International Women’s Day 2017

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The transcript of a talk I did for International Women’s Day 2017 #BeBoldForChange

100% of what holds me back is fear based. I’m a worrier, and for a long time I let that fact define me.

Today I’m going to speak about the local women’s networking group and dinner series I’ve helped co-ordinate for the past 2 seasons and have taken over for the 2017 season. Girl Geeks is a global organization, and in 2010 the local KW chapter was started. Each month we bring together technically inclined women for a dinner and a talk. We partner with local technology companies as much as possible, to tour their spaces and provide networking opportunities. You can connect with us on Twitter and Meetup.

More importantly today, I want to talk about WHY Girl Geeks exists and a few of my own personal experiences being a woman in technology.  

I remember my first time at a women’s networking group. I had heard about this one from a co-op student at Blackberry. It was at the Rum Runner Pub which was a bar under the Walper Hotel on King St. Meetup was not around yet, and this was the only women’s networking group in the region that I knew of.  In the back room beside the pool tables a group of about 40 professional women stood around tables and appetizers. Some looked angry, some looked sad, some – like me – looked a little lost. I took a seat to the side, wallflower style and waited for the talk to start. I didn’t say a single word that entire meeting. My social anxiety was bad at that point, especially in new situations, but I listened…

These women were facing both casual and blatant sexism. The talks were what you’d expect with messages of empowerment and coping strategies and the networking usually involved at least one woman breaking into tears. Because at this point we weren’t talking about educating and changing the world – we were talking about how to get through the next work day.

Eventually these women became my mentors and sponsors and the people I turned to. When I decided to end my co-op term with BlackBerry early, they connected me with my first startup. I became the lead developer of a technology startup that was making hiring software. I loved it in the beginning, but I could always tell it was hard for people to take me seriously. I had so much going against me in their minds. I was young – at that point 22. I hadn’t graduated yet. I was a woman somewhere I didn’t belong, and in a role I didn’t deserve. It was a huge contributor to the stress that made me leave. I didn’t have the confidence to realize that what these people (both men and women) were, was disrespectful and uninformed, rather  than commenting on any true reflection of my skills and qualifications.

It was gender and age bias. Unfortunately, this kind of bias, unconscious or not, starts before going out into the workforce.

The only other female student in my class was once asked by a visiting company if she was “the princess of the classroom”. I was once told that I should do a documentation project on “washing dishes” because it should be a specialty of mine.  It’s this kind of casual sexism I’ve found more than anything in my life to be most harmful. It can be hidden in a joke and if you are offended then you are seen as ruining the fun, not perpetuating a harmful stereotype that leads to inequality.

I was a mess and a half in my final year of college. I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do and was having so much trouble deciding where my time should be spent. I was working full time for the school on a research project, taking four classes, and didn’t have any social life beyond work events and the odd volunteering project. I had also tried to start back up a women in tech group at the college which had few members but took a lot of my time. I felt like I needed to say yes to every opportunity to “prove myself”. And I was exhausted. I sent an email to a woman who I had met a few times and felt was living the life I wanted. She was a successful developer, lead a local user group, was active in the community and seemed really happy. She told me I should really only be doing three things: 1 thing for money, 1 thing for the community, and 1 thing for myself. The rest I had to let go in terms of projects, as I was quickly running myself into the ground.

What that really meant for me was giving myself permission to drop a few courses and graduate later. Who cares if it takes you two years instead of one to finish your diploma? I promise the piece of paper means the same. Permission again to leave an insanely high stress job and go do something that required less of my soul while I got my life together. And to still give back, because that is what motivates me and brings value into my life. We also talked a lot about Walking Dead… because priorities.

I met one of my good friends at a Girl Geeks meeting. I hadn’t been to a dinner in a while. This one was a partnership with Fluxible and was hosted at The Accelerator Center in Waterloo. The speaker was awesome, the food was great, but it was the organizer that I remember that night. She was fierce, and I just remember being blown away by her presence and confidence. Honestly, the embodiment of “do no harm, but take no shit”. If I could give some middle-of-the-story advice it would be to bring the people that inspire you into your life wherever you can. I emailed her after and asked her what I could do to be a part of Girl Geeks. They just happened to need a new website. I obliged. We like to joke now that we saw each other and just decided in that moment to be good friends. Two years later and I don’t let her live down that we run a geek club and she has never seen a single Star Wars movie.

We had a mission. The committee at Girl Geeks consisted of 5 women that year and we nicknamed ourselves the crusade. Our goal more than anything was to increase the female presence at events in the tech community, and at the same time work to build the network that would allow Girl Geeks to become successful.

So why is this all important, and why tell you now? Each of these women came into my life through a networking opportunity, which started with me  literally being brave enough to show up somewhere. They may not know the impact they had, but I remember each of them.

I want to live by constantly learning, and watching, and giving back where I can. Because I want to pay forward , the help that amazing women have given me. I want to provide a safe space to do so, see some of the region’s coolest tech spaces, eat some overpriced, delicious food, and talk about Batman and algorithm efficiency – if possible in the same sentence. And we are fortunate to be part of building a community that more than welcomes that.

Girl Geeks when I started averaged about 10 – 20 women monthly. Now depending on the event space we can easily pack a room with 30 – 60 women. We’ve built a community of over 550 women in the region – largely because of the reach moving to Meetup has given us, and because of the passion the technology community here has.

We have a clear mission:

We collaborate with local technology and catering businesses for food and space.

We inspire through providing networking opportunities with a focus on women and increasing the female presence at technology events.

We build relationships with other organizations, and contribute to enriching and improving our community.

I realized that as I get older I am a product of my experiences, and the experiences of those around me. I’ve been so fortunate to have been influenced by some extraordinary women in our community; to know that small, kind, interactions have the biggest impact, and most importantly that 100% of whatever is holding you all back is fear based.

On that note, I would like to turn the conversation over to you. Is there something holding you back?

Take baby steps to overcome that fear. The first step for me was that one socially awkward wallflower moment which helped scrape a little fear away.  

 

Speaking for International Women’s Day 2017 at D2L #BeBoldForChange #IWD2017

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