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San Diego
Sunday, May 19, 2024

Executive Q&A Cheryl K. Goodman, Executive Director, Athena San Diego

For Cheryl K. Goodman, life has largely been defined by testing her limits: in the boardroom, in the courtroom, and — as a competitive female surfer — in the water.

The boardroom and the board shop are similar in only one regard, she says. Women are few in numbers.

“There’s a phenomenal parallel between surfing and being a successful woman in business,” Goodman said. In fact, she’s painted a tribute to the figurative battle on her living room wall.

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” it reads.

Goodman, 43, was recently appointed executive director of Athena San Diego, an organization designed to promote the growth and development of women in science and technology. Few could be more prepared for the road ahead.

Recently among Qualcomm Inc.’s upper ranks, Goodman has experience being the only woman in the room. But feeling limited — or isolated — by her gender didn’t start early, she says. A different kind of challenge came first.

In the 1990s, she was a broadcast reporter in San Diego but was soon recruited out of journalism to do media outreach for a budding digital music company. That company was, and it made the history books for two reasons: it was a predecessor to the infamous Napster, and was likewise sued by multiple record labels for copyright infringement; and the company was sold in one of the biggest San Diego acquisitions of its time for $372 million in 2001.

As the head of marketing for, Goodman got enough experience navigating litigation to last a lifetime, but that was only the beginning. Goodman chose to follow her mentor, Michael Robertson, founder of, to his second venture: Lindows Inc. The company made a Linux-based operating system with the goal of running major Microsoft Windows applications. The company was sued by Microsoft for knocking off their name (Windows + Linux = Lindows).

Lindows won that lawsuit, Goodman said, because Microsoft couldn’t get away with copyrighting a general term like “window.”

Navigating these tough (and lengthy) legal battles made Goodman a bit of a marketing guru, and she was snatched up by Qualcomm in 2005, eventually advancing to the company’s senior director of marketing and business development for Qualcomm Labs. In her time with the company, she oversaw the launch of six consumer devices, three software platforms and various digital products for the company.

It was in this corporate structure that Goodman first came in contact with the so-called “glass ceiling” many women working in technology face.

“When I was working with Michael (at and Lindows), I never ever felt like an outsider,” Goodman said. “It was about the product, it was about what you delivered, and it was about your contribution. But when you get into larger, heavily matrixed organizations…it’s no longer about output, it’s about intel. If you’re not hanging out in that bar drinking with the guys, you’re kind of cut off to those discussions.”

Goodman decided to leave her gig at Qualcomm to strike out on her own. She founded Social Global Mobile in 2013, a marketing strategy firm for nonprofits, startups and established companies, with a particular focus in technology.

She was appointed interim executive director at Athena in January, and “interim” was dropped from her title in March.

Goodman recently answered questions for the San Diego Business Journal about challenges women face when working in technology and science. Here are some excerpts:

What about your time working in tech companies made you want to join a
program like Athena?

You get to a point in your life where money no longer makes a difference. I had a very successful career, and what matters to me most now is creating an impact. I felt in some ways that I was developing widgets and other things that wouldn’t improve anyone’s life in a significant way. I really felt that my life value was worth more than that.

Athena helps me sleep better at night. When you connect a woman who needs assistance, or you inspire that woman — you feel very good about your existence and your contribution to the world. It’s about the social impact.

A recent wage report (showing the pay disparity between women and men in technology) ranked San Diego 41 out of 58 cities. Local women working in technology get paid only 84 cents to the dollar compared to men. In Kansas City, by comparison, women in tech are paid equal to men. In Washington, D.C., they get paid 99 cents to the dollar. Why do you think San Diego ranks so low on this list?

I attribute the disparity to an unconscious bias in the hiring practice. The same exact resume with a male’s name might elicit a different response than one with a female’s name.

In the environment we’re in now, women are not being seen for our full value. So we have to know our full value, and strongly negotiate to be paid fairly for it.

The new pay parity law (recently passed in California) will definitely be a good thing. It will be a tool to keep our myopic eye from guessing.

Besides pay, what are some of the challenges facing women in science and tech?

Taking credit can be hard. Oftentimes, women aren’t the first to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I authored that report,” or “my name should be on that patent.” There are many opportunities to insert yourself into something you helped form or craft.

Women sometimes don’t want to seem egocentric, but it’s part of the business. You have to assert your brand value, and ask for it. Put aside the “Miss Manners” thing. You can do this without being tacky or overt. It’s logical. It’s defending yourself and being respected.

Some millennial women in San Diego (all heavily involved in the startup community) recently told me that the startup scene was particularly difficult for them in terms of gender bias — even more so than the corporate world. Why might that be?

I would completely agree with that. I think it’s a network situation. There’s a heavy concentration of biotech and technology companies in San Diego, so our town’s entrepreneurial right is in those same fields. And these are the sectors that we know are challenged to have parity both in employment numbers and pay.

Women don’t have that “pattern recognition” profile that investors and entrepreneurs are used to seeing. Only one out of every thousand startups gets funded to begin with.

Now layer gender bias on top of that and you’re really at a deficit. It’s an upward hill battle to be an entrepreneur to begin with, but when you buttress that with gender bias… it’s really a difficult road.

What needs to be done?

I think everyone — all organizations — have to recalibrate and ask, “What’s at stake?” If you’re an organization that needs talent, and you’re looking at international strategies like visas for workers… You probably should look in your own backyard and ask, “What have I done for the 49 percent population of San Diego first?”

We’re a city of 1.3 million, 49 percent of which is women. What have you done to leverage and create that pipeline of STEM workers that you need. Companies are the de facto leaders today, because they have the weight. Leaders of industry have the influence, and this disparity is a call to all industry to include the whole workforce.

We cannot hide from the fact that women bear children. Maybe companies could make it easier to acknowledge that fact, like having an onsite daycare at your organization. Or maybe adjust your maternity/paternity rules. Be proactive about engaging, retaining and developing women in STEM. Athena is here to help companies do that. We exist to close that gap.

What’s your best advice for women in business?

Opportunity is tied to P&L. It’s not enough to just develop and market the technology. Women need to take on financial responsibilities, which is where we see men excel. And that’s an opportunity for men to mentor women in this area.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received in your career?

“Just do it.” In the entrepreneurial economy especially, people are always like, “Go for it! Just do it. It’s all about passion.” That’s garbage. Passion is important, but what’s more important is understanding the market.

Do market research. Understand how much it will cost to acquire a customer. Don’t lead with passion. If you do, you’ll be that overcommitted, exasperated and overworked woman that could be perceived as too emotional.


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