Celebrating Women in this New Age of Innovation: The 4th Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference

What happens when you bring close to 400 women entrepreneurs, seasoned professionals and students together for 3 days? Based on our recent experience at the Girls in Tech Catalyst Conference, nothing short of magic.

Girls in Tech is an organization focused on the empowerment, entrepreneurship, engagement, and education of women in technology. According to the Founder and CEO of Girls in Tech, Adriana Gascoigne, “The Catalyst Conference was created to provide attendees with an environment that allows for true and honest conversations about important issues including gender diversity in the workplace and how we can better support girls in tech.” This past week, the three-day Catalyst event showcased women at the forefront of the technology and start-up spaces, providing inspiring keynotes, workshops, panel discussions, and networking events. Many of the speakers are part of the Athena Alliance, a non-profit whose mission is to help qualified women (of which there are many!) make the needed connections to secure Board of Director positions.

We put together the key themes and highlights from the Girls In Tech Catalyst Conference:

Drive relevance and avoid extinction:

Yvonne Wassenaar (CIO at New Relic) focused her talk on how to maintain relevancy in a world where change is the new constant. She noted that the difference between success and failure can boil down to two leadership skills: the ability to innovate and the ability to lead during times of change. Though both of these skills are intimidating to use and execute successfully, success requires that you face your fears. This sentiment was echoed by Mary Cranston (former CEO and Chair of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman Law). Mary shared that she doubted her ability to lead Pillsbury effectively when she was first appointed CEO. Mary emphasized that acknowledging your fears enables you to separate yourself from them and be effective in achieving your full potential.

Innovation is both a planned and spontaneous exercise.

Chrissy Vonderach (previously CIO at Blackhawk Networks and recently VP of IT at Clorox) pointed out that innovation is difficult to deliver on-demand yet cannot be over-planned. Her perspective is that a balance of discipline (do your homework), knowledge (be curious and be current), and serendipity (the openness to let things happen)clears the path for innovation.

A few more of our favorites: Amy Bunszel (Vice President, AutoCAD Products, Autodesk) shared her approach of “aiming high, taking risks, and being curious” as the keys to her success in innovation. Yanbing Li (Senior Vice President and General Manager, Storage and Availability Business Unit, VMware) spoke about being an ambidextrous leader who incrementally innovates in one piece of her business while radically innovating in others. Yanbing’s key to success is her ability to drive action after determining whether a product line should be optimized or transformed and incubated.

Be bold and take risks.

Almost every speaker touched on the importance of being bold and taking on risks. Failure can be an important step in achieving success. In fact, a few speakers noted that if you (or your team) are not occasionally failing sometimes, you are probably playing it too safe and are not pursuing enough stretch assignments to keep you team engaged and high-performing. Bev Crair (Vice President, Data Center Group General Manager, Storage Group) shared some great examples from her time at Intel, where she learned that what matters more than failing is being smart enough to quickly shut down and learn from efforts that are failing. Sarah Bird (CEO of Moz) had bold advice — surround yourself with people who see your real potential and will push you to deliver at your true level of impact.

Redefining what it means to “do it all”

Work, Family, or Self? Amy Jo Martin (Founder of Digital Royalty, NY Times Best-Selling Author) was told at one point in her career that you could NOT have all three, so she had better pick one. Amy refused to give in and was one of many at the conference offering advice on how to do it all. One method is to create your own definition of success rather than letting others define it for you based on their value system. Leah Busque (Founder & CEO, TaskRabbit) suggested that you avoid looking at wins & losses by day. Instead, understand your priorities and periodically assess your performance (e.g. weekly or monthly) to ensure you are getting the right mix. Several other speakers highlighted the importance of leveraging the support of your network in order to have it all — share duties with a stay-at-home partner or outsource some of the day-to-day tasks that need to be done. As Mary Cranston put it in her talk, focus on what matters most and, for the rest of it, use the “strategic no.”

Go for it!

The overarching message of the conference was “go for it;” you are more qualified than you think. Coco Brown (CEO of the Athena Alliance) drove this message home with her appeal to have more women come forward and raise their hands for Board service. Coco’s perspective, shared by many of the women speakers, was that the small number of women on Boards is not a pipeline problem. Instead, the challenge is encouraging already qualified women to raise their hands and make the right connections. After hearing all the amazing speakers at the Catalyst conference, we heartily agree.

Want more? Additional reading on the conference talks and referenced articles/books:

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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