Judith Sheft, Executive Director at the New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology, holds a lifelong passion for STEM and encouraging others to find that passion within themselves. After 18 years at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Judith’s recently taken on a new role supporting NJ’s tech entrepreneurs. SheTek spent some time with Judith to learn about her journey, her career, and what she’d like young women in tech today to know.
From Judith’s earliest days, scientific interest wasn’t just a hobby, but a part of everyday life. Her father was a chemist, and her mother had studied and worked with nutrition before raising a family. This led to a supportive home where career aspirations were always encouraged. When Judith first started working, her father gave her a magnet that read, “Career women can cook too, but it’s more fun to eat out.” The message was that it’s always right for women to support themselves and pursue their passions.
Judith pursued a Mathematics degree at the University of Illinois in a time when Computer Science looked a bit different than it does today. In those days, a student would create a computer program, then bring the program to the Computer Center (another building on campus) for the program to run. Computer access was shared, so a student may have to wait some time before the program would output results. Many Computer Science students today would find it difficult to wait hours for a program’s results, especially now that instant-response systems are standard.
Judith’s first job at Bell Labs was focused on routing and networking the phone system, with particular attention paid to peak load opportunities. The systems and algorithms developed for Bell Labs found new use in computer networking applications years down the line. From there, Judith’s career grew to include 18 years at NJIT, with her last role as the Associate Vice President of Strategic Rlationships and External Affairs New Jersey Innovation Institute @ NJIT. In her time there, she noticed a steady increase in the number of female faculty and students in tech. When NJIT noticed a nationwide drop in women pursuing tech, they acted. By opening a Girls Who Code branch through the Murray Center for Women in Technology, NJIT created a new entrance to the tech pipeline for our youngest sisters.
As Executive Director at the NJ Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology, Judith supports tech entrepreneurs at their earliest stages of growth. Judith also promotes New Jersey as a hub for innovative growth with talented workers. The commission also focuses on providing entrepreneur support for the creation of diverse, robust, and inclusive innovation economy. This work is important to Judith because supporting different and diverse groups improves lives for all.
“Computer science is like the English language – it underpins everything we do today,” Judith tells us. “There’s space for anyone of any interest to get involved in tech. If you’re interested in Fashion, there are roles available in AI trendspotting. If you work in social media, you can use tech to identify topics before they go viral.” Judith recommends that the SheTek Community consider all opportunities available to them, including those that may be outside the traditional box. Think about ways to gain experiences and raise your hand to keep learning new skills. If you constantly refresh your skills and contribute in new and different ways, you’ll find success.