Why women in tech should flock to SXSW

SXSW Interactive 2014
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I’ve been to three trade shows this year—CES, MWC, and SXSW—and boy are my arms tired. Now that my laundry’s in the washer and I’ve had time to exhale and reflect, I'm happy to report that there really is a trade show for women in tech: It's called South by Southwest.

International CES and Mobile World Congress are still about products: huge companies making huge announcements, with plenty of smaller acts to round out the circus. But the more you poke around SXSW looking for big splashy hits like the next Foursquare or the new Twitter, the more it becomes apparent that this show is less about shiny new things and more about shiny, happy people (eating barbecue) and their big ideas for the future. And I was so thrilled to discover that a lot of these big brains belonged to women—even if it meant I occasionally had to wait in line for the ladies’ room (something that rarely happened in Vegas or Barcelona).

TheLi.st TheLi_st on Instagram

My favorite meetup was sponsored by TheLi.st ("a visibility platform for awesome women") and Change The Ratio, complete with its own empowering hashtag #BeAwesome.

The crowdsourcing of the panel selection resulted in tons of programming aimed at women in tech this year, from a fascinating panel called “Hacking Princess Culture: Girls, Games, & Science” to mentoring sessions and meetups for entrepreneurs and women who work at startups to network and share advice. All weekend I clinked Shiner Bock bottles with women who were super cool and interesting and also happened to be CEOs, founders, physics students, authors, doctors, and inventors. I’m not saying I didn’t encounter women like this at CES or MWC—only that at SXSW they were everywhere.

Women showed up in a big way on the keynote stages too, including Anne Wojcicki, CEO and cofounder of 23andMe, who spoke passionately about how genetics will make the future of medicine more personalized and more about prevention. Chelsea Clinton led off her keynote about how technology can impact global health with the highly quotable line, “I’m obsessed with diarrhea.” Her point was that children are still dying in developing countries due to lack of access to clean water and adequate sewage, something that she thinks the tech community really ought to disrupt.

Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton spoke about how big data can help solve problems in developing countries.

Another presidential relative who spoke at SXSW, Lauren Bush Lauren, is the cofounder and CEO of FEED, a socially conscious business dedicated to fighting world hunger while still turning a profit. As she told Entrepreneur.com, “The more we strengthen our business, the more we are able to give. And the more we can focus on giving back, the more customers will want to buy our products, thus strengthening our business.”

And it wasn’t just SXSW Interactive where women made an impact: Two of the most buzzed-about speakers at the Film portion of South By were Mindy Kaling and Lena Dunham, incredibly talented people who have their own shows but still don’t always get the respect they deserve. Kaling responded to a question about the diversity on her show The Mindy Project by pointing out somewhat exasperatedly, “I’m a f—king Indian woman who has her own f—king network television show, OK?”

Anne Wojcicki

Anne Wojcicki is working with the FDA to once again be able to sell 23andMe's $99 testing kit as a product to determine your genetics, rather than simply your ancestry.

And Dunham agreed that her male costar on HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver, deserves all the delicious parts his breakout stardom has afforded him (Star Wars VII, baby!), but she wishes the same range of roles were available to the other women on the show: “People are ready to see Adam play a million different guys in one year, from lotharios to villains to nerds. Meanwhile Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet are still waiting for parts they can get interested in.” Film, like tech, may have a ways to go to reach a more equitable playing field, but it was inspiring to see so many women making their voices heard and celebrating each others’ success.

My favorite event was the #BeAwesome party, sponsored by TheLi.st and Change the Ratio, where I got to meet several amazing women I've been following on Twitter (women like Rachel Sklar, Glynnis MacNichol, Anna Curran, Nicole Shea, Kate Gardiner, Tammy Gordon, and so many more) and congratulate them in person on their various successes. To a woman, they were humble and complimentary right back, and ready to talk up not their own projects, but those of other women who inspire and mentor them. Sounds like a lovefest, I know, but I think the tech scene could use a little more love, and it was a refreshing switch from the vibe I've gotten at other, more self-promotional events.

So I may not have found the next breakout social app that will light the charts on fire before selling to Facebook or Twitter for a few billion clams. I didn’t eat a 3D-printed Oreo or share anything scandalous on Secret. But at a conference dedicated to finding the best ways for technology to improve our future, I’ll take a pocket full of old-school business cards with women’s names on them over another product announcement any day. And the barbecue wasn’t bad, either.

This story, "Why women in tech should flock to SXSW" was originally published by TechHive.

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