“Not just to find your voice, but helping the woman next to you find hers,” said the organizers of the first ever ELA Conf during their opening remarks. ELA stands for “Empowerment, Leadership, Action” and it was organized by members of Girl Develop It! in Philadelphia this past weekend. This is the prevailing ethos that I have encountered ever since I timidly stepped into my first New York Tech Women meetup over two years ago. Back then I had the vague notion that I wanted to to shift from working in arts nonprofits to working in tech, but only knew about four people actually in the tech field. I felt like such an impostor walking into that first meetup, not knowing anyone. I thought, “No one is going to want to talk with me, I’m just in the arts.” The reaction was quite the opposite. I was welcomed with open arms and people commented that my arts experience was “cool.”
Two years later and I’m speaking at my first tech focused conference (not including SxSW, which I spoke at in 2014 just before I officially started working at a startup). While I’ve done extensive public speaking to artists, creative entrepreneurs and the handmade/craft community, since shifting to tech I’ve done very little speaking that isn’t directly tied to pitching my company. This fall I decided it was time to change that. I was excited about ELA Conf because it was not only offering women a platform to share their knowledge, but teach and encourage each other.
In short, ELA Conf was awesome.
Keynote speaker Saron Yitbarek, the founder of the Code Newbie podcast, talked about the importance of “punching your feelings in the face” when it came to fear around negotiating and asking for more. She reminded us that “Find your your power is a long and uncomfortable journey.” After years of education, work, negotiation, learning not to be afraid of negotiation or conflict (I’m still working on this), and pushing myself towards new opportunities, I can attest that, indeed, honing the ability to stand up for myself and trust that I am worth standing up for has been a long road.
Tracy Osborn, author of Hello Web App and founder of Wedding Lovely, captured a sentiment that I learned the hard way in my career, which is “Don’t wait until you are miserable [in a job] to inform yourself [about what other people at your company or in your industry are making and how much you are worth].” Every speaker was super on point. A panel of female founders talking real talk about how difficult it is to raise money as a woman and how they learned not to undervalue themselves and their businesses. I loved the femme power of Adrienne Lowe, who talked about being your authentic self in your tech talk and in tech, which for her means baking cookies and wearing her best dress.
This conference resonated with me on a deeper level. Earlier in the fall I was lucky enough to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing with my company. The Grace Hopper conference is a valuable asset to the tech industry, but aside from meeting the most bad ass game developer ever, Brianna Wu, I found the conference was interesting professionally and from an industry standpoint, but fell flat on a personal level. For me, it’s grassroots conferences like ELA Conf where women working in tech can cut through the corporate hype and forge real connections. ELA Conf I got to get over being star struck and got to forge meaningful relationships with other women in my field. There was also a push to broaden what “women in tech” means, which I felt especially grateful for. As someone who does not work as a developer I do find it interesting that, as Gloria Bell said on a panel about redefining women in tech, “Men who work in tech in non-tech roles still consider themselves ‘in tech.” Many women consider themselves ‘tech adjacent.'” I am completely 100% guilty of perpetuating this disparity and feeling like “the other woman in tech” and I promise that after this weekend I no longer will be.
And what did I talk about? Concrete, tactical steps for leveraging your passion project, whether that’s contributing to open source or making beef jerky or writing, to sustainably enhance your career and help you grow and follow (and feel good about) your own, unique path. This is the path I followed to shoehorn myself into community management and marketing roles in the tech industry and I admit that even though I’ve spoken extensively I felt nervous and asked myself “What do I possibly have to share that has not already been shared?” To my delight, I was welcomed and participants found my talk useful AND hilarious. Amazing. If you are curious, here are my (minimal) slides.
What this conference really showed me was the power of the personal story and how many women in tech, who come from very diverse backgrounds, also have a lot of common ground, from determination and grit to break into and stay in this field, to learning the hard way how to speak up and value themselves. And for me, I feel like this is exactly why I wanted to be a part of this community and exactly what I hoped to find. A surprising side benefit was that many women came up to me after my talk and told me they were also working in the arts and had similar frustrations about lack of opportunities and the glass ceilings they had encountered there.
While the larger tech world, just like the larger world, is hardly a feminist utopia, it’s awesome to find a pocket of people who have your back and you can have theirs. That’s what motivates me to keep pushing myself forward and learning and growing in my career. It really reinforced my idea that community is power and when you talk frankly about issues and take steps together to be critical and develop strategies to address them things can, will, and must change.
In addition, my whole tech experience has been working with awesome, smart and powerful women. I know this is not the reality in many companies and teams, but if I’ve seen anything at both ELA Conf and Grace Hopper (and the many women in tech and diversity in tech meetups and workshops I’ve been to and sponsored and supported this fall) it’s that if your company feels it lacks gender and racial diversity it is simply not looking hard enough or working hard enough to address cultural issues that keep people from joining or staying. There’s really no excuses. I feel that if the current tech culture doesn’t change it will simply be surpassed. Move over, mainstream, we are awesome, we are organized, and we are the current and future powerhouses of this industry.
And what’s awesome mean anyway? In the words of Chanelle Henry, who gave the closing remarks, “Being awesome is being your authentic self.”