Conversation with President & CEO of AnitaB.org

This week, the largest gathering of female technologists in the world is taking place in Houston, TX, at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC). The event was co-founded by computer scientist Dr. Anita Borg and has grown exponentially over the last 24 years, with tickets selling out in a matter of hours. This year, more than 20,000 women will have an opportunity to partake in discussions around how to advance women in technology as well as learn how to drive their own professional development and network with each other. Turner will once again have a strong presence with a booth showcasing our brands, technologists and giveaways.  We are also very proud that we were able to offer more than 1,000 women of color conference grants so that they could participate.

As a partner of AnitaB.org, we were lucky enough to ask the organization’s president & CEO, Brenda Darden Wilkerson, some questions about the event, her role and technology trends.

Turner (T): What has been most exciting part of your role as President & CEO AnitaB.org over the last year?
Brenda Darden Wilkerson (BDW): It has been a really exciting year, so there is a lot that comes to mind! But there are two things that stand out that I am especially proud of. One is the transparency we’ve given around our own diversity as a company and the steps we have taken to address our shortcomings. You know how they say on airplanes, “Secure your own mask before helping others”? We can’t do the best possible job of changing the industry if we do not have our own house in order. We are addressing this issue, and we are charting a bold course forward.

The other is the work we have done to take the necessary steps toward fully recognizing the intersectionality of the women we serve, and of our own team doing that work. This includes building and advocating for solutions that benefit women across multiple dimensions, including race, sexual orientation, age, religion, ability, and temperament. These all further our mission of creating a more inclusive environment for all women.  

T: How can companies do more in terms of supporting diversity in technology?
BDW: The reality is the entire space is getting diversity wrong. The proof is in the data and the fact that many companies haven’t been able to move the needle as fast as we’d like. Admitting that not only takes courage, but is also necessary to ensure that companies can take steps moving forward that actually drive change.

One of the main reasons that we’re getting diversity programs wrong is because publicly released diversity numbers aren’t transparent or correct. Companies are releasing data sets that aren’t consistent year over year, delaying the release of new reports in the hopes that their numbers get better, and ignoring intersectionality. Instead of using their innovative thinking to solve the problem, most technology companies are using it to massage the numbers and create a short-term solution.  

In order for companies to actually do more to support diversity in technology, they need to set clear goals, attach those goals to quarterly earnings reports, and hold themselves to those goals. We know that programs that are held accountable work. It’s time that companies take their diversity numbers as critically as they take their financial results. 

T: You’ve talked publicly about wanting to reach more women from different backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about your new Women of Color Initiative (of which Turner helped fund) and why reaching this demographic is so important?  
BDW: In partnership with Turner, we launched the Women of Color in Technology Initiative (WoC) in the summer of 2017 with a Working Council of 14 members from across the U.S. who are committed to diversity and inclusion in the tech industry and higher education. We are very grateful for Turner’s support of this initiative. Our goal is to introduce diversity and inclusion strategies and establish strategic partnerships that not only increase the number of women of color in technology but also leverage their skills and perspectives for technological innovation and social change.

I think there are a lot of women who don't yet know how much we, as a community, care about them and how much we are there for them. By reaching this community we can help empower more women who are, and who want to be, technologists. In doing this we can make a more inclusive and robust industry that continues to innovate and thrive.

T: Which technology trends are you most excited about and why?
BDW: I am extremely inspired to see the increase in investment in STEM education happening at the primary school levels. It is exciting to see the progress we are making in providing access to computer science education for children starting as early as kindergarten. Across the country, we’re seeing programs that are strengthening young students critical thinking, creativity, and scientific reasoning skills. These skills will propel students, especially those most at risk, into high school and keep them on track to graduate in four years while exposing them to college and career options. This is in an incredible driver toward a skilled workforce that will grow and sustain our national economy. 

At the same time, we are looking to help organizations focus similar energy on women with STEM degrees, particularly those of underrepresented groups, who are not currently using those skills in STEM jobs.  Although the focus in K12 education is hugely important as a long-term strategy, we need to address the short-term. We can do so by helping companies leverage these communities for their current needs. These women bring not only strong STEM skills, but a maturity of work ethic gained from their work experiences. They can be skilled up if needed in targeted technical skills to be a huge source of talent in tech and tech-enabled companies.

Another trend I love, of course, is the increased numbers of girls and women learning to code. Giving women the power to become producers and creators, not just consumers, can unlock so many doors. Coding enables the ability to really grasp what it means to solve problems, whether it is in their schools, in their communities, or for others. Whether they end up in tech careers or not, those skills are critical to creating a solid global citizenry of problem solvers. 

T: How did you first get involved in computer science?
BDW: My involvement in computer science happened completely by accident. I entered Northwestern University’s pre-med program and discovered computer science through a mandatory programming class. I abandoned my dreams of medical school, graduated with a computer science degree, and went on to hold various roles in software development. Ultimately, I coupled my passion for education with my computer science experience to become the Director of Computer Science and IT Education for Chicago Public Schools. I know how impactful having these skills has been for my life. I want many more women to be able to make the conscious choice to pursue computer science because they know it is an option for them.

T: What’s your advice to young women who are debating a career in technology? 
BDW: When I first started in computer science, I was young, and many times I was the only woman or the only woman of color. It was difficult to navigate a culture that revolved so much around men. It’s challenging to become part of something from which you're very different. My advice to any woman considering a career in tech is to remember that you have within yourself the passion, determination, and resourcefulness to find the right entry point, to raise your voice, and to do this important and rewarding work. You are not alone. We are here to support you.

T: Who do you think are the most powerful or influential women in technology today?
BDW: There are so many women making an impact. Megan Smith, the former CTO of the United States under President Obama; all of our Abie Award winners; and every single one of our speakers at Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), who are chosen because of their impact and influence. From Justine Cassell to Padmasree Warrior, to Jessica Matthews, there are so many multi-faceted women making a difference in ways that affect not only the future, but our day-to-day lives right here and now. 

I believe our AnitaB.org community members, whether they are Systers or members of their AnitaB.org Local Communities, are the most powerful and influential women on the planet. Being part of our movement means they are committed to building cultures where women thrive and to positively changing the direction of the technology industry. And part of our agenda at AnitaB.org is make sure that more people know and understand the impact of powerful women in tech on our way of life.