Lawdan Shojaee, CEO of Axosoft used to be the only female CEO within the tech space in the state of Arizona and the company, established in 2002 in Scottsdale, Arizona, plays an integral role in growing the tech ecosystem in the state by hosting codathons, sponsoring Agile and developer groups, mentoring, providing speakers for tech conferences, and creating partnerships with organisations with similar missions. Axosoft is also the name of the company’s project management tool created for developers. In April, Axosoft launched the #ItWasNeverADress campaign to break down barriers and shift perceptions of women in technology and following on from this in June, Lawdan was appointed to the board of Girls In Tech, an organisation focused on empowerment, engagement, and education of women in technology.
“…I envision the girls teaching the teachers on what they want to be taught. If these girls are encouraged to follow their own STEAM goals, they start to change the educational system from the inside-out…”
Lawdan, please can you tell us about your career to date and what first got you interested in working in tech?
My career has been varied, but I’ve always wanted to push the envelope and test the boundaries in everything I did. My father is a mechanical engineer and he was constantly encouraging me to never limit myself simply because I was a woman. My family moved from Iran when I was six so I realise that I have opportunities that women in other parts of the world do not. I never, ever want to forget that or waste my time.
I studied kinesiology at University of California-Irvine and Arizona State University, which is where I graduated from; I later earned my Doctorate in Physical Therapy from A.T. Still University. When I met my husband, Hamid Shojaee, I knew I wanted to help him see his “first baby” – the company that would become Axosoft – a success. Entrepreneurship suits me well. I found I could make change in the world and see it through.
Hamid wanted to focus on a spin-off company, Pure Chat. and that’s when I took over as CEO at Axosoft. We just didn’t want to give Axosoft to someone else who might change our company’s culture that we worked so hard to cultivate. So, you could say, my interest in tech was first fostered by my father, then furthered by my husband. I’ve always had a strong vision and a passion for learning everything – from flying single-engine planes to coding.
We were reading your LinkedIn profile and we found your last job title at Axosoft – Culture Harvester – fascinating! What did this entail?
Axosoft has a very dynamic culture. It’s something I am extremely proud of because there aren’t many organisations in the state of Arizona running a business in the way we do, successfully.
The idea of a flat organisation and putting people first so they can truly innovate – and not just saying it – is still a bit new in the United States. Axosoft’s culture fosters diversity. Our employees can bring their children to work, their dogs, and work out at our on-site gym. (We also have showers, of course!) We have these things for our folks because we want them to feel free to innovate and collaborate.
Innovation doesn’t just happen. I believe in health and giving our employees the tools to come up with ideas because they feel comfortable to do so. Because we do not have titles or a hierarchy, hiring for fit into our culture is really important. I made this my main focus at Axosoft as a “Culture Harvester” where I made sure all 50 plus employees here feel comfortable and free to innovate.
It sounds like a fun environment – and it is, but we work hard too. I want to have the best talent in the country I can find. And, they have to be able to thrive in a flat organisation. And I think I’ve got it. We are only going to grow.
We spoke to your colleague, the fabulous Tania Katan, about #ItWasNeverADress back in May and we couldn’t help but love her enthusiasm. For those who missed it, please can you give us the background to the campaign and how it came about?
#ItWasNeverADress came about very organically. I had a vision to host a STEAM conference for young girls and I wanted a message to go along with it.
So, Tania, our “Curator of Code,” who is an artist, activist and writer, along with our “Marketing Unicorn,” Sara Breeding started talking and really thinking about women in the technology space. They began exploring questions: “Why aren’t there more women in the tech space? How can we get them there?” Questions like this have a tendency to bring disruption because it’s publically calling the status quo on the carpet. And, obviously, I’m not a fan of the status quo.
So, Tania took a walk, Sara wrote some words and they came back to the idea of the iconic women’s bathroom sign. Tania sketched something out and said to Sara, “Look, what if it’s not a dress, what if she was a superhero all along and we are seeing her from the back? We are seeing the bottom of her cape!” And Sara uttered….. “It Was Never A Dress!” And bam, like that, a viral campaign was born.
After we sent out a Tweet, it grew like wildfire and before you knew it, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and all kinds of news outlets were calling us and visiting us. It gets me pumped because it shows me that there are tons of like-minded folks who are hungry to see women occupy spaces where they belong. One of those spaces just happens to be the tech space.
Please can you tell us about the scholarship fund you set up off the back of the popularity of the imagery from the campaign?
We decided that since #ItWasNeverADress was so popular and all kinds of people across the world were voracious for its message, we would sell various items with the now-iconic “superhero” emblazoned on them. Our most popular item are t-shirts, of course, but we have items like coffee mugs and even shower curtains!
This money never came back to Axosoft and never will. We set up a STEAM scholarship fund that will benefit ASU [Arizona State University] students studying in the arts or tech. I wanted this to happen because I know that other women are being held back and it’s an injustice. I don’t want to forget that is happening. All funds from the sales of any #ItWasNeverADress go to this scholarship.
It seems to be more of a U.S. style approach to integrate the arts in to STEM, so it becomes STEAM. What difference does this make?
Yes, you are correct. STEAM did start in the United States, specifically at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
It’s necessary to add arts to STEM because the arts are about exploration and creative problem solving. This augments technology because we can provide more iterations and improve upon an idea or a product. You can get there faster if you understand all facets of STEAM. You can probably even create things you didn’t know you could. And that’s what the world needs – audacious goals and radical solves to problems we don’t know how to fix.
Right now, the Maker Community is starting to really make a difference in the world. Technology supports the Maker movement because it is an exploration of how technology can interact with arts and crafts. For example, wearable technology falls into this space. This is why you are seeing things like the Fitbit or Zac Posen designing dresses with LEDs.
Axosoft believes in this because we are built on and for Agile methodology. This is a way of managing a process that is iterative and helps provide time for exploration and innovation.
So, to answer your question, the letter “a” makes a huge difference. Not just in changing the word, but changing the world. The Maker Community is doing that. People can now take a maker bot and create something like a prosthetic and even a small-scale home. This is because of STEAM. And these things have the potential of changing the lives of people who have dire, immediate challenges.
We were watching a video clip where you were talking about “teaching girls to hack the education system”. Please can you tell us more about what you meant by this and why it is so important?
When I say “hack the education system” I mean that I want the girls to go into their schools and change the way they learn and demand they are taught STEAM-based skills and concepts. From an execution level, I wanted the girls to go and start STEAM-based clubs and ask for STEAM-based curriculum.
I envision the girls teaching the teachers on what they want to be taught. If these girls are encouraged to follow their own STEAM goals, they start to change the educational system from the inside-out.
What is coming up for you, Axosoft and Girls in Tech?
There are no limits for me or anything I do. I don’t believe in the glass ceiling. Axosoft is growing quickly and we are working on our employer brand so we can keep fostering the dynamic environment that fosters the innovation that we need.
Girls in Tech just had their Catalyst Conference in April where we focused on discussing innovation and technology in the entrepreneurship field, as well as women in leadership roles. We will keep pushing that conversation making sure women are seen. Because, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. This is one of the reasons women need to be out there, doing, creating, coding, etc.
If I can help, or if Axosoft, can help just one girl realise that they can make a dent in the tech industry, they will add to the diversity and brainpower in a company or their own company. And when other women see women doing it and making a difference, they know it’s a reality.
Follow the campaign on Twitter at:
Follow the campaign on Instagram at: