Entrepreneur & Startup Investor Maia Bittner On A Mission To Fix Broken STEM Hiring Culture

Whether it is a leaked internal memo from an ex-Google employee claiming women’s biological differences are the reason for gender disparity, or endless viral stories about women being sexually harassed and having to put up with toxic work environments, it’s clear the tech industry has a major gender problem. Yes, there are movements like “Lean In” or individual people like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who are speaking out and helping to push for change, but it will take an industry-wide effort to really see a culture of reform and gender equality.

There is greater acknowledgement that the pipeline into the STEM world needs to focus more on girls from a young age, but what about when they get to the stage where they are applying for a job? That is a crucial point in any career timeline, and one which entrepreneur and investor Maia Bittner is aiming to revolutionize.

Maia’s first success was with Rocksbox, a startup that offers a subscription service for wearing designer jewelry on loan. Rocksbox has raised $12.3 million from investors and has been featured in Teen Vogue, Time, and Fortune. As Co-Founder and CTO Maia started led the engineering team and built the first versions of the tech stack. While at Rocksbox, Maia hired several women as software engineers who’d never been hired as engineers before. Many of these women have gone on to be hired by other companies like Stitchfix.

Her latest venture is called Pinch, which she co-founded with a college friend. Pinch is the best way to pay rent: payments happen automatically and are reported to the credit bureaus so that you can build your credit just by paying your rent. Pinch works with almost any landlord — and your landlord doesn’t need to sign up.

Maia believes that technical hiring is fundamentally broken, unfairly biased towards the companies, and does a poor job at assessing candidate/company fit. At Pinch, she is pioneering a radical new way to hire staff, which is what we wanted to chat with her about. Aside from the hiring process, Maia is a big believer in mentorship and creating a support network. She has launched her own initiative to empower women and spoke to us about this also. She is a great example of what it looks like when a tech leader sees a problem and creates a working solution.

Tell us how you first became interested in coding, and how you were exposed to this world at such a young age?

I sold my first item on eBay when I was 13 years old, and I was hooked! I first sold my own possessions, then starting picking things up at garage sales, and eventually started my own consignment business selling other people’s things for a percentage of the profits. My introduction to HTML was in designing and formatting of my eBay listing pages, and later, my own website to advertise my business.

You also participated in various programs and internships focused on the tech industry growing up. Do you think this is important for encouraging other young women especially in this industry?

I learned that I wanted my career to be in tech startups by doing an internship during the web 2.0 boom when I was 18. Having a low-commitment (3 months) internship when I was young was a really efficient, accurate way to find out that I loved working for startups! So yes, I think it’s important. I think of it as “lean career” – the earlier you know what you like and don’t like, the less time you waste preparing for a career you might never have. 

Tell us about the company you co-founded, Rocksbox, and where it all began:

It was very lucky — and random — that I got to be involved in Rocksbox. I was actually just looking for a three-month job before I started grad school at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. I told everyone I was looking for a job, and that’s how I met Meaghan Rose, Rocksbox’s CEO. I agreed to help out short term, and we loved working with each other, and so she invited me to join on as a co-founder. I love the zero to one stage of a company, and even more so when customers love your product. So although Rocksbox was the hardest I’ve ever worked, it was also the most rewarding.

Tell us about Pinch, your latest venture that you launched with a college friend:

Pinch is using technology to secure economic justice for millennials. We’re new, but already we’re using our customers’ rent payments to build their credit scores. With the new rental data we’re reporting, our customers get improved credit scores and with that: access to affordable insurance, improved loan options, and the opportunity to eventually qualify for a mortgage. I’ve raised $900,000 from leading seed firms Homebrew and Collaborative Fund to build Pinch.

There has been a lot of press coverage about sexism in the tech world and Silicon Valley. You are adamant about hiring being fundamentally broken in the industry. Can you explain why?

Yes! You can start with the job posting – many job postings include language that codes “young, white, male” and have way more requirements than are strictly required to do the job well. Women tend to only apply to a job when they meet 100% of their requirements, while men apply if they meet 60%.

Technical interviews are so notoriously bad, it’s a joke in the community: you’ll design a custom sorting algorithm in their interview and then your job is “hey can you move the logo 1 pixel to the left on the website”. The traits people tend to interview for are often totally irrelevant to the skills a candidate needs to do the job well.

Your company does something very unique when it comes to the hiring process. Can you explain what this is and what kind of results you have seen?

Well, as I mentioned above, I think it’s important to start with the job post. Most of my hiring with Pinch has been through tweets like this:

I say “Come build React Native with us!” instead of saying “React Native experience required”. “Come build ____ with us” is really inclusive and welcoming language. I’m also intentional about the skills required – you must be able to write React Native code, but I know that you don’t necessarily need to have used that specific framework before in order to be able to write it. There is a wide variety of experience that candidates could have had that would prepare them well for using React Native.

I’ve seen great results – 80% of my applications received from this post were from women! So I have little sympathy when others blame their lack of female applicants on the “pipeline” or other vague systemic issues. I think they’re avoiding taking responsibility for their own work, which is a habit you can’t get away with in startups.

Then, after the application, we don’t do technical interviews. Instead, I ask software engineering candidates to send me an example of something they’ve built. They can send me a link to a website, a link to a GitHub repo, or code files – I’m not picky about the form that the sample takes. I review samples and invite the top candidates to do a paid consulting project with the Pinch team – around 20 hours of work done flexibly around the candidate’s schedule.

After the project’s been completed, if we both liked working together, Pinch extends a job offer. It’s weird to me that my viewpoint is so unique: of course the best way to know if you are going to like working with someone is to try working with them. It’s one of my greatest points of pride that women I’ve hired who’ve never had engineering jobs before have gone on to successful careers in software engineering.

Aside from the industry needing change, you are passionate about seeing the community of women come together. One of the ways you are encouraging this is through your Series XX brunch events. What happens at these get-togethers?

Lots – bagels, eggs, coffee and more. Just kidding! Women have been funded and hired through Series XX, but more importantly, they’ve been able to connect and share advice. I think this is critical because early-stage startups are small and have a low percentage of women, so often women find themselves alone at their company. It’s comforting to realize that, in sum across companies, there’s actually quite a force of women working at early-stage startups.

How would you encourage or advise women and girls who have zero exposure to mentors or tech industry professionals? How do they get to where they want to be?

Sometimes we forget this with all the photo apps and food delivery services, but the really amazing part of the internet has always been its ability to connect people — strangers — across the world. With that in mind, few people actually have zero exposure to mentors or the tech industry. I always recommend reaching out to people you admire who can help.

Marissa Mayer will probably be too busy to help, but there are tons of female founders and women in leadership positions who are awesome – people like Ellen Chisa, Cara Meverden and Meredith Hitchcock, for example. I would have never been the co-founder at Rocksbox if I hadn’t told every stranger I met that I was looking for a job. So don’t be shy, amazing things come from the most random connections.

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