Kristen Van Nest is an editorial director of Singularity University’s Innovating Women project.
What motivated me to join the editorial team of Innovating Women: Past, Present & Future, co-authored by Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya, was the real need for women to hear true stories about how other women strategized in their careers and rose to the top. One of the topics that has particularly hit home is the need to attend conferences and seek out mentors.
In my first job out of college as a branding consultant, to help our clients, we would look for ‘analogs,’ or how companies in different industries had overcome and tackled problems similar to those of our patrons in innovative ways.
In my career, I search for ‘personal’ analogs, or people who have achieved goals similar to my own, in order to study and understand their strategy and path to reach success.
Repeatedly our ambassadors in Innovating Women: Past, Present & Future have spoken about how conferences have helped them find role models and mentors within their fields. Unfortunately, they also spoke of how too few women are taking advantage of these opportunities.
“For the first time in my life I went to the bathroom and noticed a big line outside the men’s room… I got into the lady’s room and found two girls in there, we all had the same reaction,” says Danielle Newman, founder of StartupByte, about her experience at Startup Weekend. “We were laughing hysterically that we were the only girls, a total of 4 girls participating in the event with about 80 men.”
Emily Holdman, co-founder of The Remarkables and The Agency Post and former judge at Startup Weekend, says she feels women prefer to attend conferences in groups, which often requires women to take charge and invite their friends: “With Startup Weekend, you see those few women who are the initial catalysts. So much energy is required of them to take the initial step personally, and yet we are setting extremely high expectations if we also expect them to round up other women.”
As put by Kristen Sanderson, a Consulting Engineer at GE Energy Management about her experience with various conferences for women in engineering: “Since attending these conferences, I have moved into a more active role. I have moved toward active participation internally in my company and externally at these types of groups. I suspect there are a lot more women like me out there who are working away on their own unaware of the need they could fill in these groups.” These positive experiences at conferences motivated Sanderson to become more involved as a mentor to other women in her field: “Listening to the sessions, the lack of female support for young engineers and even mid-career engineers was so painfully obvious. It was certainly a personal call to action for me.”
These experiences not only help women network, but also create long-term support structures. “Community is a powerful concept in science,” states Susan Baxter, Executive Director, CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, “When I look back on my science career, the colleagues I worked with in my own lab, the folks with whom I shared the back row at Gordon Conferences, the groups I ate lunch with at the company cafeteria, the teams I worked with to develop software stacks represent the best and most productive of times.”
As shown by the successful ambassadors involved in Innovating Women: Past, Present & Future, conferences provide great opportunities for women to share advice, forge supportive relationships, and build their network. This advice has motivated me to push myself to independently march into a room of unknown faces, wearing my nametag proudly, knowing that one of those faces might be able to dramatically impact my career, helping light my path. I can only dream that one day I can be an analog for another woman who is building her career.
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Photo credit: Dell Inc./Flickr