Meet a Nasty Woman: 5 Questions with Vania Kurniawati


Meet Vania Kurniawati. Vania is Nasty Woman and badass. At work, she moves people to action with a compelling story and a clear ask. Outside of work, She is regularly moved to action by the stories in her Seattle community. She works with Kal Academy, a non-profit coding academy dedicated to providing high-quality tech training to place women and minorities in high-paying tech jobs. It was founded by a Microsoft Principal Engineer. In its early days, she taught coding classes out of her garage on the weekends. Vania has helped them get exposure to gain new partners, get funding for their own classroom space, and place more than 200 women and minorities in tech jobs. 

Vania is also part of a cross-sector volunteer group working on ‘second chance hiring,’ which focuses on hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. They primarily work with Post-Prison Education Program, another great local non-profit that provides ex-offenders with the highest risk of recidivating a scholarship to get higher education. Read our interview with Vania and get inspired.

What makes you a Nasty Woman?

I’m unapologetically ambitious, and I get things done. I work on the Amazon app for iOS and Android. I rally teams across the organization to launch improvements for our customers. It turns out that skill translates well for driving change in the community, too. I think I’m ambitious because I grew up in Indonesia and never thought I would live here someday. That experience taught me to always go for what I want even when there is no clear way to get it. I had always wanted to study abroad, but my family couldn’t afford it. My parents applied for the Diversity Visa (the green card lottery), and we won! We moved to the US when I was in high school, and it felt like a fairytale! That is if your typical fairytale involves working at five Fortune 100 companies and using the power and reach of said companies to make an impact for causes you care about. 

Share an experience that shaped your views or helped get you involved in activism.

A few years ago, I took a career break to travel, find my passion, and figure out my next move. I did not find my passion, but what I did find was a boyfriend. He was a Software Development Manager. He taught me how to code. Eager to impress him, I poured my heart into it like it was my full-time job. I decided to turn it into a career but had a really tough time landing my first job in tech. I couldn’t get a callback, I did poorly on technical interviews, and I just couldn’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard I tried. I felt discouraged and helpless, especially as the months went by.

I found a community in Kal Academy, a non-profit coding academy dedicated to providing high-quality tech training to place women and minorities in tech jobs. I learned that women with years of tech experience faced the same challenges I did when they re-entered the workforce after taking a career break to care for their children or elderly parents. They’re also frequently underpaid when they land an offer, and according to a Carnegie Mellon University study, only 7% of women negotiate their initial salary offers (compared to 57% of men). My transition to tech and the challenges I experienced shaped me into an outspoken advocate for women and under-represented minorities in tech. I partnered with Amazon Recruiting team to host mock technical interviews for under-represented minority candidates. I partnered with three other women across Amazon to launch an event series dedicated to professional and personal development for women at Amazon. If I hadn’t felt so hopeless and helpless when I transitioned into tech, I wouldn’t have been as passionate about helping people overcome the same challenges. I’ve seen how broken the system is and how the odds are often stacked against women. I see it as my responsibility to use every opportunity I can to elevate other women. 

What advice do you have for people who want to help enact change and push progress but don’t know how to get involved?

Take action and ask someone to help you with it. Having been in tech for only a couple years, I didn’t think people would be interested in my ideas, but I was wrong. Being a newcomer to the field helps me gain fresh perspectives about what’s broken. Nothing moves people to action faster than a compelling story and a clear ask. My mock interview project idea started out with a simple pitch, “Hey, I had a tough time with technical interviews and I know I’m not the only one. Want to help me organize mock interviews for under-represented minority candidates?” That grew into an event that spanned two days with over 100 Amazonians volunteering their time to help 60 candidates. 

If you could look into the future, ten years from now, and see that real progress has been made, what does that look like to you?

I’m a bit too impatient to think about what ten years from now will look like. I want equal pay, equal power and equal access to opportunities for women now. Early in my career, I talked to my mentor, Jim Salmon, about all the things I wanted to accomplish (managing a team, making six figures), how restless I felt about not getting there sooner, and also how I didn’t know how to get there. Instead of lecturing me on patience, he said that impatience was also a virtue. He helped me view my impatience as an asset, instead of a weakness. I’m an impatient optimist, and I believe in channeling my anger into something positive to propel me forward. I’m angry and impatient about the reality and challenges that women still face in the workplace today, and that’s why I’m doing something about it. I think real progress has been made when women don’t have to worry about what having children can potentially mean to our career.  

Share with us a favorite wine memory.

A memory that stands out was a gorgeous, sunny day at Vasse Felix in the Margaret River Valley. Tucked away on the quiet coast of Western Australia, Margaret River Valley is home to some of the most spectacular surf in the world, and also home to over 100 Australian wineries. The place is idyllic, like a mash-up between Hawaii and Napa Valley. 

Emily Davis