When disaster strikes, Stephanie Charles draws on her education and deep background in engineering and technology consulting to help people when they are at their most vulnerable. As a transfer student who came to Caltech as a sophomore, Charles was among the very first women to complete an undergraduate degree after Caltech admitted its first class of undergraduate women in 1970.
At Caltech, Charles drew on her work ethic, pursuing physics, and greatly enjoying the Institute's academic culture. After graduate work at Stanford, Charles joined the high-tech world of Silicon Valley, where she worked at a variety of companies with a specific focus in telecommunications. After deciding to go off on her own, Charles enjoyed a successful run as an independent consultant before becoming involved with the American Red Cross.
In this capacity, Charles has traveled extensively and has interacted with a broad swathe of Americans. This work has given Charles a unique perspective on structural challenges ranging from climate change to economic inequalities, and she continues to relish the opportunity to draw on her abilities in problem solving and logistics to make a positive impact.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, September 13, 2022. I'm very happy to be here with Stephanie Charles. Stephanie, it's so nice to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
STEPHANIE CHARLES: Absolutely.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, to start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
CHARLES: I retired early. I am heavily involved in the Red Cross. I have a number of titles, from Regional Sheltering Lead to various other titles with the Red Cross. If you're talking about my engineering career, I was a consultant for the last 14 years up until the early 2000s.
ZIERLER: What are some of the things you've done for the Red Cross, and how might they be connected to your education and your training?
CHARLES: They're actually very connected, which would surprise most people from Caltech. I'm in Disaster Services. I've done a little bit to support other areas: Service to the Armed Forces, International Services, fundraising, and so forth. At least 95% of what I've done over the last 22 years has been with Disaster Services. I deploy—I used to go out to house fires and apartment fires a lot, just very local disasters, and they are a disaster for the person who just lost their home. Then I started going out to wildfires, and I went to hurricane Katrina—big disasters like that—initially as a shelter worker, and then a shelter supervisor, and most recently, two years ago, during the lightning fires that ringed the whole Bay area. I had a headquarters job. I ran the whole mass care operation for two months. So, it's been a primary focus in sheltering, but there are lots of different aspects of it, and I've done most things one time or another.
Expertise in Disaster Sheltering
ZIERLER: Stephanie, between your education and the kinds of ways you've contributed to the Red Cross, what would you say your field is, or your area of expertise?
CHARLES: In the Red Cross?
ZIERLER: What would that be connected to? Is that a human resources issue? Is it engineering? Is it systems? What would you relate that to?
CHARLES: Problem solving. If you've seen one disaster, you've seen one disaster. Every one is different. The Red Cross has lots and lots of doctrine, which is what we call rules and regulations, forms and procedures and so forth, but I would say in every disaster where I've had a decision making role, I had to break some of the rules, because that was what was necessary under the circumstances. The actual connection between Caltech and what I learned there, and what I do for the Red Cross, is all about having learned how to walk into a circumstance you know nothing about and look around and figure out what the problem is, because it's often not quite crystal clear what the problem is. Then figure out how to solve it. Figure out what constraints there are on the solution. Those are all things I learned at Caltech and thoroughly enjoy doing. I've actually enjoyed my Red Cross career a lot more than I enjoyed my engineering career, because believe it or not, there's a lot less of the routine and mundane and a lot more problem solving with the Red Cross.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what have you learned about public policy and government planning as an institutional means of helping people when they're most vulnerable?
CHARLES: It's the old joke about catching the mule's attention: you hit him with a two-by-four and after that he listens. Katrina totally changed disaster planning in this country. That was in 2005, and everyone basically acknowledges that New Orleans, Louisiana, and FEMA completely fell flat on their faces responding to that hurricane. A lot of people died. A lot of people were sheltered in just appalling conditions in the Superdome. There were people rescued by helicopter off of flooded bridges. FEMA, after having gotten hit with a two-by-four, went back to the drawing board and started figuring out how to do things, not as FEMA on a white horse riding in to save the day, but working with partners. The Red Cross is one partner, but they work with other levels of government, lots of private partners, or non-profit partners, whether it's something like Catholic charities, pet organizations, or feeding organizations. They've really improved a thousandfold. Once they realized they had a problem, realized that it had to be a solution that encompassed a lot of parties, and that there were a lot of resources those parties bring to the table, things improved dramatically. It's still cumbersome, and slow, and I could point to a lot of things on the government front that were a mess during the 2020 lightning fires, but still, that's always going to happen and they've improved tremendously. It just was a matter of having a major failure and realizing they had to fix things.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, in the course of your career, have you seen climate change, and the warming planet specifically, in a more intense way than other people might have?
CHARLES: Yes. One of the new buzz words around the Red Cross, for about the last two years, I guess, is we talk about "acute to chronic." It used to be there was a disaster season. Hurricanes and wildfires would happen in the late summer or early fall, and we'd get very, very busy, deploy everybody who could be deployed to help respond to those, and then it would be over. We'd spend the next eight or nine months making sure we brought all of our material stock—cots, blankets, and everything else that we have in warehouses or other supply caches—back up to date. We'd do training—do a lot of things during our downtime, but there is no more downtime. Disaster season is 12 months a year, and the Red Cross realized: first, they were going to burn people out; second, it takes more responders to handle those things; third, a lot of disasters are a lot bigger than they used to be. They categorize disasters as levels, and when I joined the Red Cross, we had levels one through five, which refers to how much money you're going to spend. Then they added level six. Then they added level seven, because we now have disasters that are far bigger than what we used to respond to. So, the Red Cross has been very aware of climate change. It's tremendously changed the disaster situation, and it's changed how we have to be ready to respond.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, how has the budgetary environment that the Red Cross, and for disaster planning across the board, responded to this 12 month a year cycle of preparation?
CHARLES: In a sense, it's been good for us. I don't watch the overall financials of the whole organization, but we are not a government agency. We are not funded by the US government, state government, or any level of government. We sometimes do fee for service programs or do things like in 2020 with the lightning fires: the state government paid for motel rooms, because with COVID, we didn't want to put 500 people in a large gym. As far as funding the Red Cross, that is done by donations from the American people. Those donations almost exclusively come in when people are seeing that we're responding to a big disaster. During the eight or nine months during the year when things tended to be quiet before, we would get some donations from community foundations, but essentially none from the public at large. More disasters does mean more awareness of our mission and helps as far as our funding, although obviously it increases our expenses too. Since we are very largely a volunteer organization, we are not paying salaries other than a few. It's a few percent of the Red Cross that are paid employees. But we still have costs. During the big fires a few years ago, we flew a lot of people from the east coast out here to aid in the response effort. Obviously they are feeding all of their volunteers and putting them up at night when they deploy. So, we have a lot of expenses even though we're a volunteer organization, and it's those donations from people who are seeing disasters on TV that fund those.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what have you learned about structural inequality when a disaster hits? In other words, a hurricane might inundate an entire city, but depending on race and class and neighborhood, the way that these people deal with the disaster might be very different.
CHARLES: Absolutely. We get a fraction—we get three to five percent, typically, of the people who are displaced in our shelters. Most people can either, depending on circumstances, find a motel room or leave the area. They have friends and family they can stay with elsewhere. But the people at the low end of the socioeconomic scale typically can't do that, and they're the ones we see in our shelters. Part of what we're very focused on nowadays is when you've got somebody with very little and they lose it all in a disaster, we work hard to, in our casework capacity, connect people like that with all kinds of non-profits, and try to make sure that when they leave our shelter, they're going to a circumstance that is no worse than where they came from, and if we can do something, connect them up with a partner who can help them advance and be less impoverished. We like to do that, because the people we deal with, as you rightly point out, are at the low end of the socioeconomic scale, and they're the ones who have the least and are hurt the worst by disasters.
Transferring to Caltech
ZIERLER: Stephanie, let's now go back to high school. First of all, your degree is in 1973. Does that mean you did Caltech in three years? Or did you actually start in ‘69?
CHARLES: I started college in ‘69. I had realized after my junior year of high school that all it took to graduate was one English class. I hunted around, and it turned out there was a remedial English class that would allow me in, which was pretty silly, but it did allow me to graduate in three years. I was one of two literate people in the class, and it's the most boring class I've taken in my entire life. But it did allow me to graduate in three years, which left me in a quandary. I was, in April, trying to think about where am I going to go to college next year. My dad, who raised me, had a huge influence on me—always very supportive of my being technical. He had suggested that I look at Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd. So, that spring, after I decided I could graduate a year early, we did a quick tour of the three colleges. I went to MIT, and they said, "Well, we'd let you in, but women have to live in the women's dorm, and that's full for next year." I went to Harvey Mudd and was very much put off by the man we talked to. We chatted for a while, and then he said, "Well, if what you say is true, then we would admit you next year." That emphasis on "if what you say is true" really rubbed me the wrong way. Then we went to Caltech, and they said, "Oh we don't accept women, but next year we likely will. Check back in a year."
ZIERLER: Oh wow. Wow.
CHARLES: I wound up going to the University of Maryland, a local school—well, pretty local—after I graduated, for my freshman year, and transferred to Caltech as a Sophomore in 1970 when they admitted women.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you had a unique status among this unique group as being one of the very first women for the undergraduate student body, but not a freshman.
CHARLES: There were four of us in the end. Two of us transferred in that year and two more the next year. Yes, in the required sophomore classes—well, all the classes with Sharon, who was the other woman who transferred in with me—we found ourselves either the only woman in the class, or one of two, if it was a required class that we were both in. That pretty much persisted throughout the three years we were there at Tech. She was in biology, and I was in physics, and there wasn't a whole lot of overlap. So, in that sense, yes. As far as being on campus, there were a number of other freshmen women there, so we blended in to some extent. I wouldn't put too much weight on the blending in. All the women stood out to a significant degree.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, in high school, did you always gravitate toward math and science? Was that what you wanted your focus to be in college?
CHARLES: Yes. I was born in California, but when the space program started, my dad got a job with TRW. We moved to Cocoa Beach. I spent some extremely impressionable years there. My dad was in the block house for a lot of early launches. He and I really bonded over the space program. I wanted nothing more than to be part of that, which meant math and science and engineering. It didn't come to be, but that certainly motivated me as a young student.
ZIERLER: Did your father encourage you? Did he make you feel that this was a field that a little girl could dream of?
CHARLES: Oh, absolutely. I have memories of being very young and being down on the floor with my dad and a set of poker chips, and him teaching me very basic math with poker chips. I also have memories of going to the dentist's office. My dad raised me, so it was my dad taking me to the dentist's office. To distract me, he'd give me mental arithmetic kinds of problems. He'd say, "While you're in there, figure out the square root of three to as many digits as you can." Not that I could do it to too many digits in my head, but he always encouraged me in the math and the science. We talked about the space program. We talked about all manner of things, and it always excited me. He always completely supported me.
ZIERLER: What about in middle school and high school? Did you have teachers? Were you learning in an environment where it was clear women could pursue these interests just as well as men?
CHARLES: I don't remember anyone every discouraging me. There were certainly things, like I had to take home economics and boys had to take shop. I actually started working on my car fairly young and would have been much more interested in taking shop. I took a shop course after I graduated from college, but other than things like that, where they were just the requirements and that's that, I don't remember anyone ever discouraging me. So, I may have been blessed.
ZIERLER: When you were thinking about Caltech after that initial year, was that daunting to you at all, to be one of the very first women to go there? Did that add an additional challenge to your education? Or did you lean into that? Was that something that was exciting to you?
CHARLES: Because it had never been a big deal in my life, I don't think I really thought about it one way or the other. I was concerned, rightly, that my freshman year at the local state school might not be adequate preparation to jump into the sophomore year at Caltech. That was my biggest concern, and it was a completely valid concern. I didn't think too much about being one of two transfer students that year, although it probably helped that Sharon, the other transfer student that year, reached out to me during the summer in advance and said, "You and I should get to know each other." So, we did! We communicated some, and then we spent a day together, touring Southern California, and eating meals together and doing whatever. So, I did walk in with one ally who was another woman, but the fact that I was a woman in a place were women usually weren't has never been really a big deal in my career. I've been blessed that I've run into very, very little resistance to it.
ZIERLER: In high school, were you at the top of your class? Did you think that a place like Caltech was even in range for you?
CHARLES: I graduated in the summer along with some other people who were making up their class, so I was certainly at the top of that class. I was probably right near the top of my class if not at it. I just didn't graduate in cycle, so I don't know if I would have been valedictorian or salutatorian. But yes, my dad always encouraged me. I had a math teacher who strongly encouraged me, that I had for several classes in high school. My science teachers never discouraged me. Some of them were not terribly great teachers and weren't helpful one way or the other, but my biology teacher was terrific and he encouraged me, so, I always figured I could give it a shot.
ZIERLER: What were your early impressions when you arrived on campus? What do you remember?
CHARLES: [laughs] One of my favorite stories about Caltech: I arrived on campus to register as a sophomore that first year, and all the freshmen were registering in one office, and everybody else in another office. I walked into the office I was supposed to go to. I walked in the door, and somebody behind the desk looked up and said, "You must be Stephanie." Well, Sharon had already registered, and there were only two of us, so she knew who I was. I compared that to the University of Maryland where it took two solid days of standing in lines to register. They opened up the armory. There were lines thousands of people long, and you stood there and you plodded from station to station, and it took two full days. Then, I walked into a tiny school where they knew who I was without my even having to say. That set the tone. I loved it. I figured this was the place for me. I liked small and personal.
ZIERLER: Was there discussion among the women about who among the faculty were really supportive of this development to admit women, and who might not have been so much?
CHARLES: There were discussions, but I wasn't generally a part of them. I know when you interview Sharon, you'll hear a great deal more about that. I suspect Debbie told you a lot about that. I was just there to get an education. I was fairly quiet and shy. I did not socialize a tremendous amount with any of the other women. I'm sure those conversations existed, and I've heard Debbie and Sharon reference them, but I didn't really know.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what about the administration? Do you have any recollection of anyone from the president on down marking this historic decision in any way? Was there a speech? Was there a newsletter? Anything like that that acknowledged what happened in 1970?
CHARLES: I don't have any memory of that. There may have been; it just wasn't the sort of thing I tuned into. There was certainly—I had one professor that adopted me, actually two of them, and I'm quite certain it's because I stood out as being the one woman in their class, and they wanted to make sure I succeeded. But I didn't pay attention to all the other pomp and circumstance, to use a phrase out of place. So, don't know.
ZIERLER: If there was, would you have welcomed that? Or would you have taken that to be a distraction—it was unwanted attention to some degree?
CHARLES: I think I would have been neutral. It wouldn't have distracted me particularly. We stood out without anybody giving us a speech. I have told people, and I'm sure it's not quite literally true, but I told people I didn't open a door for myself for my first year there. Every time I approached the entrance to Blacker House or some other place I was going to—a class—there was someone there to open the door for me. This was back before it was considered sexist to open doors for women. So, we stood out. We got a lot of courtesy. I found it amusing. I didn't find it distracting. About the only time there was anything that I would have considered negative: one of my TA's got drunk at a party, and he made a comment that the guys had continued to get just as good grades despite the distraction of allowing women on campus. I could actually see how that was a serious question. He was a little coarse in the way he put it, and I put that down to his being drunk. He never said things like that when he was sober. But generally, we were welcomed, we were treated well, got a lot of support. It was a happy experience. I mean, it was a lot of work. It wasn't—I did not feel for my first two years as successful as I wanted to be, because I was just struggling to catch up and stay ahead of things. But the environment in which I was doing all this was just terrific.
ZIERLER: What was the game plan for you academically? What did you want to pursue at Caltech?
CHARLES: I was very interested in physics as a high school student. It gradually dawned on me during my college years that that would mean spending my life going after government grants, and I didn't want to do that. So, I wound up—I got my degree in physics, but I had decided to move into engineering for graduate school. I didn't really think I wanted to stay academic; I wanted to go into industry. I came up to Stanford which was at the heart of Silicon Valley just as Silicon Valley was really starting to boom. So, the game plan was move to engineering, work in industry.
ZIERLER: Who were some of the professors who you may have become close with or you saw as mentors?
CHARLES: Fred Culick was the first one. I had a thermodynamics class from him. I don't remember how many times we met, but I can remember sitting in his office having long conversations late afternoon, early evening. He was very supportive. Richard Feynman was. He tuned into the ladies, and I was in physics. I used to study up in a library on the fourth floor of Downs-Lauritson, which is not that far from his office, so we would bump into each other periodically. It wasn't that he mentored me, but he was just a positive person to be around. He'd ask me interesting questions. I remember the day I was taking a take-home exam—open-book take-home—I was parked there in the library on the fourth floor of Downs-Lauritson, and I could not for the life of me figure out the answer to one of the questions. He walked into the library and saw me obviously perplexed and struggling, and walked over and said, "Can I help you with the problem?" I explained that this was an exam, so I probably shouldn't take him up on that offer. We had pleasant interactions. Who else? Many others, but their names will come to me later.
ZIERLER: Those are the ones who stick out?
CHARLES: At the moment.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, was it physics that you wanted to concentrate on?
CHARLES: Physics interested me more than engineering. I actually almost switched to math. I loved math, and I considered getting either a double major or just changing my major to math, but I didn't. I stuck with physics, and I loved learning about the different aspects of physics. It's a very broad field, and it's interesting. Not as much memorization as biology and chemistry would involve, more logic and fundamental principles. I realize there are plenty of scientists who would completely disagree with how I just characterized that, but yes, that was my love.
ZIERLER: Did you stick with physics? Was that what your major was?
CHARLES: Yes, it was my major, and it's what I graduated in. I changed majors when I went to grad school.
The Value of Academic Stubbornness
ZIERLER: Stephanie, as I'm sure you know, in that generation, almost everybody wanted to be a physics major, and there was a winnowing out when people realized "maybe I'm better at other things," as a charitable way of putting it. What did you learn about your talents, your academic ability to stick with physics throughout your Caltech undergrad?
CHARLES: I'm a hard worker, and I'm very stubborn. It was that, not brilliance, but hard work and stubbornness that I was going to master this material that got me through that degree. It was hard, but it was fascinating.
ZIERLER: Was it more experimental or theoretical physics that you enjoyed?
CHARLES: Theoretical, with my math bent and my analysis bent. I was not terribly great in the lab, and it was much more the theoretical that appealed to me.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, this is a revolutionary time in particle physics, in particle theory. Were you aware of all of these developments and how Caltech professors were contributing to them?
CHARLES: Professor Feynman used to do something he called Physics X, which was 4 o'clock Friday afternoons, or maybe 5 o'clock Friday afternoons. He stood in front of a big lecture hall, and anybody who wanted to hear about things could walk in, and he would talk about whatever people asked him questions about, so it wound up being extremely wide ranging. I attended those religiously, partly because he was a character and an interesting speaker, and partly because I did get to learn more about all kinds of things that were going on. I also got some other exposure to some of the work being done at Caltech, but a large part of it came from Physics X.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, tell me about the social scene at Caltech. I know you were shy, but was your sense that the women were more or less integrated socially among the undergraduates? Or did they tend to stick together in their own groupings?
CHARLES: My perception was they were integrated socially. In my house, we had both Sharon and myself and a number of freshmen—a number of ladies a year behind us. Those ladies all seemed to be more focused on house activities and being integrated with the other people in the house, and I didn't see any sign that—there wasn't a women's hour over at the Y where all the women got together and talked about their issues, at least not that I was ever a part of. It was more house oriented, and the men and women in the house.
ZIERLER: Was your sense among the undergraduate men that this was a welcome development? I'm thinking more broadly about the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s. Was your sense, both among the undergraduate men and faculty and administration, that finally Caltech was catching up with the time, so to speak?
CHARLES: That was my general impression. I never had anybody overtly say something other than the one comment I mentioned by my physics TA. I never heard anybody say we shouldn't have done this, and a lot of people pointed out that quite a number of all-male schools had gone coed in the five years or so before Caltech admitted women. So, I do think that there was a fairly widespread sense that Caltech had been a little slow about this.
ZIERLER: Did you ever hear, either directly or just because it was in the air, this retrograde argument that Caltech shouldn't admin women, because "what a wasted resource it would be to give them this education only for them to start a family and drop out of the workforce." Were you aware of that line of thinking, used specifically as an excuse to keep women out of the undergraduate program for as long as Caltech had?
CHARLES: I was aware of that line of thinking, but I wasn't aware of it at Caltech. I laughed just then because I had an engineering career, but I left that. I retired fairly early, and I have spent 22 years focused on the Red Cross. I thought that perhaps I was the quintessential example of somebody who took up space at Caltech and then didn't go on to pursue a high-tech career, influence government, and win a Nobel Prize. Instead, I'm doing something that's considered sort of a soft, squishy thing. So, I might be an example of that. I was aware of the argument in society, but I didn't see it at Caltech.
ZIERLER: How did you respond to that, just in terms of a motivating factor to prove that sentiment wrong? Or did you not really pay it much mind, it didn't really matter to you?
CHARLES: It didn't really matter to me. I thought it was a fairly stupid perspective on things. [both laugh] There are a lot of people out there who say a lot of idiotic things, and I thought this was one more example. Since it didn't seem to affect me personally, I just said, "Okay, more idiocy in the world. Ignore it."
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what about in class? Did you ever feel pressure, either on yourself or perceived externally, that there was less leeway for you to make a mistake?
CHARLES: No. There was—two things come to mind. Neither one is an example of that, but in my Geology 1 class, seven names got pulled out of a hat before each class and those seven people had to sit in the front row and answer questions. I started keeping track when I realized I was in the front row at least once a week. There were 50 or 60 people in the class, we met twice a week, seven people are in the front, and I'm there at least every other time. That doesn't sound random to me. I didn't say anything at the time, and I didn't mind. I was doing my homework. I was happy to answer questions. Years later, I challenged the professor. He said he was completely unaware of anything about that. I don't know if he had a secretary who was drawing the names who might have skewed it, but that was one case where I was extra visible, but it was fine with me. The other case I was thinking of is also not an example. It's actually not something that I remember at all. When I was talking about professors that I got close with. Professor Tom Apostol was another one. Years later I would see him on campus once a year or so, and he would always tell the story about how he said something deliberately wrong and challenged the class. He said, "Stephanie, none of the guys spoke up. You were the one who said, ‘Professor Apostol, I think that's wrong.'" I don't remember that, but he took great pleasure in telling that story. I heard it every year for many, many years. So, I may have had some extra visibility like that, but like a said, people were very courteous to me and supportive, but I never felt a lot of pressure or like I was under a microscope.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, I talked about the late 1960s, the early 1970s. Was campus political at all? Did you feel the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, things like that, or did the Caltech campus feel more cloistered in some regard, certainly than a place like Columbia or Berkeley?
CHARLES: People were very pleased that Caltech students had actually gotten involved in the outside world. You may have seen a picture of a big banner hung off the top of Millikan that I think said, "Impeach Nixon," if I recall properly. There had been, the year before I arrived, some protests. I think my impression was the administration was thrilled the students were paying attention to the outside world. During my first year there, they brought in a number of speakers on national affairs, the war, various things. I attended those. I didn't see any protests or marching in the streets when I was there, but there was certainly some number of other students who were fairly interested in what was going on in the world and had opinions about it, generally, fairly negative.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, did you stay on campus during the summers? Did you work? Did you do labs?
CHARLES: I worked, let's see—I worked on campus for Dr. Devrie Intriligator between my sophomore and junior year. Oh yes, I worked on campus for economics Professor Lance Davis between my junior and senior year. Then, I actually wrapped up my classwork at the end of winter term of my senior year Or possibly the fall term, I forget. But I went and worked at JPL for the last few months that I was nominally a student. So, I was around campus a fair amount except for that JPL stint.
ZIERLER: What did you do at JPL? What was exciting to you about that?
CHARLES: I actually didn't enjoy that job. I thought I would! I mean, I wanted to be in the space program. It was involved. We were doing a lot of mathematics, which I also loved. We were trying to figure out how to design a spacecraft experiment to pin down values of parameters. There was a model of general relativity that had ten parameters, and any of the various theories of general relativity that people had could fit this generic model if you set these ten parameters to the right values. So, they were trying to design a spacecraft experiment to pin down the values of these ten parameters and get closer to which of the multitude of different theories out there was more accurate. It was a lot of math that wasn't all that interesting. I was surrounded by people who were vastly more interested in Nixon's impeachment and things like that, than they were in the work, which was a surprise and a disappointment there. The whole atmosphere was distracting and not that interesting. So, disappointingly, since I looked forward to working there, my brief stint was not a lot of fun.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, when it was time to think about life after Caltech, as a junior, as an early senior, what advice might you have gotten about what to pursue next?
CHARLES: I don't remember anyone giving me—I don't remember seeking any advice or anyone offering it. Maybe I'm just blanking on it, and I don't remember where all I applied to grad school. I was in the middle of this transition: Do I want to be in industry, or do I want to stay in academics? So, I decided to go to grad school, and I did wind up coming to Stanford. I stayed one year. Something that I heard that made a big impression on me was—people with master's degrees were far more employable in industry than people with PhDs. If you had a PhD, you were suspect. Were you a failed academic? Was that why you were trying to get a job in industry? I also didn't find Stanford nearly as challenging as Caltech, and the students were less interested in science than Caltech. So, that convinced me to leave after a master's and go into industry, which was the general direction I had been trending anyway. I don't really remember anyone giving me advice one way or another.
ZIERLER: Switching from physics to engineering, was that simply because you wanted something more applied, something you could do out in the real world?
ZIERLER: What programs did you look at beside Stanford?
CHARLES: I don't remember. I don't even remember if I applied to Caltech for grad school. I think, even if I did apply, and I don't know that I did, I think I thought it would be good to be exposed to another institution. I must have applied to more than just Stanford, but that's been a long time. [laughs]
From Stanford to Silicon Valley
ZIERLER: Tell me about the program at Stanford. What was that like?
CHARLES: Disappointing. I was studying electro-optics, which is fundamentally a quantum phenomenon, and the professor was teaching it as a classical phenomenon, which doesn't explain it. I had several meetings with him, and I said, "You know, you said this, and it doesn't make sense." And he said, "Well yeah, but I'm trying to reach all the students in the class, so I can't talk about it as a quantum phenomenon." And I said, "But it is a quantum phenomenon! It's not a classical phenomenon!" And he said, "Yeah, but I gotta teach it that way." And he was my advisor! So, that was disappointing. I had some good classes and some poor ones. That was one of the poor ones. The other thing that made a huge impression on me at Stanford—at Caltech, students wanted to learn. They were interested in the world. They were interested in science, engineering, new developments, and what they might be able to do with all this. My first year at Stanford—and this may have been because it was the first year—the only focus of the students was passing the PhD qualifying exams. If it wasn't going to be on the exams, they didn't care. I did not find any of that intellectual curiosity at Stanford that I'd seen at Caltech. It was not a subtle difference. It was a huge difference. I felt so much more at home at Caltech, so much more interested in interacting with other students and feeling like I could have good conversations with them and learn from them. Stanford is a great university, but my experience there was not positive.
ZIERLER: Did you ever think about coming back to Caltech, pursuing a graduate degree here?
CHARLES: No, because by then Silicon Valley was booming. I had decided I did not want to stay in academia. I did not want to spend my life looking for grants. There was lots of exciting work going on in industry right here, so I went on into industry.
ZIERLER: Was it a terminal master's program? Or did you stop before you went on for the PhD in this program?
CHARLES: [laughs] I stopped. I took the qualifying exam, and I remember that the department chair came and found me after a class. and said, "You got the best score on a qualifying exam that a woman's gotten in ten years!" I was a little bit put out by that. I was seventh or something overall that year; I was not in the top three or anything. But for a woman I'd done very well. At any rate, they really did want me to stay and go into the PhD program, but I decided no, let's go to work. It had not been intended to be a terminal program, but I quit and went to work.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, between theoretical physics at Caltech and engineering at Stanford, what kind of industry were you interested in? Where did you feel you would be most competitive?
CHARLES: I initially went into an old, obsolete industry, but it involved a lot of physics. I went to work at Varian, and they built traveling wave tubes. There's a lot of physics in making traveling wave tubes work. Unfortunately, it was a dying industry—I was forty years younger than the next youngest engineer. Talk about a terminal position; that would have been one. I left that and went into telecommunications. That was certainly a big growth industry. I did start out doing hardware design and migrated to software design, and then system architecture and system performance. I had not really ever studied hardware design, software design, system architecture, or system performance. Every job I had in telecom was something I taught myself or picked up on the job or something. None of it related to physics or electro-optics or any of the things that I had studied at either Caltech or Stanford.
ZIERLER: Tell me about Varian. What was their business model?
CHARLES: There are various sides of Varian. They also had a medical area, but in the part of Varian I worked in they did not do a lot of new design. They manufactured traveling wave tubes which were part of, generally, government programs, usually weapons. It was always about the government contracts on the side of the business that I was in. It was plain, after I got into it, that this was long-term going to dry up, that there would be better technologies. But the government's slow to change, right? So there would be a market in traveling wave tubes for another decade or something, I don't know how long. That meant there was work to be done, but it wasn't exciting work.
ZIERLER: And when you say there was a lot of physics involved, did you directly connect your education at Caltech to what Varian was looking for?
CHARLES: Not the specifics of my education. Like with the Red Cross, it was more: How do I tackle something I don't know anything about as far as the specifics and figure out where the problems are? Why do these traveling wave tubes suddenly all fail the final test? Have we changed the process? Do we have magnets with different characteristics? Do we have a bad batch of cathodes? Various things. Then doing the problem solving to figure out "How do I test this? How do I evaluate it?" I've never, with the exception of my short stint at JPL, I've never used the quantum mechanics, general relativity, thermodynamics, or most of the other specific things I studied at Caltech or things I studied at Stanford. It's all about having a broad background, an understanding of conservation principles, which solve an awful lot of problems. Even if you don't know the details of what happened, you know you're not creating mass, energy, momentum, or whatever. It was the "how to go about looking at a situation" that I got out of Caltech. I haven't used the specifics ever.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, the tech industry in the mid 1970s, the so-called glass ceiling—did you perceive that? Did you feel like women were new to this field and that it wouldn't be so easy for them to rise up in these companies?
CHARLES: No, I didn't. Maybe I was just oblivious to prejudice throughout society to women. I remember—I believe I was 24, I might have been 25—they hired another woman (this was at ROLM) and they came to me and said, "Stephanie, would you mentor this new employee? We want her to see you as a role model." Here I am, 24 or 25, thinking, "I am way too young to be somebody's mentor." But I did not run into prejudice. There seemed to be a neutral atmosphere except occasionally, like this time, when clearly they wanted to support women. I also had, when I worked at—it was at Varian—I got to know the head of the lead in the machine shop. After he realized I wanted to know about machining butI couldn't take shop in high school.he took me under his wing. He taught me how to use a lathe, a milling machine, a press, a brake, and a this and a that and the other. We went through everything in the machine shop.We had practice sessions early or late in the day or lunch or something, and he made sure that I could use everything in his machine shop, know why you would use it, and how you would set it up. He was an old timer machinist. Not exactly the person you would think would nurture a woman, but he did. I met a lot of wonderful people like that throughout my career.
Ethics in High Technology
ZIERLER: Tell me about your decision to switch over to SRI in 1976.
CHARLES: What you don't see on my resume is that Varian asked me to sign off on some fraudulent data in final tests for some traveling wave tubes, and I said no and quit my job. So, I have about a five month empty period in my resume during which I said, "What do I want to do when I grow up?" SRI was fascinating. They did research on everything from engineering systems to social systems. They had a lot of biological research that went on there. All kinds of things. A very, very broad realm of work that they did. I think it was probably while I was interviewing, they said that over at the I-Room, which is the international dining room, every week or every month, somebody would give a talk about what they were doing from any place across the institute. So, it was plain that there was a lot of opportunity to be exposed to all these things, which I thought would be interesting. The particular project that I was initially hired to work on sounded interesting. So, it was a no-brainer. It was because there would be a whole lot of breadth, a whole lot of problem solving, some interesting specific engineering work. It sounded like it would be a lot of fun, and in many ways it was a lot of fun.
ZIERLER: Was this more of a lateral move? Or did you come into the company at a more senior level?
CHARLES: No, it was a lateral move. I was still an engineer.
ZIERLER: Did you move up in the company? Were those opportunities available to you at SRI?
CHARLES: I think I became a project lead for a project or two. Basically you were either—I said engineer, but—member of technical staff or management, and I was a member of technical staff. It wasn't until I got into ROLM that I actually got into management at all.
ZIERLER: Tell me about that work at ROLM. How did that come about?
CHARLES: Telecommunications was a really booming industry. I had decided that I wanted to leave SRI and hunted around. They were working on a new telecommunications system, a PBX, an obsolete technology now, but back in the 70s—I guess it was 1980 when I went there—back at that time it was state of the art, and I was going to be involved in developing a digital telephone:,the first digital telephone. I don't remember if ours got out before any of the others. But it was a new technology and an exciting field, and it was important. Communications ties a lot of things together. Anyway, it sounded, again, broad and interesting, so I moved there and I stayed there 11 years. It was good fun.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, a general question about computers: from your first job up through ROLM, what were computers like? How did you use them on a daily basis?
CHARLES: I'm trying to think. When we first started using computers, I certainly didn't have a computer when I was at JPL or at Varian. At SRI, yes. That was—we didn't do email yet. I had a computer for writing documents on and for doing calculations. Then, certainly, I used computers a lot by the time I got to ROLM. But doing email, that was slow to actually develop as part of the business model. ROLM actually got bought, first by IBM and then by Siemens. When IBM bought ROLM, then suddenly we were working with a group in Boca Raton, so that was the point at which you couldn't walk down the hall and talk to somebody, you had to do email to talk to Boca Raton, which was 3000 miles away in Florida. That was when I finally forced myself to write emails, and now I do nothing but. [both laugh] It evolved. I had done very few—well, I never used Zoom until COVID. Now, I live on Zoom and Teams, which is a similar app. So, I use computers more and more over the years. Initially they were very primitive.
ZIERLER: You mentioned digital phones. Tell me more broadly about the development of the digital revolution as you saw it.
CHARLES: I think people were excited by all the features they could build into things. It went way overboard. The initial digital phones that we designed, marketing kept coming in and saying, "Can we have this feature? Can we have that feature?" You've got some fairly basic ones like Do Not Disturb and Conferencing, but Follow Me Forwarding they wanted. You walk down the hall and realize you're going to be down the hall for a while talking to somebody, so you key into their phone that you want your phone to follow you down the hall—your calls go to their phone. And on and on and on. Marketing came in with a feature a week. It was silly. Nobody would ever master all those features or what they did, let alone how to invoke them. So, I think technology brought a whole lot to bear, but I also think people got very excited without realizing most people are not technological geniuses, and if you're going to build consumer—well, this wasn't a consumer product, but it was a business product—switchboard operators and secretaries were going to use them even more than the engineers and the management in the company. You needed to be able to do the simple things like Do Not Disturb that you wanted to do easily, and not worry about all these other features. It took them a while to come around to that idea. I guess I saw the digital revolution as: it added tremendous capability, but it took a while to work out what capability we actually wanted and needed.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if you ever saw any Caltech DNA in these technologies, from electrical engineering to physics, the way that Caltech contributed to the digital revolution.
CHARLES: I wound up working with a fair number of Caltech alumni over the years. Some of these companies, ROLM being one, really sought them out. But I'm not thinking—bear in mind, I did physics at Caltech. I didn't worry about engineering, and I didn't worry about the marketplace and consumers and business. So, no. I'd love to be able to say yes, but no.
ZIERLER: The scene at ROLM, you came in in a management position. Had that become more the norm? Were there more women at that point who were supervising others? Or were you a bit of a pioneer in that regard?
CHARLES: I didn't come in as a supervisor. It was a good many years until I became one. I became one—I'd probably been there eight years as a member of technical staff before I was promoted to supervisor. Then, Siemens bought ROLM. Siemens did not believe in women in management positions. They reassigned and in some cases demoted essentially every woman in management. It was actually something quite astonishing, and I'm sure completely illegal, but unless you file a law suit, you're not going to prove that. There were so many jobs in Silicon Valley that there was no point in filing in a law suit. It was much easier to go find another job, and if you filed a law suit it would make it harder to find another job. So, they got away with it. From a personal perspective, I got buried on a project. I was the project lead. I was running this project, but it was a short-term—it was a way to make IBM and Siemens products compatible, which was basically a step in an evolution toward an all Siemens product when they bought ROLM from IBM. So, it was not a useful position. Then I transferred over to system architecture, and that was fun. Looking at how to we structure systems, and new systems, not just how do we glue things together to work with existing systems. I guess that was—I may have my timeline out of sequence, but shortly after, I became the manager of the system architecture group. Then, when the company went through some really bad times with Siemens, my entire management chain quit. I wound up reporting to the president of ROLM directly, and then heavily involved in the negotiations between IBM and Siemens. It was very interesting, and it was challenging. Siemens just did not believe in women, so the project where they buried me must have been after that. So, my one and only experience throughout my whole career where it was plain that I was a woman and that was going to limit me was during the couple of years when I worked for Siemens—worked for ROLM, which was owned by Siemens at that point.
ZIERLER: Where does Adaptive come in? It's only a brief time when you were there?
CHARLES: Yeah. I left Rolm because of Siemens. Adaptive was a start-up. They hired me, and I got there, and it didn't take too long to figure out that they should never have hired me. They didn't need me. Start-ups have to be careful where they spend their money. They can't waste money. So, they brought me into a position where they thought they might need me, but they weren't thinking straight. I stayed around a little while trying to see if the situation was going to evolve, and it wasn't. I finally told them, "You're wasting your money having me here." So, I left, and after that I consulted. But that was the only career decision I've done totally spontaneously. I walked into a meeting with my manager exploring why I was here and did they actually have anything that they needed me to do. I quit in the middle of that conversation. Well, I guess it was at the end of the conversation. I said, "You don't need me. I'm gonna quit." I didn't have another job lined up, and that was when I went into consulting. So, that was just a brief little stint at a company that made a mistake.
From Consulting to Disaster Relief
ZIERLER: Going into consulting—we talked earlier about your decision to do retirement at a relativity early age—did you want the flexibility from consulting for family considerations, or just for personal freedom?
CHARLES: Consulting was a big thing here then. There was so much instability in Silicon Valley. People changed jobs all the time, so I had a huge network of people that I worked with at ROLM. People hadn't been leaving Adaptive yet, but primarily ROLM. Siemens came in. People hated working for Siemens. Former colleagues scattered to the four winds, and that was an instant network for me. So, in part, I was feeling kind of burned after the Siemens experience and then the Adaptive experience. I wasn't sure I'd want to go back to work on a permanent basis. Consulting was a big thing. I had people calling me, literally. This is literally true; I never went looking for a job. People heard I was now available and approached me. For 14 years, I did consulting. I wasn't necessarily doing it continuously. It was quite continuous and some overlapping contracts initially. Then things slacked off gradually, and after 14 years I realized I hadn't done a contract in a while and I guessed I was retired. I was fine financially; I'd been doing this for the fun of it. So, the consulting just happened. I knew enough people who would call me in, and the liked what I did so they'd call me back when they had another project. That was another very happy time, too. A lot of variety, not having to sell myself, really interesting work. Whatever. Loved it!
ZIERLER: I asked about computers, Stephanie. What about the internet? When do you recall the internet really becoming fully integrated in business and communications?
CHARLES: I have no idea. I'm trying to think. I was more likely to use it personally. My partner and I had computers early. Back in 1980? No, ‘76? I don't remember now. My mom was in the hospital. I went and visited her. WhenI came home, and my partner was sitting in the middle of the living room floor completely surrounded by boxes and packing material and stuff. I said, "What happened?" He said, "I bought a computer!"
CHARLES: This was a very early computer: an Imsai. That was the next one after Altair, which was the first personal computer. We went to the Homebrew Computer Club ,which was a big deal up here, a bunch of hobbyists. We were very near the Byte Shop, which was where you went and found out what the latest and greatest was. So, we had computers around the house from a very early time, and I'm sure that using the internet was more personal than a professional matter for me. Obviously I was using it a lot by the time I was in consulting, but not so much when I was an employee at any of the firms I worked for.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what was it like working as a consultant in Silicon Valley right as the dot-com revolution was getting underway?
CHARLES: Silicon Valley was a really exciting place to be. There was lots of work and lots of cross-pollination. Companies later became very careful about their intellectual property, but in the early days, people chatted in bars, they went out to dinner together from different companies but working in similar fields and shared what they were doing. There was a lot of talk and a lot of sharing and a lot of excitement. People knew each other. It was kind of a small valley to start with. There was a night I worked late, when I worked at ROLM. I was commuting by bus at that time. I caught the 8 o'clock bus home. There were seven people on that bus, and then the bus driver. Of the seven passengers, six of them knew my boss. Well, myself, but five others knew my boss—had worked with him or had talked to him at conferences. That's how tight the Valley was. Everybody knew each other. This was before lawyers started saying, "No, no. You can't talk about anything." So, it was a very, very fun time, because of the intellectual curiosity. The transformation after the lawyers got involved is sort of like the difference between Caltech and Stanford that I was talking about earlier. At Caltech, everybody was interested in what was going on and talked about it and shared ideas. In the Valley gradually intellectual property became a big deal and nobody could share. Everybody's focused on their job. You'd talk to other people in your company—well, maybe not that, but in your own department—and it just squelched things eventually. But the early days were huge fun.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, I have another question about being a woman in the workforce. I've read so much about tech culture, and specifically tech-bros, or alpha-males in this sector. Did you experience that? Was that anything that you had to contend with? Or do you think that perception is somewhat overblown?
CHARLES: I didn't particularly experience it, but I can also be a bull in a china shop sometimes.If somebody pushes on me, I'll push right back if I think I'm right. So, I am less tuned into this. I hear about our culture in this Valley so much that I have to believe there's a fair amount of reality to it, but on the other hand—and this is a comment on the whole world, everything going on today, and things going on then—I think people are way too focused on who's making their life hard and are not focused enough on "Okay, here's the latest challenge; I'm gonna deal with it." And just go forward. I never wanted to be a victim, to feel like a victim, and I didn't. I just took things as they came and dealt with them and went on. If you're in a company and seeing that there's a glass ceiling or whatever, I understand the frustration, but it just wasn't something that dealt with me. I would have left the company, or would have challenged the glass ceiling, or I don't know what. Anyway, that's just me.
ZIERLER: What were some of the most exciting or interesting consulting projects that you did during those 14 years?
CHARLES: Interesting in a sense: I had a very good friend that I had worked with at ROLM for some years on the digital phone project and other things. She called me up out of the blue. She knew I was an early riser. She called me up at six o'clock in the morning knowing that we were frequently both at work at six o'clock in the morning when we worked together. She told me she was working on this project and really wanted to see it through. She'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked me if I would come on as her partner to do QA. I'd never done QA, but would I come on and make sure that what she was developing really worked? She was a little bit worried about brain fog as she went through chemo as well as just getting the project done. It dawned on me at the end of the phone call I had said yes without ever talking money, without finding out where the company was located, nothing. She was a good friend, and I was going to support her. We had a great working relationship. She ultimately died of breast cancer, but she did finish that project, and that was where I discovered that I'm really good at QA. I can't necessarily design something from scratch and have all the tremendously creative ideas that some people have, but I'm really good at breaking things. Perhaps that should have been my calling. Not actually. I did very much enjoy doing design work, but figuring out why things break—it's not just blind testing. I would see things like, "These two engineers share an interface and they don't like each other," and I would really poke at that interface to find problems. Or, "Marketing came in and made this change late; I bet it hasn't been thought through as carefully as other things." I'd really poke at that. Anyway, I really like doing QA. My friend calling me up and saying, "Will you come partner with me and make sure I get this project done" was my entrance into QA. I did it on a few other contracts later on. I do enjoy it.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, I asked about the dot-com revolution, what about the dot-com bust in 2000, 2001. What was that like?
CHARLES: I had fully retired. I think 2004 may be the last time I took a contract. I was very heavily involved in the Red Cross by 2008, very heavily. My finances survived it, and it was not a factor as far as employment. I watched the news every night, wondered just how far the market would fall, and railed against the idiocy of making loans to people who clearly weren't going to be able to repay them and all the rest, but it was as a spectator, not as a participant.
ZIERLER: What was the push and pull factor between your consulting business going quieter and your increasing interest to become more involved in the Red Cross. Did you see those developments as connected at all?
CHARLES: Since I never went looking for contracts, it was a matter of, "Oh, nobody's come to me recently and asked me to do something, so I've got more time to put into this." Initially, I had settled on the Red Cross, and I'm also very heavily involved in my homeowners association. Those are my two volunteer activities now. But back then, I participated in the Campaign Ethics Foundation and restorative justice. I worked with a group that was trying to get a charter school off the ground. I did a variety of things. It was interesting to see all the different activities it takes to make the world work. Leadership Mountain View, which talked about all the different facets of both government and non-profits in my own town, brought that to light as well. So, I was going through a phase as the contracts were becoming fewer, and I wasn't interested in going and finding more work. I'd take it if it came to me, but I wasn't hunting. I started exploring a lot of different volunteer opportunities, and settled on Red Cross and also my homeowners association. The lack of contracts gave me time to do that.
ZIERLER: What was the initial point of connection with Red Cross? How did you become involved?
CHARLES: [laughs] There's this brilliant woman, Barbara Leighton who just knows how to set the hook and reel you in. There was an ad in the paper saying "Free Disaster Preparedness Class." It was close by, convenient, and free. I went to it and I asked some questions. After the class she came over and said, "You know, we've got a follow up class, and that's free too." Anyway, she sold me on that. Then she came up to me at that class and said, "There's a big disaster drill in the East Bay next week. The Red Cross is taking a van and some people, and we're just going to be observers, but would you be interested in seeing this large-scale disaster drill?" I said, "Well sure! That sounds interesting!" We get back from that, and she says, "You know, one of the big things we do is we respond to house fires. You might be interested in just learning what we do." So, she sold me on that class. Then she signed me up as a responder on the basis that, "Well, if it's every convenient and you get called, you can go out to a fire. But you can always say no; it's not a commitment." Of course by this time, I'm starting to become really involved. She was the one who about two years later convinced me to become the chapter mass care lead. It's grown ever since. It was one lady setting the hook and reeling me in.
ZIERLER: Were you sort of interested in humanitarian work? Did you want to, after a career in technology and consulting, did you want to make a humanitarian impact on the world?
CHARLES: It was more an interest in disaster. Not just disaster, but crisis response, emergencies. I've been through Citizen's Police Academy and Citizen's Fire Academy here in Mountain View. I thought it was really interesting all the things that can go wrong and go wrong in a very urgent fashion. This is back to the problem solving that I enjoy so much. It fascinated me preparing for this, being ready for it, and jumping into action on a moment's notice. So, the humanitarian part came after I got involved, actually. We're volunteers. We're paid in hugs. I go to a shelter and I help somebody, and he or she throws his arms around me and tells me what a difference I've made in their life. That feels really good. So, the humanitarian part is a big thing now, but it was the problem solving that got me involved initially.
ZIERLER: What was your first project? What was your big exciting responsibility?
CHARLES: With the Red Cross?
CHARLES: Well, exciting: the very first house fire I responded to was on Christmas Eve. One person died, and they thought three more might die. It was a terrible tragedy. It was far and away the worst house fire I ever responded to. It was the first one I went to, and it was on Christmas Eve. That was almost enough to say, "Do I want to do this?" But it drew me in. There, you're working very personally, one on one with somebody. And again, it's all the hugs. It's people whose lives were going along normally, and the next minute they're out on the street and they've lost everything in their house. It's typically the middle of the night, so even if they have money in the bank, they have no access to it to pay for a hotel room. They've lost their car keys. They can't move their car, or maybe it's burned up. They have no idea what they're going to do. And to go sit with somebody like that for an hour or two, first just let them talk and process what's going on with them. Then, to be able to offer them some assistance, figure out how to get them to a hotel and pay for three nights there. If they're diabetic and they need to take their insulin in six hours, figure out how we're going to replace that insulin that just went up in flames. That first house fire was awful. I've been to very few over the years where there were fatalities. Never one where it's just the whole family that might have died. They did survive in the end except for one. Anyway, it's very satisfying. I found the humanitarian part wonderful. The first large disaster I responded to was Hurricane Katrina. I found it hard to believe I was in the United States. My first shift, I spent 17 hours at the entrance to the Astrodome. We took in seventeen and a half thousand people from the Super Dome. We talked earlier about the lower socioeconomic scales being the ones who come to the Red Cross. Everyone was African American. Nobody had anything other than the clothes they were wearing which had been in those polluted flood waters. They had nothing except torn clothing. They were just streaming in. It was like a big refugee migration, just thousands and thousands of people streaming in the door. I had to pinch myself to realize I was seeing this in the United States. That was another very powerful event. I guess I'm a long way from your question, but those were some of the formative things.
ZIERLER: Do you make a decision whether you are serving only locally? If you're available to be on call wherever disaster strikes, administratively, how does that work?
CHARLES: There's a computer system called Volunteer Connection. I go on that and say am I willing to deploy nationally, state-wide, regionally, or locally; and I also say am I willing to deploy in person or only virtually. Right now, I'm set up regionally. Maybe I said state-wide. No, I think I said regionally, I'll deploy in person or virtually. But because everyone, and I mean almost everyone we deployed to the Kentucky floods came back with COVID, I said I won't do in person national deployments, because I would just as soon avoid COVID. Anyway, I set that up. Then the people who do deploymentslook at lists of people who currently show themselves as available. Our qualifications are listed, so if they're looking for a sheltering manager and they need them regionally, my name may pop up and they might give me a call and deploy me. But it's in our control. We can always say no, even if we put in the computer we'd be available.If something's come up and we haven't changed our availability, they call, we just say no. They go on to the next person.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, as you got comfortable at the Red Cross, I wonder what parallels you drew in terms of skill sets between your life in engineering and consulting and disaster response and sheltering.
CHARLES: The problem solving, obviously. That's the thing that drew me to both. People skills and communication skills are really important in any environment. Engineers are known for being terrible communicators, and I've known a lot who were. If you're going to influence anybody beyond yourself, and if you want your work to have an impact, it's pretty important to be able to communicate. In the Red Cross, people are typically very stressed, at least at the beginning of an operation. Within four hours of a disaster happening, we are standing up shelters and welcoming people in. It's extraordinarily intense, much more intense than anything in my engineering career. So, you need to think about that as you're communicating with other people. People are great, but still you need to be able to communicate clearly to make sure people hear. Any time things are moving a million miles a minute, and people are stressed, and there are a whole lot of people involved, communication gets challenging. So, those are the two skill sets. We don't do quantum—actually, I will say I can run a spreadsheet. This is not anything I learned at Caltech, but people at the Red Cross comment on how technical I am because I can do spreadsheets. I do spreadsheets all the time to predict trends in client populations, trends in staffing needs. I look at all kinds of trends or cost-effectiveness, or how we're going to move clients around when a shelter closes. I run spreadsheets, and everybody thinks I am just so technical, and it must be that Caltech education that did it for me.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, I know it's a volunteer organization, but are there opportunities to move up in seniority in the Red Cross? To take on more responsibility as you become more familiar with what the Red Cross does best?
CHARLES: Yes. We've got this—there are both what we call steady state and operational positions. Steady state is when there's not a disaster. Operational is when there is. Talking about operational, everybody comes in, gets some training, and starts out as what we call a service associate, which is a worker bee. Then, if you want to get into supervision, you can. Then, you can become a manager, and that's what I am. For years, I just wanted to be a worker bee and then a supervisor. I really enjoyed being on the ground running shelters, which is a supervisor-level position. Just a couple or three years ago, I got my arm twisted to promote to manager and to work in headquarters. Then, above that there's Chief. Then there are a few specialized positions. Actually, I have a promotion packet in for Chief. Once I bit the bullet and agreed to work in headquarters instead of out in the field, they said, "Okay, we're moving you up." In addition, between disasters there are many, many activities. I'm a regional sheltering lead, so I'm in charge of making sure we have shelter agreements with a lot of places, and we know who to call at 2 AM if we need to open a shelter because there's been an apartment fire. I work heavily with our feeding lead, because when we put people in a shelter, we do need to feed them as well. Very important. I'm also the orientation training lead. There's lots of lead positions, and those are just running groups of preparedness activities. There's all kinds of hierarchy you can move up through even as a volunteer.
ZIERLER: Because you've served for so long, different presidential administrations, different political landscapes, what have you seen happening at the national level in Washington that might affect the Red Cross's capabilities in disaster response?
CHARLES: Okay, you're making me get political here.
ZIERLER: I asked a political question, absolutely.
CHARLES: There are what are called presidential declarations if you've got a big enough disaster. If you've got a local disaster and it gets big enough, then the state may step in and say, "Okay, this is big enough; the state will help." If it gets really big, then they submit a request to the federal government asking for a presidential declaration. That says the federal government will send in FEMA, they will have funds to help, and so forth. Of course, in our last administration, which I try to blot out of my mind, if you weren't a political supporter of the president, he was known to say, "We're certainly not gonna have FEMA help your state." So, it put things on a political basis, that before and after were on the basis of how bad the disaster was. In most administrations, I've not seen a big impact, because the parts of the federal government that focus on disaster work with the parts in the state government and the Red Cross, and we all just worked on the disaster. But we did have that one four-year period when it was a totally different matter. It's not that we didn't eventually get support here in California from the federal government, but it was slower and it was uncertain.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, for the last part of our talk, a few retrospective questions, and then we'll end looking to the future. Based on your current work, of all the things you've been involved in, what's most meaningful to you that you've done at Red Cross? Either in terms of helping an individual, or really influencing the positive response of the Red Cross to a particular disaster.
CHARLES: Although I've done a lot of big management things, it's been the individuals. Three or four examples come to mind, but to share one: a house fire in the middle of the night. I went out. There was a woman, well dressed, wearing jewelry, not our usual client. Her house had just burned down. So, I took her aside, and we sat on the curb under a street light, and we started talking. Here, I'm thinking it doesn't really look like she likely needs our help. It turned out—this was 2008, or it could have been the very beginning of 2009—she was a real estate agent. She hadn't sold a house in a year due to the economic circumstances. This was not her house. She was house sitting for a friend because she'd lost her own house. Her friend was traveling. She hawked her clothes and jewelry except enough so that she could look like a successful real estate agent. She was wearing what she had. She said, "This morning, I was thinking that I'd hit rock bottom. I was sitting at breakfast drinking my coffee and thinking, ‘I've hit rock bottom; it can't get worse.'" Then she said, "I came home and my house was on fire." Then she turned to me and she said, "But this day had a silver lining. You and the Red Cross were my silver lining."
ZIERLER: Aw, that's great.
CHARLES: So, I'm choking up. Things like that have happened a few times. I've got many, many memories I'm fond of, but it's memories like those that keep me at it. That's why I really am not really fond of the headquarters job. I like working with people because you have those experiences.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, in technology and engineering, all your work in Silicon Valley, what have you done that's been most rewarding in the way that technology and communications improves our lives?
CHARLES: Tiananmen Square happened at a point where I was wondering if what I was doing—I was in telecommunications, and we kept creating new capabilities. Voicemail certainly changed the world. We kept creating new capabilities, and I went through a period where I was thinking, "Well, that's well and good, and it's fun engineering, and people pay for it, so it's a good business model. But does it matter in the world?" And when Tiananmen Square happened, I realized communications is important. It's really important. It's important in places that have to get the word out. That was not what I was working on specifically, but that made me realize that communications was huge. It mattered in the world. That event totally changed the way I looked at my little piece of telecommunications and what I was doing, and it made me feel like it was a part of something important, even if it was just this little niche.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, what do you remember from your Caltech experience? Either with your interaction with professors, or learning how to solve problems, or understanding science, that stayed with you ever since, either in your technology or Red Cross careers.
CHARLES: I mentioned conservation principles before. It's easy to get way down deep in the details and the nitty-gritty of a problem, and some problems you don't have to do that. You can solve the problem by staying high-level and thinking "Everyone's gotta go somewhere." Or, "This energy is conserved." Whether it's conservation of evacuees or conservation of momentum in some sort of physical system, whatever it is, one of the things that really stuck with me was "Don't get down in the minutia if you don't have to—problem solving is great, but start at a high level, and stand back and look at the big picture, and you may come up with the answer easily, without drowning in the details. I try to always remember that, especially at the Red Cross, where there's always time pressure on your decisions, and there's always bad information. 90% of what we know at the beginning of a disaster isn't true, but we still have to make decisions. So, the idea of making decisions with incomplete information and from a high-level view, but making decisions that aren't going to come back and bite you if you're wrong. So, that's part problem solving, part decision making, and part just a philosophy of looking at the world. The world's a big, complicated place. You never know everything. You never have the perfect solution. You always have to make decisions, so how do you think enough but not too much about it? And make the decision in a timely fashion? And make sure that it's not going to come back and bite you later if you were wrong? That's probably a mindset that I developed at Caltech.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, would you say you've been an active alumni? Have you been involved in various alumni events?
CHARLES: Yes. I was burned out when I left Caltech. I actually didn't have anything to do with Caltech for a while. Then, Hugh Dubb, who was an alum up where I am, kind of dragged me in.I discovered how much fun it was to be a Caltech alum. We have wonderful people up here in the Bay Area that I used to see regularly at alumni events. Then I wound up on the Alumni Association Board. I did the seven or eight year track from incoming member to past president. I'd come back to campus for Seminar Day most years. Although I didn't go to Seminar Day for years, another Caltech alum said, "Stephanie, how could you not go to Seminar Day? Promise me you will go this year, and I will tell you you will always go after this." So, I went that year, and I did always go after that, until, obviously, COVID disrupted things. So, I get down to campus, even after I finished up my term on the Alumni Association Board. Usually for commencement, and usually for Seminar Day, and I also go to local events up here. We've had Zoom past presidents at alumni association meetings during COVID. I stayed involved—became re-involved a few years after I left, and have so enjoyed the people I've worked with. I like other alumni. I like the students, too. There were a lot more other alumni than there were students in my class. It's a great place to be from, as well as a really interesting place to be at.
ZIERLER: Stephanie, from your first class to today where the ratio is happily nearly 50/50 among undergraduate students at Caltech, what do you think accounts for that development? It's not necessarily inevitable that we could see the numbers that we have, so what do you think explains it?
CHARLES: There have been a lot of ups and downs, and I remember when I was on the Alumni Association Board, there was a distinct downturn, I think it was from—I'm pulling numbers out of the air here—but maybe 41% to 36%—a very noticeable drop one year. We looked at that a lot and decided the students were unhappy for a variety of reasons. Some of them completely valid, and some because what college student isn't unhappy? When we had the pre-frosh weekend where prospective students can come and visit the campus, they picked up on that. People generally decided that the young women were more strongly affected by the negative social vibes than the young men, so the number did a downturn. But most years, it stabilized just above 40%, and now it's grown up closer to 50%. I think part of that is just time passing. Part of it is the change from physics to computer science, which is the big topic if you're a student today. I think computer science is more open to women, although the nerd image is always male, but I still think computer science is more something that a young lady in high school might think of pursuing than physics would have been. That's probably a factor. I suspect it's a confluence of different things. Also, once you get past some percentage, and I have no clue what the percentage is, suddenly you're not going to be a part of a minority where being a female on a mostly male campus is a big deal. If you've got 40% women, that's pretty close to parity. You're not going to stand out because you're female. There are probably some young women who feel more comfortable—who became progressively more comfortable as the percentage got higher, which just tends to accelerate it. So, probably lots of sociological kinds of factors.
ZIERLER: Finally, Stephanie, last question looking to the future. Either in your ongoing connections and activities at Caltech, following what's happening in communications and technology, and of course your volunteer work at the Red Cross, what's most important to you? What do you want to accomplish as you look ahead?
CHARLES: I think probably the story I told you about the woman who said we were the silver lining. Those kind of experiences, and I've had many others or some number of others, those are very precious memories I take with me. So, my future probably has a lot more Red Cross. While I'm willing to work in headquarters, I really like working with the people who've been displaced and seeing what I can do to help them. Because it becomes plain that you're making a difference in somebody's life, and there aren't that many opportunities in this world to go out and know that you've made somebody's life better.That's what I treasure about the Red Cross. At first, as I said, it was all problem solving. But now, it's a chance to really make a difference and see that some individual's life is better because you were there.I want more of that.
ZIERLER: That sounds like with this opportunity, you're not slowing down anytime soon.
CHARLES: [laughs] I hope not. We have a lot of Red Cross volunteers even older than I am.
ZIERLER: Oh, that's great. Stephanie, this has been a wonderful conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this and capture your recollections. Thanks so much.
CHARLES: Enjoyed talking to you, David.