Women driving history
Meet our team | March 23, 2023 | 8 min. read
Meet the dynamic women innovating Aurora’s tech, company, and culture
I think that stories, and those told by women in particular, are integral to reaching a deeper and more honest understanding of those around us, and even ourselves.
- Kate Kirkland, Aurora Dispatcher
March is not only Women’s History Month, but this month, Aurora also expects to meet a major milestone toward commercial launch. As we are hard at work making history—leading the effort to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology and to change the face of transportation for the better—it seems fitting to pause and reflect on the fact that our movement forward as a company, and even as an industry, is inclusive of and reliant on the drive, talent, innovation, and collaboration of many talented women.
Historically, women have been underrepresented in the tech, automotive, and logistics industries. “We work in a heavily [male]-dominated field, which can sometimes reflect societal ills we face outside of work,” noted Diondria Whitehead, one of Aurora’s Vehicle Operations Team Leads in California.
While Aurora continues to make strides in gender equity and inclusion, there is always more work to be done. So, how do we ensure that when history gets made at Aurora, it includes the voices, faces, and contributions of the many women who serve our mission?
One way is to tell their stories and shine a light on the important ways they show up, every day, to drive the mission forward. That’s why we asked leaders from our “Women@” Aurora Unified Group (AUG) to nominate a few voices from across Aurora’s departments to feature this month.
While we all remain laser-focused on our mission to deliver the benefits of self-driving safely, quickly, and broadly, let us not forget: how we achieve that mission, and with whom, will lay the foundation for Aurora’s narrative for years to come. In the end, this is a story of progress—on the road and in the workplace.
This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Why are stories important to you?
Rashmi Anil, Software Engineer: First and foremost, stories allow women to connect with one another on a deeper level, to share our experiences, and to find common ground. Stories have the power to inspire, to educate, and to motivate us to take action. They help us to understand the world around us and to empathize with others.
Additionally, stories have the potential to challenge stereotypes and to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups, including women. By telling our stories, we can celebrate our achievements, highlight our struggles, and build a more inclusive and equitable society.
Diondria Whitehead, Team Lead, CA Operations: Stories are important to me because they show the interconnected lived experiences we, as women, have regardless of background, upbringing, or industry.
My mother has been integral to my story. She is the strongest person I know and truly exemplifies persevering through adversity. As a full-time nurse with four children, she made sure we always had what we needed growing up, and she championed all of the personal interests and wins we achieved.
Vaishnavi Shukla, Senior Reliability Hardware Engineer: Even as each story is unique and every struggle is different, the essence of our quest to be seen, heard, understood and to make a positive difference in the lives of those around us is almost universal.
We as human beings are the sum of our experiences, all of which are intricate stories that weave the fabric of our society. Every interaction with another person affects one’s life experiences and eventually shapes who we are.
My hope for this year for Women@Aurora is to make the community a welcoming and safe space for women to lean on and grow from.
What essential story from your life changed you as a person?
Chris Mullen, Senior Director of Organizational Safety: I’ve been in the auto industry for 25 years. During that time, I’ve worked on internal safety initiatives for two OEMs; multiple industry collaborative safety projects; insurance approaches to influence safety improvements for road, car, and drivers; and non-profit efforts to improve traffic safety. All that time focused on car structures, airbags, seat belts, roadway systems, consumer behavior—everything that can improve a safety outcome on the road.
Last spring, the importance of that work hit close to home. My sister-in-law and best friend was involved in a high-speed crash. Every surface of that car was smashed, but she literally walked away with a few scratches and bruises.
If I ever wondered what my career was for, this was an amazing way to make that point, and it changed the way I look at the impact of everything we do in the service of safety. There’s such a tremendous opportunity to save lives with self-driving technology, and I feel consistently motivated by safety’s primary role in Aurora’s mission.
Most importantly, this experience also reminds me to say, “I love you,” every time I leave someone special.
Kate Kirkland, Senior Dispatcher: My senior year of high school I started to experience severe depression and anxiety, and I failed out in the last semester of English due to the impact it had on my schoolwork. As someone who until that point in life had been validated by academic and athletic success, it was a pretty crushing blow.
I don’t come from a background or environment that acknowledges mental health as a contributor to daily life, and this wasn’t something that was talked about. I stumbled through make-up work that allowed me to maintain my scholarships and actually stay near the top of my class, but I missed the experience of graduation and being handed my diploma with the people I grew up with.
I finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed and medicated for my depression and anxiety, but my life didn’t turn around immediately. Over the next few years, I built my confidence in myself and my abilities back up, working my way into a logistics career and finally going back to college in 2019.
Throughout this time I also worked on myself internally and dedicated a lot of introspective thought into improving my mental health. I graduated with my degree in International Studies in 2022 after working and going to school full-time for three years. I did it not for the validation a degree would provide, but rather to prove to myself that it was always in me and fulfill a promise I’d made to myself when I was young. That journey was so important for me to come full circle with and the different segments of it have been so impactful on who I am today.
Can you talk about your story, personally or professionally? Where are you from? How did you come to Aurora?
Kate: I’m from a small-ish town called Cleburne, Texas, though I grew up just outside of it in the even smaller Rio Vista, Texas, on a 100-acre farm. Tending the farm with my Granddaddy is one of my most cherished memories, and where I learned more than one life lesson.
I’ve been in logistics for over a decade, having been introduced to the field serendipitously when I was 21. I quickly learned that logistics was something my brain seemed to be wired for and since then, I’ve worked in different industries within trucking.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was working for an oil and gas company. I came across an ad for a dispatcher at Aurora. I honestly just passed it by, as I felt like I was underqualified. The “tech company” of it all was pretty intimidating. But I kept coming across that job posting and finally decided to put my name forward.
Five interviews and a driving evaluation later and I was hired.
Rashmi: During my first semester at Carnegie Mellon University in 2018, I started looking for an internship. I had a negative perception of computer science and found it challenging, tedious, and uninteresting. To me, it was a field that was primarily dominated by men and somewhere I felt out of place. However, my very first interaction with Aurora (during my onsite interview) changed my mind. I distinctly remember everyone being incredibly accomplished, humble, and extremely friendly.
On my first day on the job as an intern on the Mapping, Motion Planning, and Simulation Team, I remember Drew (Aurora’s co-founder) coming up to introduce himself to me. Working alongside incredibly smart and passionate individuals at such a small company, I saw firsthand how computer science had the potential to solve real-world problems and make a meaningful impact. The company felt like a family to me and I no longer felt out of place. I loved it so much that I came back three times as an intern, and now I work here full-time as a software engineer on the Simulation team.
As a woman, what are the specific challenges you face in the tech workforce?
Diondria: We work in a heavily men-dominated field which can sometimes reflect societal ills we face outside of work. To meet this, I make sure to always advocate for myself and my team and reassure the women I work alongside that not only do our voices matter, but they are pivotal to the success of our company’s goals. So always speak up and call in when you can.
Kate: One of the biggest challenges is knowing and owning your worth. We live in a world that undervalues women at almost every level, both professionally and societally. Regardless of the progress made in this area, we have a long way to go as a species in general. Without the confidence that comes with knowing and owning your worth, it’s really difficult to make a noticeable impact and affect change.
I tackle this challenge by looking at situations through a few different lenses before deciding on how I’ll let them make me feel. Are they criticizing me or the idea? Are they being logical or responding irrationally? Is my idea being rejected or dismissed?
Identifying the truth of responses and reactions and evaluating it alongside what I know to be true about myself helps me keep things in perspective. It also helps me make the decision of whether or not to speak up for myself in those situations.
Vaishnavi: As a woman entering a field that is not traditionally female-dominated, you feel a nagging sense of self-doubt. One of the biggest positive developments my generation has seen is that though small, the community of women in tech is a source of strength, mentorship, and support.
Ever since taking my first job in the field, I have had a “board of mentors” that I add to every time I meet someone I admire and want to emulate. I have always been able to turn to one of them at difficult points in my career, and I have come away with guidance, sympathy, or even just a laugh—much more able to tackle any challenge.
What is something you wish people knew about being a woman in tech?
Chris: The old tried and true adage of, “Do not judge a book by its cover.” I’ve been criticized for my appearance (my hair being too long or worn a certain way), for being too loud or too quiet, for being too young to know this or that…I’ve been on the receiving end of behavior driven clearly by a stereotype or bias without taking the time to invest in understanding the truth. Be aware of your biases and how they might limit your exposure to amazing, capable people.
Rashmi: As a woman in tech, feeling valued and supported in my role is incredibly important to me. I am fortunate to be a part of a team here at Aurora that recognizes and values the contributions of women.
I believe that creating inclusive and supportive work environments is crucial for attracting and retaining women in the tech industry, and I am grateful to be a part of a team that prioritizes these values.
Diondria: You are valued and people will actively seek your opinion because you know what you’re doing. You’re here for a reason.
What is some advice that you live by?
Chris: Learn to do something really well, then teach it.
This is critical for our industry as we are all learning at a frenetic pace and applying that knowledge immediately to the next challenge. But we need to ensure we are also bringing up the next group of superstars…I maintain a full roster of mentees and have benefited tremendously from the advice I’ve received from mentors over the years (I called my mentor as recently as last week).
Also through teaching and explaining concepts, you get better and better at your ability to condense content into the most useful instruction and receive feedback on what lands. It’s rewarding for you, individually, and it’s in service of a stronger company and industry, long term.
Vaishnavi: A narrow focus brings big results.
Being focused on one goal, and accomplishing that first milestone goes a long way in building the muscle needed for longer-term success. One of the most important things that drew me towards coming to Aurora is that our priorities as a company are clear: To Safely deliver a product that can be scaled Quickly, and deployed Broadly to realize vehicle autonomy.
Our niche is well defined, with a razor-sharp focus on what the first product needs to be, the market it needs to serve, and the scale it needs to achieve to serve as a base for achieving long-term success. I am confident that our approach to the autonomous driving problem will be an industry-defining example of the importance of focus, resilience, and vigor.
Delivering the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly.