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Microsoft

Every once in a while, we event organizers are fortunate to get the opportunity to be on the other end of the events spectrum - becoming attendees instead! As an attendee at industry conferences, we get to fully experience the event, get a pulse on what's important to #HumansofIT and learn best practices that we can potentially apply at our own events. 

 

October has certainly been a bumper month for events, and I had the opportunity to attend not one but THREE events of different scales and in various cities. It's fascinating to see that many of these events had common themes, and focused on core areas of sustainability and practicing kindness. 

 

Grace Hopper Celebration 2019 | October 1-4, 2019 in Orlando, FL

The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC for short) is arguably one of the most well-known industry events for women technologists. Tickets often sell out in mere minutes (rumor has it that this year it was completely sold out within 50 minutes!). Over 20,000 attendees gather in Orlando to delve into topics that range from the technical to the human-focused, but my favorite sessions are the ones that explore the unique intersection between the two.

 

Featured speakers include Dr Fei-Fei Li - this year's GHC Technical Leadership Abie Award winner and co-Director of Stanford University's Human-Centered AI Institute. She is also the co-founder and board chair of the nonprofit AI4All dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion in AI educate, research, development and policy. 

 

For Dr Fei-Fei Li, a deep curiosity in nature was what inspired her to begin her journey. While working simultaneously in both a neuroscience and computer science lab, she discovered the value of interdisciplinary research and that eventually led her to focus on the power - and vast potential - of human-centered AI. Dr Li also shared about how there is tremendous value in academic institutions serving as a neutral and open platform of discussion for core stakeholders including corporations and policymakers, thereby enabling a positive influence on technology. She also talked about drawing a connection between a dystopian future and fear, and how the critical connection comes down to people - "We need humanity to be at the steering wheel of this technology."

 

The subject of bias is another topic to comes up regularly in GHC sessions - take for example loan decisions made by banks. If data is not carefully curated and triple checked for accuracy, it can affect and carry through the entire machine learning system which then compares it to what it knows, and subsequently makes a decision that carries the bias embedded in the data. This is highly detrimental to the people who are dependent on the accuracy of these decisions, and can have far-reaching effects. To quote Dr Li, "If you don't know how to use that output, the human action continues to carry the bias and negatively impacts the person at the receiving end of the system". The good news is, the industry and academics are "feverishly working" on a solution, tirelessly striving to de-bias data sets and algorithms. That said, the bad news is that we are still far from a full waterproof solution, and this topic is embedded in a bigger conversation of responsible AI where we need to bring all these core stakeholders together. 

 

Aside from topics on responsible usage of technology and cutting-edge systems, another big topic at GHC 2019 centered around self-advocacy (i.e how do you speak up and respond to biased/judgmental/insensitive comments? How do you keep calm in the face of these situations?).

 

Here were some tips from speakers:

  •  Consider giving the person a benefit of doubt: Don't assume someone has an out to offend you
  •  Diffuse the emotionality of the conversation
  •  Feel empowered to speak on your own behalf
  •  Be bold to call out situations and address the issue when it seems that decisions made about you were made under incorrect assumptions
  •  Still give feedback to the other person even if they are not accepting it - oftentimes they will continue to mull on it after you've told them the feedback. You never know - they might come to realize that you made a valid point after all, even if they might not agree initially 

The topic of mental health continues to be a hot topic as well - we first saw strong interest and demand for a greater focus on this important topic at Microsoft Ignite 2018. This momentum has clearly continued into GHC 2019 as well. There were several panel sessions on this topic, focusing on discussions around how to tell your manager about your neurodiversity or mental health condition, advice on self-care, and how to ask for help from coworkers or peers.  

 

Other speakers focused on topics around gender expectations, breaking glass ceilings and pushing to reach your full potential. Here are some key advice from speakers (there were too many to list individually, but they include Morgan DeBaun, CEO of Blavity, Aisha Evans, CEO of Zoox amongst others):

  • Don't wait for permission - you already have it
  • Know what you want: If you don't see it, build it
  • Own your accomplishments - they are facts
  • Learn to market abilities unique to women as strengths
  • Your goal is to thrive, not merely survive
  •  Support founders by being funders
  • Bring everyone along on the journey if we are going to make a difference in tech
  •  Take your power and channel it to a commitment
  •  Use your power to stop the erasure of women, and ensure that women are seen. Use it everywhere it's needed. 

Some of my favorite moments during GHC 2019 are the moments where they feature #FutureTechnologists such as Jhillika Kumar, a bright young woman who created a brilliant startup that enabled her to combine her love for technology with her passion for service. 

 

How I Built This Summit 2019 | October 22-23, 2019 in San Francisco, CA

 

Most of you already know that I am a huge fan of NPR's How I Built This podcast series, hosted by Guy Raz. So when I saw that they were hosting their second HIBT Summit, I knew I had to be there. I've been tremendously inspired by the journeys of founders - especially women founders! - such as Sara Blakely (founder of Spanx), Stacy Brown (founder of Chicken Salad Chick), Jen Rubio (co-founder of Away), Curt Jones (Dippin' Dots) etc and more. What does innovation and entrepreneurship have to do with big tech companies, you might ask?

 

Everything.

 

As community leaders, we're continually striving to transform users' experience, build community, grow fans, expand our program offerings and hopefully create something magical that people love and want to contribute to.

 

Attending HIBT Summit was like walking into a mecca of creativity and innovation. You can feel a palpable sense of excitement, energy and hunger for success in the air. It's refreshing to see this in a conference, and motivating as well. You feel like you're part of a collective hive mind, everyone with ideas and experiences to share.

 

hibt3.PNGLearning tips on innovation and entrepreneurship from Stacy and David, co-founders of Stacy's Pita Chips

 

 The theme of this year's summit was "Kindness and Collaboration" - a clear nod to the importance of social good, and practicing kindness in the industry. Speakers reflected on moments of kindness they've experienced in their founder journey, and why it's important to pass it on. 

 

hibt1.PNGSara Blakely, founder of Spanx speaks with Guy Raz on the How I Built This Summit main stage

 

Quotable quotes from successful founders:

 

Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx

  • "Ideas are at their most vulnerable when they're new. You need to protect them. I didn't share ideas to seek validation; I shared them only with those who could help me move forward."
  •  "Everyone probably has that one million dollar idea in life, but might've been shut down by someone else - even with good intentions. I pursued this idea for a year before I told anyone."
  •  "I believe that ideas are gifts from the universe - when you get them you should write them down immediately."
  •  On knowing when to move on: "In my old job, I felt like I was in the wrong movie."
  •  On developing core skills: "Cold-calling is one of life's greatest trainings. Rejection is very much part of success."
  •  On how to pitch for success: "Don't sell the product; sell the problem you're solving."
  •  Resilience: "If you're an innovator, that means you're doing something else no one else is doing, so you're going to hear a lot of No's. It's because they are confused or uncomfortable. Don't ask for permission."
  •  Courage: "I'm not fearless; I'm courageous. There's a difference. I believe that courage is doing things despite fear. You have to be someone who is willing to ask for forgiveness, not permission. It takes a lot of courage to stand in a room of experts and ask them to do it differently."
  •  Creative thinking: "I spent 16 years in school being taught what to think, but no one taught me how to think."
  •  Compassion and kindness: "I remember at a party, this man put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Business is war - I hope you're ready'. I don't want that- I was determined to find a different way. Choose kindness, vulnerability and empathy in businesses instead."

Marcia Kilgore, founder of Bliss, FitFlop, Soap & Glory, Soaper Duper, BeautyPie

  •  Inventing something is like "gradually adding points of light and plugging it in until you eventually start to see the shape of a tree. If you don't see it, you need to keep adding in more points of light. Points of light give you energy to keep going on."
  • "Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic to a fault. Try not to look at the hurdles along the way, or you won't do it."
  •  "It's helpful to know how your brain works when it's in The Grip (i,e stress). Every brain deals with stress differently; it's helpful to know how yours works." 
  •  "What would you be, and what could you do if you didn't have the 'I can't do that' thought? Start by tackling something personally interesting to you and sustainable. Something that has purpose, and helps change the life of people for the better."
  • Write everything down - "It's more actionable when you write them down."
  • On kindness: "You get what you give - if you can help someone, do it. It's really good to have a bunch of open favors."
  • On excellence: "Don't get up in the morning to be average."

 

hibt2.PNGKatia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox speaks with Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream

Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox

  •  "When you design the user experience for the customer, it's not just about switching them to you, but changing their consumption pattern altogether."
  •  We always strive to be "forever useful, always delightful. At the intersection of utility and delight is where discretionary spending should be."
  •  "Try not to find out how hard the entrepreneurial journey will be. Most people who stare down the barrel of the gun will naturally say, 'Never mind, I'm cool!;"
  •  "Always ensure that the customer feels cared for. Being human and caring cuts through a lot of mistakes."

Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO and co-founder of Flickr

  •  Do the "So What" test: "If you can't explain your idea in one sentence, you haven't got it yet." 
  •  Try and develop a bias towards something that people really care about 
  •  Knowing how and when to pivot is key. Sometimes it's more of a survival than a special talent, but it's helpful when to do it.

Guy Raz, host of the How I Built This Podcast

  •  "Kindness is free, yet there is not enough of it. It is the most valuable investment you can make as a human being."
  •  "Good businesses are kind businesses, and kindness is good for business."

In all, it was a great learning opportunity to truly dig into the concept of innovation, tips on overcoming adversity and bouncing back from rejection. If you're not already tuning in to the podcast series, be sure to check it out - you won't regret it. 

 

hibt5.PNGDissecting Innovation panel featuring the founders of Allbirds, EO Products and LARABAR

 

5 top lessons and takeaways:

  • We need to use technology for good: It's a social responsibility that all technologists need to bear. There are plenty of issues in the world that could potentially benefit from - or be solved by - technology.
  • Invest in education and people: To quote Dr Fei-Fei Li, "The future is in the people. It's the people that we create that will change the industry."
  • Focus on humanity in tech. After all, we are the people behind technology- as technology becomes shaped to be more like us, we need to ensure that these powerful tech tools to work for us and help solve humanity's most pressing issues.
  • All of us can be entrepreneurs/intrapreneurs - whether you own a startup or work in a large corporate organization, you can develop an innovative mindset and solve problems in creative ways in your organization. 
  •  Big ideas often start small: You may be on to a big idea even before you know it. Don't simply dismiss it, or let someone shut you down - even if they're only doing it out of good intentions. Write everything down - you never know when it'll blossom into a truly winning idea.

What are your favorite industry conferences to attend? Let us know in the comments below.

 

As for us, we'll see you at Microsoft Ignite in Orlando, FL next week!

 

#HumansofIT

#KindnessinTech