Sunday, July 09, 2006

Anita Borg, BlogHer, and mir tesen

There's a Russian saying "Mir tesen, a sloi tonkii," which roughly translates to "It's a small world," but the Russian version more subtly suggests that the world is small because the social 'layers' in which one inevitably operates in is a narrow thin one. It was always true when I was working in Russia that there were a limited number of competent public officials, and regardless of who ended up being appointed finance or economics or even Prime minister, the same public officials usually showed up in the technical slots.

Now I find it's true in my own little space of technology, social impact, and scalable solutions. Here's the story.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to serve on the jury panel for the Anita Borg Social Impact award to be given out at the Grace Hopper celebration of women in computing, coming up this October. It's the second time I've served on this jury, and it's the second time I've not subscribed to the majority view. Here'

I reviewed 12 applicants this year, and in my view it was no contest. There was no question in my mind that BlogHer was the only possible winner. I had never heard of the site until I reviewed the proposals, but it dinstinguished itself among the 10 or so other qualified applicants--all of them really fantastic women who were science or technology professionals in their own right who clearly had had to overcome obstacles to get where they are today. And they were all engaged in some sort of mentoring or other development programs for girls and young women either at school or in the workplace, and in many cases had devoted years of their life outside of work and family to make them happen. What inclined me so strongly to the BlogHer submission was that it was a radically different approach. It did not seek to create a structured program for anybody, but created an enabling environment, filled with active, passionate, intelligent women that invited women, but especially young women, to come and join them on an equal footing. It was not yet another "mentoring" project, but a platform that clearly met young people where in fact they are perceived to have an advantage (expressing themselves online) and gave them a really wide range of role models to choose from.

The fresh subversion of that approach--as well as its potential scalability and startup status--was exactly what I thought should be encouraged. In other words, from all I had heard about Anita Borg (and I am sorry I never knew her in person), I think she would have celebrated and supported such an approach, and in fact I feel that awarding Elisa Camahort the prize would be like supporting the young Anita when she herself was young and bucking trends. It is, I think, far more valuable to recognize potential (and risk the possibility that the initiative might never pan out) than to award a prize to something tried and tested--but not particularly earthshattering in its consequences. It takes more courage to risk to fail, but it also takes more courage to attempt to deliver higher social impact in the midst of that risk. I felt that's what Anita would have inclined toward, were she in my place.

So that's where I got my little spike of loyalty for BlogHer as the underdog in the competition. Imagine my surprise when my colleague Sombit Mishra got up at a staff meeting, and explained that he had met someone at TechSoup in Second Life who decided to interview him and post the interview on a BlogHer post. And I was vindicated in my preference for BlogHer for the award when I discovered that this interview was the first natural result now for "Sombit Mishra."

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the world is small indeed. But I also wanted to register my thoughts as I served on the Anita Borg award panel, and to give kudos to Sombit for getting himself featured in what I thought was a really really cool site.


ElisaC said...

Wow, thanks so much for the kind words about BlogHer. I must point out that the submission was on behalf of me and my two co-founders and partners, Lisa Stone and Jory Des Jardins.

I appreciate your support, even if it sounds like I shouldn't get my hopes up that BlogHer shed its "underdog" status :)

Beth said...

Wow, social networking does make it a very small world! I heard about that award when I researching some links after live blogging Annalee Newitz's talk last fall at Harvard about Myth Busting: Revenge of the Female Nerds!

Blogher rocks!