When Joan Palmiter Bajorek traveled to New Jersey in 2018 to speak on a VOICE Summit panel about voice technology in higher education, she hoped it would open doors. But she had no idea where it would ultimately lead.
As a Ph.D. candidate living in her parents' basement, job interviews frequently meant meeting with predominantly all-male teams. The VOICE Summit reinforced that observation: Voice technology—like most tech fields— was a male-dominated space.
"I met people there that I deeply respected and admired, and that was exciting," said Bajorek. "But it felt strange that I was one of the youngest people in the room and one of the only women. I wondered, where were my people?"
At the beginning of her MA in Linguistics and a Ph.D. in speech-language technology, she wanted to be a professor. But her research in voice and multimodal augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) opened her eyes to the opportunities in technology and the impactful research she could perform outside of academia.
"How humans interact with computers and devices is radically changing before our eyes and ears," said Bajorek. "Alexa is everywhere. I see people interacting with tech in ways that weren't previously possible. I want to be part of this tech revolution."
Remembering her feelings during the VOICE Summit and other gatherings, Bajorek said she simply couldn't enter the field without doing something to support women in the industry. Thousands worked in technology—including those working nearby on Amazon's Alexa—and she knew she wasn't alone. So in August 2018, Bajorek launched the organization Women in Voice to empower women and gender minorities in voice tech. She started with just a logo, a Twitter handle, and a Google form. She invited people to join but never anticipated the overwhelming interest the fledgling organization would receive.
"When I started, I hoped maybe six of my friends would sign up," said Bajorek. "The next thing I knew, 27 people from large companies worldwide signed up for leadership roles at Women in Voice. I realized I wasn't alone."
Bajorek is now the CEO of Women in Voice. She's also a conversational voice designer, a 2019 Top 11 Influencer in Voice by Voicebot.ai, and a 2020 Alexa Champion.
Women in Voice—along with other organizations like Women Who Code, Women in Tech, and Women in AI—champions diversity and inclusion in technology. With co-promotion by companies like Amazon, Women in Voice hosts hackathons, mentor programs, and demo days. Women in Voice reaches thousands all over the world, with 20 chapters in 15 countries. The organization believes that when it helps women succeed in voice technology, it also helps the companies that employ them.
"When diverse ideas and diverse people come together, teams and companies have better outcomes," said Bajorek. "Diversity doesn't just improve the tech ecosystem. It improves the bottom line."
It's true. Bajorek cites studies showing that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams in the workplace, delivering better results faster. According to Goldman Sachs, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 33% more likely to outperform companies that are not as diverse. And among executive teams, gender-diverse teams beat all-male teams by 21%, while ethnically diverse teams outperform others by 33%, according to consulting firm McKinsey and Company.
"It's one thing to say that diverse teams are beneficial to organizations," said Bajorek. "But now we have studies and hard data that confirm it is true."
Women in voice technology have opportunities across the spectrum. Whether they join a startup, start their own company, or strike out on their own, the growing voice industry offers openings at every level for designers and developers, but also for budding entrepreneurs—something Bajorek is passionate about fostering.
"Women are building their own teams and doing some phenomenal work in startups," said Bajorek. "Startups offer cool leadership opportunities for women and chances to shine in new ways. Women in Voice helps by acting as a pipeline of talent, from students just out of school all the way to the C-suite."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Women in Voice hosted over 80 live events worldwide, which were well attended by investors and founders alike. With social distancing in place, today Bajorek and her team are building out how to better connect and empower founders. She helps venture capitalists and angel investors—individuals who are accredited investors—evaluate technology companies, provide technical advice, and advises entrepreneurs on how to talk to the investors.
"We're connecting entrepreneurs and investors, getting the smart, talented people together with investors," said Bajorek. "What happens next is those people become Women in Voice champions, connect other women with founders, and continue to build the network."
Despite the laser focus on women in voice technology, a single data point surprised Bajorek and her team. A recent look at Women in Voice website analytics revealed that 45% of visitors are male, with visits from over 60 countries and 47 languages and dialects. Bajorek realized that Women in Voice isn't just for women—it's become Women in Voice for everyone.
"We're working to make voice an inclusive space where women and anyone else want to stay and do phenomenal work. Come join the party," said Bajorek. For someone who originally intended to work exclusively in Research and Development, Bajorek is still surprised she ended up an "influencer" in voice technology. Now the Head of User Research at multimodal early-stage startup NLX, she enjoys seeing how the field evolves while also remaining in the "technical weeds" of product development.
Today she's excited that Women in Voice has pending 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and hopes it will attract larger corporate donors, supporters, and partners. With additional support, Women in Voice can host events and offer more opportunities.
"Amazon and Alexa pioneered a new industry with voice and created a space where women and other diverse people are not only welcome but can thrive," said Bajorek. "All of us at Women in Voice are excited to bring together people and opportunities."
"In 2021 we'll see more and more multimodal and integrated experiences- ones that rely not only on voice and visual components but also incorporating haptics, AR, VR, and gesture among other features."
-Dr. Joan Palmiter Bajorek, Head of User Research, NLX