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May 9, 2019

Big Names and Big Ideas Show Up at Chicago’s Women in Tech Summit

By Michelle Lange

WiseHer’s Kathryn Rose said her path to technology required a lot of asking. “Asking is a fundamental right that we haven’t tapped into yet,” Rose said during her keynote address at the Women in Technology Summit (WITS) Midwest. In “The Power of Ask,” she reminded the audience that asking is also a chance to let other people feel good, and it can be the key to making a move into the career you really want. “Assume that people want to help you. Don’t talk yourself out of it.”

 

Women working on the computer

 

Rose’s keynote in Chicago kicked off WITS Midwest, a day of technology lessons, personal development and networking. All day at the high-end tech space MxD, hundreds of WITS attendees heard from experts in the industry and met other people working in technology.

 

Rion Irvin attended WITS Midwest looking for her first job in technology. She’s a Chicago web developer who just finished a six-month coding boot camp. She’s more than ready to pivot from the hotel and tourism industry for a career in technology.

 

“Something’s got to change,” Irvin said. At WITS Midwest, she connected with Franklin Reed of TEKsystems, a company that brings underrepresented people into technology and sets them on career paths, a mission similar to Creating IT Futures.  

 

“We make incredible investments to make sure we’re providing diverse people,” Reed said. His group helps women, minorities, veterans and other represented groups find career paths to technology. As the moderator of the panel, “Successful IT Careers Await — Don’t Fall for the Myths,” he sat onstage with Aditi Chaudhry, Maia Ottenstein, Sue Wallace and Tracey Welson-Rossman to dismantle some of the myths that keep women from considering STEM careers, including lack of diversity. They also tackled the limitations women put on themselves by only looking for jobs at traditional tech companies.

 

Woman giving presentation

 

“Technology is literally everywhere,” said Aditi Chaudhry, a cloud security architect at Two Sigma. She just moved to New York City for the job, and is always seeing technology at work in the things she loves. “If you walk into Sephora, you’d be amazed at how much tech they have going on behind the scenes.”

 

Chaudhry’s parents were into computers and she took the traditional CS degree path to get into technology. During the panel, she talked about the bias she’s always encountered: that her bubbly personality means she’s a ditz. “If I’m at work, I’m going to be me at work,” she said, “I’m outgoing, but that doesn’t mean I’m less technically smart.”

 

In her cloud security role and through talks like “Practical Application Security for Developers,” she urges other women to look into cybersecurity. Because everything runs on some type of computer or server, there are lots of companies that need technology help and women shouldn’t limit their options. “Always try to give yourself as many options as possible,” she said.

 

Tech Meets Travel

The winner of the farthest traveled to WITS Midwest goes to Mariah Sexton, who flew more than 3,000 miles to be part of the summit. Sexton was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, and struggled to find a career she liked that would offer health insurance and stability for her family. She found her first job in technology through a mentoring program by CompTIA’s Advancing Women in Technology Community. Years later, she’s still in touch with her mentor Nellie Scott and the two talked recently about Sexton’s next move in technology, and how to ask for what she wanted. “She helped me understand it’s okay to ask for training, a clear job title and to scope out the role you want to play,” Sexton said.

 

Ready to explore life outside Alaska, Sexton attended sessions like “Tech Nomads: The Future of Work in Tech” and sat in a room packed with women interested in leaning into the remote work that technology jobs often offer.

 

Entrepreneur Beck Power spelled out the three basic needs for living free and stable living, and outlined more than a dozen ways to develop flexible income streams. “How can you be intentional about creating this type of lifestyle for yourself,” Power asked. “You don’t just bump into the things that you want; you have to create them.”

 

Prove Yourself

During “Designing Your Career: How I transitioned from being a hairstylist to a technologist,” Diana Torres shared her unique road into technology. She was working as a cosmetologist after high school with her sights set on working at the Chicago Board of Trade. To find an in, she asked every single one of her clients if they had a connection.

 

Woman giving presentation

 

“Three thousand haircuts later I met someone who worked at the Chicago Board of Trade and she took a chance on me,” Torres said. She worked on the trading floor from 2008 to 2014 and realized technology was taking over finance, so she spent the next three years working toward a full-time technology career. “Your career masterpiece is a long process.”

 

On the other end of that masterpiece is Gita Vyas, a senior front-end developer at W.W. Grainger who has been in tech more than 10 years and came to WITS Midwest to find ways she can do more to mentor the next generation of women in technology. Programs like TechGirlz, which benefits from the WITS events, offer free lessons to get girls interested in tech, and Vyas found ways she can volunteer and develop her own curriculum.

 

Fan the Flame of Interest

An important takeaway for women and girls to understand that technology is in everything and they can follow their passions and find a career in technology, said Sue Wallace, executive director for Creating IT Futures in Minneapolis. During the final panel of the day, she urged women in the room to open the doors to anyone who is interested in technology.

 

Women speaking on a panel

 

“They might be thinking, ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life but I like to tinker with things.’” Wallace said. “You can fan the flame of that interest and that aptitude. Help them to understand there’s that connection.”

 

The Women in Tech Summit is the only women’s tech event where all the women are speakers, and the entire day featured women sharing their stories in development, security coding and creative design, and learning skills to help them in their technology careers. WITS events are held across the country throughout the year. Sign up for upcoming summits here.

 

Michelle Lange is a writer and designer living in Chicago.