RWDevCon 2017 Inspiration Talk: Creating Community by Sarah Olson

The Director of Women Who Code Twin Cities, Sarah Olson, shares what she’s learned about building communities that are inclusive and welcoming. By Sarah E Olson.

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Women Who Code

Women Who Code is a global non-profit dedicated to helping women excel in their technology careers, whether that’s technical expertise or getting them into leadership positions. We’re trying to help them create the career that they want.

I applied to start a network in the Twin Cities and I became a director. Creating a community was completely new to me and I had no idea how to do it. Do I just throw an event out there and hope people show up?

I decided to look at some of the other organizations that were already in our area and I found a ton of other groups that were doing this work, and I had no idea they were even there.

Most of them at this time were actually focused on gender. They were all reaching out to women, and I was a little sad that there weren’t any groups out there reaching out to other marginalized communities in tech, based on race or sexual orientation or gender identity, disability, anything else. Thankfully, that has changed in the last year and we now have some of those groups, but at the time, there were a lot that were trying to help women.

I reached out to all their leadership teams and said, you know, “Hey, I want to find out more about you. What is it that you are doing that’s unique? What kind of events are you holding? Who are you specifically focused on?”

Once I talked to them I realized that they didn’t really know that other groups existed either. They didn’t really talk to anyone else. They didn’t collaborate at all and they weren’t really interested in collaborating. They mostly just wanted to do their thing, so I had to find out what their thing was.

Once I had clarity on who they were and what their mission was, I could then see where the gaps were, so now I knew what was missing from our tech community.

One of the great things about joining an existing organization is that a lot of things were kind of given to me that I didn’t have to worry about, so they already had branding and logos, and they had a website that I could point people to for more information. They took care of all the taxes and finances that go along with being a non-profit. They had an online donation page all ready for me so people could help fund our new network. They also had a person who helped get us press, which was huge.

Most importantly, they had a vision and mission, so it was very easy for us to know what we should be doing in the community.

In August of 2015, I created our first event in Meetup. Originally I had booked a room for 25 people, and I really thought that would be more than enough. I thought two or three people would show up and that would make me really, really happy, but two weeks before the event, I had to go find a larger venue, which was great. It’s a really awesome problem to have.

We ended up having, I think, 34 people show up. Women Who Code also had some guidelines on the sort of events to have, and one of those is called a Hack Night, which is what we did for our first event. It’s just a night where women can come in and connect with other women. They can ask questions, they can work on projects, and it’s a safe space.

Safe Spaces

Ash yesterday talked about psychological safety and that’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re trying to provide a place for women to go and not be afraid to fail or to look stupid. Sometimes these women, they’re the only women on their development team. They’re alone and that can feel really isolating and lonely.

One of the things mentioned yesterday was these series of tweets in which developers were kind of owning up to when they were stupid. There were a series of tweets from women talking about how they didn’t feel comfortable being that vocal on Twitter, that people might use this against them, because it already happens to women a lot.

I thought that was really important to highlight: not everyone has the ability to look stupid. Women feel a lot of pressure to be perfect all the time, so it’s really important for us to provide a safe space.

We also want to reach out beyond that, so we have lots of different types of events. One event we did that I thought was really helpful was a talk about how to deal with sexism and harassment at professional events, because unfortunately that happens a lot.

Things we talked about included does this or that conference have a code of conduct, and if it doesn’t, do you want to go? Maybe you shouldn’t. What if something happens to you and you report it? Lots of women face backlash for reporting things; is it worth it to you?

We talked about some horror stories, things like Gamergate, things that have happened in other communities, and gave advice and information to make decisions.

Another thing that we do is coding with your kids, where members bring their children in. It kind of seems like we’re trying to address the pipeline issue by doing that, but what we’re really doing is giving women the ability to attend meetings if they can’t find childcare. A lot of women struggled to make events on evenings and weekends because they’d say, “What am I going to do with my kids?”

Recently, we did a series of events on emerging technology, so we toured a 3D printing factory and I used some of the funds that were donated to buy a 3D printer (a very, very cheap one) and let our members play around with it and see how it works.

We also did a meet-up on virtual reality just before the PlayStation 4 VR came out, and we had all the different VR companies come in and show off their technology. We had a member talk about a game that she created on the Samsung Gear VR platform.

Next week we’re doing a screening of a new documentary called She Started It, which talks about some of the problems women face as entrepreneurs, and we’re having a local panel of female entrepreneurs talk at the event about some of their experiences as well.