The way advisory board member Sherry Lowry remembers it, Austin Women in Technology used to be the one place in Austin where women with the audacity to infiltrate the Old Geeks network—and women intrigued by technology—could converge. When it started, in 2002, it was fueled by the kind of camaraderie found in pioneering groups that are breaking new ground.
“We would support each other,” said AWT brand director Laurie Viault. “There was a networking and mentorship aspect, career development and leadership, counseling. We’d bounce ideas off each other. There were software and hardware engineers, sales and marketing people, a variety of women doing different things. Some women didn’t work in technology, they were just interested.”
The organization worked with local corporations like Microsoft, Intel and Dell so that whenever a female tech bigwig came to town, they’d nab her for an evening meeting and women converged to hear her speak.
But, as often happens, the seeds to the group’s demise were lodged in its success. As more women broke into the tech field, said Viault, splinter groups formed: Moms in tech, C-level executives in tech, solopreneurs in tech…. By the time the group reached its 10-year anniversary last year, it had lost focus and steam.
New President Carrie Lewis said the group had lost a lot of credibility as a source for cutting edge tech information. They had a website that looked “very 1982.” They used paper, rather than an online system for matching mentors and mentees, and their meeting topics strayed away from tech.
“We had a reputation for being very powder puff,” Lewis said. But she and the directors brought in for the 2012-2014 board session, intend to change all that around their new mission statement:
Austin Women in Technology’s mission is to cultivate a community of women interested in technology and to foster their personal and professional success by providing opportunities to connect, learn, grow, and lead.
The organization is rebranding with the help of Steel Branding and looking for organizational sponsors. They’ll continue their Intelligent Conversations series, formerly held every other month, but now they’ll only hold them quarterly and the conversations will be much more tech focused.
“We want to focus more on virtualization and cloud computing… gaming, really getting into the nitty-gritty of high tech things rather than leadership or business,” Viault says. Their 2013 topics include:
March 19th: The Hybrid approach to IT; a new model (IT acting as both provider and broker to all IT services. Important for SaaS models, enables IT to better serve the business by scalable services and provide adequate security).
June: Technology Legislation; an update from Texas 83rd Legislative Session. Speakers include Karen Robinson, CIO State of Texas and Deborah Giles: Founder, Texas Technology Consortium.
August 27th: With automation, robotics, 3D printing and Artificial Intelligence, where will the IT jobs of the future come from? (also tie into the new Digital executive role)
November 5th: Fireside Chat with a female IT leader.
In addition, the organization is planning two philanthropic events. The first will be a speed mentoring event with clients of Dress For Success, an organization that helps disadvantaged women achieve economic independence. And in the fall, the organization will hold a fundraiser for Girlstart, which provides STEM education programs for girls K-12.
And instead of having their own conference—the last was in 2011–they’ve partnered with Innotech for the Women of IT conference in October.
Also, they recently launched a mentorship pilot that starts in February and goes until the end of August. Participants will range from junior mentees to senior level IT executives looking to get to the next level in their careers. Valentine’s day was about matching the mentors and mentees.
And the group is split from some subgroups, notably the Women’s Executive Forum. AWT had struggled with disparate cultures between the two. Viault said the forum had a much heavier emphasis on policy and procedure than the rest of the group.
“People wanted to do stuff, not document stuff.”
Darby Armont, president of the Women’s Executive Forum, said that group decided it had enough members to strike out on its own, set its own course and have more control over its bylaws.
“Our culture, moving forward, is for women executives at the decision-making place in their organizations. AWT is a little bit broader,” Armont said.
When AWT started, the number of women in the decision-making place was, no doubt, much smaller. As Sherry Lowry recalls, women tried to emulate men in the industry while they were finding their place in it, making their connections at UT games and on the golf course, whether they wanted to or not—because that’s how men did it.
Coalescence happened around women’s sense of disenfranchisement in a male dominated world. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, in the year 2000, women only held 24 percent of U.S. STEM jobs. Ironically, while the number of STEM jobs increased by nearly eight percent between 2000 and 2009, women’s share of them didn’t.
Still, women in tech are no longer an oddity. Christina Trevino, who works as a leadership coach with members of AWT said she’s seen a definite shift in acceptance of women in technology. But when people no longer need solidarity to survive, solidarity sometimes suffers. And the magnetic power that fueled the group has dissipated.
“There was a need to have a vision that was energetic, making sure this was a vital organization,” she said. “Connection and learning something new are some of our core goals,”
“We’re not the only game in town anymore,” Viault said. “But we offer openness for some people who aren’t necessarily in technology, but interested in it, to join the group. Let’s face it, we’re inundated with technology no matter where we go. Sometimes people who aren’t in tech feel uncomfortable in tech groups. We want inclusive types of meetings where people can mingle, talk to somebody new and meet new people.”