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La Jolla Heroines: Martha Dennis pioneers through persistence

La Jolla resident Martha Dennis said persistence has been key to her success as a woman in technology.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The longtime La Jolla resident has worked for nearly six decades in the technology and software fields.

Much of La Jolla’s early advancement was fueled by prolific philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. But many more women have followed in being important benefactors to La Jolla. This series by the Light highlights local women who have worked for decades to further the evolution of La Jolla and areas beyond.

Martha Dennis has blazed a trail through San Diego as one of few women who pursued a career in technology and software in the 1970s and beyond.

Dennis, a La Jolla resident since 1970, has worked for nearly six decades in the technology and software fields, having written her Ph.D. thesis at Harvard on computer graphics, a field she said largely didn’t exist at the time.

Since then, she founded Gordian Knot, which advises technology start-ups, served as a venture partner with Windward Ventures to invest in such startups, co-founded software companies, chaired science and technology boards and commissions, among other accomplishments.

Dennis has also served as trustee of Harvey Mudd College, helping the school grow opportunities for women in science.

“I’m still starting things,” Dennis said, as she answered the La Jolla Light’s questions about entrepreneurship and success as a female and what it means to be a woman in a breakout field.

Q. You were sometimes discouraged as a woman in science; you wanted to go to medical school but were told “women aren’t doctors,” and your thesis advisor predicted you wouldn’t finish your doctoral thesis. How did you persevere to become successful?

A. “I loved [science]. It was just the intellectual stimulation of it, being with those people. … I just figured out something I could really love. If you don’t love it, maybe you’re in the wrong field.

“I’m sure of what I wanted to do, but I’m not sure of myself. Women are never sure of themselves. And we just persist anyway.”

Q. Did you have any sense of your impact on technology and software engineering as a female?

A. “As a software engineer for an astrophysicist at MIT … I didn’t realize how important it was. You never know how important what you’re doing is [at the time], but it makes you become an entrepreneur, so that you get that sense of how you can change other’s lives.

“There’s so much that women bring to [science] environments. … We understand from a woman’s point of view how important communication is in this field, and how much women have brought to engineering.

“Women do have a role [in engineering], and it’s not the same as men. It’s not that their technical output is any better or worse, but they have a sense for interaction that guys just don’t.”

Q. What’s your advice to the next generation of female leaders?

A. “I wish I demanded more from people. There were lots of situations where I didn’t get my due. … It was a struggle for me to be recognized.”

Q. How do you think that locals in La Jolla can help empower women and further the reach of women in the tech industry?

A. “Training. And network the hell out of everybody. It’s all networking.”

Q. You are also very involved in nonprofits for art, having served on the boards of the La Jolla Music Society, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Foundation Arts and Culture working group and more. You also studied art in college along with being a math major. Why is art so important to you?

A. “Art really is important. It just lights up your life. Even if one can’t make art, you can really appreciate it.”

Q. What do you worry about?

A. “I worry about [the next] generation and what they’ll be dealing with. We are so poor at communicating as a system of government; it’s getting worse and worse.”

Q. What do you want your legacy in the tech world to be?

A. “Just persistence. I would say that if you believe in something, keep at it.” ◆