What I Learned from Olivia Wilde

4 women at the Makers conference.

Image source: MAKERS Conference, February 2020.

by Maria Yap

posted on 03-24-2020

Last month, I was incredibly fortunate enough to attend the Makers Conference in Los Angeles. It’s a global leadership event that aims to spark dialogue to accelerate women’s equality throughout all industries. As I reflect upon both what inspired me from the conference (I’ll get to that in a minute) as well as the fact that it’s Women’s History Month this month, I can’t help but take a moment to talk about the theme for the Makers conference – “Not Done.”

Inspired by the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the suffragette movement, “Not Done” is meant to celebrate all that we have accomplished as women in the last 100 years, while also reminding us that women have so much more to accomplish together as a global community. This sentiment also rings true for me, as I think of all I’ve accomplished with the Digital Imaging team at Adobe over the last 15 years. My team and I have celebrated milestones like the 30th Anniversary of Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop winning an Oscar for technical achievement in 2019. We are continually inspired by the amazing creations from our community – and yet we know we have so much more to accomplish. In the always-on, hyper-connected world we live in, it’s a nice feeling to stop and take a moment to acknowledge our past, assess the present and look forward to the future.

Left: 30 years of Photoshop. Right: Look mom, we won an oscar!

Besides “Not Done,” the most memorable and impactful moment of the conference for me was the fireside chat between Katie Couric and Olivia Wilde. During the conversation Olivia talked about her career move from actress to director; why it’s important to ask questions and dare to do things differently; and navigating an industry that often “feels like the riskier choice is the unproven woman.”

I can’t recommend enough that you watch the fireside chat, as I think the conversation between Katie and Olivia is so relevant to all of us in this day and age. Below are a few thoughts on why Olivia’s comments resonated with me.

Making moves: A lot of you probably don’t know this, but I love movies — in fact, I loved them so much when I was younger that I wanted to study film in school. To use a direct quote from Olivia, “the idea of using film to let people into the lives and stories of people who might be very different from them” was why I too was fascinated by this type of storytelling. In fact, it is this desire to create new worlds and tell amazing visual stories that fuels my passion for my job to this day. There’s no better tool than Photoshop for reimagining worlds.

But beyond a shared love for creating, hearing Olivia talk about how she moved from actress to director got me thinking about the parallels to my own career. She didn’t have any traditional film training but she learned the art of directing by not going back to her trailer after a scene, and instead staying to absorb the process and asking a lot of questions. Similarly, I started in design with no formal engineering training and yet, 22 years later, here I am leading an amazing team of engineers who create iconic products like Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. As a creatively curious individual, I wanted to know how the products I used were built — it was through tenacity and being on the ground, taking in everything my colleagues had to teach that led me to where I am today.

Daring to be different: After learning from the greats like Ron Howard and Spike Jones, Olivia realized that once she was finally in the director’s chair, she didn’t actually have to do things the way they’ve always been done. On most film sets, the actors and the crew are usually separated from each other, so they never learn what each other’s roles are. However, Olivia wanted to have all meetings with both crew and cast because she knew that sharing and distilling information with everyone would change how they showed up to work.

When I started working in software, I too realized that you can’t build products with just one person. It’s the contribution of different skills that each person on your team brings that leads to an amazing product. By putting equal value on each and every one of the people on your team (and the skills and outputs they bring to the table), you create a dynamic environment where anything is possible.

In a conversation with John Knoll, chief creative officer at Industrial Light & Magic and one of the original creators of Photoshop, we agreed that making a film and building software have many similarities — beyond the creativity involved in both, you are building something abstract (from the grip electric to the leading actress, the engineer to the product manager) until it all comes together. As a leader, I try to make sure that every person on my team is acknowledged and every role knows how important they are in making the magic that gets interwoven in Photoshop.

Changing the narrative: Finally, no conversation about the film industry, or any industry for that matter, is complete without talking about representation. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women comprised only 20% of all the top roles including directors, writers, and producers who worked on the top-100 grossing films in 2019. Sound familiar? Similarly, a report from National Center for Women & Information Technology shows that while women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., based on 2015 data they hold only 25% of computing roles.

(L-R: Katie Juran (Sr. Director, Diversity & Inclusion), Rosemary Arriada-Keiper (VP, Compensation/Total Rewards), Cynthia Stoddard (SVP/CIO), Me at the Maker’s Conference, February 2020).

In a time when we rally around women’s empowerment and have more rights than ever before, these numbers are hard to swallow. This is why I could not agree more emphatically with the following statement from Olivia: “In order to change those numbers, we have to change the way people are hired. If we continue to hire just based on resume and accolades, we will continue to perpetuate the system… to this day it feels like the riskier choice is the unproven woman because we are fed this narrative of the scrappy young film school guy who knows [he] could be the next Spielberg.”

By making “risky” career moves and daring to lead in a way that is thoughtful yet direct, I believe my career is a great example that the “unproved” woman can indeed be one of your most valuable players. However, the greatest learning from Olivia’s fireside chat — and from my own career — is that I’m now in a position to create new opportunities for “unproved” women in tech. None of us need to strive to be part of the “boys’ club,” but instead be proud members of the “girls’ club” and help lift each other up — whether that’s by mentoring, hiring, or otherwise. I’ll leave you with this last quote from Olivia on what she hopes for the future, which is everything that I could hope for as well: “We have to elevate woman to their rightful place as an equal partner, and it’s going to take more people taking risks on women and more women taking risks on themselves.”

By sharing my story, I hope you know that you can do it too, whatever that career “it” might be — and, more importantly, that I’m here to help.

Topics: Leadership, Diversity & Inclusion

Products: Photoshop, Creative Cloud