By Ayanna Smith, GET Cities DC, Managing Director
At GET Cities, our approach to our work is driven by our belief in the power of community as a driving force for change. This is reflected in the strategic partnerships we’ve formed nationally, as well as the working groups and programs we’ve built in Chicago, our inaugural city. And now, thanks to the success of our #GETDC Big Think, we’re truly on track to leverage the power of our community to create a gender and race-inclusive tech industry in the Washington, DC region.
But what exactly is a Big Think? What’s the purpose?
Let’s start by clarifying what a Big Think is not. It’s not meant to be a conference with just a handful of keynote speakers delivering one-way speech to a large, mostly silent audience. The key ingredient of a successful Big Think is collaboration. Our work of creating a more equitable tech industry for women, trans, and non-binary individuals is the big goal. Big goals require big solutions. And the people closest to the problem are often the most effective in identifying solutions. Our #GETDC Big Think served as a way for us to pull together a group of carefully selected leaders, influencers, entrepreneurs, and funders from the DC metro area to convene, share ideas, and strengthen our community. As the name suggests, we wanted our participants to help us “think big.”
The day itself was packed from start to finish. When guests arrived, they were greeted with breakfast and music by a live DJ. Everyone was encouraged to move about the room and introduce themselves to anyone they weren’t familiar with. Then, at the official start of the event, formal introductions were made around the room. Each attendee stated their name and their organization, and we reaffirmed GET Cities’ mission and our reason for the event.
The fireside chat was definitely one of the biggest highlights of the day. As one of our attendees remarked, “It was so enlightening. The speakers were real and vulnerable. I love that we gave them the freedom to tell their stories and to talk about their challenges, their faith, their purpose, and their successes.” The panel included three women tech leaders: Angela Dingle, President and CEO of Ex-Nihilo Management; Buki Catherine Froelke, Founder of Share Amplify Now; and Dawn Myers, Founder and CEO of THE MOST. We were very intentional about selecting these women, as they each offered a unique perspective about the tech ecosystem and were able to speak to the variety of challenges that many women of color face throughout their academic, career and entrepreneurial journeys. The chat was informative, inspirational, and even at times, emotional. But it was most effective in outlining the gaps that exist for members of marginalized groups, and placing our attendees in the necessary mindset for brainstorming solutions. You can view the full fireside chat by clicking here.
Next, it was time for the real meat and potatoes of the event: the working group sessions. Attendees were split into separate groups based on two of our three main working pillars — entrepreneurship and industry — and each group collaborated to identify the existing programs, existing barriers, and programs that don’t exist but should. One of the recurring themes in discussions between the groups and throughout the day overall was the need for social capital: having someone in a position of power in your corner to hire you, promote you, advocate for you, and speak your name when you’re not in the room.
As Angela mentioned during the fireside chat, “Decisions are being made about you, your career, which opportunities and key projects and assignments you get….all these decisions are being made behind closed doors. [I needed] someone who would speak up for me and say, ‘Why don’t we give this opportunity to Angela? Now that she’s done it, why don’t we pay Angela some more money for having done that particular thing?’”
Having someone influential to believe and invest in you throughout your tech career, beyond the superficial title of mentor, can be a gamechanger. This is especially true in DC, which is often a very cutthroat environment. Your ability to advance your career in this city often hinges on who you know, making it difficult for newcomers to succeed. Discussions around these problems, and brainstorming potential solutions, carried us through the rest of the day.
In the spirit of collaboration, we made the decision to hold this event in-person; and in hindsight, I can confidently say that this was 100% the right call. From the moment attendees stepped into the room, the eagerness and excitement was palpable. Conversations flowed naturally, introductions were made without hesitation or awkwardness, and thoughts and ideas came quickly and easily. Because we required everyone to be fully vaccinated before attending the event, many people also felt comfortable hugging and talking in close proximity with one another. Whether everyone was bolstered by the music, the food, or simply the fact that this was the first in-person event that most had attended in nearly two years, it was undeniable that the energy present in that room could not have been replicated over Zoom.
Beyond ideation, this Big Think also served as a necessary reminder to all that this fight for equity is truly a group effort. Tackling problems as daunting and pervasive as gender and racial discrimination can often feel like an overwhelmingly uphill battle. I know these feelings have only been exacerbated by the global pandemic that sank hundreds of businesses, pushed an alarming number of women out of the workforce, and forced all of us to self-isolate for over a year. Working in silos and feeling disconnected from our communities and support systems can easily trick us into thinking that we’re fighting this battle alone. But being in that room, knowing that every attendee shares and is actively working toward the same mission, gave us all the reassurance that we so desperately needed.
So, what comes next? Truthfully, that may be the most exciting part, as this is when the real work begins. Our working groups made plans to meet monthly to expand upon the proposed solutions and start to develop programs and initiatives to meet the needs of women, trans, and non-binary tech professionals throughout the DC metro area. Make sure to come back to our website and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to stay updated on our progress. Based on the conversations that were had, connections that were made, and energy that was captured at the #GETDC Big Think, I know that great things are on the horizon for the Washington, DC region.
In closing, I’d like to recognize the vendors and panelists that helped us execute this event flawlessly. Please consider hiring them for your next gathering.
Music: Miss H.E.R.
Venue: Halcyon House