Two weeks ago I attended the Grace Hopper Conference (GHC) in Houston, Texas. I was among the 15,000 attendees who attended this year’s conference. I call GHC the ‘Bucket List’ conference because it surely is one that every woman in tech (student or industry) should strive to attend at least once. As it is a celebration of women in computing, GHC is the only conference that I know of that has a live DJ and an official after-party. This year’s DJ was Roonie G (@), who is one heck of a Disc Jockey!
Besides that I was giving a presentation on research in Kenyan academic institutions, I attended GHC for the incredible inspiration that it offers. Not only is the energy during the conference electric, GHC offers an array of amazing speakers, sessions, and people. At GHC you get wowed by speakers like Astro Teller, who spoke of a culture of innovation that allows freedom and mistakes. Before GHC I had watched Astro Teller’s TED talk on the unexpected benefit of celebrating failure. Listening to him in person from a front row seat was incredibly inspiring. At GHC you get inspired by Computer Scientists like Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who was the first African-American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from MIT. Dr. Sweeney gave a brilliant talk on the impact of technology on humans and aspects of data protection. At GHC you get touched by amazing stories of triumph, strength, and resilience as shared by Telle Whitney during her keynote on why it takes courage to succeed. At GHC you get an opportunity to listen to exclusive talks and on-stage appearances, such as listening to Mimi Valdes, who is one of the executive producers of the upcoming must-see film, ‘Hidden Figures’. At GHC you also have access to the many workshops that give hands-on learning on various topics, special sessions on career and professional development, and opportunities to take an on-site interview. In addition, it is one of the few conferences where you have access to about 300 global tech companies, from Accenture to Twitter, and various top-notch schools, from Georgia Tech to Stanford, pitching their tents in one place for three days!
Because GHC is always hosted in the US, it is not surprising that the number of African women researchers, students, and academics attending the conference is limited. In addition, there is the issue of lack of funding that bars a great number of African students and professionals from attending conferences abroad. Be that as it may, there is no better place than at GHC to share our contextualized stories and experiences and to have our voices heard. I emphasize this because we have had discussions that the real on-the-ground picture in Africa is not shared with the world by Africans themselves. GHC offers an opportunity to change this.
One way that we can do this is to encourage more of our students to apply for various full scholarships that support travel to GHC. For example, one of my mentees, Ms. Nyariak Deng’, was awarded a full scholarship by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI) to attend the conference. She is the first student from Kenya Methodist University to attend GHC. Facebook also offers full GHC travel scholarships that students can apply to. The benefit of having our students attend such a conference is that students not only get a world view on the current trends in technology, they also get challenged by understanding the current tools and technologies that they need to learn in order to get a competitive edge. In any case, the idea is that we prepare our students for the world stage and not just for the local stage. Faculty members also have the opportunity of applying for partial funding from ABI. Women who are doing amazing work in the African community have the opportunity to get nominated for the change agent award. This year, our very own Kenyan, Amanda Gicharu, was the winner of this prestigious recognition.
My contributions towards sharing African stories at this world stage were in the form of a poster presentation of my Ph.D. work at GHC 2014, and talking about the state of research in academic institutions in Kenya at this year’s GHC. See my full presentation here. Indeed, the trend should be that we not only share our stories but we share the techniques, tools, and methods that we have used to contribute towards solutions. Back home in Kenya, AkiraChix organizes the African Women in Technology (AWTC) conference, with this year’s conference happening on November 12th. I encourage that we continually expose our students and researchers to local opportunities such as this so that they can contribute and learn from fellow students and practitioners. I will speak at AWTC 2016 on the involvement of women in tech research.
I thank Google for the support to attend and present at GHC 2016. GHC 2017 will be held in Orlando, Florida, Oct 4-6 2017. I hope to be there. Perhaps this time, I will get the opportunity to participate in a panel of African women researchers talking about the experience of doing research in low-resource settings and the importance of an African-grown researcher in development work that is conducted in Africa.
Please plan to attend GHC 2017 and start preparing to submit session proposals and to apply for the funding opportunities for the same, at your institutions or through the various scholarship opportunities!