Living Boldly: The Innovative and Inclusive Career of Andrea Goldsmith

By Heidi Hackford | September 02, 2020

It’s not every day that someone gives away $100,000, but that’s what Andrea Goldsmith did when she became the first woman to win the Marconi Prize, the top honor in information and communications research. The Stanford engineering professor’s work has enabled billions of people around the world to enjoy fast, reliable cell phone and WiFi networks, as well as applications for video streaming and autonomous vehicles that require stable network performance. But Goldsmith has an even greater ambition: she wants to make engineering more inclusive and diverse. Her prize money started an endowment to do just that.

During a virtual CHM event on August 19, 2020, Goldsmith shared stories and advice from her life and career in an innovative format that incorporated three different moderators: a high school student, a young professional, and a peer.

"You Belong In This Profession"

To get to the point where she could make a significant contribution to her field with her research on “adaptive modulation”—which optimizes the quality and speed of wireless networks—Andrea Goldsmith had to pursue her education. It wasn’t easy. In a discussion with high school student and aspiring computer scientist Ramya Chitturi, Goldsmith described her journey to become an engineer, a profession she’s passionate about. Above all, she says, be open-minded about what you should study and what your educational trajectory should look like. Her own early path gave no indication that she would eventually become a leader in her field, acquiring 29 patents and writing six books.

Goldsmith’s father was an engineer and he wanted his daughter to be one too. But she wanted to have the freedom to pursue her own interests, so she paid her own way through college and took classes in politics and literature as well as math and science. Goldsmith's first year at Berkeley, she notes, was very hard, and she didn’t do well juggling work and engineering classes. She also felt implicit bias from those who felt that engineering wasn’t appropriate for women. But, by her sophomore year Goldsmith turned things around. She decided not to listen to anyone else—she loved math and wanted to major in engineering communications—and she found a role model and friend in her algebra teaching assistant, the first female graduate student she’d seen in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Those early experiences transformed her into a lifelong champion for diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. 

Andrea Goldsmith makes the case for diversity in technical disciplines.

As an engineering professor at Stanford for 21 years, Goldsmith asked to serve as an advisor particularly for young women and diverse students, and she continues to keep in touch with the more than 25 doctoral students she’s guided over the years. Some of them were once freshmen crying in her office, struggling with their classes as she did and wondering if they’d made a mistake coming to Stanford. But Goldsmith reassures them that they are exactly where they belong.

"I Like Building Things"

Moderator Angela Tran, herself an engineer and entrepreneur (and venture capitalist), asked Goldsmith to explain her “leap of faith” out of research to cofound Quantenna Communications in 2006. Goldsmith had enjoyed working for a defense industry startup in Silicon Valley as a new graduate in the mid-’80s, so this was not new territory for her. But what really tempted her to become an entrepreneur was a strong desire to see if her academic research in adaptive modulation and multi-antenna technology could actually translate to a commercial product.

Because a chip company needs lots of startup capital, Goldsmith raised money from venture capitalists, their inherent bias against her gender neutralized, she says, by her Stanford credentials. It didn’t hurt that her cofounder, Behrooz Rezvani, was a man with a successful startup already under his belt. They built a successful company, weathering the typical ups and downs of the entrepreneurial journey, but there were deeper problems. Goldsmith realized that startups are like parenting and, “at different points you have to ask yourself what’s best for the company.” For her that calculus led to the difficult decision to resign her position as chief technology officer.

Andrea Goldsmith talks about the decision to leave her startup.

Though leaving the company she founded was heartbreaking, Goldsmith learned lessons about persistence and dealing with tough people that served her well in her future career when she returned to Quantenna under a new CEO, as an academic, and in a future startup. 

Meanwhile, Goldsmith brought her focus on diversity and inclusion to her position as chair of an awards committee at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional organization with 419,000 members. She noticed that not only were women not receiving awards, they weren’t even being nominated. A report on the issue, with data, convinced the organization to make changes, and Goldsmith is the founding chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Ethics committee at IEEE.

"We'll Figure Out What To Do"

Moderator Bob Metcalfe, coinventor of Ethernet, 3Com founder and fellow Marconi Prize winner, asked Goldsmith what innovation means to her. She said that it’s thinking about possibilities without being constrained by what exists now, asking “what if?” and then figuring out how to create a solution to answer that question.

Goldsmith applied this experimental mindset to her time at Quantenna. The company was able to compete with industry behemoths Broadcom and Atheros by being more creative and nimble, and Goldsmith also learned how to behave like an entrepreneur rather than a professor.

Andrea Goldsmith describes transitioning from professor to entrepreneur.

In April 2020, Andrea Goldsmith became the first woman to win the prestigious Marconi Prize. She donated her award money to tackling the digital divide and fostering diversity and inclusion in telecommunications. She’ll continue to champion those issues in her new position as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Princeton University this fall. There, she’ll work to create an inclusive environment and participate in efforts to root out systemic racism, while also drawing on her experiences in Silicon Valley to help build an innovation ecosystem around the university. In this next phase in her career, like those that have preceded it—STEM student, engineer, researcher, professor, inventor, entrepreneur—she’s following her mantra to “be bold.” Indeed, her most lasting legacy to all the students and startup teams she’s mentored and led may be as an inspirational role model who boldly follows her passions and dreams, seizes opportunities whenever they come, and resolutely pursues a positive, more inclusive future for everyone.

Watch the Full Conversation

CHM Live | Wi-Fi For Billions: Andrea Goldsmith, Innovation, and Inclusion, August 19, 2020.

Discussion Guide

Explore a discussion guide for this event.

About The Author

Heidi Hackford is the director of editorial at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for working across CHM to drive the Museum's mission of decoding technology through engaging, audience-centric, and on-brand storytelling. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

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