Bethany Mayer: Follow your passion — leadership advice from Inspirefest

18 Jun 2015

Follow your passion, keep a broad range of interests, don’t ignore the financial element and make a change — key pieces of leadership advice from Inspirefest 2015 panelists.

With all the phenomenal talent on show at Inspirefest 2015, you could be forgiven for feeling the odd twinge of ‘imposter syndrome’, but panellists had some words of wisdom to set aside the monsters and forge ahead.

Silicon Republic’s CEO and editor-at-large Ann O’Dea chaired the panel, which included international keynote speakers as well as leaders from the Irish technology and business landscape.

Find the passion

Themes that emerged included the need to follow your passion, and the ‘wiggly’ career paths followed by many of the panellists.

Bethany Mayer, president and CEO of network-monitoring specialist company Ixia, spoke about her interest in technology and how as a 21-year-old she found the start of her passion working on radar-absorbing materials on aircraft before working on early mobile computers or ‘laptops’ with Apple and “building the Internet” with Cisco.

Today, her passion is being CEO of Ixia, which validates and tests network switches and chips-sets before they are deployed, yet she thought carefully before taking on the mantle of top job. “It was a very hard decision for me personally,” she said. “I did it and I’m very glad, it is very rewarding.”

Don’t worry about straight lines

Panellist Carolan Lennon, managing director of Eircom Wholesale, extolled the learnings from careers that don’t follow a straight line. “It’s all about cul-de-sacs and you learn a lot,” said the science and maths graduate who initially went into the IT industry and enjoyed it, but didn’t want to lead in that space. She found her passion through an MBA and moved to telecommunications.

“My advice is don’t be afraid to change, if the fit isn’t right you are not going to be the best in that role. It’s scary but move on past it.”

Getting more women involved in STEM

Panellist Prof Brian MacCraith, President of Dublin City University, spoke about the need to encourage more women into STEM careers, and the need for a new language to let influencers such as parents and teachers as well as the students themselves know about the impact that STEM can have. 

“It’s very clear that young women want to make a difference to society,” he says. “[We need to be telling them] about the impact of careers rather than title of a career or the disciplinary content — they want to save lives through addressing global water, diagnostics in low-resource environments — we need to tell the story in that regard too.”

Leadership Panel: (l-r) Ann O'Dea; Shelly Porges; Bethany Mayer; Margaret Burgraff; Carolan Lennon; Prof Brian MacCraith

Leadership Panel: (l-r) Silicon Republic CEO and chair Ann O’Dea; Shelly Porges; Bethany Mayer; Margaret Burgraff; Carolan Lennon; Prof Brian MacCraith. Photo: Conor McCabe

The excitement of STEM

He spoke about the emergence of new types of peer-to-peer collaborative learning in STEM, particularly the CoderDojo movement. MacCraith was at its annual Coolest Projects event last weekend in the RDS, which showcased around 500 projects by young coders aged seven to 17.

“What’s significant is that about 30 pc of those projects were from women,” he said. “It gives a greater focus there, young women could express themselves and see the excitement of learning.”

What’s needed is a “comprehensive and systematic approach” to communicating the excitement and opportunities of STEM, including female role models who can talk about exciting careers, he added. 

The take-home

So what’s the take-home for early career women to make the most of their potential? 

“Believe in yourself,” said panellist and Inspirefest 2015 keynote speaker Shelly Porges , a former senior advisor to Hillary Clinton and co-chair of the National Finance Council of Ready for Hillary. “No matter how scary the world seems now… never give up pursuing the opportunities.”

She also stressed the importance of keeping a hand on the financial tiller. “It’s a mistake to ignore the financial side,” she said, noting that it’s not just about amassing bling, but having money to empower others. 

Mayer stressed the need to keep an open mind rather than a narrow focus on your track. “Be interested in other things,” she said. “Be open to the possibilities you might not think fit exactly in the box you want to tick.”

Lennon backs up this advice: “Get involved in something outside your job,” she said. “It opens a new network across organisations, it can exposes you to senior people maybe way before the level you are at [would normally do] and it gives people the idea there is more to you.”

Panellist and Inspirefest 2015 keynote speaker Margaret Burgraff, VP at Intel, advised not to be fear-driven. “The world is a wonderful place, there are lots of opportunities,” she said, stressing that for young people the most powerful time is right now. “Don’t waste time worrying about the past or future.”

And finally MacCraith brought it back to following the passion to make a change. “This generation of young people [is] hugely motivated by making a difference,” he said. “You are and can be a changemaker, follow that passion, make an impact and accept no barriers.”

Watch highlights from the Lessons in Leadership panel:


This story was updated at 6.45pm on 25 June 2015 to include video footage from the Lessons in Leadership panel.


Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

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