Little did we know that back in June 2013, while on a special mission from San Francisco to London for the United Nations called UnGrounded, that a member of our 130-person group of traveling thought leaders would, in a little more than one year, become Chief Technology Officer of the United States.
That person is Megan Smith (at left in our photo), vice president of Google X, a semi-secret development group committed to creating cutting-edge IT breakthroughs. She's been a leader at every level at which she has worked. Now she's the Madame President of Technology of the United States. Who knew?
Smith was only one of many interesting people in our entourage. The group of thought leaders, invited by British Airways and the UN, was a diverse one, consisting of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, educators, venture capitalists, inventors and a few journalists. Their ages ranged from early 20s to senior citizens. What they had in common was a love and/or concern for the improvement of education, a knowledge of technology--and a four-day opening in their busy schedules.
A Leader Among Leaders
Megan Smith was prominent in this group. Invitees included Craig Newmark (Craigslist); Tiffany Schlain (founder of the Webbys); Gavin Newsom (Lt. Gov. of California, although he had to pull out at the last minute); Van Jones, CNN "Crossfire" host; venture capitalist Esther Dyson; Peter Hinsson, author of "The New Normal"; Gary Fowlie, International Telecom Liaison for the United Nations; Mark Campos, founder of Google traffic app Waze; and many more.
The idea of getting them all together for a long virtual fireside chat was to pack away connected devices, sit down and simply talk to each other about a lofty but increasingly important concern: how to fix STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the 21st century.
While on the 11-hour, WiFi-less flight, they were given a task to find answers for this question: How can STEM education be made more attractive for young people--especially women and girls--so that companies with jobs that are currently going unfilled can find the right applicants? This turned out to be a topic very close to Smith's heart.
Two days later, after vetting all 24 concepts the group created, a panel of UN and sponsor delegates chose from the top four to back AdviseHer, an online community that uses social networks and other pipeline programs to advocate for women and girls in STEM education. The program is under way now, using UN backing. The idea was presented to the G8 Innovation Summit in London a day after our arrival. Prime Minister David Cameron, Sir Richard Branson and several other European leaders hailed the project on stage at G8.
Megan Smith was a leader on that trip. Every time you saw her, she was in conference with somebody about a detail involving the plan, or she was standing amid a group of people with a wide-tip Sharpie writing down notes on butcher paper on the wall of the British Airways 747. She clearly was a leader then, and her bio proves that she's been a leader elsewhere.
First Woman to Get the Job
Now the President of the United States has recognized her for the highest honor in IT-dom. She is the third person selected for the position, after Todd Park and Aneesh Chopra.
Previously at Google, Smith was vice president of business development for nine years. She also served as the general manager of Google.org and CEO of PlanetOut, a Website dedicated to the LGBT Web community.
"Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment," President Obama said in his statement about her hiring on Sept. 5. "I am confident that in her new role as America’s Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people."
Obama and his staff created the CTO of the U.S. position five years ago. Smith will serve as a liaison between the White House and the tech community while providing advice to the government on how to come up with effective ways to get the most out of technology. The CTO will be employing applied technology to play a role in creating jobs, such as reducing the costs of health care and keeping the nation's IT stable.
Good luck, Ms. Smith, as you go to Washington. We'll be watching.