Women in Leadership Transforming Tech: Nancy Lyons, President and CEO of Clockwork

Chris OlsenBy Chris Olsen

nancylyonsNearly 60 percent of women contribute to the U.S. workforce and they account for more than half of all workers in management and professional occupations. Over the next decade women have the potential to add trillions of dollars to the growth of the global economy. Yet gender inequity continues to create significant hurdles for women in the workplace. These obstacles are particularly evident in the technology industry, where women hold just one-quarter of the jobs and only 8 percent of leadership positions.

Women in tech are paid less and promoted less often than men—disparities that have contributed to nearly 60 percent of women leaving the industry at midpoints in their careers. Additionally, women-led tech firms receive less funding, despite studies that show they get an average 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts.

These issues have inspired several women in Minnesota to devote their lives and careers to breaking down barriers, overcoming obstacles and transforming the technology industry. “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” is a series of feature articles and a white paper from The Bailey Group that highlight these extraordinary individuals and their journeys.

Nancy Lyons not only transforms the technology space through her leadership of the interactive design agency Clockwork, but also by what she stands for—in and outside her company’s walls. This celebrated CEO is widely recognized for creating workplace cultures where people and business thrive. And she’s leading the charge to improve diversity among Minnesota’s technology companies through the Minnesota Tech Diversity Pledge, an effort she created and spearheads to hold organizations—including her own—accountable to increase hiring and promotion of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.

For Lyons, diversity and culture are integral to the advancement of the technology industry. “I realized that what was missing from the technology conversation was the narrative around [diversity], and that’s where I saw an opportunity for me.”

Sharing that narrative as a sought-after speaker adds to Lyons’ already full schedule, but she considers it part of the job. “I think those of us who have achieved any amount of success or notoriety in the tech space owe it to other women to talk about it and to show up in those educational settings,” she shared.

Part of Lyons’ pursuit for more diversity in technology includes helping older members of the workforce see a place for themselves in the industry. “We have a hard time recognizing that technology doesn’t actually belong only to the youth of America. It’s an opportunity for people from all different age groups and educational backgrounds,” she said. “I myself was a theater major and have a liberal arts degree, so my educational path did not take me to this place. It was the opportunities that I discovered when I started doing work in a career that actually steered me in this direction.”

At the same time, Lyons is passionate about helping young students explore technology. “We need to increase our commitment to programming and outreach for all children to participate in the technology conversation earlier and often. And I think we have to stop looking to our schools to fill the technology gap. They’re already struggling with a lack of funding to address the basic elements of education; they certainly aren’t in a place where they can address technology in a universal way,” she said. “I think it’s about corporate America recognizing the upcoming generations as being their future talent pools and choosing to make conscious investments in that future talent.”

Lyons cites our “perfection-focused society” as a deterrent for all ages when it comes to innovation, in and outside of the technology industry. “Everybody believes in order to achieve, in order to be successful, they have to be perfect. In technology, there’s no manual and there’s no ‘perfect.’ That isn’t talked about. We don’t have corporate environments that are OK with it, and we don’t have educational environments that are OK with it. I think that’s the part that we don’t talk about, but we have to.”

As a result, Lyons’ team at Clockwork embraces failure as an important part of getting to the right solution and pushing boundaries on how things have always been done. “It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to fail when exploring the technology space that I started to see what it was about,” she added.

Lyons credits her mother with helping her become the businesswoman and leader she is today. She’s a physician and worked outside the home at a time when many mothers didn’t. “My mother worked at a pace that your average male could not have kept up with, and that’s what I saw. She missed a lot of my life and made no apology for it,” Lyons shared. “We didn’t talk about the same things that my friends talked about with their mothers. My mom talked to me about investing and education. She talked to me about feminism and politics, about medicine and how it was changing, about business. She talked to me about employing people and who to trust and how to talk to men. She really set me up with a foundation that allowed me to believe that I could do whatever I wanted.”

And that’s exactly what Lyons is doing now: creating the type of career she wants, on her own terms, and having an impact on many people along the way.

“For me, being an entrepreneur is all there is. I don’t want to work for anybody. The flavor of organization that I want to create doesn’t exist anyplace else. The ideas that I have are my own. The work I want to do is here. I do this because I must.”

Read about more “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” here.