Experiences from Grace Hopper Celebration 2019 and our commitment to tech gender equity
WePay as a company is committed to bringing more women into tech and one of the ways to bring more women in tech is to create more women leaders and entrepreneurs. WePay is proud to sponsor the Grace Hopper Celebration’s PitcHER competition – which spotlights women entrepreneurs who are leading early-stage technology startups that have a positive impact on society and empower women or children. We also send a contingent of employees every year to attend the celebration and bring back lessons and approaches that they and we can use to work toward tech gender equity.
This year’s GHC started by sharing a mission to reach 50/50 tech gender equity by 2025. To fulfill this mission, Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of AnitaB.org, encouraged us all to join in on the 50/50 commitment by coming up with #WeWill or #IWill statements to change the direction of the tech industry.
Some of the inspiring statements that we heard during the 3 days from different speakers were:
“We will own who we are”“We will think big and be transformative”“We will surround ourselves with people who cheer us on”“We will ignite the genius in every child”“We will not apologize for our opinions”“We will take our power and channel it to a commitment”
We were so inspired by the theme that some of our WePay engineers who attended the conference this year decided to commit with their own #IWill statements and share their thoughts, experiences and learnings from GHC 2019.
Shay Lin, Senior Software Engineer
“I will speak up for diversity in tech.”
Arriving at Orange County Convention Center, seeing the center and surrounding hotels literally packed with women and long lines at women’s restrooms, I felt uplifted and almost overwhelmed by the positive energy. I couldn’t help but wonder: “do we still need to promote Women In Tech seeing so many of us today?” Four days later, I can say affirmatively, YES. GHC19 shed light on issues like Design Inclusivity and Gender/Race/Geo Diversity in Technology which echo with me strongly. As a woman engineer from China, I felt more compelled than ever to step up, not just for myself, but to encourage younger generations from my background.
At the Design Inclusivity in AI panel, Sophia Velastegui, General Manager of Product in AI from Microsoft, discussed how “smart” thermostats developed by male engineers failed women consumers at the first market launch because the training data and test cases were largely unbalanced towards the body temperature of an average man. The crowd burst into laughter – the conference room was freezing and many were wearing down jackets. The same imbalance applies to hearing devices, Poppy Crum, Chief Scientist from Dolby pointed out. The panel went on to discuss more gaps in diversity, including racial and geographically underrepresented groups.
At the Student of Vision Abie Award Panel, Mehul Smriti Raje spoke about her motivation to start her career. There were so few women creators in STEM fields that, “growing up in India and aspiring to be a technologist, my role model was Bill Gates.” The unbalanced gender ratio throughout her academic journey to become a computer scientist, has made collaboration difficult, and left her facing issues like anxiety and low self confidence. “Lead by example and join hands with male allies,” she said, “I have learned the best way to promote my organization and influence others is to lead a life by the way you believe in.”
I’m looking forward to a world where we have Bill Gates’s of all diversities, and knowing we are a long way from that, I will strive to lead, help and speak up. My favorite words from the Closing Keynote, “courage is not something you have, courage is something you practice, courage is something you share with others.” This was said by Dr. Vivienne Ming, Theoretical Neuroscientist, Technologist and Entrepreneur, Founder of Socos Labs.
Sarah Kaplan, Software Engineer
“I will advocate for accessibility”
As an engineer on the WePay UI/UX team, I was most interested in sessions about web accessibility. In one of these sessions, Ed Summers, a software engineer who is blind and serves as an accessibility specialist at SAS, demonstrated the SAS Graphics Accelerator, which transforms graphs and other data visualizations into alternate formats so that users with visual impairments can access and explore the data. In addition to representing data with text descriptions and tables that could be read by a screen reader, Summers demonstrated a feature called interactive sonification – the data from a graph was represented through music where the tempo and pitch of the music matched the curve of the line in the graph. Listening to this presentation, I realized that I assume certain content is inherently visual. Summers emphasized the importance of separating the structure of information from the presentation of information. A graph is a visual presentation of data, but the important information is about the structure of the data, which can be represented in many non-visual formats.
I was also struck by the way that Summers defined disability. He referenced a World Health Organization definition of disability, explaining that “disability arises based on the interaction between a person and their environment.” Summers emphasized that people do not have disabilities, rather we create disabilities when we design and build things that are not accessible. A person who uses a wheelchair does not have a disability; a disability arises when that person tries to access a building that does not have a wheelchair ramp. A person who is visually impaired does not have a disability; a disability arises when that person needs to use a website that doesn’t work with a screen reader. This talk made me think about my responsibility as an engineer on the UI/UX team to keep accessibility at the forefront of my mind.
Vibha Dharmendra Bhambhani, Software Engineer
“I will support endeavors and help innovate in application of tech for betterment of human life.”
One of the events I attended this year was PitcHER. The organizers ended up selecting 11 teams instead of the scheduled 10 teams – which shows how participants exceeded expectations and the adaptability and willingness of the organizers to appreciate talent. Most of the ideas were derived from real problems faced personally by the innovators. The ages of innovators, their experiences and domains were spread across a wide range but all of the innovations had one thing in common – persistence. All of them are working hard to build great products and are sure-shot winners. One that particularly stood out for me was the bedsores application medical device for a preventable healthcare condition. Just knowing how many health issues can be taken care of by reducing the prices of medical device illustrates the incredible capacity in terms of innovation and betterment of human life. Dr. Sanna Gaspard of Rubitection Inc created a device which was 96% accurate, costing in the $1000 range, compared to between 5 and 20 times the cost of alternative machines. As a Wepay employee I am glad we are funding events that enable such innovators.
I loved the radically honest conversations people were having in general, how approachable everyone was and how everyone wants to work together for the upliftment of women in tech in general. At one of the talks I attended, Kathryn O’Donnell discussed how she is building her organization, Clovis Technologies, and its work culture to not count face time, but instead actual work, which is something a lot of working mothers and fatherts could benefit from. This reminded me of a talk by Indra Nooyi where she shared how she focuses on creating a work place where you can bring yourself to work completely.
The closing discussion featured amazing women sharing their experiences. Yamilée Toussaint Beach combined her love for dance and her engineering degree to create an electronics based dance routine. This is aimed at getting women engaged in tech at an early age. I would recommend checking out the video. The room was filled with excitement, innovation and possibility for a future where we can use our strengths and talents to create an amazing world for women in tech and as a whole.
Bhuvana Kadapakkam, Senior Software Engineer
“I will encourage and support future and fellow women in tech”
A few years back, I had the opportunity to teach coding to kids with autism. At that time, I did not know much about autism. As I interacted with the kids, I realized how smart they were, but that they didn’t have the right tools to communicate with others. I wondered what the future of these kids would be. At GHC, I heard Jhillika Kumar (Student of Vision Abie Award winner) talk about her autistic brother. He had never spoken a word to her until one day, they brought home an IPad, and he was able to use it with ease and communicate with her. She realized that people with disabilities need the right tools, and she was motivated to be an advocate for disability rights and focus on creating an inclusive world. She is also a founder of mentra.me, which focuses on getting 100K autistic adults into the workforce by 2025. How awesome is that?
Speaking of inclusivity, Dr. Fei Fei Li also mentioned we need to create a more human-centered AI which augments human behaviors and emotions. She also said that a diverse set of people should be involved in designing such algorithms to avoid bias in AI.