Master’s student Ellie Symes shared lessons from her experience as a tech startup entrepreneur Saturday.
“The hardest thing about doing anything is starting,” Symes told the audience.
Her talk was one of nearly 50 sessions in the two-day Center of Excellence for Women in Technology Summit developed to empower women seeking to enter the technology field.
“Sometimes women don’t even see themselves in this realm,” CEWiT director Maureen Biggers said. “And it’s such an opportunity.”
CEWiT was founded in 2013 to help prepare and encourage women to participate in tech-related fields. It is the only tech center in the United States that works university-wide and across all departments, according to a CEWiT press release.
The center’s fifth annual technology conference this weekend presented workshops for faculty and graduate students Friday and events for undergraduate students Saturday.
Biggers said CEWiT leaders received an unprecedented number of session proposals from students, faculty, employers and alumni this year, making for the center’s most diverse, robust conference yet.
The discussions covered networking, social media and the social justice movement, 3D printing and several other topics designed for women with varying levels of tech experience.
In one session, IU alumna Carla Jackson shared stories and advice from her experience as a woman navigating a nontraditional career path in flight test engineering.
After a hand injury prevented her from completing her initial major in clarinet performance, Jackson decided to study physics to help her work in Air Force ROTC.
Jackson was the only woman to graduate with a physics degree from IU in 1984.
Though she said she never felt discriminated against while at IU, Jackson cited numerous accounts of degradation by men in her field. Several men have refused to interview or speak with her, and her work has been questioned based on her gender.
“These stories only happened because I was a woman,” Jackson said.
In a daylong session called “Toying with Tech,” CEWiT student ambassadors helped students play with several robots, Snapchat spectacles and virtual reality glasses to demonstrate, in a real and easy way, how technology is used.
Senior Kara Osburn, who is CEWiT student ambassador, showed students a robot called Sphero, which operates on bluetooth technology and uses entry-level coding on an iPad to control its actions.
“It’s a way to show people tech is fun,” CEWiT student ambassador and junior Victoria Slagle said.
The conference also offered free professional headshots, along with a career and majors expo with representatives from tech companies and 12 IU schools and departments.
While the workshops targeted women, CEWiT encouraged men to attend as well.
One workshop specifically created for male graduate students focused on ways to recognize gender inequality and interrupt it in a positive way.
“The men are in the majority in a lot of these environments, and so they have to be part of the solution,” Biggers said.
Until recently, Osburn said, she was the only woman in her research lab group.
Slagle said for a long time, she thought she wasn’t good at math because of the generalization that women are incompetent in the field.
Slagle said a strong support system in an educational environment can give women the confidence to enter professions sometimes unaccepting of females.
Whether or not students have technical majors, Biggers said acquiring tech skills can give women an edge.
IU has several intro tech classes that also cover general education requirements.
CEWiT’s Special Interest Groups organize student programming on specific tech fields, and the center has Saturday crash course workshops.
However, Biggers and Symes said soft skills are just as critical as hard tech skills.
Though Symes did not have any tech or business credentials before starting her business, she surrounded herself with industry experts and used her writing and communication expertise to launch several innovative products.
She advised other students to always ask questions, never quit and aim for the impossible.
“If you don’t go for impossible, impossible things don’t happen,” Symes said.