by Alaina Kafkes

Lessons Learned from Leading Women in Tech Organizations

WiC takes #GHC16!

Without keeping life’s stressors in check, any well-intentioned community leader could crumble as an individual while simultaneously attempting to serve their community.

This article is part-guidebook, part-reflection on my leadership of women in technology communities at Northwestern. I’ve codified some of the lessons I’ve had to learn — sometimes the hard way — into eight points of advice for future leaders.

Though I speak from my experience as a woman in leadership, many of these points are not unique to women. Other underrepresented minorities may find them relatable, too.

My Background in Code and Community-Building

My interests in coding and community-building have always gone hand in hand. Before I even declared my computer science major, I joined the executive board of Northwestern University’s Women in Computing (WiC).

After an unforgettable experience at #GHC15, I sought to build WiC into a women in technology community rather than a club. I piloted an undergraduate-graduate mentorship program. I connected groups of WiC members with local technology-oriented non-profits like She Is Code.

Soon after being chosen as co-president of WiC, I approached my fellow WiC co-president with an ambitious idea: founding a newcomer-friendly, interdisciplinary women’s hackathon right here in Chicago. And just a few days ago, we released hacker applications for the inaugural BuildHer.

I consider myself lucky to have played a part in the growth of WiC and the instantiation of BuildHer. When I graduate Northwestern, I firmly believe that these organizations will continue their upward trends in attracting and satisfying members. I feel immense joy when I envision future generations of Northwestern women advancing the community-building missions of WiC and BuildHer.

Last week, WiC opened up applications for its executive board — the first one I won’t be a part of. Although I have many incredible memories from WiC and BuildHer, it would be irresponsible of me to treat the role of leader as the “paragon” amongst women in technology.

Yes, many women in the WiC community seemed to know and admire me, but leading women in technology communities did not make me “perfect” — far from it. At times, I struggled to balance my commitments, and I felt like I couldn’t give my all to WiC and BuildHer, let alone my academics, my professional opportunities, my friends and family, and my well-being.

But serving as a women in technology community leader has taught me so much more than it has taken from me.

Without further ado, here’s my advice for future community-builders and leaders.

Lesson #1: Running women in technology communities can lead to the erasure of the leader’s academic and/or vocational passions within technology.

Championing the cause of women in technology can feel all-consuming for individuals, and this sentiment is only exacerbated amongst community-builders. Because I spent so much of my energy shaping WiC and supporting its members, I did not seek out opportunities to pursue other technological interests beyond advocating for women in technology.
My primary identity in technology communities became “woman” or “leader” even though I have a whole host of tech-y passions such as health tech and blockchain.

Though I stand in solidarity with all women in technology, I believe that serving as a leader in organizations like WiC and BuildHer temporarily usurped my passions and diminished my identity. Only after I realized this and re-evaluated how I spent my time was I able to rekindle my other computing interests.

Lesson #2: Select future leaders based on passion, vision, and empathy, not raw technical ability.

Meg — my BuildHer co-founder — opened my eyes to these first two criteria as we sifted through applications for potential BuildHer co-organizers. One of her insights in particular struck me: successful, dedicated women in technology leaders should care as much — if not more! — about the cause as about coding itself. Choosing our fellow BuildHer co-organizers based off the aspirations and dreams they shared with us has blessed us with a board that has devoted themselves to making the inaugural BuildHer successful. Case in point: a few BuildHer co-organizers stayed up all night to paint Northwestern’s famous rock with the BuildHer logo and hashtag to increase our campus presence.

Aside from passion and vision, I firmly believe that empathy is another key trait to select for in women in technology leaders. I’ll discuss that in more detail below.

Lesson #3: All leaders lead, but the best leaders must empathize.

This is especially true for community-driven organizations like WiC. I am proud of the many milestones that WiC hit while I was co-president — how we grew WiC from 10 attendees to over 70 at our biggest events, for instance — but they cannot hold a candle to the heart-to-hearts that I’ve had with WiC members about our hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears. I believe that my greatest impact on WiC — or, perhaps on Northwestern’s computer science community as a whole — has been convincing dozens of women that they belong in this hyper-competitive albeit exciting and rewarding industry.

WiC Whiteboards: Why do you support women in STEM?
Thank you to everyone that came out to take pictures and express their support for women in STEM!

In ten years, people are more likely to remember the personal impact someone had on them as a leader rather than the specific initiatives implemented by that person. This principle applies beyond the scope of running women in technology communities, so I hope to carry it with me throughout life.

Lesson #4: There is a secret formula for increasing participation in women in technology communities.

I’ve found a few common characteristics shared by WiC’s most attended events between 2015 and 2017. They are:

  • Plan, advertise, and execute a killer back-to-school event that gets members hyped about forthcoming events and opportunities
  • Host events frequently and at consistent times/locations
  • Brainstorm events that will share a skill, teach a new concept, or otherwise add value to your community
  • Encourage regular, candid feedback from both executive and general members to incorporate into future event planning

Oh, and don’t forget to throw a non-technical social event from time to time! According to WiC’s most recent feedback survey, community tops the list of things WiC members wish to gain by being a part of WiC.

Lesson #5: Use your network to connect people to each other and to the overarching community.

Though I knew almost every WiC member by name, not everyone else did. Often, I would experience major déjà vu when talking to a WiC member, only to realize that I’d had a similar conversation with another WiC member recently! I would capitalize on these opportunities to create and strengthen friendships within WiC by introducing members with related interests to one another.

Besides building a interwoven community, connecting members with related interests can also drive innovation and entrepreneurship. Recent example: I connected two sophomores who wanted to further explore health tech, and now they are coding a menstrual health app at the Feinberg School of Medicine. How rad is that?

When members of a community bond, they tend to stick with the greater community, too; even if someone pursued tech out of genuine interest, the friendships that they will build in organizations like WiC can convince them to stay in tech.

Lesson #6: Be wary of hyper-competitiveness.

Personal accounts that I’ve heard from the women of WiC suggest that being among the only women in a class, research group, or other community can amplify the pressure to be the “women in tech paragon.” I put this term in quotes because, truly, there’s no such thing; each member of WiC and BuildHer adds value to these communities thanks to their unique passions, commitments, backgrounds, and goals. Pressure to be the exemplary woman in tech — to prove oneself in a male-dominated field — infects almost every woman. I’ve even seen some of the negative repercussions of this syndrome at Grace Hopper.

But how can a leader detect the difference between a competitive individual and someone striving to be the “women in tech paragon?” My advice to women in tech leaders is to read the writing of other women in technology prolifically, and share pieces that put in perspective the feelings of loneliness and unworthiness that may inspire the “women in tech paragon” syndrome. I’ve shared articles (like this one) over the BuildHer email and in WiC’s private Facebook group in order to provide further support for aspiring women in tech at Northwestern.

Lesson #7: Make newcomers and less experienced members feel welcome.

Don’t just say hi to any new faces at every event; ask for their name and if they’d like to connect with your women in technology organization over email, on social media, et cetera. Reach out to women in introductory computer science courses by asking a professor or teaching assistant to share your event calendar or contact information over Piazza.

For tech talks or other skill-building events, teach a beginner-level skill at the beginning and then move onto a more intermediate- or advanced-level topic for the remainder of the event. This brings me to my final point…

Lesson #8: Be inclusive.

Intersectionality is much more than a buzzword; understanding and catering to intersectional identities is a must in women in technology communities.

Being a “woman” is just one aspect of a person’s identity, so not all members of a women in technology organization will have the same needs. Some steps that WiC has taken to better serve intersectional identities within our membership include organizing a Friday night shabbat during #GHC16 and advertising fellowships like CODE2040… but we could do so much better.

That’s why for BuildHer, the co-organizers have committed to bringing in speakers that reflect the full spectrum of diversity amongst BuildHer hackers — not just one type of woman.

Leading WiC and founding BuildHer has been an honor, as is sharing some of the wisdom that I have accrued along the way. Future women in technology leaders: know that organizing and building a community may not be all rosy, but it is quite rewarding. No matter what you do with this advice, I hope you soar.

If this piece resonated with you, please share & recommend. Any questions? Reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you Amy Chen, Steven Bennett, Rohan Verma, Alyss Noland, and Maxcell Wilson for sharing your feedback as I wrote and revised this piece.