How I built the Women In Tech Program at Communitech
I’ve been working at Communitech — an industry-led innovation centre that supports, fosters and celebrates a community of nearly 1,000 tech companies — for more than 8 years now and things never get old. I love what I do, partly because I keep getting to do different things. About 2.5 years ago, I was asked to lead a new program to bring focus to the issues and challenges faced by women working in tech. Not only was this an opportunity to focus on a hot trend and build new programming, but it made sense for me: I’m a woman, I have a technical degree, I work with tech companies, if not currently for a tech company, and I’ve faced many of the same challenges every other women in tech faces.
For the Love of Math
It started with math. I’ve always loved math, especially as a young child. Because I have a learning disability (dyslexia), I really struggled with language studies, especially reading. I didn’t learn to read until I was in grade 4, but for me, math was a refuge. It made sense, it was constant, I loved it! Give me numbers rather than letters any day.
So of course, when it came time to get additional education after high school, I wanted something that pulled together everything that I loved — math, science and practical application — so engineering it was. I applied to the University of Waterloo, but my almost 90% average didn’t quite make the grade for chem eng. Not to worry. I knew people. My neighbour happened to know a prof at UWaterloo, who arranged a personal interview for me, and I was in! Was it because I was female? At 18, it didn’t even cross my mind — I was in!
I had no idea what I was in for, even after they did the ‘turn to your left, turn to your right, half those people will be gone in a year’ thing. But I was determined.
Being put on academic probation after my first term scared the shit out of me and I worked hard to bring my average up by 10% the next term. That was my wake up call, and through hard work my average went up every single term until I finished. Great, right? Not exactly.
During a work term in my third year, at Ontario Hydro Nuclear Division, I found myself questioning if I was doing the right thing. I had worked so hard for it, and was concerned that I wasn’t enjoying it. I worked up the courage to talk to my supervisor. After a lengthy discussion, he finished with “just get the degree, then you can do whatever you want.” Words to live by.
Like many women, I simply couldn’t see myself in the positions I’d been given. There were zero female role models in my network in the late ‘80’s, so I decided to focus on a fusion of business & tech — technical product and project management.
In my first full time job for a small engineering firm, the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated environment hit hard. I endured sexual harassment by my manager, the VP of marketing (and brother of the president) for almost two years. I finally decided I’d had enough and it was time to move. Before I left, I had a very frank discussion with the president of the firm. Let’s just say that I had to flush that reference!
A Bitter Pill
Seven years into my career, my husband and I decided the time was right to start a family. I made the decision to stay home with our beautiful baby girl until she was ready to start JK (kindergarten). But financially, we couldn’t quite make it, so I ended up looking for work again after being home for 3 years. What an eye opener! My seven years of experience didn’t seem to matter. I had to start all over again. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
What did starting over mean? My first job back was at a small residential construction firm — office manager — valuable experience and I got my foot in the door again, but not an industry that I wanted to stay in. Next, I took a position with a consulting firm that implemented ERP software for Tier 1 automotive manufacturers. The work was interesting and diverse, but when the downturn came to auto, I was out of a job! Next came an awesome opportunity at one of the big four accounting firms and back to program development….I was on my way again!
Women in Tech at Communitech
Fast forward 10 years, and I arrived at Communitech. The opportunity to develop programming for women in tech (WiT) seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’ve worked alongside my amazing colleagues and WiT partner companies (Axonify, D2L, Magnet Forensics and Teledyne DALSA) over the past couple of years to develop a very successful WiT P2P group, bi-annual networking events, a mentorship pilot, annual skill development workshops and our Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp! All of these efforts are geared at increasing the retention and advancement of women working at tech companies in the Waterloo Region.
Our WiT P2P group brings together women from all positions and levels at local tech companies to talk about things that matter to the group — negotiation skills, leading from the middle, defining your digital identity, personal branding, to name a few. We routinely max out our current meeting space of 70+ people. We’ve clearly hit a nerve: Women are looking for opportunities to share their experiences and connect. So we’re looking at how we can make the most of this group by turning it into a breakfast series and adding new peer group options for next year.
The WIT networking events have been very interesting to plan. We never intended these events to be women only; we thought we would bring the tech community together to discuss gender diversity issues and the business advantages of getting it right! But it took a few attempts to strike a balance — To get men to attend, as well as women, we ended up removing the word ‘women’ from the event title, and we brought in some male speakers.
Building a mentorship program has been a challenging but rewarding experience for me personally. This was the most requested programming addition from our early needs assessment, and we’ve now completed the 16-month pilot. We had anywhere from 15 to 22 matches, taking into account job changes, location changes and people moving across the country. The biggest lessons learned have come in the areas of upfront training and opportunities to connect as an entire group. As we move forward, we’ll be adding initial training for mentees involving goal-setting, so they can create a 12-month roadmap of where they want to go — and hopefully we’ll never be stuck for a meeting topic again. We’ll also add more options for the entire group to connect and build a sense of community.
From our initial needs assessment, we also learned that women are looking to build communication and leadership skills. To bring this together, we offered annual skill development workshops through The Humphrey Group and their program, Taking the Stage, which focuses on communicating as a leader. All the feedback is the same — all participants said it pushed them outside their comfort zone, but it was great because they felt their communications would be much more impactful!
Finally, as a nice little surprise, at the same time as we were completing the initial needs assessment, we received some funding through a Google initiative called #40Forward — 40 global organizations all focused on helping female founders. So in summer 2014, we launched a women entrepreneurs bootcamp. Now in its third year, Fierce Founders is an intense, six-day bootcamp for female founders focused on customer validation, business fundamentals and refining your pitch, all while making valuable connections. Thanks to sponsors like Deloitte, we can continue to offer this great experience for female founders!
We’ve got lots of great ideas to expand and build these programs: We need more awareness; we need more champions; we need more focus on the attraction of WiT. I think we’re just scratching the surface. My colleague Danielle Graham has taken over as WiT Program Manager at Communitech and I know I’m leaving this programs in great hands, as Danielle and I worked together back in the summer of 2014 to launch the Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp pilot.
Always looking for a new challenge, I’m now developing some technical training offerings for Communitech. Interested in discussing creative solutions to our talent shortage in the areas of data science or developer talent? Let’s chat: firstname.lastname@example.org