Keeping the Grace Hopper Convention Alive Year-Round

Keri McConnell, Senior Director Data Literacy, Co-Director of Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute

Oct 20, 2021

The Grace Hopper Convention (GHC) is the largest technology conference for women in the world, and it’s dedicated to increasing diversity, discussing ground-breaking research, and exploring career paths and development. Aside from offering presentations from industry leaders and networking opportunities, GHC is a powerful space for inclusion.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the GHC more than once, and I believe it's arguably one of the most important conferences out there. However, it only happens once a year. As a woman in tech, your voice is needed and should be heard, so tech leaders at Northwestern Mutual got together to capture and bring back the essence of the GHC to keep it alive year-round. Whether you're job searching or looking to increase inclusion at your current company, there are several key benchmarks we believe foster long-term empowerment and growth for female technologists.

The Grace Hopper Conference

Approximately 30,000 women from more than 115 countries attend the Grace Hopper Convention to learn, network and acknowledge industry achievements. The mission is to increase the number of women in tech and provide a community of resources and support for growing their careers.

This happens with the help of 300+ speakers, 200+ sessions to attend, and 15 specialty tracks including AI, data science, security/privacy, software engineering, gaming and animation, productization, and the internet of things (IoT). Speakers are chosen based on their recognition for the need for diversity in tech, while respectively being leaders in their field.

This conference is designed for the full spectrum of technologists: students and faculty, early- to senior-career women, entrepreneurs and founders. And aside from technology sessions, professional development is a strong focus to support career growth.

It only took attending the Grace Hopper Convention once to inspire our own women in tech culture at Northwestern Mutual many years ago, and these are the touchstones we used. As a female technologist, these are critical features you should look for when job hunting or building a more inclusive tech workforce.

Establish a WIT group

The first step we took was to establish a women in tech (WIT) group. The first year I attended GHC was with Cindy Smith, Assistant Director, Software Engineering, Core Data & Analytics. I remember the exact moment when Cindy and I were standing in the expo hall at Grace Hopper many years ago, and I realized we were standing with 30,000 other women in tech. There's absolutely nothing else you can feel other than belonging and inclusiveness. It was so powerful we got chills.

Cindy looked at me and said: “We need to bring this back. We need to harness this, and we need to keep this going all year. This is what I want to do. We need to start a women in tech group at Northwestern Mutual.”

That moment was the foundation of everything to come. Since then, and with the help of other female leaders in tech, we’ve created a community dedicated to raising awareness for the contributions of women technologists, growing opportunities for careers across the company and fostering a more inclusive culture where women technologists thrive. Our mission for our women in tech group is to accelerate, educate, and elevate female technologists, and I’ll share how we've made this possible. 

Identify Mentors and Leaders

After we established the need for a women in tech group, the next step was to identify the mentors and leaders who would get involved. It has taken a village to create. A dedicated team formed this women in tech group at Northwestern Mutual, and each of them brought their passion and experiences to the table.

Though when I think about it, Cindy was the architect of that village. She's the one who first saw the need many years ago, back when it was a hill to climb to make it happen. And her response was to put on boots and climb that hill. Cindy carried the torch, and very quickly a core group of us got together to carve out the time, despite our already busy schedules. 

These female tech leaders included:

  • Molly Jante, Sr. Director, Risk Product Development, Risk Products
  • Kari Bloom, Sr. Director, Business Ops Strategy & Planning, Engineering Solutions Delivery
  • Patricia Cabral, Assistant Director, Software Engineering, Office of the CIO
  • Jennifer Ketz, Sr. Director, Product and Engineering, Finance and Risk
  • Dana Hart, Sr. Director, Software Engineering, Engineering Solutions Delivery
  • Jamie Larson, Lead Project Manager, Office of the CIO

And we did it together. It didn't take long to get executive leadership on board, and we started moving it forward. Although it takes a village of mentors and leaders, it helps to have an architect for that village. And that village has gone on to curate the culture of inclusion for women in tech at this organization through specific events and resources that we'll highlight next.

Curate Professional Development Events

It is imperative to constantly invest in employees to give them the skills they need now while helping them advance their careers long-term. We have so many opportunities to connect with women in tech and learn from the women we're surrounded by every day, even now in a more remote environment. And we have done this by creating events that provide mentorship, involve cross-functional networking or participation in charities, develop skills, and even tap external industry leaders. 

We offer this wide variety of events for employees and interns to support where they’re at today while also opening the door for conversations and support for where they want to be in their career years from now. Our ongoing events include continued learning seminars, intern mentorship opportunities, community charity events, and even our own Women in Tech conference.

Women in Tech Conference 

At a Women in Tech conference, you have opportunities to listen to experts in the field and hone your craft, whatever it may be. You get to learn. You get to network, and the golden thread through that is this reinforcement that you belong. And not only do you belong, but what you belong to is powerful. What makes a Women in Tech conference so magical is being surrounded by other women who also chose to be in this field. You have opportunities to meet and network with people you don't get to meet and network with every day.

All of this is what we’ve set out to provide at our very own Women in Tech conference. Each December, we host female technologists for a one-day event that taps into professional development, empowerment, and collaboration for women across the tech industry.

We make sure to hold this event months away from GHC, because we want women to attend as many other conferences as possible. We want to hold ourselves accountable to usher in another opportunity for women to network and belong.

Create or Tap Employee Resource Groups

At Northwestern Mutual, we have employee resource groups (ERGs), which are committees dedicated to addressing the needs of specific groups of individuals to strengthen inclusion. These teams make sure each community feels seen and heard by providing access to resources for their specific needs. For example, our ERGs offer unique support for African Americans, Asians, Hispanic, disabled, military, and pride communities to ensure that women and people have access to resources that best fit their needs.

Jamie Larson, Lead Project Manager, Office of the CIO, shared: “I am a member of the Women’s ERG, and I engage heavily on efforts for the Women’s ERG and WIT. These two groups partner together to assess working conditions for women in technology to identify key opportunities. Working together raises awareness, and as we all know, this is the first step to real change."

Our women’s ERG is a community of women across the organization that is dedicated to helping each other 24/7 to build confidence, learn new skills and share ideas. We also utilize the Building Brave app, connecting more than 1,000 of our employees across multiple functions and locations. Connection to resources and conversation are key ingredients we've used to foster our culture and enable each other to grow.

Advice for Women in Tech 

As a group, women are invested in each other. When asked for helpful guidance they'd give to other women in tech, our female technologists who helped shape our WIT community had this advice to share:

“Always believe in yourself, and find others who believe in you too. Have confidence in your abilities and always push forward.” – Cindy Smith, Assistant Director, Software Engineering, Core Data & Analytics
"Find your group of people that will help support, guide and challenge you through your courses and career. It takes all types of individuals to come together to help each other rise.” – Jennifer Ketz, Sr. Director, Product and Engineering, Finance and Risk  
“Don’t be scared about the unknowns. You can do it, and there will be people by your side the entire way supporting you and being your cheerleader. The technology field holds so many opportunities; go find yours.” – Dana Hart, Sr. Director, Software Engineering, Engineering Solutions Delivery

Key Takeaways

The Grace Hopper Conference is a powerful experience we look forward to every year. Belonging and inclusiveness are the two words we’d use to sum up the GHC, and we used this annual conference as our blueprint to nurture and advance the female technologists we are lucky enough to work with and call allies.

Cindy Smith once told me, "Every woman who works in and around technology needs to feel like they belong, that they are supported, and they can grow their career to be whatever they want it to be."

Companies can commit to this through a WIT group and a women’s employee resource group (ERG) to host monthly events that provide access to mentors, continued learning, and a variety of sessions to strengthen inclusion and personal, professional development. And female tech conferences are a vital platform to acquire new skills and get connected to others. Every organization with a technology department should be fiercely committed to fostering these opportunities for women in tech.

If you’re looking for a welcoming space with access to events and mentors that are invested in empowering your tech career, check out our open tech positions or register for Northwestern Mutual’s Women in Tech conference.

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