News March 8th, 2023

by Nortal

An inside look at a CGO's journey with Elizabeth Kiehner

For years, many outstanding individuals have led the charge to advance women in education, technology, business, and so much more. Yet, research shows there is still a disproportionately low percentage of women in leadership roles in general, but especially in the technology industry.

We spoke with Nortal‘s Chief Growth Officer, Elizabeth Kiehner, about her own journey of becoming a C-Suite executive, discovering her passion for technology, and her award-winning book around women in history.

March 8th has officially been celebrated annually across the globe as International Women’s Day (IWD) since 1975.  However, its roots date back to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay, and the right to vote. (Source) Immense progress has been made since then with people and organizations championing initiatives for the advancement of women and girls in education, technology, and more.  

This IWD we sat down with Elizabeth “Liz” Kiehner, Nortal’s Chief Growth Officer, who also happens to be a proud New Yorker. She’ll share with us how she found her way to technology, her journey to her position today, and becoming a published author in hopes of driving education. Join us as she shows us women are a driving force in history, the present, and the digital world. 

Have there been times that you faced a barrier or opposition in your career due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

I think coming up through most of my career I didn’t feel a huge impact from gender in the sense of men vs. women. I had a feeling of “we are all in this together” so I don’t think I had a lot of barriers. Though I didn’t feel any overt discrimination, I did start to observe moments when I was the only woman in the room and the overall absence of female people in executive leadership roles. There was a distinct lack of balance in some companies.

Why did you decide to take this direction with your career and work in the field of technology?

I was the co-founder of a design agency from 2007-2015, and IBM became a client of ours, which is how I ended up joining Big Blue. IBM wanted to acquire my firm, but my business partner wasn’t interested in acquisition, and we agreed I’d sell my shares back to him. It ended up being a great decision for meit’s when I acquired my interest and knowledge in design thinking, data, AI, and cybersecurity. 

While there, I was leading work with the Australian government and came across the e-Estonia story. Seeing the tremendous strides made in e-governance and citizen experience sparked my passion for the public sector. Now I hope we can bring these strategies and innovations to millions more across the globe fundamentally changing their human experience through Nortal’s concept of seamless experiences. It could transform our lives and create more access to the services that citizens of countries are entitled to with greater ease.

What was the inspiration behind your book Good Girls Don’t Make History and making it into a graphic novel?

It was 2016 and I knew that the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment was coming up in August 2020. At the time, I didn’t know that I was going to make it a graphic novel, but knew I wanted to create something visually appealing and educational around this event. According to Pew Research Center, the ability for women to vote was the most important milestone as far as advancing the position of women in America. 

Between my first-hand knowledge from being a mom, my own educational experiences, and conversations with other parents I knew that outside of learning about Susan B. Anthony, many were lacking context around women’s history in America. I wanted to create something that could be incorporated into schools and libraries. I’m hoping it continues to have impact and becomes integrated into public school curriculums.

What is the message you most want people to take from it?

There is a quote that I featured in the book from Inez Milholland, “Not to know what things in life require remedying is a crime… It leaves you at the mercy of events – it lets life manipulate you – instead of training you to manipulate life.”

There are a lot of things we can’t control in life, but I think it’s fiercely wrong to not remedy the things we can control. We can’t excuse ourselves for always being at the mercy of events – we need to go out and create the world we want to see. This continues to be a theme in the conversation and something that I find interesting about joining Nortal. Creating a society that has clear, honest principles and is driven by citizens is empowering and seems like a no-brainer. 

What is a piece of advice that you’ve been given that has stuck with you and do you now find yourself giving it to others?

Not so much advice, but perhaps an overly quoted piece from Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken.” As a child, I remember it being repeated to me, especially by my dad, who was always very encouraging of people taking a different path. It’s human nature to want to fit in but there is less and less uniformity in the world right now. I think people who can be more agile, think on their feet, and be courageous enough to take a different path are the ones that will be more successful going forward. 

What is the most important message you want to give women thinking about starting or changing their careers?

Don’t look at it as starting over but following your curiosity. That’s what led me to get closer to technology. I could see us moving toward digitalization as a profound driver of society and business. I didn’t know when I started what the end destination was going to be, but I look back and can see when I got the idea. I remember watching IBM Watson on Jeopardy and thinking, wow, AI is really a thing I should learn more about this. There are these moments when we realize we’re really into a topic. Stick with it until you have the knowledge to be more than a novice. It’s important to not look at career starts, changes, or pivots as being complete resets. Your past experiences can inform what you’re doing now even from a completely different industry. 

Okay, last question. If you had to pick your top 5 highlights, life or career, what would they be?

While I was still at the design company I co-founded, I created a 30-minute film with Ray Dalio from Bridgewater called How the Economic Machine Works. I also gave a TED Talk,  Who determines the future of AI, and that was on my list of things I wanted to accomplish in my lifetime, alongside publishing a book. 

Having kids was a big highlight – growing up I didn’t give it much thought or see myself as a parent. It wasn’t part of the plan, but I’m so glad I have them. My kids are such remarkable humans and I’m so happy they are on this earth. They’re a true delight and inspiration to me. 

As for the fifth, hopefully, it will be what I can help accomplish with the Nortal team and make a positive impact on the world, human society, and ingenuity. We have so many lessons learned, and capabilities gained surrounding Estonia as building blocks that can create a lot of impacts. Seeing what we’re collectively capable of and being able to influence as many corners of the world as we can.

I have one more question. You mentioned you were able to mark two things off your “bucket list”. How do you celebrate those types of occasions?

I’m not always great at remembering to celebrate, but my husband had a really good idea that I’m glad I followed through on. When I decided to sell my shares of my company, he said, “Do yourself a favor and pull out your phone. Take a video of your office at your firm and in a month take a video of your office and experience at your new job. Then you can reflect on where you were and where you are now and ask yourself how you feel.”

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