Breakthroughs for Women and Minorities in Technology: An Interview With WP Engine CEO Heather Brunner

At this year's SXSWedu Conference and SXSW Festival there will be many outstanding companies and several of their CEOs in attendance. But few women and minorities will be represented among this top tech talent. Overall, only a little more than 2 percent of minorities and women work for technology companies, which is reflected in the small amount of women and minorities who run tech companies or hold leading roles.

Austin-based Heather Brunner is someone who wants to change that. As CEO of WP Engine, incubated initially by Capital Factory also in Austin, Brunner's company powers more than 250,000 WordPress sites for over 26,000 customers making Brunner a role model to women in technology. The company, now almost five years old, grew last year from 90 employees to 230 people in San Antonio, Austin, San Francisco, and as of this year the company opened its first international location in London's bustling Tech City area.

Brunner has high standards of excellence, collaboration, diversity, and service both in and out of WP Engine. Her team is 20 percent female and 20 percent of employees don't have a college degree but do have experience in WordPress and web technology. With these diverse talents, WP Engine is helping companies of all sizes, from early stage startups like the Shark Tank entrepreneurs all the way to large enterprises like AMD, Uber, and Etsy, leverage the power of WordPress.

"We are at a tipping point with women in technology," Brunner states. "Our vision and mission is to represent the people behind these businesses so that their passion and purpose is clear," says Brunner. "No matter what business you are in, if you are inspired, clear on what you stand for, interested in connecting technology to solve problems, you'll do well beyond the specifics of the job you are hired for initially."

To make their mark, aspiring technology leaders need more than just tech skills. "Financials are the language of business," says Brunner. "Students, graduates, and employees need versatile financial skills to use business metrics for growth. The sooner a student starts thinking like a business owner, the sooner they will become a valued employee." These are skills like knowing how to define gross margin, profit and loss, and other key financial terms. Students have to drive their own learning in high school and college through apprenticeships, internships, and mentorships that provide a context to the working world. To improve access, these real world experiences are especially important to women, minorities, and underserved populations that might not be exposed to tech fields in school.

In addition to her impressive career, Brunner is also adept at the challenge of balancing personal and family life. As a wife and mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 10, she knows first-hand how to juggle competing priorities. However, there are clear advantages to being a female CEO. "The higher you are within an organization, the more flexibility you have to control your destiny." Brunner says. At the management level, you can do more to stay ahead and disrupt the status quo so that you are not just improving your business but setting a new standard for how your business is done.

WP Engine is working with middle school and high school-aged students through GENaustin and Breakthrough Austin to get first generation to college students exposed to technological and professional worlds. In this way, Brunner and WP Engine are leading others to create the best talent pipeline they can to fulfill their job needs in the coming decades and strengthen our economy overall, whether these students come to work for Heather at WP Engine, join established companies which need to be re-invented, start a non-profit to solve some of the world's biggest problems or start their own company where they can create work for themselves and others.

For those of you who are in Austin for SXSW on Sunday, March 15, you can see Brunner on a panel, "Trilogy: A Killer Network Can Transform Your Town" at the Hilton from 9:30 am -10:30 am.

Keep an eye out for Heather Brunner and other leading women and minority talent who will lead our EdTech transformation in more complete, collaborative, and diverse ways. Ask how you can be a partner of a technological future where talent comes in many forms of leadership, developing, directing, and delivering the best learning and living experiences for all.