if we can put them in terms that matter to them. Talking about the tech in terms of how it interacts with their everyday life, you can get more excitement around it.

You need to have more of a cultural shift that we haven't quite turned the corner on yet. It interacts with them in everyday life, but do they see it as something as a female it's appropriate to go do? The more females and mentors in the space, the more it helps make the shift, but we're not there yet.

LR: Women often think they have to act like men to get ahead in male-dominated industries. Is this a fallacy, and why?

CR: I think that one thing I've noticed that's different in how women interact in the business world today, and in the tech world in particular, that was different when I first came in, is when I first came in I was given the impression that if you want to fit in you need to act like a man and interact with a man. That was not entirely wrong, but I've noticed Millennials have a stronger sense of self and need to bring themselves as a woman into the industry. It says to me we're going in the right direction. It allows women to bring more of their unique capabilities into the tech workplace more.

There have been women in our industry for decades, and I recognize great benefits that came from women before me, but in the '90s there was still a little bit of that. My electrical engineering class was 105 people and six were women. We had numbers that skewed. You feel like you need to do that. You have to go against my own inclinations in my early career just to connect. It's not that it's men versus women, but it's humans. We interact in a certain way, and if men are always around men, they expect that interaction. Conforming seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

LR: How can companies recognize the differences in men and women in terms of how we network, think and do business, and use it to everyone's advantage without exacerbating the divide?

CR: It's always dangerous to generalize about so many people at once. There are a lot of things that companies can do to encourage things to be a little more flat in terms of looking at the value brought to the table versus the gender of the person. I think that it comes down to creating situations in which you are really focusing on what value is brought to the situation rather than creating a scenario where we only like things presented this way by this type of person and you won't be successful unless it's in this package. Women bring unique capabilities into the workplace. The best businesses can capitalize on both.

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

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DHagar
DHagar
11/24/2015 | 9:37:26 PM
Re: Queen of Laser Radio Tech
Sarah, what a great interview!  Christina is the model of an effective tech professional today, who happens to be a woman.  Her views on the effective role and focusing on delivering value assertively is right on target.

She is a real star, or "Queen" as you correctly state.

Thanks for such a positive model!
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