Getting Ahead

Three Leaders at TikTok Share How They Found Success as Women in Tech—and How You Can, Too

From left: Vanessa Craft, Shushu Luo, and Whitney Williams, who all hold leadership roles at TikTok.
From left: Vanessa Craft, Shushu Luo, and Whitney Williams, who all hold leadership roles at TikTok.
| Courtesy of TikTok

There’s no class on career mobility in college. No extra-curricular course on landing a promotion or negotiating a salary increase. So when you enter the workforce, you’ll need to learn all the skills necessary to move up the ladder—including how to manage your time, deliver results, and tout your accomplishments—on your own. Often, these soft skills are learned by observing and collaborating with existing leaders at your company.

This type of on-the-job training is easier—even subconscious—when everyone in the office looks just like you. For women in tech, an industry where men make up the majority, it is much harder to find a leader to relate to or one who's willing to invest their time and energy to be a mentor. And as women advance in technology companies, the more underrepresented they become. In fact, only 22% of tech leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies are held by women.

TikTok is aiming to level the playing field for women in tech, by setting the foundation so they can thrive. The company’s female leaders and seasoned global team are modeling the kind of representation that reminds us what’s possible. As Vanessa Craft—who oversees global content for lifestyle and education verticals—says, “Diverse teams develop more creative solutions.” And when companies don’t support women, they need to be a part of those solutions or “they will miss out on attracting top tier talent,” she says.

Craft is one of many female employees who’s leading by example at TikTok. We spoke to her and two colleagues (one based in Singapore, the other in Australia) who are helping to shape the company’s future, from content and sales to computer science. Learn about their unique paths to tech leadership and discover how you can do it, too.

Different Paths to TikTok

These TikTok leaders prove that diverse experiences make the company the leading destination for entertainment that it is today. Take Craft, who previously worked in music, fashion, journalism, and as the editor in chief of a Canadian women’s magazine. At first, “I felt as though having this non-traditional background was a negative thing,” she says. “But then I realized my previous roles prepared me for any industry where community is at the heart of the work, because community is something I strongly value.”

As a magazine editor, it was about shining a spotlight on the creative talent in Canada. “TikTok is not all that different,” she says. “At the heart of TikTok is our community and the people on our platform. I’m helping to build a community and am honored to shine a light on their stories.”

Whitney Williams—the industry lead overseeing media and entertainment accounts across Australia and New Zealand within TikTok’s Global Business Solutions team—also didn’t come from a traditional tech background. She studied marketing in college, and went on to work at a startup media agency. From there, Williams relocated from Australia to New York to take on a sales role at an adtech startup, which was then acquired by a global tech company. “It was an interesting process to go from a successful startup to a massive and mature tech company,” she says.

Four years later, and after the birth of her first child, Williams and her husband moved back to Sydney. “I was ready to dive into something new where I could make a big impact and apply what I learned in the U.S.,” she says. “At TikTok, I was excited to be part of the foundational team in Australia.”

Her previous experience has set her up for success at TikTok in more ways than one. “Having the agency background helped me understand the larger context of our clients’ marketing challenges, and my startup experience prepared me for the hyper-growth pace at TikTok,” she says.

Williams, who had her second child in early 2022, also applies the skills she’s developed as a mother to being a leader. She’s more adaptable and able to pivot quickly and efficiently when her team is faced with challenges out of their control. “Having two kids has also helped me understand that no two individuals are the same,” she says. “I try to understand my team member’s specific needs and what motivates them to set them up for success.”

Shushu Luo, who leads machine learning at TikTok in Singapore, was mesmerized by tech from a young age and followed her passions to pursue a STEM career. While studying at the National University of Singapore, “I discovered that computer science has an amazing power to tackle the most complex business problems,” she says. “It had the potential to make a big impact.”

After working for a tech consulting firm and an online transportation app, Shushu found her stride at TikTok. Her previous roles, she says, “prepared me in trying to understand how concepts such as AI and machine learning could be applied and optimized in a real scenario.” At TikTok, her deep subject matter expertise allows her to contribute to a global product that inspires creativity and brings joy to more than a billion people. It’s also enabled Shushu to grow within her field, find her voice, and be an advocate for women in tech.

6 Secrets to Finding Success in Tech

1. Stay curious.

Change is the only constant in tech, says Williams, so it’s important to enjoy the process of learning—especially at a company that’s growing at a fast rate like TikTok. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says. “That growth mindset is incredibly important in tech.”

2. Speak up.

It’s difficult to be the only woman in the room—especially, as Luo notes, when you want to voice an unpopular opinion. Her solution? Speak up anyway, and back up your ideas with data whenever possible. “Data is factual and unbiased,” she says. “When you present hard evidence, it’s really hard for other people to argue against it.”

In moments when it’s difficult to find your voice, a dry run may also be in order. Shushu prepares with colleagues for important group meetings. “Sometimes I organize a preview with my team to share ideas and offer feedback,” she says. “I see how people react and then adjust.”

3. Take control of your journey.

“I’ve learned you shouldn't wait for permission to do something if your role doesn't require it,” says Craft. “Women must communicate clearly when they want an opportunity to do a stretch project or get promoted.” To make it happen, set up regular conversations with your manager so they are aware of your aspirations and personal career goals from the get-go.

Williams agrees that you should always advocate for yourself and put yourself out there. “There’s no harm in failing,” she says, “so keep pushing forward and always raise your hand when opportunities arise.”

4. Build your network—both within and outside your company.

Everyone needs support to grow a career. But it’s about more than finding people you can go to for advice. “Building a peer network is especially important when you're young and starting out,” Luo says. “You might be facing similar challenges, and you can exchange ideas and grow together.”

Luo also suggests connecting with those in more senior roles, too. “Talk to your managers,” she says. “Try to understand their experiences and life journeys so you can reference them as you grow.”

A strong relationship with your manager is not just about mentorship, however. “Advocacy is even more powerful,” Craft says. “You want someone who is actually recommending you for a project or pushing you forward for something even if you’re not in the room.”

5. Talk up your achievements.

Women are more likely to shy away from self-promotion, but that approach won’t help you get promoted. “It's very important that you don't downplay your achievements or save them for your year-end review,” Craft says. “You must make sure your impact on the company is known by finding creative ways to refer to the work that you and your team have done.”

6. Think of your career as a marathon, not a sprint.

Williams acknowledges that many women fear taking time off to start a family because it might derail their careers. “It’s a real challenge that a lot of women are hitting their stride at work and then pause it to look after a baby,” she says. Williams encourages parents to instead feel empowered and remember that they can achieve anything—even if it takes more time. “And don’t compare yourself to others and how long they took to get to where they are,” she says.

Updated 9/9/2022