You can’t point to one single moment in her career that Cynthia Tee hasn’t focused on empowering underrepresented communities. She found a way to live that commitment in everything she does.
Her twenty-five-year career is both a story of her rise in a tech space that desperately needed more representation and how she now uses her privilege as senior vice president of engineering at Smartsheet to create more welcoming and inclusive environments for all.
Tee’s desire to create a more equitable world started with a father who, thankfully, saw more for his daughter than tradition might have dictated. “I grew up in the Philippines in a very traditional Chinese family at a time where there just weren’t personal computers,” Tee explains. “But my father wanted me to be a computer science major. This was in a society that believed girls should stay home and take care of their families. That belief and confidence led my parents to send me halfway around the world to get my education.”
She graduated from MIT with her degree in computer science— and a comprehensive list of sexist assumptions and beliefs about her abilities as a professional. But she would luck into a much more supportive environment at Microsoft, where her entire management chain was women.
“It’s the only time I’ve encountered that in my whole career, and I really treasure those first couple of years where I found role models that would help develop me for my future roles,” says Tee, who spent almost twenty years at Microsoft.
One of Tee’s most impactful roles came in 2015 when she paused her tech career to become the executive director of the Ada Developers Academy, an intensive software development training program with people from underrepresented gender, ethnicity, and income groups put front and center.
“Taking that role is a different choice than a lot of people in my position would have made, but I had a really intense desire to address diversity and inclusion head on,” Tee explains. “Ada had a very disruptive idea, and I got to see so many talented adult women, trans, and nonbinary people who are so often excluded from the space. I think working at Ada is probably the most important moment of my career because I learned how to sponsor and support people and bring that back to my industry.”
Tee now teaches workshops on behalf of the Ally Skills Workshop to help executives make their workplaces more inclusive. The organization, created by lead facilitator Valerie Aurora, is active in eleven countries and has more than four thousand graduates of its workshops.
Those workshops include the executive team at Smartsheet, where Tee says she’s found an ideal environment for creating more equity in the tech space. “This organization does such incredible things, from the Climate Pledge Arena to our work with the Special Olympics,” the executive says. “The people here, from the CEO down, are very aligned in terms of increasing their self-awareness and creating more inclusive teams. This is definitely the place I want to be.”