Friday, October 19, 2007

Anita Borg Social Impact Award: Imagining Ourselves, and Burmese Monks

This is my third year serving on the jury of the Anita Borg Social Impact award. And sometimes I've wondered if I was the right person to be on the jury--as a jury we have in the past gone "safe," awarding winners who were in effect being given the award for lifetime achievement, something I have never felt was right for an award named after Anita Borg.

This year's deliberations were also hard for me--because I was so torn between the top two contenders. But the good news about being so torn is that both of them exemplified the spirit of rewarding someone for taking a risk, and rewarding them early enough in the process to give them a real boost in whatever it is they are doing that has social impact (something that is moot for a lifetime achievement award). So here are my personal congratulations--to Paula Goldman, the winner of this year's Anita Borg Social Impact Award. I feel she deserved it when I was on the jury reviewing the documents, and I feel even more strongly about it now that I have had a chance to hear her personal story and meet her in person. She is every bit as spunky and committed as I imagined her. She has given voice to over a million women and persevered against great odds.

And now my personal congratulations to Elisa Camahort and the team at BlogHer. We on the jury talked about giving runner-ups (especially those so close to the top winner) some sort of visibility, and I have to confess that it seems to have dropped off our radar screens. (Tends to happen when you have a volunteer jury that is brought together for the purpose of making the the difficult choice and disbands with some relief without having to actually think anymore about how difficult the choice was). Readers of this blog may know I was upset about their not winning last year, and although they didn't win on this round, I feel that the Institute has grown and evolved in the last 3 years. So as a fiduciary matter, I feel good about it. Maybe next year is when I get my act together to petition the Institute to publicize runners-up.

And a final rant about lifetime achievement awards, of which of course the Nobel is the pre-eminent example. Much as I thought Al Gore deserved recognition, I wished the Nobel committee was nimble enough to be able to award the Burmese monks so that perhaps they could have made a tangible difference right now ...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Shared at the Grace Hopper conference on women in computing

There are many amazing things about being here at the Grace Hopper conference on women in computing with 1400 conference attendees where major tech companies and universities are scrambling over each other to attract women: eBay, Amazon, Microsoft, Intuit, State Farm Insurance,, Cisco, Intel, HP, Google, Harvard, Princeton, Carnegie-Mellon ... and I know I've missed many others.

But the nice part is being able to share commentary and observations with fellow participants old and young.
  • That even as recently as 15 years ago women in graduate programs and on the job didn't dare paint our nails because that would give people an excuse to not take you seriously ( this is greeted with puzzlement from the younger women at the conference of whom there are very very many--yay!).
  • That the majority of women at the conference are dressed stylishly and for the most part in a feminine way--neither dressed in chinos and square polo shirts (the tech look) or dark pantsuit (mimic a guy in a tie and suit) or jeans and T-shirt (the grad student look). If they are dressed casually the T-shirts and polo shirts are fitted, the jeans are flared, and no one walks around with that tell-tale female grad student crouch. A presenter agrees: she posts a nice little (coed!) primer on how not to dress in the tech world.
  • That none of the presenters--most of whom are women--show that disturbing tendency we used to see some time ago of treating younger women either as potential hazing targets ("I had to put up with !@#$ so you do too,") or potential sting bait ("Ha, caught you favoring women over men, I knew you would not be able to resist showing undue preference for your 'tribe'.")
  • That a young computer programmer from Sudan working full time and working on her masters degree in CS (remotely at a UK university) should find the conference online, make plans to come here, almost cancel her ticket etc. because she realizes she can't *really* afford this--but is told firmly by her mother that she *will* go, and that her mother will pay for the ticket ... and when I express amazement, the young woman doesn't even bat an eyelash.
Sometimes choices are good.

Seen at the Grace Hopper conference of women in computing

Handmade signs taped to the men's room: "Men Only Please."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Walking the Talk: Tech Leaders for Social Innovators

So as many of my friends know, I've never really been tempted to join Second Life. I think I get it--for people who like virtual reality, and for people who enjoy the idea of putting on different identities, well, all sorts of reasons, really. But I don't even like board games, so the idea of donning a second identity didn't feel at all like me.

But here I am at the one-day conference on Tech Leaders for Social Innovators associated with the Grace Hopper conference on women in computing--and I just interviewed Anuradha Vittachi, co-founder and CEO of OneWorld on OneClimate Island in Second Life. Sceptical colleagues back home--who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty--thought I was crazy to be trying this in front of 80 people. The technology would no doubt fail, people would get weirded out by looking at avatars that shift their feet, etc. But by some miracle (including a miracle named Caroline Simard, one of the conference organizers), we pulled it off. And it was an amazing opportunity to introduce Anuradha, whom I admire immensely, to a group of women who otherwise would probably not ever have run into her, even in Second Life.

And why wasn't Anuradha, a keynote speaker, at the conference anyway? Well because of her personal and organizational commitment to do something about climate change, she wanted to see if we could find an almost carbon free way for her to participate in the conference here in Florida from her office in London.

So we pulled it off, and it was, I think, a vindication for what was really the whole theme of the conference--how do your leverage technology for social change? And it created a nice bookend to presentations by some amazing global leaders in doing just that--Jensine Larson of World Pulse Media, Paula Goldman of Imagining Ourselves, and Bernadine Dias of Carnegie Mellon University and TechBridge World.

And what did I get out of it (besides the pleasure of simply pulling something off)? Well, probably the same thing everyone else got. I got incredible affirmation about what I'm doing because unlike almost every other conference I attend, we were all pretty honest about the times we felt like giving up, and how we each got over those moments. That it's not as easy as many people--including ourselves--like to make it look, and the recognition that we're human and fallible but still manage to do great things really encouraged me. To paraphrase Robbins: Even TechLeaders Get the Blues. But we still keep going.