When young doctoral student Martha Dennis left Harvard University without writing her thesis and moved to La Jolla in 1970, her advisor prophesized she would not complete it. “(He) announced to me that no female graduate student who moved away ever finished her thesis, and I took that as a challenge,” Dennis said during an Aug. 18 speech at the La Jolla Woman’s Club as a guest of the organization’s “Women in Leadership” speaker series.
Dennis successfully completed her thesis, just one example of the many challenges she overcame throughout her 60-year career as a female technology and software engineer, entrepreneur and CEO. The next was right around the corner when as she was forming her thesis committee, one of the professors she invited told her, “I’d be happy to be on your committee, just be sure to wear those sexy earrings I like so much, I’ll be sure to pass you.”
“I’d like to believe that in 2016 women can be taken seriously anywhere they go, but that’s still a work in progress,” Dennis said at the start of the speech detailing her career in the male-dominated field of technology engineering.
Her first contact with prejudice came in high school, she explained, when she had to sneak into her professor’s office without being seen by her friends to talk science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “When I was in high school, interest in STEM wasn’t even affectionately called ‘nerdy’ or’ geeky,’ instead, if you were interested in these areas in a big way, you were just plain ‘weird,’ and especially if you happened to be a female,” she said.
But the bias against women didn’t end in academia, Dennis reported. During her first job interview after receiving her Ph.D. she impressed the interviewer with her resumé, but was informed she would not be made an offer, “because I was a married woman at a child-bearing age, and with no doubt, eager to have children. … I was powerless at combating his attitude, but it really warms my heart to know that what that interviewer said to me is totally illegal today.”
Motivated by a desire to make lives easier through technology and keeping a passion for technology that she still practices, Dennis took over her career with courage, determination and hard work. Of all her contributions to the world, she’s most proud of being part of the team that developed the idea of having data service in cell phones.
“At the time, state-of-the-art cellular phones consisted of large phones usable only for making phone calls. Against that, Pacific Communications Sciences, Incorporated (a company she co-founded) created a system to provide data communication, as well as voice communication, to the cellular phone … that became the model for using the cell phone for instant ubiquitous Internet connection,” she explained.
However, though she said she feels privileged to be part of the tech world, she prides herself on breaking ground for other women who have followed her lead. “I sincerely hope I helped pave the way for younger women so that they have an easier time in the tech world,” Dennis said.
Her other passion is the arts, as she discovered when she landed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1960s. Among her efforts to contribute to the arts, she counts being immediate past chair of the La Jolla Music Society and, she joked, “getting out of the lab to attend a concert.”
Dennis highlighted the difficulties of raising three children in a family where both parents had very involved careers, but she said that after the first years of chaos, everything fell in place. The worst moment was when she thought she lost an investment in her latest venture because of an accident that occured when she was invited, with husband and children, to the investor’s home. “I thought the deal was over when my daughter spilled Coca Cola on his white rug. But he was understanding of young parents, and kids who are not always easy to control.”
During her career she served as venture partner at Windward Ventures; president and CEO of WaveWare Communications, Incorporated; co-founder and vice president of engineering at Pacific Communications Sciences, Incorporated; and assistant vice president for software engineering at Linkabit Corporation. Currently she serves on three corporate boards and participates in a number of organizations supporting entrepreneurship. She also contributes to her community by serving on a number of non-profit boards.