How Janet Phan Helps Young Women Succeed in Tech

Increasing access and opportunities in communities of need

Being raised by refugee parents came with many challenges, but Janet Phan leaned into her experiences, and now she wants to help young women technologists thrive.

A portrait of Janet Phan.

Thriving Elements

Phan is the founder and executive director of Thriving Elements. This Seattle-based nonprofit matches young women in communities of need with STEM mentors. Thriving Elements arose from Phan's experience with mentors and how influential they were to her career success. 

"When it came down to it, it was my mentors who gave me opportunities to build the skills to do technology consulting and to open up doors for other people," Phan told Lifewire in a video interview. 

Thriving Elements launched in March 2016, and since then, the nonprofit has welcomed five cohorts of mentors and mentees. Mentors connect with mentees spanning eighth through 11th grade who are seeking careers in the STEM field.

The pairs work together on skills set development, public speaking, network building, and career advancement. At the end of each program, Phan hopes mentees gain a better perspective on where they want to go professionally.

Quick Facts

  • Name: Janet Phan
  • Age: 35
  • From: Seattle, Washington 
  • Random Delight: She is really into playing sports, including volleyball, snowboarding, surfing, weight lifting, and road hiking. 
  • Key quote or motto she lives by: "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."

Overcoming Challenges and Staying Focused 

Even though Phan's nonprofit launched in the US, she's been running her business from Geneva while working full time for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) as a technology program and product leader's Europe presence. Phan grew up in the Seattle area in Tukwila, where a lot of refugees and immigrants reside. From a young age, Phan knew she would forge a career path in tech, previously working for The Boeing Company in various IT roles before joining PwC. 

"The idea for Thriving Elements began when I was traveling globally for PwC and being able to experience so many different cultures," Phan said. "I was thinking about how lucky I am because I never thought I would experience something like that since my parents were refugees from Vietnam."

Phan said that growing up with refugee parents was tough, and even paying for college was difficult. Her parents were unfamiliar with how the educational system worked in the US, so Phan had to seek others' guidance.

The mentors she gained in high school helped her thrive in the tech sector, so she hopes she can help make those connections for other young, aspiring women technologists.

I think the impact is subjective, and the impact that the mentors and mentees are getting out of the program is more valuable than rolling the program out to 5,000 students at a time.

Before the pandemic, Phan connected mentors and mentees in person and hosted yearly informational sessions, but with the move to virtual programming, she ran into some challenges. Thriving Elements hasn't been able to host its quarterly leadership and team-building events, where the mentors and mentees meet and network. 

"We were getting into a rhythm where mentees were excited to meet each other and see one another again," she said. "It's a unique experience for them, and they have created friendships through that, and now we're not able to do that."

Since she cannot get in front of the students and share previous cohort experiences, Phan said it has been hard to get mentees to apply for Thriving Elements' programs. 

"If live sessions aren't held, we can't make as good of an impact to encourage students to apply," she said. "We end up being diluted when we're hosting programs online." 

Despite the challenges, Phan hasn't given up on her mission. 

The Struggle Continues 

It's recruitment season for Phan at Thriving Elements, and working from Geneva, in a different time zone, is an advantage when balancing PwC and her nonprofit. After a typical workday for PwC, Phan puts in overtime to run Thriving Elements on US time and to connect with her team of roughly 15 volunteers.

Janet Phan speaking publically.

Thriving Elements

Unfortunately, Phan hasn't landed any funding to support more stable workers, but she's able to pull from her experience leading distributed teams to run her nonprofit away from home. 

"We have no employees because we don't have enough funding to hire somebody to replace me as the executive director yet or support program managers," she said. "The tough thing about working with volunteers is that there is frequent turnover depending on where they are at in their careers." 

Phan said even though she has come across large initiatives with corporate companies, it's been challenging to land grants and gain financial support in general. She's often told that her nonprofit is too small. 

"I say you know what, that's exactly why we need help," Phan shared. "I think the impact is subjective, and the impact that the mentors and mentees are getting out of the program is more valuable than rolling the program out to 5,000 students at a time." 

The tough thing about working with volunteers is that there is frequent turnover depending on where they are at in their careers.

Phan also found some grants require applicants to generate at least $50,000 a year, and she said she didn't intend to operate Thriving Elements to run that way. Phan has a clear vision and mission, which is why she's still been able to land sponsorships from companies in whatever manner they can donate. 

While Phan is looking for financial support to run Thriving Elements, she's focused on expanding the nonprofit's reach to other places like South Africa, Tanzania, and India. Thriving Elements wants to keep attracting mentees, and Phan is hoping to pair at least 15 mentees with mentors for its upcoming cohort. She could do this work better with financial support, but Phan said she'll keep pushing through the struggles. 

"Sometimes, I don't understand. Don't you want to help the little guys so that we can become big guys? Working through this has been the biggest struggle for me," she said.

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