Armed with a master’s degree in psychology, Anke Audenaert, an assistant adjunct professor of marketing at UCLA's Anderson School, never planned on working in the tech industry. But when she moved to Silicon Valley to join Yahoo’s market research team in 1999, she was immediately captivated by the fledgling company’s innovative and inclusive culture.

That was more than 15 years ago, and Audenaert has been in the tech world ever since, moving from marketing at Yahoo to launching several of her own startups. In addition to her teaching role at Anderson, she is now the digital marketing nanodegree lead at the fast-growing startup Udacity, an online university that aims to bring accessible, affordable and effective higher education to the world through its nanodegree programs.

Despite now being a veteran of the tech industry, she still “feels excited by the prospect of putting a human face on technology.”

A native of Belgium and an alumna of Catholic University of Leuven, Audenaert started her career in the consumer research division of multinational consumer goods company Unilever. She later joined Yahoo as the vice president of market research, requiring a move to the Bay Area. She eventually became Yahoo's vice president of content optimization.

As part of Yahoo’s first market research team, Audenaert took on the responsibility of network optimization. “I was finding the high trafficked portions of the page and using that information to inform decisions on advertising,” she said.

She highlights this time at Yahoo as one of her favorite experiences. “The company was very inclusive and good to all of its employees,” she explained. “It was a large group of really smart people who all came from exciting, diverse backgrounds.”

It was also at Yahoo that she found one of her early mentors, Karen Edwards, who was vice president of worldwide marketing from 1996 to 2001. Edwards instilled in her a sense of “brand perspective and the power of digital marketing,” Audenaert said.

Audenaert credits the tech giant’s strong employee network for giving her a “group of women in tech from Yahoo who still keep in contact and support each other to this day.”

While Audenaert found mentors and a female network to fall back on, the gender gap wasn’t as widely discussed then as it is now, she explained. Yet she said Yahoo still made a conscious effort to recruit and maintain a diverse workforce. “They tried at every level, especially the hiring one, to make sure it was as diverse as possible. Women didn’t feel like the exception there,” she said.

Startup fever

After more than seven years at Yahoo, Audenaert caught the startup fever. “I wanted to build something for myself from the bottom up,” she said.

Her next move was creating JumpTime, a business optimization platform for media companies and marketers, with three other co-founders. While running a startup was new to Audenaert, she found that she thrived in the fast-paced environment. “I always look for the chance to build something new, to grow something within a company, and to motivate people,” she explained.

While handling the business and operations end of JumpTime, Audenaert simultaneously sought out venture capitalist firms for investment. During these meetings, she became aware of the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated sector.

Although she had admittedly not developed the imposter syndrome — a feeling of self-doubt by high-achieving individuals who are afraid of  being uncovered as an unqualified fraud —  Audenaert encountered difficulty initially in garnering interest in JumpTime and Favrit, another startup she founded.

“As a woman approaching the venture capital community, you’re more of the exception than the rule in an industry that likes to live off habits,” she explained. “Some investors aren’t used to seeing women in leadership.”

Solving the pipeline problem

Despite the challenges she has faced as an entrepreneur, Audenaert does not see being a woman in the tech world as a liability. “I don’t want to assume that being female will be an issue,” she said. “My mindset is that I am a woman, and I can take on anything.”

Audenaert enjoys working at the rapidly growing Udacity because she is able to utilize her experience in digital marketing and education while enjoying the benefits of a startup culture. Similar to Yahoo, the company makes an effort to ensure that women feel welcomed in the workplace. However, the effort at this startup is more conscious, Audenaert explained, with Udacity ensuring that women are fairly represented both in hiring demographics and leadership positions.

Udacity’s mission of democratizing education by providing the tools to learn important technical skills also ties into what Audenaert sees as the solution to the “pipeline problem.”

“When you have certain students being directed to one path of non-STEM over a path of STEM, it’s important to offer students a connection to the world of technology by providing easy access to ongoing tech education, whether it’s through scholarship, mentorship, or outreach at conferences,” Audenaert said.

Looking forwards and backwards

Looking back on her decadelong career in technology, Audenaert acknowledged that she was luckier than most women to have such a strong network and supportive family.

“Having the right outside help while my kids were young was instrumental, and my kids are appreciative of my role as an entrepreneur today,” she said. “They know that that’s an important part of my life and they’re completely supportive.”

Moving forward, Audenaert isn’t quite sure what’s next, but she knows that her next role will definitely involve technology. Whether she decides to work at a startup or a more established company, Audenaert has one ideal quality in mind for her next position.

“I always enjoy roles where you’re not just executing a set playbook. You’re figuring things out by trial and error,” she said.

This profile was published by the UCLA Office of Information Technology as part of the UCLA Women in Tech initiative to feature successful women from the UCLA community involved in technology, entrepreneurship or STEM.