Earlier this month I had a milestone experience in my career: I was invited to speak at the largest women-in-computing conference in the world, the Grace Hopper Celebration, with a whopping 18,000 other women in technology jobs from around the world.
It was an incredible honor — from hearing Melinda Gates talk about her successes and failures at Microsoft to learning about incredible new assistive technology for the blind. I was in awe.
But this blog post is not about what happened at the Grace Hopper event. It’s actually about something that happened right before it, literally at the airport gate.
I found myself sitting in the airport, stressing about my flight: imagining what could go wrong, the inevitable delay, how tired I’d be getting in so late, looking bedraggled for my panel the following day.
But then I stopped to look to my right. I noticed a young woman writing on a strip of paper: “Google, Apple, Twitter, WordPress…”
You get the idea. Naturally I became curious. Why would this young woman need a handwritten note to remember the names of companies everyone knows by heart?
I turned my gaze to her other hand, holding her phone. On it, an app listed these same companies. OK. Looks like some sort of business-development research. Like when I scour LinkedIn for 2nd degree connections to Corporate Social Responsibility Directors at big companies as possible clients for MilkCrate, my company.
Finally I see the book on her lap holding all of this activity together: How To Interview For Coding. Aha! A Grace Hopper job hunter! And a young woman engineer. Gold! I quickly ask her if she is going to the same conference. She says she is.
I learn that she is a student at Penn in the computer science department. She spent her summer last year interning at Facebook “where they take really good care of you, financially.” But yet she tells me she doesn’t want to return. Apparently, despite being generously compensated, she found the experience less than ideal, culturally. She was eager to have “more of an impact, to create something herself and not be lost in a sea of engineers.”
Her greatest fear? Being a “code monkey.”
I say, glancing at her list, “So have you checked out any of the startups here in Philly?” She gently laughed, embarrassed by her own dismissiveness, worried she’d offended me. Her impression?
“I want my 20s to be exciting, to be an adventure” she said. “Philly is fine for college, but not after.”
I gently ask her, “Well, how often do you leave campus?”
“Oh, rarely,” she said, “not even every other week. And when I do I think, ‘I should do this more! This is great.’ I hate to sound stereotypical, but I want to go to New York or San Francisco.”
As she talked about her dreams and her past experiences at companies like Facebook, the message I got was loud and clear: She wants to matter. She wants her work to matter.
Well, Philly can offer that. We have a thriving startup scene, and even better, a thriving social-impact startup scene. Philly is ripe for young engineers to come, and make their mark, and use their talents for good. But we’ve failed if she, and others like her, haven’t gotten the message.
I told her of a CEO I know who is desperate for more engineers, a CEO who specifically hopes to hire more women to his team. She was clearly excited and surprised to learn that there were opportunities like this just a bike ride away from her dorm.
I started thinking about all the work groups like Campus Philly, Ben Franklin Tech Partners, the Commerce Department, Philly Startup Leaders, the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs and others do to market the city to students just like her. And of course all the companies like mine that are seeking (desperately?) more (female) tech talent.
Clearly, at least in this young woman’s case, our message failed to hit the mark.
But sitting with her, talking with her about some of my experiences — how four years ago as a young grad student with no tech background of any significance other than a year of Apple retail, I managed to build a startup with the world’s largest media company as a customer, and now I get to sit with the biggest tech leaders in the area as peers and mentors.
The size of an ecosystem is not more important than its character. And in this case, a smaller, more close-knit, collaborative ecosystem can make dreams like hers come true. Just like it did for me. She just needed someone to show her the way.
So we board the same plane to Orlando and I work on my presentations for Grace Hopper and we go our separate ways. But I see “her” again on Monday, while guest-lecturing at Wharton about MilkCrate driving user engagement through gamification.
“How many of you want to stay in Philly after you graduate?” I ask the class, after highlighting some of the ways the Philly startup ecosystem has directly contributed to MilkCrate’s success.
Not one raised their hand. There were at least 60 Wharton undergrads in the room.
I have no way to measure if I made any of them think twice, but the hope is this: That more personal contact with these students — more opportunities for them to actually meet people whose work inspires them or whose career paths excite them — will improve our chances of bursting the University City bubble and having more recent grads join us in our growing Philly tech community.
And we will all be better for it.