2022 Pioneer In Tech Award Winner: Poppy Northcutt

Summit 2022
Summit Pioneer In Feed TW

The NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award recognizes technical women whose lifetime contributions have significantly impacted the landscape of technological innovation, amplifying the importance of capitalizing on the diverse perspectives that girls and women can bring to the table. Pioneer in Tech Award recipients also serve as role models whose legacies continue to inspire generations of young women to pursue computing and make history in their own right. In this session, we celebrate the 2022 recipient, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt.

Originally aired on May 19, 2022

TRANSCRIPT

TJ ALLADIN: Hello, and welcome, or welcome back, to the 2022 vNCWIT Summit on Women & IT, which continues to be the largest annual convening of change leaders focused on significantly improving diversity and equity in computing. My name is TJ Alladin, and I am the Community Engagement Manager for NCWIT’s Aspirations in Computing program. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this series, which features speakers with a diverse range of perspectives, and hopefully, provocative ideas and worldviews. 

NCWIT believes it is important to recognize the work and accomplishments of women technologists who have gone before us. One way we do this is through the NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award, with the express intention of recognizing the work of these incredible women so that everyone can recognize, and admire, and aspire to be like them. Today, we are naming the 2022 NCWIT Pioneer in Tech recipient: Poppy Northcutt – one-time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full-time feminist activist. 

Poppy is currently president of Houston-area NOW and Texas NOW. The National Organization for Women Inc. is a grassroots, multi-issue women’s rights organization. In the 1970s, Poppy served on NOW’s national board of directors, and was founding chair of the Harris County Women’s Political Caucus, the first women’s advocate in the city of Houston, and special conference consultant for the National Women’s Conference. 

In her early career, Poppy worked as a Return to Earth Specialist on the Apollo program, and was the first woman in an operational support role in NASA’s Mission Control Center She was a member of the mission operations team that received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for rescuing Apollo 13. She has been featured in magazine and newspaper articles, and in documentaries about the space program – including three PBS programs: Makers, NOVA, and Chasing the Moon. 

In mid-life, Poppy became a lawyer and clerked for a federal appellate judge.Then, prosecuted and later defended criminal cases. She was the first felony prosecutor in the domestic violence unit at the Harris County DA’s office. In private practice, she specialized in criminal trial and appellate work. 

Now semi-retired, Poppy is a referral lawyer for Jane’s Due Process, a non-profit providing legal assistance to pregnant teenagers. As president of the Texas state NOW since 2012, Poppy refocuses on building the NOW organization in Texas and organizing voter registration, education projects, and reproductive rights actions. 

Well, Houston, we have a problem, because I have a huge job to do, and I cannot do it on my own. So please, join me in welcoming Poppy Northcutt. Poppy, please join us on camera. We are so honored you could join us today and accept the NCWIT Pioneer in Tech Award. We look forward to hearing your remarks. After which, we’ll have a short interview. 

POPPY NORTHCUTT: Well, thank you very much! I am thrilled and honored to be here, even though I’m remote from you and had a little difficulty getting on. I want to show you this award that y’all sent me. It is huge, and weighs a ton. 

I can get my weightlifting exercise in from this thing, okay? And I do exercise. Okay? It’s a beautiful award, and I thank you all so much for honoring me in this way. 

So, not last week, but a week before last, I was in London at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 16. One of the really exceptional features of that particular event was that there was a huge number of women astronauts present. When I worked in the space program, there were zero women astronauts. Not just women that had flown, there were zero even in the pipeline. It was unthinkable, basically, by the establishment at that time that women could be astronauts – even though there were women that had tried to become astronauts who were very qualified. It was very inspirational for me to see the change that had occurred. Not only were there women there, there were women of color that were there. That was exciting as well because, again, at the time I was in the space program, it was all white males. Okay?

So, we’ve had a lot of changes, and all of those people are inspirational. They inspire me, and one of the topics of the program we were at was about inspiration. I want to mention to each of the participants, each of the audience of this event by this great organization, that each of you can be an inspiration to others. You are, actually. Whether you want to be or not, you are a role model of sorts. People will look to you, and you won’t even know – sometimes until years later –  what kind of effect that you had in their lives. 

Be open to that, be enthusiastic about that, and be enthusiastic about that. It can be extremely gratifying. One of the most gratifying experiences I had a couple of years ago was to have a woman … Well, the consulate from Brazil called me and said there was a woman who wanted to talk to me from JPL, that’s the Jet Propulsion Lab down in California. She was Brazilian. When she was a young girl, about 13 in Brazil, she read an article about me working in the space program, and that inspired her to become a planetary scientist. Now, she is the Chief Planetary Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab. So, she knows all about volcanoes on the moons of Jupiter, and is going so much further than I did. That was very thrilling to me. 

Each of you can do that as well. Just remember, the girls that you see in your life, the other people that you meet, they will all take inspiration from you. So, thank you again for this wonderful award, and for inviting me to participate. 

TJ: Thank you so much Poppy. We are truly honored to have you today. I have two special guests joining me, Mary and Sarah; two of the 2022 NCWIT Collegiate Award recipients. Please join us on camera, and I will tell you all a bit about this award. 

The NCWIT Collegiate Award honors the outstanding computing accomplishments of undergraduate and graduate women, genderqueer and non-binary students. Conferred annually, the award recognizes technical contribution to projects that demonstrate a high level of impact. We would like to congratulate Mary and Sarah on their receipt of this reward. After this, check out the official announcement for the 2022 Collegiate Award Recipients to learn more about these outstanding students and their amazing projects. 

Now, Mary and Sarah will ask Poppy some questions on behalf of the next generation of up-and-upcoming technologists. Mary, you first. 

MARY GERHARDINGER: Hi, Poppy! Congratulations! 

POPPY: Hi, Mary! Thank you, and congratulations back!

MARY: Thank you! You have certainly lived an impressive life, working as a woman in a male-dominated field at NASA and then transitioning into an advocacy role working for women’s rights at NOW. I am curious about how your role in physics has informed your later career, and what sort of skills have allowed you to prosper in those two different environments? 

POPPY: Well, I think you mentioned my role in physics, or in space? Because I wasn’t really, I was a mathematician. But, how did that allow me? Well, I found it very helpful to have had the kind of background that I had. A lot of what I did in working on the development of the Return to Earth Program, which was the trajectory generator that was used to bring the astronauts back from the moon – a lot of what I did involved testing; making sure that the program works, that it didn’t have bugs, that it wouldn’t hang up. If there was a failure of any kind, it was an orderly failure. Okay?

That kind of thinking is just very useful for a whole lot of things. Because you anticipate problems before they happen, and you learn to examine your assumptions – especially the ones that are not overt, your hidden assumptions. I think that’s the most useful thing, is to stop and think about what you’re assuming that you haven’t really expressed. Because those are the things that will bite you, okay?

The other thing is to remember that what you see depends on where you stand. So, you need to move around in your thinking. You can’t always move around physically about a problem, but you need to try and stand in the shoes of other people and other places, and look at what’s going on. Those were the most useful things to me. I think that that experience would be useful to anyone. 

MARY: Thank you. 

TJ: And now Sarah, your question? 

SARAH WIELGOSZ: Hi, Poppy! Thank you for joining us. This is such an honor to be talking to you and to be having you participate in this event. Congratulations on your award that you received this morning. That’s really fantastic. 

POPPY: Thank you, I can hardly wait to read up about what all you’ve done. 

SARAH: Oh, I hope you are interested! I’m actually involved in some space research, and going to JPL this summer. Hopefully, you find that a little interesting. 

POPPY: Say hello to Rosaly Lopes! She is the Brazilian lady that I was talking about. 

SARAH: Okay! All right. Yeah, I will look her up. 

My question for you is… I have often struggled with imposter syndrome throughout my college career. I just completed my undergraduate degree. Especially being a woman who is surrounded by and working primarily with male colleagues, I think that’s made it a little more difficult for me. Is this something that you experienced yourself throughout your career? If so, how did you learn to deal with it, or overcome this? 

POPPY: Well… This is a little bud vase of Miss Piggy. Okay? I view Miss Piggy as my life coach, okay? Miss Piggy never suffers from imposter syndrome. She’s a pig, and she doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome. I think that’s interesting. Miss Piggy just does her thing. She is not sitting around that much, worrying about what other people think. Okay? She is thinking about what she wants to project. I think if you focus on that… 

One of the things to remember – I mean, being the only woman in the room, a lot of times if you are in technical areas, or if you are the only person of color in the room, you have a similar effect: you are going to be the purple cow. Okay? People are going to look at you. Just because, well, think about it: You would do the same thing if you were in a room and the room was all women, and there is one guy; you would look at him. So, don’t put a chip on your shoulder, and don’t make too much of it. They’ll get used to it, just like you would get used to it. Just keep your eye on the target. 

As I said, be audacious. Try to role model after Miss Piggy, okay? If a pig can be a diva and be comfortable in her own skin, you can certainly do that too. And, don’t take yourself too seriously. You know, all of those other people in the room, even though you may feel like they are looking to find you out as an imposter, they are all sitting there worrying that somebody might find them out! Okay? They are a lot more concerned about themselves than they are about you. 

So, don’t take it too seriously is my main advice. Just have fun. Enjoy where you, are and enjoy what you are doing. You’re having a great experience. So, you know, just go with the flow. 

SARAH: Great. Thank you very much. 

TJ: Thank you so much Poppy, and thank you to Mary and Sarah. I am going to move on to the formal Q&A portion now with myself and Poppy. In a bit, I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience. I encourage you to post your questions and comments throughout the session, or to upvote questions you would like to have answered. 

So, I’m just going to jump right into it Poppy. This has been a week of different presentations from different speakers. On Monday, the speaker Dr. Julie Battilana was talking about examining power and influence. In it, she discussed harnessing power, but also balancing power once you have it. My question to you is: Do you think of yourself as a person of power? If so, how do you balance your power in situations like this one, where you’re the most powerful person in the room? 

POPPY: Well, I think to a certain extent, you have to define what power is, and what influence is in order to think about those things. Different people probably have different definitions of those. To me, power is something that is sort of a structural kind of thing. For example, the president of the United States has veto power. Okay? That is a specific power that he is accorded, and no one else has that power. He may or may not use it. Once he is not president, he doesn’t have that power anymore. It comes with the position. 

So, you know you may have power designated to you in an organization, or in a company that you work for, or so forth. Influence, on the other hand, is often a lot more powerful than power. It is not a function of position. It’s a function of the person, usually. Of course, if the president of the United States walks in a room, there will be a little aspect of influence around him, but that will quickly diminish if he is not; if he doesn’t have it. You can be the most influential person in the room, even though you have no power, okay? No legitimate power.

I don’t think of myself as having power that much. I do recognize that sometimes, I have influence. In terms of how do I use it? Well, sometimes you use it overtly. Sometimes, you use it by not exercising it. 

I am a big believer that when you go to a meeting, for example, of any kind, you should be a person who has an agenda. I have heard people criticize; “Oh, well she has an agenda.” Well, why are you there if you don’t have an agenda? An agenda is just: Why are you there? What did you go for? Maybe you just went there to learn, and you were going to keep quiet. Maybe you went there to find out some particular things; in which case, when you prepare your agenda, you prepare your questions, and be ready to ask them. Maybe, you went there in order to support some other people. That’s primarily how I use whatever power or influence I have. 

A lot of times, I am trying to influence people to participate in public activities like voting. I do that a lot. In fact, I encourage everybody that’s watching this to make sure, if you are eligible to vote, be sure you are registered to vote, you are prepared to vote. Get your act together, and then do it! Do it every election and every race, because it’s important. So, that’s basically what I do. 

TJ: That last one, I think, was an overt use of your power. You just told everybody to get their act together and go vote. 

POPPY: I did, and I do that a lot! 

TJ: I am here for it. I’m here for it.

I want to pivot a little bit to a different kind of question or topic. I manage a community of 22,000 women in tech. It’s a great source of support, and resources, and encouragement, but I don’t think that these types of things existed in the past. We only started our community here at NCWIT in about 2006, and that’s not when you were not working at NASA, so my question to you is: Throughout your career, was it easy for you to make friends with other women in your network? 

POPPY: It was easy to make friends, there just weren’t any. You know?

TJ: Yeah.

POPPY: There was only one other. I worked for a contractor, not for NASA itself. I worked for a company called TRW Systems. When I first went to work there, I went to work as a computrix. There were no women engineers at Houston operations. There might have been one or two somewhere in California, but not in Houston operations. I was promoted, and became the first woman that was considered a member of the technical staff.  So, there weren’t any peers, so to speak.

Then, a few years later there was a second woman, Parrish Hirasaki, who came aboard. We became great friends. So, I didn’t have any problem making friends with the women, but there just weren’t any! 

TJ: That makes sense. Yeah, it is good to hear that you were able to make friends with the few women that were there. I don’t think that we have that kind of picture when we hear about your story and the stories of women like you. We don’t have that picture of y’all kind of having your own community. 

POPPY: We were rabble-rousers within the company, okay? As soon as Parrish got there, then we found another free spirit that worked in – she did the printing production for our operation. You know, we formed a little cohort, and lobbied and pressured the company to improve and provide pregnancy benefits and birth control benefits to all women employees. It was an odd thing that the wives of our male employees had better coverage than our women employees did. 

TJ: Wow.

POPPY: You know? So, we lobbied and got that done. 

TJ: Yeah? Amazing. 

POPPY: We were raising hell very early on. As soon as there was somebody to raise hell with, I was in! Okay? 

TJ: Amazing. That is a perfect segue to my next question. So last year, I had the immense pleasure of presenting this award to Dr. Gladys West, who was a pioneer of GPS technology; who, like you, worked at a critical role in NASA. She is considered a “hidden figure” along with women like Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, so my question to you is: During your time at NASA, did you know of women like this? Like Dr. West? Or, were they hidden to you at the time as well, because I know you all worked in different facilities? 

POPPY:  They were hidden to me, and I was probably hidden to them. Okay? I mean, one of the things that I experienced when we had the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 was: I got to meet the first woman that worked in launch control at the Cape. I did not know there was a woman at launch control – but again, she was the only one. Okay?

So, we were very isolated, and there were very few women. I used to say that there were more whooping cranes in Texas than women who did these types of jobs. Whooping cranes were on the endangered list, and still are. 

What is great though is: Today, if you look at mission control, for example, they have women; lots of women! They even have women being the flight directors. They just named a new head of JPL, and it’s a woman. First time for that, but you now see a lot – a lot – more women, which is really exciting. 

TJ: That’s amazing. Do you feel a sense of pride, like accomplishment, when you see these things happening within NASA, or I guess any place that you worked prior where there weren’t women? When you see that change happening now, do you feel a sense of pride? 

POPPY: I do, indeed! When I was a women’s advocate, the first time we got women on patrol and women out directing traffic, I was thrilled. Okay? Because that was part of what I tried to do, it was to increase the participation of women – and especially women in visible places, so people could see. 

It doesn’t do any … You know, some people think that you need to see it to be it. Personally, I never was that person. Okay? I guess I didn’t catch on, but many people think you have to see it to be it. So, I think it’s especially important we put women in visible positions. 

TJ: Agreed. I want to ask about your initial career path. Initially, you thought you were going to be a teacher. 

POPPY: Yes.

TJ: Obviously, it didn’t end up being your path, but if it was: Do you think you would have been a good teacher? I ask that because teachers nowadays play a huge role in getting more folks into tech. You know, so is that something you think you could be good at?

POPPY: Actually, I don’t think I would’ve been good as a teacher. I don’t think I have that much patience in dealing with other people, especially young kids. So, I don’t think I would have been a good teacher. I applaud, thoroughly, people that would be a good teacher. I’m probably too self-absorbed to be a good teacher. 

TJ: I respect that, and I love that honesty. It’s great to hear that that wasn’t your path, but you still do recognize that that work is super important. Was there a mentor, or a teacher, in your life – aside from Miss Piggy, obviously – who helped you along the way? No?

POPPY: We didn’t even have the word “mentor.” I mean, that wasn’t even in my vocabulary. Okay? The whole notion of women having mentors just did not exist. 

You know, I had some nice teachers, but the world was so stereotyped for women at that time. The whole idea was that if you were going to work, if you were going to go to college, you would be either a nurse, a teacher, or maybe, an executive secretary. That was basically it, because even those jobs were viewed as placeholders, because your real career path was to have an MRS. 

TJ: Okay. Well, it’s unfortunate that you didn’t have that experience, but it’s amazing to see that even though you came from having that, you’ve done so much work so that others have a mentor. I know you’ve served in that role as well. 

POPPY: Yeah. 

TJ: I want to ask a question about leadership. On Tuesday, we had Dr. Damon Williams, who talked about leaders, and how they can be effective. I’m curious to know if there is a moment in your career, as a leader, where you had to step back and learn more in order to be more effective at leading. 

POPPY: Well, I don’t think that there’s has been a moment. I think that’s sort of a continuum. You have to always be stepping back and learning new things. 

We live in a time of very rapid change. We live in a time of communication, for example; it has vastly changed. So, you have to be learning all the time – new techniques, new skills, and you’re going to encounter, increasingly, new groups. 

For example, I had to learn a lot more about transgender people. You know, in my growing-up experiences, I had not encountered that. So, I had to learn about that. That’s just an ordinary part, not just about being a leader; I think it’s an ordinary part of life these days. You need to be prepared to have lifelong learning. 

TJ: Yeah. That’s really interesting that you bring that up, because I also had to learn about the trans community. I had to learn about what words to use, what words not to use. You know, managing a large community, we obviously have members who are trans. So, it’s not just a matter of how I speak to them, but how do I actually serve this type of a group of people in and through our programs?

POPPY: Right.

TJ: So, it’s really interesting to hear you say that as well. Because obviously, you’ve worked at NASA longer than I’ve been born, but we still seem to have this common experience of what we are going through today. 

That, I think, nicely leads me to my next question, which is about your second career as a lawyer. I’m curious to know, when you went back to school to get your law degree, did you face any criticism from people thinking that you are too old, or that it was too late? Or, was it just completely fine? 

POPPY: Well, I went to the University of Houston Law School. They have, and they are one of the few law schools that has, a night school. So, I went to night school, and most of the people that were in night school were people that were similar to me in the sense that they’d already had existing careers and they were transitioning. So, I did not feel like I experienced any age discrimination. There may have been age discrimination in terms of the hiring of people that went on for recruitment and hiring. 

I did not face that, partly because, or probably because first of all, I was a very public person by the time I went to law school. I had worked at the mayor’s office. I worked at NASA. You know, I also had really, really good grades, and I went and clerked for a federal appellate judge. So, I didn’t experience that, but I would not be surprised if some of the other students in my class did experience age discrimination. 

TJ: Good to know. Yeah, it’s, I think, something that is not talked about as much in tech, because there are so many other issues for women. I think it’s something that we are thinking about more as the initial tech force is aging. It seems that it’s more difficult for them to get jobs over a new hire, so I think this it’s a topic that we’re going to be hearing more about in the future. 

POPPY: Well, and it also comes into play with the thing about your family responsibilities, because many women go in and out of the workforce. They may come out of the workforce as they have young children, then go back in. Now, you know, they are not a brand-new, young hire when they go back in. 

TJ: Right.I think that is actually a perfect segue to my next question, which is from the attendees; from one of the attendees. The question is: Did you feel safe being a “rabble rouser” at NASA when you were looking to advocate for pregnancy benefits? Did you face any pushback from management? 

POPPY: I felt very safe. First of all, I did not work for NASA; I worked for a contractor, and the contractor I worked for was much more progressive than NASA. I might not have felt so safe if I worked at NASA. Okay? I’ll be blunt. 

NASA is much more progressive now than it was 50 years ago, but the other thing is: You have to understand, I was not someone who would be easily replaced, and I was aware of that. So, the fact that I had a job? I mean, you don’t just walk out and hire somebody that knows how to do a three-body problem to bring astronauts back to the Earth from the moon. At that time, how many are there on the planet? There just weren’t that many. So, I didn’t feel like, “Oh, well they can replace me at any moment.”

Part of the reason I had the impetus to go out and work for things, in fact, was because I felt like I was in a relatively safe position compared to other women, who were much more vulnerable to that. Even if it wouldn’t have happened to them, they were a lot likelier to be concerned that it might have happened to them. So, I thought that – because I had the privilege of having a safe position – I should use that to benefit other people. 

TJ: Yeah. That’s great to hear. We have another question that is also, somehow, a perfect follow-up. It’s asking about your opinion on if you think the government sector is more welcoming than the private sector. Because you worked for a contractor, as you said – not directly for NASA, I think it would be great to have your guidance on how to develop corporate culture that values contributions from women. So, do you think that the culture is more welcoming in government or the private sector? Or, neither? 

POPPY: I think that varies tremendously from place to place, okay? I think there are places that are very welcoming in corporate culture and places that are unwelcoming. I think that there are parts of the government that are very welcoming, and parts that are not. So, even within a given organization, it can vary tremendously from place to place. I have heard horror stories about being a park ranger, for example, if you are a woman. Some of those may be, or might be, in this part, but not in that other part. Okay? So, it’s very dependent on the particular people that you are going to be working with. 

TJ: Yep. I think that also is a great point for the topic you were talking about before with leadership; that it’s always going to be different in different situations. You can’t approach everything the same. So, I feel like that was a through-line here in our conversation. 

We have another great question from the audience: In your experience, was there a standard set of approaches that worked across different situations, or did each sector require a unique approach for talking to people in positions of power, building buy-in, and achieving change? So, was it different messages, different audiences? What would you say about that? 

POPPY: I think you always have to look at the particular audience. That goes for whether you are talking about your business life, or being in an organization, being whatever. 

For some time, I would take pregnant teenage girls to court in order to try to get judicial bypasses in order to get an abortion without parental involvement. One of the things that I always had to go through with these young women was to explain to them that you have to learn not to talk to yourself. You have to learn to talk to whoever it is that you are talking to. 

Because almost always, when they would answer my questions, they would talk to themselves. They would use language, and they would make assumptions that I knew certain things about their family that I don’t know, that I know what certain words mean in their family situation; when, in fact, I don’t. Even simple things, like, “well, my mother would be really mad.” Well, what does that mean? Okay? I mean, that could mean anything from, my mother will stamp her feet, yell at me once, and then, forget it tomorrow, or it could mean that she is going to beat me up and kick me out. 

When you talk to somebody, you always have to remember that you have to think about what they know, and what they are going to hear from their position – because they may not be exactly the same as what you think of. 

TJ: Yeah. Was that job more challenging than your work at NASA? Working with teens and the families of young girls who were pregnant? 

POPPY: Yes and no. I mean, it’s challenging in a very different way. It’s challenging in an institutional way, because we have so many institutional obstacles. Working on the space program, the challenge is a technical challenge, mainly. Okay? At least, at the level I was at. I mean we did have more institutional challenges, like when you’re talking about: Can you get the funding to do it? But, it’s really apples and oranges when you talk about those things. 

TJ: Yeah. It seems like you can’t sit down for a lot of the time, because you are still working. You also have done so many things in your career. So, a question from the audience that relates to this is: What was, or were, the driving forces that led you to pursue multiple different careers, from engineering to women’s rights to law? Was there some sort of through-line that made you want to do all those very different things?

POPPY: Well, as things happened, I changed with the things that happened. Instead of having this fixed course, I was always ready to do a big course correction. I still am, okay? I am always open to, you know, redirecting the path and the energy.

You know, I sort of happened onto my job in the space program. Then, the funding was sliced significantly. The Lunar Program was not really flown out the way it was expected. I had already been working on some preliminary stuff for Mars work. That was just [throwing motion], okay? So, I had to make a decision: do I want to sit around and work on Earth orbital stuff? Which, to me, was boring, because when you’ve worked on going to the moon and on Mars, it’s a little bit much to be excited about doing Earth orbit. 

So, I had become active in the women’s rights movement. I had become interested in the law, and aware of how the law affects your life and the lives of other people very, very powerfully. So, I wanted to go to law school. 

I started out thinking I was going to do one thing when I went to law school, and I ended up doing something completely different. Because as I went along the way, I found that I was really interested in something different. So, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind about what’s interesting out there, and be willing to change direction. 

TJ: Yep. I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about what you do outside of work? You are a whole person, and work is not the only part of your life. You mentioned that you work out when lifting that trophy. I’m curious to know. Outside of work – let’s say that you work 10 hours a day, you sleep for eight hours: How would you spend the other six hours? 

POPPY: Well, that is sort of hard to say. I do work out with a trainer over Zoom three days a week, and I try to get in plenty of walking, and so forth. You’ve got to take care of your health. If you cannot take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of other things. 

I read, to the extent I have time to read. I am a voracious reader. I don’t have nearly as much time to read as I would like to have. And, I get on Twitter. I probably bore people to death when I am on Twitter. 

You know I have dinner with friends, but I am an activist. My activism, to me, is just a part of what I do all of the time. There is not a boundary to it. When I am reading, a lot of the times I am reading because I am interested in the topic because of the activism. Even when I am working out, I am usually talking to the trainer about “well, did you, or have you voted yet?” Okay? And, “who are you going to vote for? You know you need to vote the whole ballot.” So, it is not like I have segments in my life. I don’t. 

TJ: Right. That’s great to hear. 

You said it. You said “Twitter,” so I’m going to go there. There has been a lot more public attention to space in the past few years, especially because of a couple of billionaires who decided to venture up there. I think that it’s led a lot of people who are struggling, especially during COVID, to ask the question: Why are we focusing so much on space when there’s so much work to do on Earth? How would you respond to that? 

POPPY: Well, I would prefer, probably, that more of the space money be coming from public money. You know, from public efforts rather than private efforts. That would just be, probably, my preference. 

But you know, if private individuals want to take the risk of getting out there and doing this, what else are they going to? They could do all these other things that you want to talk about them doing with their money, but are they going to do that? Some will, some won’t. 

I mean, what many of them do is: They buy, you know, incredibly large mansions all over the world, and private islands, and so forth, and so on. I, personally, think it is a lot more useful for society for them to be building rocket ships and pushing the boundaries of technology than it would be to just be investing it in having acres of shoes and, you know, garages full of expensive cars, and all of that. So, you know I can criticize them. I can say, “Oh, well they should be doing this,” or “they should be doing that,” but at least what they are doing is useful, which is better than what many of them are doing. 

I think it would be better public policy if they were taxed a lot more, and that we didn’t have such incredible concentrations of wealth in the hands of so few people. So, you know, that would fold into it. Then, we would have more public use of the funding, rather than it being concentrated and at the whim of individuals.

I am glad, at least, they have diversified. I mean, they are making efforts: Bezos and Musk are making efforts that are having, at least, diverse people going up in these space flights. So, it is not just rich people going up; it’s actual, real people. That’s basically what I have to say about that. You know, of course, if either one of them want to fly me to the moon, I would be happy to go. 

TJ: Poppy for president! Poppy in space! I’m here for it. 

POPPY: Would you turn it down, TJ? 

TJ: You know what? I barely even like flying in a regular aircraft. So, there is no way you could get me in a rocketship to space. Not going to happen. I would be sick immediately. But no, I think, for people who are interested in that and who would do that, it is a super amazing experience. 

Yeah. I think your point is well taken; that it is better for them to spend it on this than on houses. Don’t come for the shoes. I am a shoe person. They can buy as many issues as they want, but it is better for them to spend it on this.

I also love what you said about not so much focusing on this particular issue, but other issues in terms of how they are being taxed, and how we’re spending across the country and the world. So, that was a great answer. Thank you for that. 

POPPY: Thank you. 

TJ: We have a question here from the audience: Would you have guessed that this is how technology would have developed?

POPPY: No. 

TJ: No background, no nothing – it’s just whatever you have? 

POPPY: Well, in some aspects, I would have. Okay? I would have expected we would have continued miniaturization. I think that was predictable, that we would continue to miniaturize. 

But the main thing that I find surprising, I find it very surprising, is all of the social media that we have, and how much of an effect it’s had on the world. Not all of it has been good. I find it sort of disappointing that we have not thought a little more about how to manage that more beneficially. 

TJ: Yeah. Can you share a bit more on that? I know that you are on Twitter. Are you on other social media apps? Are you on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok? 

POPPY NORTHCUTT: I was on Facebook for a while, and I still have a Facebook account, I guess, but I hardly ever get on it. I have a LinkedIn. I hardly ever get on that. I don’t have TikTok. I don’t have Instagram. Though, I am working on a voter turnout project where we probably will be doing some TikTok, and some Instagram, and some other things. 

I just see a lot of disinformation. You know, that particularly bothers me. A lot of trolling, a lot of license to be really mean. You know people, If they were dealing with person-to-person with someone, would never say half of the things that they say on there because they have this sort of shield of anonymity. 

I also think, for young people in particular, that they need to be much more aware that it never goes away. Okay? Even if you erase it, there is still a digital footprint of all of that stuff. As a lawyer, I have seen people say things on their social media that they really should never put there. You know, your employer may be looking at it. A future employer may be looking at it. All kinds of things may come of that. People need to be a lot more careful about what they do. 

TJ: Good point, well taken. I also do not have a TikTok. I think that’s not appropriate for my age group, but I am on Instagram and Facebook. TikTok, for me, feels a little bit younger, but I do love that these platforms are a great way to reach young people. I think it’s really smart that you’re using that to help with voter turnout. I think that that’s amazing. I hope it goes well! Keep us posted. 

POPPY:  Thank you. I hope so, too. It’s going to be a small project to start, but we hope to build on it. 

TJ: Yeah. What do you think are some of the biggest issues with getting young people out to vote? Or, what have you seen from your work? 

POPPY NORTHCUTT: I think that one of the problems is that, often, young people are sort of tuned out of the news media in general. You know? So, they don’t really know what is going on in terms of what’s happening in Washington, and what’s happening in their state capitol, and so forth. They are not aware of the incursions that are being made in their lives. A lot of the messaging that’s done by politicians and people that could be messaging better is not really talking about the things that affect their lives. 

For example, I went out with one of the groups that do voter registration. They were short someone, and I got some email saying they knew I was a voter registrar. So, I got an email saying, “Can you come help us at this school?” I said, “Sure!” It’s a nice group; it’s very well-meaning. You know they serve a useful function, except I was just sort of horrified when I saw their messaging. They got up and they made, what I considered to be, a very boring presentation about the mechanics of registering to vote, and so forth. They emphasized the low turnout that young people have. 

Well, If you study persuasive techniques, you will find that first of all, that’s not persuasive – to talk about how people don’t do something. You need to talk about how people do something. So, I thought their messaging was terrible. 

But, the main thing I thought was that they totally missed the best selling point of all. That is that in Texas, we have a Student Corps Operation where young people can come and work as election officials, and get paid just like the other election officials. That payment is $17 an hour, which is more than twice as much as minimum wage, which is what most teenagers are earning. 

You know, I sort of made them let me get up in the room. They had gotten no response at all, just everybody sitting there when they talked about registering to vote. But, I asked people: How many of you have a job? How many of you are looking for a job? How many of you would like to be making $17 an hour? 

TJ: Yeah. Give the people what they want. Give them what they want!

POPPY NORTHCUTT: Well, I mean, it’s: Talk about what they’re interested in, and what their need is; not what you think is important, but what their need is. Again, it’s remembering: Who are you talking to? Don’t talk to yourself; talk to your audience. So, you know, my big emphasis when I talk to them is to try to focus on what is meaningful to them. 

TJ ALLADIN: Yes. You’re such a passionate, intelligent person that seems to be able to talk to just about anybody; someone who seems to be able to do just about anything. You are a huge inspiration to so many people. So, I am interested, and my final question is: What inspires you? You inspire all of us, but we want to know what inspires you? 

POPPY NORTHCUTT: Well actually, you inspire me; you and the other young women that are out there. Y’all inspire me. Because I mean, It’s just absolutely thrilling to see women coming into these new jobs and new areas, and the enthusiasm and the talent that they bring. I can hardly wait to see all of the things – all of the boundaries that you are going to push through, all of the glass ceilings that you’re going to push through. So, you all inspire me.

TJ: Amazing. Thank you so much. This was such a huge honor for me to be here; such a huge honor for me to get to chat with you, and hear what you have to say. I know you said that you wouldn’t have been a good teacher, but I learned so much from you today.

POPPY: Well, thank you. 

TJ: Apparently, you could lead a session for 60 minutes. You know? Congratulations once again on your lifetime achievement award. It was so great having you. 

POPPY: Thank you very much. 

TJ: Take care. I just have a few closing announcements for everyone before I let you all go. Please save the date for the next Conversation for Change on August 24, 2022 at 11 a.m. MT. Dr. Maya Israel will focus on her research on strategies for supporting academically diverse learners’ meaningful engagement in CS education. 

If you haven’t already, sign up to receive the vNCWIT Summit swag box. Sign up for one at the link that will appear in the chat. There is some awesome stuff in there. 

Thanks again to our Summit sponsors: PNC, Bloomberg, and Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets. Thank you to all of the supporters of NCWIT. 

Finally, please take a moment to complete our survey by following the link that will appear on screen. We read every single response and really appreciate your taking the time to provide feedback. The survey link will also be sent out in a follow-up email. 

Once again, congratulations to Poppy, and thank you all for being here. Take care!

Scroll to Top