How Google X’s Megan Smith is helping women in tech, one story at a time
FORTUNE – As innovative as Silicon Valley may be — churning out fresh ideas, products, and services –when it comes to giving credit where it’s due, women generally remain woefully under-recognized.
It’s not overt sexism, so much as unconscious bias on the part of some people now, explains Megan Smith, vice president of Google X, the futuristic research lab developing not-so-secret projects like self-driving cars, Google Glass, the wearable computing device worn like eyewear, or Project Loon, a breathtakingly ambitious plan to bring 3G-level Internet connectivity to millions via thousands of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons navigating through Earth’s stratosphere. Smith is one of over 50 women and men speaking at The MAKERS Conference this week, part of a larger initiative to tell women’s stories.
One of the most egregious examples of such bias at work is a project that weds Hollywood and tech: the Steve Jobs biopic Jobs, with actor-turned-angel investor Ashton Kutcher. While early players in Apple’s (AAPL) history, including co-founder Steve Wozniak and computer engineer Bill Atkinson, get screen time, other Macintosh pioneers, including Susan Kare, don’t. “What was so special about the Mac we all know was the graphical computer interface,” says Smith. Atkinson designed the behind-the-scenes software toolbox used for the early Mac’s graphical interface, but Kare conceived of and designed virtually every Mac icon users saw and interacted with. Yet, nowhere in Jobs is Kare represented.
Over the last decade, Smith, an MIT-trained mechanical engineer, has carved out an impressive reputation. As VP of Google’s (GOOG) New Business Development team for little more than nine years, she managed early partnerships and licensing and led acquisitions like Where 2Tech (now Google Maps) and Keyhole, better known these days as Google Earth. During Android’s early days, it was Smith and her team who conducted the first deals with the handset makers and cell carriers. “I have a good eye for great projects, talent, and entrepreneurs,” admits Smith, who qualifies herself as a catalyst: “I like to work at the beginning of projects. Once they get stable, I’ll hand them off.”
Smith’s success on projects such as Android no doubt became deciding factors when Google co-founder Sergey Brin asked her to to join him at Google X, where she works closely with the Rapid Evaluation Team, a small group that tests out ideas seemingly far-fetched, yet potentially important ideas, like Project Loon. Such ideas have earned a nickname: “moonshots.” “We very much use a prototyping model, play with ideas, and then get stuff started that way, which is how the greatest projects get started,” says Smith. In addition, she focuses on Solve for X, a community of individuals and organizations that meet and collaborate on ways to speed up the progress of moonshots. Smith leads Solve for X with Google X director and scientist Astro Teller.
Smith also spends her time on Women Techmakers, a forum that works to improve the visibility of women leaders worldwide. Previous speakers have included Google ads chief turned YouTube head Susan Wojcicki and VMWare founder and ex-CEO Diane Greene. “You don’t hear the back stories of a lot of these great leaders — or even hear about them,” sums up Smith.
But ongoing work like Smith’s means that’s changing, slowly, but surely.