Twitter’s top female exec on discrimination and overcoming adversity

October 24, 2014, 3:55 AM UTC
FORTUNE 40 Under 40
Claudine Gossett--Drew Altizer Photography

Vijaya Gadde is no stranger to trying situations. As Twitter’s (TWTR) general counsel, she’s faced plenty of challenges. Last year, she was key in the tech company’s public offering — and she recently helped Twitter successfully sue the Turkish government after the country blocked its use in March.

“Whenever I face adversity, I think about what my parents went through,” Gadde told Fortune assistant managing editor Leigh Gallagher at Fortune‘s 40 under 40 event on Thursday night.

Though Gadde was born in India, she didn’t meet her father until she was three. As a poor graduate student in America, he wasn’t initially able to support his family coming to America. When Gadde turned one, her mother headed to the states — and two years later Gadde finally met her father.

Her family moved to small town Texas. She said they were among a handful of Indians — and the KKK had a significant local presence. “You don’t realize it when you’re a child,” she said, referring to the KKK’s power; her father needed their permission to go door-to-door selling insurance. “But when you’re in high school you realize this isn’t right.”

The situation’s unfairness inspired Gadde to become a lawyer. “No one messes with lawyers,” Gadde said. Before joining Twitter in 2011, she spent nearly a decade working at Wilson Sonsini and then spent time in the legal department of Silicon Valley technology firm Juniper Networks.

The transition wasn’t initially obvious to Gadde. “I didn’t get Twitter when it came out,” she admitted. “My first tweet was about breakfast.” But the 2010 Egyptian uprising was a turning point for her. “I realized how powerful of a platform it can be,” she told the audience, “and I lobbied for a job there.”

As for her successes? Gadde credits preparation, especially concerning Twitter’s IPO. She said the company spent two years planning for the event, and they had an independent board ready “a year before.”

That board had not a single female face on it — until former Pearson (PSO) CEO Marjorie Scardino joined after noisy public backlash.

Gadde doesn’t shy away from criticisms of tech companies’ (like Twitter’s) dearth of women in leadership roles. Though she’s the only female on Twitter’s executive management team, Gadde has some tough opinions on getting more women into leadership roles. Her thoughts are characteristic of someone who has been fighting since she was born: “All tech companies need women. But I’m a big believer in only putting women in these positions only if they deserve them.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gadde had been at Juniper Networks for nearly a decade. Fortune regrets the error.

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