#DigitalEmpowersUs Interview Series: Women in Tech with City Tech Collaborative's Brenna Berman

February 28, 2020
Brenna Berman is working to make cities happier, healthier and more productive. She currently serves as the CEO & Executive Director of City Tech Collaborative in Chicago, Illinois, an urban solutions accelerator looking to improve cities and turn them into places where technology helps drive innovation, inclusion, and collaboration for all. Before joining City Tech, she worked in the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where she served as the Chief Information Officer for the City and Commissioner for the Department of Innovation & Technology (DoIT) from 2012 to 2017. Brenna began her career at IBM where she worked to promote government innovation. I sat down with her to learn more about what has influenced her career, her work at City Tech, and other projects she enjoys. 

— Alexa Miller, Director, Digital Empowers National Campaign

Who is someone you look to as your wonder woman?

I always look to my great aunt Mary Sullivan. She was so fierce—and highly educated. She earned her PhD long before women pursued higher education and post-baccalaureate degrees. I learned a lot from her as a very young woman that still influences me today. Having male allies is also important. My uncle, also very dear to me, was a computer scientist and gave me my first computer. 

Can you describe your current work at City Tech Collaborative and the impact it has made on the community?

Cities are living, breathing organisms where people can be free to be creative, innovative, and connect with all kinds of people—and I love that. The diversity of residents’ thoughts and experiences present significant opportunity, but it is also the source of many challenges, especially when density is a factor. I am inspired by these challenges, especially knowing that I have a direct impact on making people’s lives better. 
We engage cross-sector leaders in our work—which cultivates innovation and accelerates implementation and ultimately, impact. A few specific projects include:

  • Advanced Mobility Initiative: A collaborative effort with 20+ strategic partners to create a more seamless and frictionless transportation system with increased accessibility and reach for residents.
  • Urban Heat Response Solution: A tool we’ve created which compiles NASA climate and weather data for urban planners and government officials, so they can better understand the effects green infrastructure has on urban heat islands. 
  • Chicago Health Atlas: A community health data resource for residents, community organizations, and public health stakeholders—capturing over 160 indicators from all 77 of Chicago community areas.
Outside of your day-to-day at City Tech Collaborative, how else are you leveraging technology and your experience in the tech industry to bring social impact?

I dedicate a lot of my spare time to mentoring. Here in Chicago, I am active in two tech-specific community organizations, providing group mentorship to students [predominantly minority] and 1:1 mentorship to young women, early in their tech careers—both of which I love and have helped me develop personally and professionally for many different reasons. Mentoring gives us the opportunity to stay up to speed with how technology is being discussed and utilized, but also how [and where] the technology industry is or is not evolving. So often there’s an emphasis on only software engineering, so it’s incredibly important to expose young people to the breadth of technology fields [and the skillsets needed to excel in other tech avenues] so we don’t run the risk of turning them off from a career in tech completely. In my past life as the City of Chicago’s CIO, I ran an entire soup-to-nuts IT department. The hardest position to fill was a network engineer. I cannot help but think about the number of young people who missed similar opportunities because of information gaps. 

What advice would you give to young women or women mid-career that want to make a pivot from what they’ve been doing and go into tech?

Find one or two women, who are maybe 10 years your senior, who have your dream role or skillset and figure out how they got there. Use these women’s (or men’s) career milestones as a guide for your own path and career trajectory. Remember—no career path is the same, so you will not be able to follow their actions precisely. In continuing that last point, I would say to also search not just for a mentor, but for your “sponsor.” Mentors are great for advice and listening as you map out your journey and set out on your path. Sponsors, on the other hand, are those people that are going to help you carry your mantle and see that you get there and meet your goals. I don’t feel that women know of this difference or distinction and therefore, miss opportunities. Perhaps it’s because most companies are structured, whether intentionally or unintentionally, around helping men achieve their goals. Both women and men should be cognizant of this barrier—and with this knowledge, be more purposeful and mindful about how you can be a sponsor and champion for women in your organization.

How did you break into the STEM field with your background in public policy and government?

My very first job was as a solution analyst at IBM, and even though my degree was in a non-technical field, I couldn’t help but to learn about technology.  While there was the expectation that I would adapt and learn about technology and how technology served our clients, IBM was an extremely supportive place to work, both in its formal structures and its informal culture. I was very lucky.

If we lived in your smart city dream world, what would be your favorite feature?

I want my Rosie the Robot so I don't have to do any more housework and free everyone’s time for higher value activities. But in all seriousness, my favorite feature would be entirely clean air. If you cannot breathe, you cannot live. Air quality is the largest cause of school absenteeism in almost every city—which has obvious impacts on their quality of life and success as students and professionals, but also the local economy. The baseline for air quality has been set thanks to the proliferation of sensor technologies and their ability to measure, track, and analyze; now, we just need to develop a tool that will help us move into air quality remediation. 

If you could interview any business or community leader working in tech and social impact, who would it be? 

Angelica Ross. She is the President of Miss Ross and the founder of Transtech Social Enterprises, which is a program that uses technical training and digital work to drive social and economic empowerment in marginalized communities. She is a trailblazer and inspiration for so many reasons.