What Silicon Valley Superwomen Are Reading

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Why you should care

Because we can all aspire to read like superwomen.

Each of these women is a pioneer in tech, and although you may not be familiar with their names, you almost certainly have or will benefit from their work. The group includes women who have helped ensure the openness of the internet, several who have advised an American president on technology and others who have guided tech titans trying to increase their diversity. Here too is the bright mind who brought us Java (likely running on the device you’re reading this on) and the creators behind a travel experience provider and that little white square you may use to pay for your coffee.

They’re also readers. Here’s a peek at what’s on the bookshelves of these Silicon Valley superwomen.

Kim Polese

Chairman of CrowdSmart and founding product manager for Java

In Africa in My Blood, Jane Goodall uses a selection of her letters to offer a fascinating view into how a girl with a love of animals went on to remarkable experiences in Gombe [Stream National Park, in Tanzania] and the breakthrough studies that led her to become one of the most important scientists of our time. As an aside, I was lucky enough to meet Jane Goodall a few months ago. Not only is she a living legend, but as a remarkably youthful 83-year-old, she has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor and an effervescent spirit. She still travels and works tirelessly in her mission to promote an enlightened coexistence of humans with the natural world.

Another favorite: No Time to Spare: Thinking About WhatMatters, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Terah Lyons

Executive director of the Partnership on AI and former policy adviser to the White House

Increasingly, storytellers of all mediums are shedding light on the stories of “hidden figures” — women shrouded by history and sexism, whose credit for some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the last several generations was never properly claimed. Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes, meticulously researched from impeccably preserved historical records, is an account of Elizebeth Friedman, who was a poet in her early 20s when she launched a career as one of the most talented code breakers the world has ever known. Friedman’s role in helping win two world wars and shaping the modern U.S. intelligence community is written as an expansive, page-turning historical narrative of the life of an extraordinary woman the world should come to know.

Another favorite: Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, by Cixin Liu

Maxine Williams

Global head of diversity at Facebook

In what has to be the shortest possible number of pages, Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing covers the most comprehensive span of several hundred years to lay out the history of African-Americans. For anyone who thinks history is dull, or wouldn’t read a textbook, this is like a sweet Julie mango (my favorite). It’s thrilling, engaging, informative, emotional, everything. Gyasi achieves this amazing feat where she is able to include dozens of characters and make us get close to them but then leaves us with a repeating experience of the randomness of life. There is a deep message that we control so little of what happens to us and each life is so small when you step back and look at time in its bigness.

Another favorite: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (2017 edition), by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Jennifer Pahlka

Founder and executive director of Code for America and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer to the White House

I read George Saunders’Lincoln in the Bardo in the middle of last year and am still thinking about it. It is deeply weird and original, and because you spend the first half of the book trying to understand what’s going on, it surprises you with its depth of feeling. You get caught in both grief and the impossible choices people face in the most sideways way. I’m also a big fan of Saunders’ nonfiction writing in The New Yorker, but I didn’t make the connection and realize it was the same person until after I put the book down and looked him up. Made sense!

Another favorite: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Sarah Hunter

Director of public policy for X, Alphabet’s “Moonshot” Factory

2017 was a crazy year. I’ve been particularly concerned by the way increasingly extreme and oppositional policymakers have sidelined tackling major global issues — like climate change. I have found reading lots of science fiction a good way to manage my anxiety. I think burying myself in a fictional dystopian future gives me comfort that if the world does fall apart, humans will find innovative ways to carry on. In that vein, I found World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, both stimulating and comforting. It focuses less on the “science” and more on the “fiction,” painting a future world where humans continue to thrive, love and live even in challenging circumstances.

Another favorite: Utopia for Realists, by Rutger Bregman

Mitchell Baker

Executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and advocate for an open, healthy internet

I recently enjoyed Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. In the 25th century, nation-states have faded, information is instantaneous and time zones nearly meaningless. A single disruptive technology has transformed the way people think about the globe, their home and their primary identity. Attitudes toward religion, gender and violence are deeply affected. In this setting the author unwinds plot, world-building details and explorations of the human psyche. Those of us living in the 21st century are experiencing the technology of previous science fiction come to life. I was drawn to Too Like the Lightning because it uses science fiction to explore experiments with morals and religion as well.

Another favorite: The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905–1922, by Edmond Taylor

Sarah Friar

Chief financial officer of Square and a member of the board of directors of Walmart and Slack

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is a reflection on the aging process and how we often conflate quantity of life with quality of life. The idea that most would choose quality of life — independence, ability to choose — as we get older, and yet for aging parents and grandparents, we choose maximizing life span (regardless of what that life is like), is explored through the author’s story about his father. This is a book that I find myself reflecting on often, many months post-reading, with its lessons for how to live life in the here and now.

Another favorite: Brown GirlDreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Ruzwana Bashir

CEO of peek.com and former president of the Oxford Union

I recently read Empress Dowager Cixi, by Jung Chang a biography of an imperial concubine turned empress who effectively controlled China for almost 50 years. She’s a controversial but fascinating figure who had to try to lead China in a period when it was a paper tiger battling the British and Japanese. History so often repeats itself, and shapes much of our present, so I’ve always loved books like this that can help us understand the world around us. Over the years I’ve also read Chang’s other books — Mao: The Unknown Story and Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China— which dive deep into Chinese history.

Another favorite: Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot

Text & reporting by Sarah Ládípọ̀ Manyika; video by Nat Roe.

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