She's Geeky offers a space for women in STEAM to connect

She's Geeky offers a space for women in STEAM to connect

Julie Ross Godar interviewed She's Geeky co-organizer, Estee Solomon Gray, about the work She's Geeky is doing to give women in STEAM careers a space to connect. One-Day Special Edition of She's Geeky Unconference on Jan 28th in the Bay Area to be with each other as women in STEAM engage with issues in this unprecedented time. Sign up for the event here.

What are the goals of She's Geeky?

Generally to connect and inspire women in STEAM. To continually surface key topics, to address pressing issues and questions, to stimulate innovation and connection across disciplines, industries, and generations.

To learn from and with each other. To push the boundaries of language and practice to say what now needs to be said and build what now needs to be built.

She’s Geeky does not try to replace other women in tech or engineering monthly meetups or communities our goal is to connect what is now a flourishing landscape of networks and conferences and programs with a unique, freewheeling space for cross-pollination, inspiration, and support women to women.

What do you want every participant to walk away with?

Very practical stuff: A solution to a problem. Insight into a new tool, practice, buzzword, technology. The confidence that comes from putting out a topic and/or making a session meaningful for others too. The next gig, a new partner, an ally, a friend. Whatever it takes to not leave the industry or a company whose mission you still appreciate but whose workstyle or culture hurts. The ability to see and take a different next step and a few faces to turn to as you do. A good laugh or three. At least one totally unexpected takeaway. And a sense of being part of making the tech-infused future more female than it has been.

We want every participant to walk away savoring that special sense of deep learning, others’ experience gathering, insight sharing, worldview extension, connection and confirmation that she already knows tends arise from conversations and collaborations among women dealing with what I call the everyday “business of life.” We want every participant to walk away more comfortable with showing, sharing and optimizing the multiple roles and intersecting identities she is made of. And we want every participant to walk away carrying the core of an answer to the question of how the technology, or science, or math, or art she is producing might be made to better serve and reflect her values.

How did the idea to launch these events come about?

From conversation between a couple of women geeky enough to be holding their own in some very techy conversations that were early enough, foundational enough, and technically gnarly enough to require crossing not only existing company and industry bounds but those separating sectors: corporate, nonprofit, public sector, and academia.

As She’s Geeky founder Kaliya Young describes it, everywhere she went a few women were playing key roles in these technology and market-defining conversation. In most places they were starting to come together internally and at the occasional industry event but had no awareness of or access to their counterparts in other industries and sectors. So she and a few others decide to create a way for that to happen for geeky women of any and all ages, disciplines, and job descriptions to literally see and hear
one another, unmediated by others.

The UnConference format was a perfect match in that it relies on something that women tend to do naturally: bring themselves and their questions into a face to face event and then quickly and effectively orchestrate a multithreaded conversation that fits the time, space and people in the room or at the table.

When one of them remembered the cover of a 2006 anthology called “She’s Such a Geek: Women write about science, technology and other nerdy stuff,” they pounced and launched the first She’s Geeky, in the Bay Area, in 2007. Twenty events in 6 US cities have happened since. Each low budget, high impact, locally organized and amazingly diverse.

How do you define "geeky"?

Loosely. And proactively. Following the advice of women leaders like Gloria Feldt to define your own terms first (before someone else defines you) and to “use what you’ve got.”

“Geek” is a slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream
people. In current use, however, the word typically connotes an expert or enthusiast or a person passionately engaged with what others consider obscure, technical or niche topics. Such topics typically require a command of detail and the ability to construct, enter, navigate, and interact with a whole dynamic system or universe. Relative to
the term 'nerd,' geekiness implies a bias toward action, as in “Geeks Get It Done.” When applied to women, geeky also means busting stereotypes of what it means to be a geek. She’s Geeky is both a celebration and a call to arms.

What's an unConference?

Unconference methods range from anything more organized then a cocktail party and less organized than talking heads on panel. At She’s Geeky we use a method called Open Space Technology. We begin each day with a blank wall and, with a facilitator guiding the process, in less than an hour attendees create a full, multitrack conference agenda that is relevant and inspiring to all. At a She’s Geeky unConference we ask participants to volunteer to create digital notes of each session, if appropriate, and contribute them to the whole for posting on the event website. The day ends with a closing circle where highlights and insights from the day are shared and sometimes there is a whole group conversation.

All participants are welcome to propose conversations, which means that breaking issues in their fields, or for women in general, can be discussed and are not restricted to an agenda created months in advance. We find that many people have similar ideas about sessions. As a result, this creates rich dialogue, collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. UnConferences are now common addenda to tech industry conference. They are highly valued as the time and place to think out loud with others and spend some time actively learning with colleagues pushing the limits.

Tell me about the Special Convening. How is it different, and what prompted it?

Over Thanksgiving weekend a small group gathered to consider what the second decade of She’s Geeky might be. Midway through the strategy discussion (what’s changed, what’s needed, is there a brand here, etc) we realized that the customary date for the annual two day “mothership” SG Bay Area event fell a week after the Inauguration and the rumored #womensmarch’s. In an instant, it was clear that this year of all years, a place to regroup, reenergize and redirect our efforts for the everyday haul ahead was essential. No woman we know was unaffected by the campaign, the election, the transition , and the reactions of Silicon Valley personalities and businesses thus far. So we pared it to one day. We added an Organizing Question: "What are WE, the women of tech and STEAM, doing in this time?" We decided to trust that the we could cover expenses mainly with participant fees and contributions. And went for it.

What's the experience like for moms and daughters?

Speaking as a mom, it’s a rare and wonderful thing to be able to bring one’s child into one’s adult world in its naturally occurring form. In the past, ‘tween and teen daughters have tagged along with mom, proposed and led sessions, come for a few hours or stayed and participated all day. And never ignored by the crowd, as you might imagine.

One of the phenomena we’ve been noticing recently is moms and daughters both working in tech. Can’t wait to start asking about and hearing what that’s like!

What was the most memorable take‐away you've ever gotten from She's Geeky?

For me, truthfully, it was something about the meaning and prevalence of 'geeky' and nd how it shows up in women. I’m a Boomer. I have BA in neurophysiology and biomechanics (I had been a dancer) from Yale, MBA and an MSEE (computer architecture) degree from Stanford. I came to Silicon Valley when it was semiconductor driven and decades later found myself back on the Stanford campus as a visiting scholar in social entrepreneurship. I co-wrote one of the most quoted nontechnical articles in tech industry history for the launch edition of Fast Company magazine in 1995 (“the People are the Company”).

I remember sitting in a cluster of chairs in the hall at the Computer History Museum and seeing what I identified as geekily-dressed young woman with a great look, thoroughly absorbed in listening to the session and I knew suddenly that I’d have looked just like her were I born a decade or two later. I’d have seen my own quite celebrated “analytical” skills as much deeper, multicolored and masterful than I knew to see them then.

How has the tech culture changed, if at all, since the first She's Geeky in 2007?

Huge changes. iOs and its inbuilt visual, tactile, and social functionality was brand new in 2007. BlogHer was still asking that brilliant opening question, “Where are the women bloggers?” We knew they were there but literally couldn’t see them. Now we know and see women in tech. We see smart female face and forms grace the covers and pages of tech pubs. Grace Hopper is an annual rite. But there’s also a huge elephant in the Valley. And broculture pervades entrepreneurship in ways seen and spoken and not. Some see a low point in women’s acceptance as tech professionals relative to the mid 80s, when personal technology was just emerging.

Many more things are speakable today than a decade ago and many more networks enable the speaking. Women are VERY connected. Collaboration is considered a basic business competency in most tech organizations. Employers and investors are beginning to acknowledge that “pipeline” is no longer the main problem. “Implicit bias” training and revamped hiring processes are widely understood as necessary but not sufficient. You could say that the table is now set for going beyond “the low hanging fruit.” In my opinion, figuring out the basics of relational productivity and rewarding, promoting, and designing products for them is the next battleground.

How do you typically address the "A" in STEAM at an unConference?

First of all, by recognizing it. It was at my first She’s Geeky that I first understood that many of the younger women in the room had entered the tech world through the door of design, powered by what we now call the Maker ethos. They were entering through the then emerging craft of building websites, of designing software experiences, of creating blogs, or working for tech companies doing those jobs . In the process they found themselves learning to code, establishing mastery in what we know call digital
media, making rich contributions to product and marketing teams, going to grad school and on.

It was a quiet phenomenon for a long time because, like much else relating to women, it felt risky to talk about. Nor did we have the language, until recently when the A formally got added to STEM.

Each year, each unConference, the A shows up differently depending on the participants and the program that emerges. But one look around the room tends to make the point pretty quickly.

I read that you want to take it to the next level this year. What are you planning to level up in 2017?

We’re open to shifting everything from refining the brand and how She’s Geeky adds value to a bubbling ecosystem to the format and variety of She’s Geeky events. From the mix of curated (i.e. invited) and emergent content to the staffing model (extremely minimal to date.). We intended to start 2017 by asking and listening and convening small groups in the first half of the year, speaking with potential funders, women in the first decade of their career, women leaving or resuming their careers.

Then November 9th happened.

At this point, a "full" She’s Geeky Bay Area is in the works for May 2017 to build upon what happens on the 28th and start manifesting what’s required by these very special times.

Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with our
community?

One of our ‘uplevelings’ for 2017 is an attempt to build upon the new giving habits many women adopted over the last year by adding “personal”, “team”, and “girlfriend group” sponsorship options with appropriate recognition :). One of the tenets of the Open Space Technology movement is that whoever is in the room is the right set of people to have the conversation. But geeky women who are not in the
room also benefit, in part through their friends, team members, etc,  and know they do.  So we hope to create a new tradition of women directly funding women-to-women
conversation through national, cross-disciplinary nonprofits like She’s Geeky.

Follow Estee Solomon Gray on LinkedIn and Twitter. Contact her at estee@shesgeeky.org.