Back in November of 2015, the first annual Ela Conf was held at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. With the aim of getting women into leadership roles in technology, attendees heard talks on topics such as burnout, getting into technology, preparing to give a talk, and more.
After the first conference, several of the attendees (myself included) began meeting up once a month, either in person or over Google Hangouts, to talk about our goals and to hold ourselves and each other accountable. In attending these meetings, I realized that my goals changed over the course of the year to the point that some of the goals I had set at the beginning of the year were no longer very important to me at all.
What was more empowering than the act of coming up with the goals was having a #squad of ambitious, intelligent, and kind people to discuss the ebbs and flows with and who acted as a sounding board when I was feeling kind of lost or confused. It was exciting to watch as we checked things off our lists: changing jobs, asking for raises, moving to a different city or town or state, organizing conferences, giving talks, trying to milk a cow, and celebrating it all with a trip to the dairy farm for some really great ice cream.
Last weekend, the second annual Ela Conf was held in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts. Emerging from the elevator onto the 17th floor, I saw many familiar faces and many faces which would come to be a bit more familiar by the end of the conference. Organized by a group of passionate women, Joni Trythall, LeeAnn Kinney, Katy Decorah and Arti Walker-Peddakotla did an amazing job of creating a safe and welcoming space.
Because of the conference’s safe atmosphere, people shared their stories openly and vulnerably. It started on Friday evening with a talk from Eleanor Whitney who shared her experience of coming into technology from an art background and the choice she made to bring her art background with her into technology. We heard Liz Brown talk about being ourselves and a few psychological hacks to increase our influence. Brittany Canty talked about the importance of finding a company that not only tolerates us, but embraces us. Jessica Hall talked about the challenges of negative feedback and the stages we go through in doing so. Angelina Simms talked about how scope creep can run rampant over our lives and the importance of having someone to talk to. Alex Qin talked about resorting to shaving her head in an effort to be taken seriously as a woman in tech, an experience we probably all could relate to.
On Saturday, Mary Scotton spoke about breaking the rules, finding a community and investing in our relationships. She also spoke about respecting other perspectives because they are only different and not wrong. Tiberius talked about negotiating and the challenges that surround doing so. Timirah James talked about how we have to teach people how to respect us because respect is not the same to everyone. Nicole Zhu talked about getting ourselves a squad and how doing so was fundamental to her getting into technology — and staying there. I saw a panel on preparing for your first talk during which the panelists talked about giving their first talks and how they prepare. Yuval Yarden talked about giving and receiving feedback and shared tips for doing so in a productive way that fosters positivity and connection. Elise Wei talked about saying “I don’t know” and kicking imposter syndrome in the pants.
We heard Ruthie Floats discuss using our feelings to guide us towards our needs. Lisa Yoder spoke about giving back and getting involved as a beginner even though it’s often scary and we don’t feel ready enough. To cap off the day, we heard a powerful and vulnerable talk from Adrienne Lowe who spoke openly about body image, anxiety, and depression. She walked us through a visualization exercise during which we visualized ourselves as children. I know I’m not the only one who had all of the feels (again). She stressed that although our lives are better than many people’s, the struggle is undeniable. As someone who struggles with these same issues, it was really refreshing to hear her say that.
Because the environment was safe and people shared their stories openly, many people connected in a meaningful way. So many speakers talked about being ourselves, because when we’re authentic, we’re better able to connect. I also think it’s real proof that it just takes one person to open the conversation about the hard topics for those who witness it to feel better understood. In other words, I think when we hear our own experiences being shared from another person, we feel less alone, and when we feel less alone, and when we have support and a community, we can do greater things.
A week later, the Slack channel is still active and folks are still connecting and reaching out for support and advice. Tonight I am thinking about how I can give back and reach out and grow my own network. As Mary Scotton said: go to coffee. Want to get coffee?