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SheCanCode Spotlight Series: Laura Cunningham, General Manager, Education, NEAR Foundation

Laura Cunningham is general manager, education at NEAR Foundation

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Laura Cunningham is general manager, education at NEAR Foundation - the non-profit that champions web3 social impact development projects built on the world’s fastest-growing layer 1 climate-neutral blockchain, NEAR.

Laura has dedicated her career to increasing access to opportunity through the intersection of education and technology. She started in management and tech consulting, working primarily with institutions of higher ed, and then moved into the K-12 sector, working at the NYC DOE, the KIPP Foundation and at a seed stage EdTech startup. Immediately prior to joining NEAR, Laura was the VP of Product at Noodle (an OPM with the mission to reduce the cost of higher education in the US). Laura holds a BA in History and English from Williams College and live in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two daughters.

IN THIS PIECE, SHECANCODE CAUGHT UP WITH LAURA ABOUT HOW SHE LANDED HER CURRENT ROLE, HER ROLE MODELS, & HER WORDS OF WISDOM FOR OTHER WOMEN IN TECH.

HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE? WAS IT PLANNED?

Generally, my path has not been linear; instead, I have remained open to interesting opportunities and have gone after the roles with the highest learning and growth potential. I honestly didn’t even know that my current role existed when I began my most recent search. I had been at my prior company for almost two years and was feeling ready to tackle a new set of challenges when a recruiter reached out to share more about Web3 and NEAR. I became instantly obsessed by the promise of blockchain in revolutionizing the way that we transact, create organizations and work together to solve the world’s biggest problems.

DID YOU (OR DO YOU) HAVE A ROLE MODEL IN TECH OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL?

I feel deeply lucky to have had a number of role models throughout my career. These people were essential, especially earlier in my career, in helping me figure out what I was good at and what I wanted out of work.

Of course there are famous role models who I follow and learn from, but I have found the most useful people to be managers and mentors who I have the opportunity to get to know professionally and personally and interact with in a meaningful way.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER, SO FAR?

I have pride and a ton of learnings from each experience that I’ve had so far, but I would say that one of the projects that I feel most proud of was building a digital reading tracker application for teachers when I was at the NYC DOE. Teachers who used the tool were able to drive better student outcomes, making significant gains in literacy. I feel proud not only about the impact of the product, but also about how we built it, leveraging user-centered design principles and rapid prototyping and iteration directly with teachers.

A motto I learned and carry to this day is “do with, not to.”

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORK DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

One of the things I like about my role is that every day looks a little different. Given I just started in my role, I have been spending most of my time setting vision and strategy and supporting my team in setting their goals and clarifying responsibilities. I have also been working to establish and manage critical partnerships, building and refining playbooks and learning content, and getting ready to launch a “zero to hero” bootcamp with the goal of increasing the number of qualified builders in the ecosystem.

HAVE YOU EVER FACED INSECURITIES AND ANXIETIES DURING YOUR CAREER, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

Absolutely. I think that feeling a bit insecure and anxious comes hand in hand with being a self-aware human and can even be healthy. The trick for me in overcoming those feelings is a) having opportunities to practice the things I am scared of doing, b) having a coach in my corner to reflect and push me, c) reminding myself that everyone else has the same feelings from time to time and that I’m not alone, and d) practicing what I preach with my kids, which is that all you can do is try your best.

ENTERING THE WORLD OF WORK CAN BE DAUNTING. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED?

My best words of advice are to figure out what you are good at – what your superpower is – and then lean into roles and opportunities that allow you to exercise those muscles. Actively recruit mentors and be open to being coached. Set high expectations for yourself and others; it’s amazing what we can live up to.

Finally, and most importantly, recognize that you will always be learning (if you are lucky) - you aren’t expected to know everything or be able to do everything immediately and humility is a deeply important trait to carry with you for your whole career.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS IN TECHNOLOGY?

Never let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve what you want and don’t be intimidated by people who try to make you feel small. If you work hard, are open to new opportunities and continue to push yourself to be the best you can be, you will not fail.

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