The fifth annual Catalyst Conference by Girls in Tech will return to San Francisco June 20-22, with scores of speakers focused on women in technology.
This year’s speakers include Aaron Levie, CEO of Box; Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway; Kara Swisher, executive editor of Re/Code, and many others. While the focus is on women, the event is considered “accessible for all.” The mission is to get more girls and women into tech, and to change tech so that it is appealing to more than just half of the population.
The speakers will aim to educate and engage — in a practical manner — with conference attendees on topics including trends, design thinking, science, leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, venture capital, politics, and diversity. The event will drawn about 1,000 people to Bespoke in San Francisco. That’s a lot of girl power from Girls in Tech, the San Francisco-based nonprofit started by Adriana Gascoigne a decade ago.
I talked with Gascoigne about her travels throughout the world and how the gender disparity in tech is a global problem. We discussed how female entrepreneurs are sprouting up around the world, and how the challenges facing girls and women are different depending on the region. Over 10 years, Gascoigne’s group has grown to 60,000 members and 60 chapters in 36 countries.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VB: It looks like you’re still growing pretty well.
Adriana Gascoigne: We’re growing almost too well. It’s been pretty hard to keep up with demand and growth around the world. But that’s obviously a good problem to have. We’re excited about the Catalyst conference. That’s our premier conference, bringing together everything we produce and celebrate within the organization throughout all of our chapters. It’s an amalgamation of ideas and our network, focused on inspiring the younger generation of women in tech that are interested in the field, becoming entrepreneurs and leaders in high tech.
VB: What are some numbers as far as expectations for Catalyst and how big Girls in Tech has grown?
Gascoigne: Catalyst in San Francisco this year will be about a thousand people. It’s been deemed the more intimate version of Grace Hopper, which we’ll gladly take. Grace Hopper is an awesome platform, but Catalyst is meant to be more intimate by design. We have a lot of networking, interactive role-playing exercises, yoga meditation every day. We have an artist coming to capture each presentation through real-time artwork, which is super cool.
All the exhibits are experiential. We don’t just have standard booths with employees handing things out and displaying signage. I don’t want to give away any secrets yet, but every booth, from Dropbox to AWS, is going to be very fun and engaging for all of our participants. They’re very fast-paced by design. It’s an interactive medium. We have a lot of video, photos, multimedia interactivity. Some of them are doing workshop elements, like role-playing.
We’re bringing in MyIntent, Chris Pan’s new project. He’s one of the first employees from Facebook. He started this company that helps people find their passion and purpose in life. He’ll be leading a workshop helping people in that area. They each get a bracelet customized to whatever their “word” is, describing their passion. We’re excited to provide more of that engaging, interactive kind of platform. This conference is most suited for the millennial generation. Our target as an organization is university to mid-20s. That’s what we’re planning around: what’s most engaging for this population.
We’ll have a DJ for all three days, which isn’t super important, but it’s cool. We’ll have each of the speakers choosing a song to come up to, something to motivate them and get them amped up and make it feel more personalized. When they get to do their 20-minute presentation it becomes more about their personal story, which aligns with the whole theme of the conference.
VB: It all sounds very inspirational and motivational.
Gascoigne: Right. We’re focused on allowing a platform for people to tell personal stories. It’s about trials and tribulations. It’s about history. It’s about very personalized anecdotes — good, bad, and ugly. We all have different things that make us who we are, that lead us down different paths. They’ll be able to share that in a very safe environment. They’ll also be talking about skills and best practices they’ve built in their careers. We have a great diversity of speakers, from astronauts to journalists to CEOs, CIOs, CTOs. It’s a diverse group of subject matter experts getting together to celebrate STEM and the arts, sharing their personal stories and inspiring younger women jumping into the tech space.
VB: How big is the organization as a whole now?
Gascoigne: We’re up to 60,000 people in 60 chapters. We do an audit every year, so it’s probably 60,000 plus by now. We’re in 36 countries on six continents. We’re excited to see that growth. Now that we’re becoming more of a well-oiled machine — we have support from a 15-person board of directors and a staff of about 12 people — we’re able to produce a lot more, making sure we get funding to support all the programs we’re deploying around the world.
We don’t just run the big global conferences like Catalyst. We’re able to support our coding and design boot camps, hackathons, and our global classroom, our e-learning platform. We have an exchange program, a variety of different programs. The goal is to create lower barriers to entry and be able to deploy and produce our programming around the world, without the managing directors having to do so much work directly. They don’t have to pay for curriculum and courses. Girls in Tech HQ covers all those costs.
VB: What have you noticed from going around the world and talking to so many women about getting these chapters started?
Gascoigne: The most memorable experiences — each chapter in each city is significantly different. I go around the world learning about different cultures, different tech ecosystems, market demands for technology, social justice for men and women in the workforce. I’m learning a lot more about sociology and tech ecosystems within different cultures. I’m understanding on a deeper level, a human level, what the political systems and local economies look like, and how technology is affecting those things.
For me personally I’ve been learning and growing a lot as the organization grows, which is powerful. It’s a great learning curve for me. I’ll keep learning until the day I die. I have a lot of curiosity about the world and the people who live in it. It’s why I chose to study sociology and economics as an undergrad. That’s playing out what I do in my day-to-day work now.
I’ve learned about so many women around the world who are very resourceful. A lot of entrepreneurialism, the characteristics of being an entrepreneur, come very easy to women, especially in emerging markets. They’re used to bootstrapping, working hard, being very resilient, understanding the resources around them and leveraging those to benefit their families and their communities and their businesses. That resilience and bootstrappiness, quote unquote, is great to see. You don’t see complaining or entitled women. It’s an empowered group of people who don’t know the word “no”. They see a big fat yes in front of their face and just keep on trucking until they become successful, until they reach their milestones. We have a lot to learn from them.
In places like Malaysia and India and different areas of Latin America, I see this as a consistent theme. I personally feel like that’s a better way to grow a business, to be resourceful and bootstrap until you have a functioning business, and then later on you get VC funding. If you don’t need to, why get outside funding? That’s just a nice-to-have in their situation.
VB: Do you see a gender disparity in tech everywhere?
Gascoigne: In different forms. For example, in India and the rest of Asia, I don’t see a gender disparity in K-12 or at the university level. Women are taught the same as their male counterparts. Everyone is exposed to STEM. In some cases women excel at a greater level, in places like Iran, in their mathematics scores. In India you’re going to see a lot more women computer scientists than in, say, eastern Europe.
It’s not until they get into the workforce that it becomes a more patriarchal environment, a more misogynistic environment, where it becomes harder to get up the ladder. They still have the traditional mindset that men should be in executive roles and women should be in more subordinate managerial roles. It’s shifting, but that’s still a big problem.
In the U.S. it’s a general issue. Based on the numbers, we’re actually decreasing. 10 years ago, 36 percent of graduates with computer science degrees were women. Now it’s down to 12 or 13 percent, which is pretty shocking given that tech is becoming more ubiquitous and a more exciting industry to work in. We’re seeing that shift. There needs to be a lot more empowerment at a younger age in regions like the U.S., so women will feel more inspired to move into tech and jump in executive roles in the industry.
You don’t see it everywhere. Or you see it everywhere, but you see it in different forms and different stages. In some areas it’s more about people not wanting women to have an education, more about social oppression and injustice. They have far different worries than people in more developed nations. I try to be culturally sensitive to that. In places like Latin America we’re seeing a huge shift where women are getting married later. Religious and family expectations about getting married and having children — women are realizing that they can become entrepreneurs, that they can have their own lifestyles, that they don’t have to rely on a significant other for a solid life. They’re taking more risks. It’s an interesting shift.
VB: You’ve found a way to talk about this without seeming either too angry or too soft.
Gascoigne: We’re solutions people. We’re just really excited about Girls in Tech and the things we’re working on. We’re seeing a lot of traction and impact in all of our programs — more women launching companies, more women taking coding classes, more women taking risks. There’s an interest in self-sufficiency and confidence-building and leadership. We have more executive women coming out and serving as role models for a younger generation. It’s empowering and exciting. This is where it starts, creating an infrastructure whereby we can influence each other in a positive way. We can hold each other accountable for creating change in each ecosystem around the world.
What’s powerful about Girls in Tech is that we’re an interconnected web of chapters. We’re able to share ideas, motivate each other, empower each other, and build that bridge between resource-rich countries, where technology is thriving on another level, and countries where they need a lot of resources and support and education. Like Cuba, for example. We’ll be launching there in the fall. We don’t want to be an organization that’s just part of a discussion. We want to be part of a solution and create programs and curricula that make an impact in the world. We’re seeing that impact in our analytics and reporting after each event around the world.
VB: As far as reaching for higher goals, getting women into the CEO ranks and making them into investors is another goal, it seems like.
Gascoigne: Our curriculum is catered to tech employees, startup employees, and entrepreneurs. Of course we want tech employees to strive to become managers, VPs, directors, and CEOs, CIOs, CTOs. We do a lot of hard skill building courses as well as soft skill building courses to make sure they have the confidence and leadership abilities, as well as the ability to manage a team and hire the right people and negotiate appropriately, to feel confident and empowered in those roles. Especially because women CEOs in tech — they end up serving as phenomenal role models, especially minority women. We’re trying to focus on getting more Hispanic American and African American women in executive roles. It helps when we have minority women speaking out and sharing their personal stories.
We have the Catalyst conference to showcase all these amazing executives in STEM for inspiring a younger generation of women in tech to become leaders. They see these women and they understand that they can do it. You can’t see what you can’t see. I strongly believe that. If we have women on stage that look like you, you’re able to grasp the reality that you can do it too. You’re studying the same courses, working in the same field. You may never have thought you could reach that level, but seeing them talk and hearing their story ignites the fire that will enable you to take that risk and move forward in your career. There’s definitely a connection point with the platform.
So yes, I would say that the curriculum that revolves more around soft skill building, around leadership and confidence skills, management and negotiation, but also the Catalyst platform — this all enables people to learn from high-level executives in the field.
VB: I noticed that you have an Apple speaker. That’s a pretty rare event. They don’t usually let their people speak at events like this.
Gascoigne: Yeah, Lisa Jackson. She’s great. We have a very friendly relationship with Apple. We’re continuing to build that with different divisions in the company. We work well with their developer relations group and their youth group. Lisa Jackson was recommended by one of our points of contact at Apple. Her background is absolutely phenomenal. She wants to come out and pay it forward. We’re very excited about getting her involved.
VB: As far as support from men in the wider tech industry, do you feel like that’s materializing?
Gascoigne: We have support from our male counterparts all over the world. They come to the events. They serve as workshop leaders, judges, mentors. They help with our hackathons. In some cases we have men as managing directors, like with our team in Nigeria. A lot of men serve as advisory board members, which is great. We’re seeing huge traction with men wanting to create change by taking action. Girls in Tech is a great platform for them to do so.
We’re building out a campaign. I can’t say much about it now, but it’s focused on engaging men to further support and give women a voice in the tech field. We can’t do it alone. Having a balance, having men come forward and share their vision and hope for a 50-50 playing field is the goal of that campaign. That’ll happen later this year.
VB: Are any other matters commanding a lot of your attention lately?
Gascoigne: We’re looking forward to our Cuba launch. We’re doing a tech delegation in the fall of this year. We’re bringing 30 executives, who’ll be announced soon, to participate in opening up the doors and creating awareness of opportunities that exist in Cuba for tech companies. That’ll be exciting.
We just had our inaugural Girls in Tech retreat, with 22 women in total. It was exciting to have a lot of our managing directors from around the world come together for the first time. What’s awesome was that there was nothing about tech. It was all about yoga, meditation, exercise. We did dance and drumming lessons. We took hikes. It was an opportunity for us to bond and share our personal thoughts and get to know each other. It was my opportunity to give back to the managing directors for the first time. We had funding to provide them with an opportunity to participate in something like this, which was super exciting. It’ll happen every year in a different location around the world. We call that “Five Elements,” because it’s incorporating the five elements of nature into what we do at the event. It was in Lyon, France this year.
We’re queuing up preparations for Amplify, which is our business pitch competition on October 18. We have our gala fundraiser, Havana Nights, that’ll be taking place in San Francisco on November 18. Those are two big programs we have coming up this year. And we have our inaugural European Catalyst, which will take place September 13 and 14 in London, at Bloomberg’s offices.