Mother, business professional, mentor
Kristen has always been curious about what lies over the horizon, leading her to take chances and forge her own path.
After high school she took a job in a foundry to earn enough money to leave Wisconsin and venture into the world.
Learning from her own mentors, Kristen has embraced the idea of “servitude leadership,” lifting people up to help them succeed.
Kristen carries the idea of servitude into the community, teaching her children the importance of lending a hand to people in need.
IVAN STEGIC: You and I are each one of eight billion people on this planet. We are the same in ways that matter, but unique in many other ways, that also matter. Our humanity is what connects each and every one of us. Isn’t that awesome? This is ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us. I’m your host, Ivan Stegic.
In this podcast, we celebrate humanity! Each episode reveals someone’s journey — one life, one human, one story. Our guests come from around the world, from a variety of backgrounds, each with their own unique path to now. We talk about our shared experiences, our common origins, our struggles, and what connects us. Discover how similar we all really are as you hear from a polar explorer, a meteorologist from America’s Midwest, a software engineer from Argentina and many other fellow humans.
Our guest today is Kristen Womack, Principal Program Manager Lead at Microsoft. Her journey to Microsoft started with a simple question, “Should we go east or west?” The answer took a post-high school Kristen to Portland, Oregon where she got her first chance to work with computers and where she was inspired to continue her education.
From then on, she has become an entrepreneur, an advocate, a leader and a mentor, always remembering where she came from and how connected our stories and experiences really are. Join me in this episode as Kristen discusses her journey and compulsion to read at least six books at any given time.
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.
KRISTEN WOMACK: Yes. Okay, my name is Kristen and I have been living in Minneapolis for the last 16 years. And the last two of those years have been in the pandemic. So, I've been making a big life change in the last two years. Earlier this year in February I started working at Microsoft. I joined Microsoft to work on an API Initiative in the M365 area of Microsoft on Microsoft Graph, and working on one of my favorite things, which is developer experience.
Much of my career has been around building platforms or applications of some sort for builders, makers, creators. And so that's a passionate part of my life. And the way that's showing up right now, in the last two years in the pandemic is actually transitioning from a lot of community events and working closely in an office with either my client’s customers, my team, to working at home. So that's been a big transition for me.
IVAN: And what does your family look like? Who's around you when you're working at home? What does that look like?
KRISTEN: Yes, for the first 100 and some odd days, it was all four of the people in my family, me, my spouse, and my two children who are nine years old, and three and a half years old, and no childcare, so it was tough. And now they are both in school during the day and I have a home office in one level of our house and then my spouse is on a different level. So, we have a lot of opportunity to have our meetings and not compete for noise,
IVAN: Hopefully, sound insulation in between the levels as well.
IVAN: So, the title of our podcast is ONE OF 8 BILLION, and for me, that makes me feel like a very small part of a very large experiment. I feel like we're temporary guests on the planet. I feel like I'm doing my thing, but I also feel like all these other people are doing their thing. When I say ONE OF 8 BILLION to you, what feelings do you have about that? What comes to mind when you think about that number?
KRISTEN: The first thing that I think of is excitement and curiosity. A dream day off for me is literally to sit down and read all day. And if I could read every book in every library that would make my heart so happy. I think the idea of thinking about more people in the world than there are even books, it’s like a comparative analogy, because every person comes with their own set of knowledge and their own story, and I feel curious about that, and I think it makes me feel personally more connected and less alone.
IVAN: Yeah, it's this weird, sort of, you're one of so many, but you're still connected to them, and to us. It's a weird dichotomy.
KRISTEN: It really is. The first thing that is coming to my mind at this moment, actually is in 2018, I went to Germany. And before I went to Germany, it was my first visit there, I did a lot of research about different areas because of my four grandparents. They all three have heritage there, but all four of them do, but three of them were either born in Germany or moved here as a child. Very close connection to people who lived in Germany in my lifetime.
And when I went to Germany, I was in Bavaria and I went on this hike in the mountains and when I was there and I had a vantage point of looking out over the land, I was really struck by exactly how identical it looked to a lot of the land that I spent in growing up, because I grew up in Wisconsin and my grandparents lived in northern Wisconsin, and there's all the Lutheran church steeples.
And then it got to be the rolling hills, and then the food, they had all of this apple streusel, and sauerkraut and different foods that were part of my childhood and I never made the connection until I was there. I felt immediately connected in that moment to my childhood, in a way I couldn't have done without going there. And then that made me think about all the different things we bring with us as people when we move throughout the lands and share culture.
IVAN: We're so similar in so many ways, and so different in ways as well that are important. Tell me a little bit about Wisconsin and where you grew up? Is that where life began for you?
KRISTEN: Yes. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had, in some ways you could say, the opportunity and the fortune to live in many different places in Milwaukee. I counted it, and I've lived in 13 places before I turned 18 years old. My parents were divorced when I was seven, and we did not have a lot of money. In fact, we were very poor and had to move a lot because we were renters.
And even at one point, we ended up moving in with my aunt and uncle and then with my grandparents. So, I went to a lot of different schools and met a lot of different people. And I lived in Milwaukee until I was in high school and then I moved a little bit further north. And it was a massive cultural shift to move from a city to a very small town. And then I left Wisconsin when I was 18.
IVAN: As you were growing up in Wisconsin, what did you want to do with your life? Did you have any idea about what you wanted to be when you would grow up? Or was it not even a thing you were thinking about?
KRISTEN: It’s both. So, in one way from a very young age, I love to arrange things. I would arrange my bedroom and my shelves and all of my things, and then I would move them around and rearrange. And my mother was in real estate but after that she was a building inspector. And so, there were a lot of blueprints that I saw at work, and this was in the eighties, so it was more paper based. Not like computers like my children see me working on.
But she would actually have blueprints in her car, and you'd roll them out and I loved the way that buildings were designed, and architecture drawings works. I would draw these arrangements of buildings, and I like to arrange things, and often I would even ask my brother if he would switch rooms with me. And I would convince him to switch bedrooms, and then the minute I would get him to agree it was like let's do this immediately. Only now as an adult, I learned that I have activator in my top five Strengthsfinder.
And so, in some sense, there's a lot of things that I loved doing then, and I used to like to teach to my stuffed animals and my things and I would arrange them, and I would have attendance. And so, in that sense, I had a lot of traits and things that I liked to do that I still like to do today. But when it came to what do I want to do? No. I did not have this idea.
In fact, recently, I read a book called “Unapologetically Ambitious,” and I loved the story, and I loved the woman who wrote the book. It was just a beautiful story. But it was so linear. And she knew exactly what she wanted to do. And it was so unlike me. So, I didn't start going to college until I was 21, I think or 20. because I didn't know what I wanted to do.
IVAN: So, you said earlier you left Wisconsin when you're 18. If you didn't go to college and you left high school, what would those few years look like? What were you up to?
KRISTEN: Yes. So, when people were finishing high school, so you have to remember I went to this small town. I felt culture shock because a lot of people have known each other since kindergarten, and I was this outsider. and my brother was too and it was really difficult. It was challenging. And I missed the city. I missed living somewhere that had more than two stop lights.
And I loved Lake Michigan and the view of looking out like you're looking at an ocean, and I just thought gosh, I just want to see more of the world, and I don't know what I want to do. College just seemed like everyone was going there to party so that felt unauthentic for me personally. That was my experience of what I saw because I went to visit my friends in the dorms, and it just didn't feel right. And then other friends were starting jobs and starting families and just nothing felt quite right.
And so, my friend and I, we both felt this, and we found a job where we could make a lot of money; we worked in a metal foundry and we worked 12 hour shifts, and we saved up every single dollar we had. We didn't spend any money. We saved for a year and then we got rid of all of our things and we packed as much as we could fit into her Honda Accord and then as we were saying goodbye to our family and waving, we were looking at each other and saying, Should we go east? Or should we go west? What do we want to do?
IVAN: Wow, cool.
KRISTEN: I wanted to go to New York or go to the East Coast. And she just looked at me and said, “Kristin, have you ever seen the mountains? Have you ever been out west? I think we should go west.” So, she wanted to go to San Francisco, and we ended up in Portland, Oregon. And then I lived there for six years.
IVAN: Wow. So that's how you ended up in Portland just because you wanted to go east, and your friend wanted to go west, and it sounded better to see the mountains and go west.
KRISTEN: Yep, exactly.
IVAN: What a great story. Tell me a little bit about the metal foundry you worked in? What did you make? And why was it so lucrative?
KRISTEN: I think it was just a lot of money for us because we were 18. I can't remember, it was probably $22 dollars an hour or something in the nineties, and that was a lot of money. I think I saved $40,000 to leave, because we lived with her parents, and we literally didn't do anything but save money.
IVAN: No expenses. Wow. Good for you. And what did you make?
KRISTEN: Yeah, it was a very interesting job, because there's different areas to the factory. So, in the beginning part, you would dip these molds of wax, and then that would allow for them to put plaster around that and then from the plaster, they would pour hot metal in, and then that metal would take the same shape of the wax molds that you started with.
And then from that part, then you would have to inspect them or make sure that they were shaved down. And we made everything from Harley Davidson parts and motorcycle parts, and just anything you look at now, to this day, I still look at anything that's machined, and I wonder if it's made in a factory like that.
And there were controversial things that came up; they also made gun parts. And so, we always had the option to opt out of working on that if it didn't feel aligned with our values, which I really appreciated, because I am definitely a very anti-gun person in my values and so I remember that clearly as being a value of a company I liked. That they would see you as a whole person speaking of 8 billion, that you aren’t just meant to do exactly what they say, but that there's some autonomy in bringing your full self to work.
IVAN: So that's quite early on in your career. You have the idea that you want values that you have to match with the values with the company that you work for. And I think that's quite prevalent in our industry, and in our society today. There's a lot of people who feel like that. So, it's nice to hear that it existed and that you experienced it back in the nineties too.
It sounds like you were building things, even straight out of high school in a factory. So, you must have been exposed to the whole manufacturing process and working on a team and everybody has their own job. Did you feel like being an assembler at that point as well and being in charge of the team?
KRISTEN: No, oh, no. This was just a job that was a means to an end. I just wanted to make money, and yeah, I think that we just felt we had to get out of Wisconsin. [laughter]
IVAN: [Laughter] Okay, okay, fair enough. So, you land in Portland? What's the next thing that happens to you? Do you end up going to college? Do you end up studying there?
KRISTEN: Portland's a great city to move to and to explore your dreams. There's a lot of artists and musicians. So, figuring it out, that's a great place to be. And I had a friend who was in a band, and she went on tour, and she asked me if I would fill in at her job while she was on her tour. And she was going to be gone for a while, like a European tour for her band.
So, her dad worked at an insurance company, and she worked for her dad. And so, I went to go work for her dad. And in this office, I started working for her dad doing filing and organizing, but then I quickly gained a reputation of being multifaceted and being able to do many things.
So then pretty soon other people were asking me, Could you work a few hours here? Could you work a few hours on this? They basically had all of these files in this room, and it was just hundreds and hundreds of files, and they were all messed up in different areas, in the Ks, and the Zs and the As were in different areas, and I thought it was just madness.
So, I asked if I could reorganize all of it and then I asked How do you know who in these files needs some attention? How do you know if you have a representative driving to this area that all the people in this room live in that area and need to be contacted? And they were like, Yeah, we don't. And so, I asked them if I could build a database to do this.
Then I started figuring out Excel and Access database and categorizing all of these files. And then pretty soon I was helping to install software. I even had the opportunity to teach one person how to use a computer, they didn't know how to click on the mouse, double click, single click. They were in their late eighties, and this was a job in their retirement that they wanted to keep doing.
And so then “Can I pay you to teach me how to use the computer?” So, I became this resident tech support at the office, and I liked it. And that's my start. And then I went to school. I was feeling this urge to go to school, I just didn't really know what for. And because I had started doing sign language when I was a young child that kind of spoke to me.
So, I started taking sign language classes and I got into the sign language interpreting program in Portland and spent two years doing that. And that's what really ignited my educational journey. Because when I got to my internship, I realized I'm very involved with the Deaf community. I like signing, but I don't want to be an interpreter. And that was a big turning point for me.
IVAN: Do you still sign? Do you still do the ASL?
KRISTEN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. My kids and I sign together. I have a lot of deaf friends. And yeah, absolutely.
IVAN: If you were giving advice to someone who wanted to learn how to sign and wanted to participate in the community, what would your advice to them be? How do you take that up?
KRISTEN: Yeah. I always try to lean on multifaceted approaches when I give advice because, again, speaking of how many people are there in the world, everyone learns differently, and I think people feel respected when they are not being told to just do something one way. But in this particular case, there are so many videos to watch online, on YouTube to get a sense and to take one on one basic signs. Of course, I would tell them to seek out deaf authors and deaf video makers and deaf creators that could be their teachers and leaders and guides through the journey.
Because when you're learning anything that is encompassed in a culture that you are an outsider to, it's very important for example, that you're interacting and learning from the people who are in the community. Because even though I sign I’m on the edge of the deaf community, right? I'm not deaf myself. I don't have that lived experience. And so, it's really important for me to respect deaf people and what they would want to teach in terms of sign language and deaf culture. And then a specific recommendation in terms of a book because most people who know me know they walk away from a conversation with a book recommendation.
But my daughter and I just read a very good book called “You Don’t Know Everything Jilly P,” and it's by Alex Gino. And the author is just incredible and writes a lot about this young girl who is learning about deaf culture in the deaf community, and I think it's a great starting point for people that are in middle school or my daughter's nine, we read the book, it was really good. And then of course, to sign up for a community college course for teaching sign language is another great step.
IVAN: Thank you for sharing that. You've done a great deal of volunteering in your life. Did that start early on? Is that something that happened recently? Or how did that start?
KRISTEN: Yes, that's been a core part of me since I was young. My parents always helped our neighbors, and I would have all these examples of people helping each other and it made me realize that we don't do anything on our own, we are all interconnected and need each other. And so, it fills my heart. Even taking this job at Microsoft, my husband was saying to me that one of the aspects of the employee donation matches is that it expands your impact, you really like to give back to the community and even having this additional facet like financially being able to support communities that you appreciate, so working for an employer that has a match to donations you do is also important to me.
But I try to work on this a lot with my children too. So, we help our neighbor with her garden and my daughter and I in the last campaign season. We did door knocking and volunteered to support a campaign we cared a lot about. And yeah, I think I get more out of it. Honestly, I feel connected to people in servitude. I try to even think about my roles at work in servitude leadership, like, how do I support my team? How do I clear roadblocks? How do I show up for them? It’s just something that I want to see more of in the world and it's important to me as my identity, but also as how I spend my time.
IVAN: You mentioned servitude, as the leader. And I think that's one of the most interesting, and also very powerful characteristics of a good leader. Do you have a memory of, maybe not your first boss, but someone who you reported to that is memorable that you've learned from? And what would that thing be that you learned from them?
KRISTEN: That's a great question. I did have a boss about 10 years ago, and in every one on one, she would ask me how things were going. And she always created this atmosphere of, okay, what do you need from here? How can I help you? And, I just had never been treated that way by a boss and it felt different, and I noticed it. And so, then I started using our time differently. She trained me without training me, without explicitly saying it.
IVAN: She modeled your behavior.
KRISTEN: Exactly, exactly. And so, then I would walk in and say, “Here's the problem I'm experiencing. And here's a couple of solutions. This is the one I recommend, and here's why. But here's a backup that we could do too. What do you think?” And then she'd say, “Oh, of course, and then what do you need to do that?” And then I started realizing I need to learn how to ask for what I need. And I still think this is an ongoing struggle for me. The hardest part of asking for what you need is sometimes knowing what you need. And so, if you have a servitude type of person in your life, that could be a friend, a partner, a spouse, a leader, sometimes when you really sit down and say, What do I need? Or what do I want?
It's a really hard question to answer. And so, yeah, I think about how she modeled that behavior. And then I've tried to encompass that too. So around that same time, I learned about the concept of the manager who has an umbrella over themselves, or the manager who carries an umbrella over their team. And how to shield them from things and make sure that they can have a clear pathway to get their work done. And so that's always been important to me, since I had that experience
IVAN: I love this idea, this image in my head that you've now created of an umbrella over the manager or the umbrella of the team, because I've always assumed that the manager should be protecting their team, should have that umbrella over their team.
KRISTEN: Yeah, honestly, I think that it's more likely to have the opposite. At least in my experience it's been golden to have I think, what I would say, two really good leaders in my career. And actually, maybe three. Yeah, I can think of three really good leaders I've had in my career that have been my direct boss that have made an impact in my career.
And I was doing a training recently and, in the training, there is a statistic that says that people don't leave jobs, or they don't leave companies, I can't remember the exact phrase, but that they leave managers. And so that's important because work is a huge part of our life. And people move across the globe and leave their communities and separate from extended family to pursue work because it's very important to who we are as human beings.
And so, when we are a manager or a leader or a co-worker and have the opportunity to make an impact on somebody else's life, we should take that seriously.
IVAN: Agreed. You talked about a few of the struggles that you had and one in identifying what you need. Could you talk a little bit about the greatest struggle you've had? What's the thing that you've struggled with the most in your life?
KRISTEN: That's a big one. Yeah. I know exactly what it is. I think that my biggest struggle to this day is probably how to own my own story. There's things that we go through in life and especially as children, that can bring a lot of different ways that you navigate through the world, and shame, I think, is a big tool that is used to suppress people's stories.
And I just finished this book by Ashley Ford called “Somebody's Daughter,” and in it, she talks about her journey of her life and her father being incarcerated for all of her childhood. And she even covers and touches on the parts about asking his permission to tell her story and carries forward in this whole book, a lot of dignity and respect for all people involved that she's telling the story about.
You can go to my website and see I have all these awards. And I've done a lot of things in my career. And I've worked on all these different things. And when I got the award, 40 Under 40, it’s not that I cherish awards, and it's not like I don't care about awards, but I live somewhere in this very murky in between where I feel proud of my work.
But when I got the 40 under 40 award, the only thing I can think of is wow, if people knew where I came from. I want to make that connection that we can rise up from anything. But I just keep being confronted with the side of shame of sharing my story.
But my father was incarcerated for most of my high school. And I think that's part of the reason why I wanted to leave Wisconsin so much is that it's very hard to be a child just trying to have fun with your friends and then one minute you're laughing and they're over at your house, and then you get a call that's like a collect call from your father in jail. And that feels hard to say.
And yet, I'm still trying to figure out how do I write a memoir, tell my story, because it's important to know that we can succeed and that we can share our stories and that circumstances don't need to bring so much shame to our world. And I still struggle to do it. So, it's like a never ending journey that I'm on myself.
IVAN: Thank you for sharing that with us. I think that we're hardest on ourselves when it comes to shame. And I think that it's almost always worse in your own head than it is and what others perceive around you, especially when it comes to shame. And I am grateful that you've shared the story with us and that you can talk about it. And I loved hearing about it.
KRISTEN: Thank you. I appreciate that.
IVAN: What brings you joy these days? You said you work at Microsoft, you've founded a number of nonprofits, one that was acquired. What brings you life and joy these days?
KRISTEN: I have to say that as my children are getting older, especially my older child who's nine and a half, she shares so many things that I love, especially reading and so we read books together. And now she's starting to write code and to build her own games. And even though I don't really love video games, that's not my passion, but the over intersection of teaching a young girl or learning alongside of her to get interested in technology, and she's always been just fascinated by math and patterns and loves math and has pretty much gotten straight A's in math her whole school career so far, to encourage that and to be a part of that is really exciting.
It's like where our interests intersect and where I am transcending into this new area of parenthood. And then I would say the balance I have right now between work and spending time with my children and finding things to be really joyful about, I would say the things that bring me the most happiness are running, reading and being outside camping, hiking, gardening. And I feel that I have a lot of that in my life. And yeah, and so raising children that share those interests with you is getting really exciting for me.
IVAN: It's so great to have a little mini me that happens to enjoy the things that you enjoy. I also have two children that are in the home with me right now, one that's out of the home. So, three, but I never tried to influence them to like the things you like, and when they display that interest in the thing that you like you want to just be their best friend and show them everything, but you have to hold yourself back so that they don't dislike that thing that you really like.
IVAN: That's awesome to hear about your daughter loving to read as much as you do. What are you reading right now? What would you recommend to people since we're on the subject of books?
KRISTEN: I'm actually usually reading six books at a time. I will tell you that I've been working on this with my therapist. She knows that I take eight books in a stack when I go take a bath, and I read in the bathtub. I love that. And then she was like, Okay, what I really want you to work on is just taking one book and committing to that. [laughter] And I was like, “But what if I finish the book and I need another book?” She was like, “Kristen.” And yeah, okay, so I'm reading several books, and anyone who wants to connect with me on Goodreads, that’s one of my favorite social media platforms.
So, I'm reading “Parable of the Talents” which is the sequel for Olivia Butler's book, “The Parable of the Sewer.” And it's, I don't know if I would say dystopian, but it's like a novel that was written in the nineties, and I have to keep going back and checking the copyright, because there's so many similarities to today. So, her first book I think, was ’93 and this one is 1998. And it's just stunning how she was writing in the future and we're living in this time that it's like, very similar.
And then I'm reading another book called “Docs for Developers,” and so it's like a field guide to writing technical documentation for APIs. So I’m always reading a non-fiction and a fiction. I try to keep a balance.
IVAN: Mix it up. If your therapist had to have you choose between one of those two, would you go with technical or would you go with fiction?
KRISTEN: She would tell me fiction. She is always telling me to seek more joy and to spend more time doing nothing, and literally just doing nothing. So, then, I can't even believe I'm going to say this. But I told her, this is a true story. I bought a book that's called “How to do Nothing,” and she looked at me, and she tilted her head and she said, “Kristen, I just want to be sure that reading that book is not doing nothing.” I was like yes, I know.” [laughter] I have the best therapist.
IVAN: You do. Have you read the book yet? Is it done?
KRISTEN: No. It's on my to read pile.
IVAN: Okay. What do you think is the essence of humanity? What connects us all?
KRISTEN: What connects us all? For me, I think that we depend on each other. We are created in this way, or we exist in this way that it's difficult, if not impossible, to exist without your community or your group of other humans. To be in community and to work to build something requires togetherness. And so, it feels as if there's constraints in place for us to specifically learn that. And the sooner that we move into that sort of as an acceptance and realize that we benefit from helping others and we also benefit from accepting help from others, and that we're happiest when we're working together with each other. Cooperation.
IVAN: Yeah. We’re more social animals, and we're more connected than we think. And I guess when you take a step back and look at things like Twitter, and Facebook, and all of the other social media platforms, that's testament to the fact that we're human, and that we're actually all connected, just like you said.
KRISTEN: Yeah, social media can be like a double edge to that because there’s also the cooperation in person needed, which I think comes out more on Twitter than in Facebook. And I think that if we think about the constraints of each social platform, we also have a lot to learn about what constraints are in place that support our need for community and being together and cooperation and that feed off of the worst of it and create unfavorable conditions.
IVAN: Yeah. And we've seen all of that in our society in the last few years, haven't we? It’s been really awesome talking to you. I feel like I've gotten to know this Wisconsin girl who went to Portland and now lives in Minneapolis and doing great things at Microsoft and loves to read books in the bath.
KRISTEN: [laughter] That is me in a nutshell. Yes.
IVAN: I really appreciate your time. I'm so grateful that you were able to spend it with us today.
KRISTEN: Thank you so much for having me as a guest.
IVAN: In the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION, we visit with Wil Reynolds, avid runner, father, husband and founder of Seer Interactive.
WIL REYNOLDS: I was watching this video of these kids that were being really nice to other kids. And I stopped and I've been thinking a lot about am I leading my life in a way that shows my kids to be more like that.
So I just been thinking about that too. ‘Cause I don't know when I'm going to go and like I got two young kids. And I just hope that I leave this world a little bit better than I found It's like a campsite, right? Clean it up a little bit more than I found it.
And I think that's my responsibility to this world and this society.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we celebrate humanity, together!
I’m Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.
This is episode 127 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on November 10, 2021 and first published on February 16, 2022. Audio length is 40 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.