Women Who Reign: Ruthe Farmer

You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” – Michelle Obama

Ruthe Farmer’s Ted Talk

Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
I’ve been a full time professional feminist rabble-rouser for women, girls and underrepresented students in tech and engineering since 2001. I recently served as Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy leading implementation of President Obama’s call to action for Computer Science for All IMG_7348(CSforAll) American students, and advised on national tech inclusion policy.  Before that I spent 9 amazing years at the National Center for Women & IT ( where I was able to create some incredible, enduring programs like the Aspirations in Computing ( 360 degree talent development initiative for young women, the AspireIT K-12 outreach program ( which funds high school and college women to lead computing programs for younger girls and will reach 10K girls by 2018, and – a nationwide media campaign for Latinas in technology seen online and broadcast on Univision.

Fun fact: One of the best things about my time at the White House was my Vespa. I call her Maude but her unofficial nickname is VOTUS (Vespa of the United States). I got a scooter because I could park inside the White House gates & to get around DC. It was funny seeing my robins egg blue scooter parked by all the Secret Service guy’s motorcycles.

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What # would define your life journey?

IMG_1095Favorite website / app:
I’m kind of in love with my Apple watch that I got for Christmas this year. I have messages coming at me from so many different channels, it is hard to keep up. The Apple watch puts it all in one place.  I’ll admit I’m pretty much 100% Apple. It was tough being forced to use a PC while at the White House. No offense to PCs, but I have a lot of Mac based muscle memory. Switching back and forth is hard.

Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:
Dr. Jan Cuny. She is one of the primary reasons that diversity and inclusion in technology and the movement to rebuild computer science education exists. She was in the first class of women ADMITTED to Princeton University (yes, in the early 70s) and was the first woman to get a CS degree at Princeton (possibly the first person actually). I initially met her was in 2006 when she was the keynote at the Grace Hopper conference – back when it was about 1000 attendees. She was inspiring then and her impact has been tenfold since.

She’s been this tireless force for equity in CS for decades, often behind the scenes without recognition – yet thanks to her millions of dollars in Federal funding have been invested in addressing this issue – including the development of the new AP Computer Science Principles course and test.

The thing I’ve learned from Jan is relentless persistence. This is a long haul race, not a sprint. We aren’t going to get to rigorous, inclusive and sustainable computer science education overnight.  It is going to take a lot of work to bring along all the key stakeholders that have to buy in.  Computer science needs to equally available to all students, which means making it as normal as Algebra or English.

Song that makes you want to dance:
“Call Me Maybe,” the Cookie Monster version

IMG_1068Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:
There were two big pivot points in my career that were transformational.  In 1999 I walked away from an industry job – taking a 75% pay cut – to turn my  attention to social change. I started doing consulting to help non-profits with events and fundraising, and then took a job at Girl Scouts in Oregon.  That is where I found my niche in gender & STEM.  I cared deeply about the economic independence and freedom of women, and STEM was the one sector that needed the most work – especially in technology and engineering. In retrospect, I probably should have been an engineer, but I’m happy to be growing engineers instead.

IMG_0738The second transformational moment was taking a break to get my MBA in 2007. I’d been solidly working in women’s organizations for years, so landing in an MBA program surrounded by industry people in a primarily male environment was a big change.  It was also a big shock to be back in school after so many years, and in the UK system – which is very different from the US. It is pretty atypical to find non-profit professionals in MBA programs, but the Oxford program had a track focused on social entrepreneurship. This really interested me – learning how to leverage business skills and principles for more impactful social change.  Now I would recommend a business education to virtually anyone working in social change.  It not only gives you a broader set of tools, but also enables you to understand the culture of the corporate partners that support your work.  

Shoutout to Oxford Said Business School and St. Cross College!

IMG_0651What do you think is the key for moving the needle for women and minorities in tech?
There is a concept I’ve been incubating since 2005 and really the reason I did my MBA in social entrepreneurship. I’ve been calling it ethical scale. There are many well-meaning efforts to create educational programs and solutions to get more students into STEM fields, and many of them are quite effective but very, very expensive on a per student basis, as much as 15K per student. We haven’t moved the needle much over the last 20 years and simply won’t reach all the students who need to be reached through these models. There are 50M students in this country, 30M of which attend small school districts and live in suburban and rural areas.  How will be serve them all with costly programs?

Organizations need to be thinking about scalability starting in the design phase and asking the critical questions:

1) Is this solution accessible to students from all walks of life? Have you considered access barriers like income, transportation, culture, gender and broadband access?

100 days toast2) Are you the right leader to scale this or is there a distribution channel you could use to scale the program?  Collectively the big youth networks like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs, Campfire, 4H, the YMCA, public housing, etc. serve over 20M kids.  The library networks serve every zip code.  Can you partner to solve this instead? Can you meet students where they are instead of asking them to join something new?

3) How much is your cost per student. Frankly if it exceeds $1000 per student, you should rethink scaling.

The bottom line is we need to all get creative and strategic to get broaden participation in STEM.  That could mean some really creative and unlikely solutions.  One of my favorite examples of this approach comes from CGI America in 2015. They announced a partnership between an early childhood literacy organization and the Coin Operated Laundry Association – basically the people who operate laundromats – unorthodox to say the least. By the age of four, children from lower-income families have heard about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income counterparts. Unfortunately, this word gap leads directly to an achievement gap and these inequities during the preschool and kindergarten years largely persist throughout life.  Parents spend about 3 hours per week in laundromats, often with their small children. So they teamed up to create Wash Time is Talk Time (, a program to encourage parents to use that time to speak to and read to their children. Brilliant and unconventional – just the thinking we need.

IMG_1048Ideal Job:
Being a professional feminist rabble-rouser for diversity in tech is pretty awesome, so I guess the job I have is my ideal job. 🙂  Realistically, there is no perfect job. Everything has ups and downs and personality conflicts. But where I am now, watching the seeds I planted over the years grow and blossom is extremely rewarding.  Now I routinely discover people working on Aspirations in Computing or CSforAll who I don’t know. You know you’ve done something right when others take up the mantle of your work.

What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives
Value and nurture your network the same way you value education and experience. The old adage “its not what you know, but who you know” is 100% true. Every role I have had for the last 15 years was through networks. Also, let your light shine. People won’t know what you aspire to learn or do and won’t be able to send opportunities your way, if you don’t let share your aspirations.


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