The world’s largest gathering of female technologists occurred earlier this month, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Orlando, Florida.
Featuring a diverse range of speakers including Melinda Gates, Dr Ayanna Howard and Mary Spio, the massive event was designed to celebrate the work of women in computing, inspired of course by Grace Hopper, one of the early pioneers of computer programming.
Below Ally Watson & Vanessa Doake, co-founders of local Australian startup Code Like A Girl, share what they learnt from the event.
As women who are usually the minority in a sea of men, it was a surreal feeling to be in Orlando, Florida where 18,000 women flocked to Grace Hopper, Celebration of Women in Computing.
Loud music, large screens, TV cameras and stage lights – Americans really know how to put on a show! As we sat anticipating the opening keynotes it was reminiscent of boyband concerts we’d attended when we were young. Even then, I don’t think we’d ever seen that many girls in a room before.
A recurring message resonated through the opening presentations. Technology is changing our world as we know it and we need to be mindful that machine values are human values. If we don’t improve the diversity in the creation and development of technology then it will never equally and fairly serve our society. The artificial intelligence of the future should be for all, and therefore be built by all.
One of our favourite talks of the day included the incredible opening keynote by Melinda Gates. She opened with a story of her first love…the Apple 3 Computer. She went on to tell us more about her high school life as a cheerleader by day and coder by night. She broke the mould and it was inspiring hearing about her passion for risk and problem-solving.
Choosing what sessions and talks we attended was really tough, but we were privileged to have made it to Diane Green’s talk on her life story and journey, influenced to pursue engineering by her father who worked for Nasa. Diane founded one of the most popular tools known to devs – VMware. She also founded two other extremely successful start ups and is now on the board of Google Cloud – taking this arm of the business from a start up to an industrial strength company.
Find your tribe
Our favourite session on day two of the event was the opening keynote from Debbie Sterling, CEO & founder of GoldieBlox, an interactive toy company for girls.
This small-town girl from a public school shared the story of many tough times as a student and young entrepreneur. She began with her struggle at Stanford to conquer a Mechanical Engineering degree with no prior experience or education in the subject. She pulled all-nighters to scrape C average grades and the steep learning curve she experienced would constantly conjure up feelings of self-doubt and defeat.
Her undeniable curiosity, contagious passion and drive to make and create, steered her through the dark times. Little did she know what bright a future awaited her. The graduate spent seven years searching for a greater purpose to utilise her degree. She joined forces on a friend’s idea for mechanical toys for girls. They asked, “why were all girls toys pink, why did only boy’s toys focus on mechanical and problem-solving?” And the war on the pink aisle began. At first a side hustle, this slowly turned into a serious business venture. With little budget, she taped and tinkered with toys she created from cardboard, safety pins and string and she was finally ready to start pitching. Momentum built and the founders landed themselves an interview with YCombinator.
When Debbie walked into the interview room with a cloth over the prototypes, she was asked by one of the six suited men that sat in the room, “Did you bring us cookies?…” Ycombinator rejected them advising that they were trying to do too much with the idea and should focus on one direction. The devastated team of volunteers abandoned the idea followed by her co-founder. Debbie, the now broken and lone entrepreneur, persevered. She followed through with fundraising shortly after. Alone, she raised $400,000 in investment allowing her to start the company and a kickstarter campaign. This led to $1 million in pre-orders and a partnership with Toys R Us.
Pass it on
Just when we thought the conference couldn’t squeeze any more feels out of us they hit us with the closing keynotes on day three.
We cried, we laughed and we waved our fists with feminist pride and power. Day three’s overwhelming theme was to ‘pass it on’. Following was a succession of awards and celebrations of women who’d overcome obstacles to succeed and pave the way for those that followed. One of the stand out successes was Deborah Berebichez who was the first Mexican women to earn a PhD in Physics at Stanford.
Overall it was nothing short of an incredibly inspiring three days and our only wish would be to send every girl interested in technology to the Grace Hopper Conference. There was an evident shared feeling of belonging, which as a minority you very rarely feel.
Some of the key quotes we heard:
“We have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can play a role in AI.”
Fei-Fei Li, Professor and Director of Stanford University’s AI Lab, Chief Scientist, Google Cloud AI/ML
“We have to open the flood gates and turn a trickle into a torrent.”
Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Philanthropist. Businesswoman. Mother.
“Define your vision and goal then hold on to it. Throw yourself fully at them but be mindful of the world as it is, as you change it.”
Diane Green, CEO, Google Cloud, Board Member, Alphabet
“Find yourself a tribe that will help you say ‘yes’, especially when it’s easier to say no.”
Marie Claire Murekatete, ABIE award winner 2017 – change agent
“The ongoing debates about whether the lack of diversity is due to a pipeline problem or a tech culture problem has failed to accurately frame the problem: that there are a complex set of biases and barriers that begin in pre-school and persist through the workplace.”
Freada Kapor Klein, Kapor Center for Social Impact
“Surround yourself with people who understand the struggle.”
Stephanie Lampkin, CEO & Founder of Blendoor