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The story behind Girlcon, the international tech conference for women

In our latest TechTalks episode, Zoe Cunningham is joined by Kyla Guru, co-founder of GirlCon and student at Stanford University, and Molly Graton, co-founder of GirlCon and student at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

We explore the story behing Girlcon, a Chicago-based tech conference for female/non-binary high schoolers to promote diversity in STEM fields. GirlCon has grown from 150+ students and 50+ industry professionals (2018 at Northwestern Uni.) to 250+ students and 100+ industry professionals (2019 at Google Chicago), and a virtual event (GirlCon 2020).

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Transcript

Zoe: 

Hello and welcome to Softwire Techtalks. I’m Zoe Cunningham. Today, I’m joined by two very exciting guests who are Kyla and Molly from GirlCon. We’ll come on to in a minute to what GirlCon is. So, please Kyla and Molly, can I ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do? And also an interesting fact about yourselves.

Kyla: 

Thank you so much for having us. So I can start us off. Hi, everyone. My name is Kyla Guru and I am 19 years old now. And I am a rising sophomore at Stanford University, and one of the cofounders of GirlCon alongside Molly.

And a fun fact about me. Recently, I’ve started making my own Asai bowls. So I’ve had a lot of fun trying different combinations, and they’re really yummy all the time. So if you haven’t tried one yet, you should definitely try.

Zoe: 

So what Acia? I’m not sure I’m familiar with this. What type of food is this?

Kyla: 

It’s for sure food, like asai berries, I think are from Brazil. But you can buy the frozen packs and blend it with peanut butter, bananas, and it’s really yummy.

Zoe: 

Oh, amazing. So they’re like health energy balls?

Kyla: 

Yes, exactly.

Zoe: 

Well, they sound fantastic. And I will look up the recipe!

Molly: 

Hi, everyone. My name is Molly Graton. I am a rising junior at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. And I’m also a codirector of GirlCon. And one fun fact about me is that recently over quarantine, I’ve been getting into playing chess, I’m definitely not very good at it. But I do think it’s really fun.

Zoe: 

Super exciting. Did you watch the Queen’s Gambit?

Molly: 

I did. I saw a few random episodes like out of order. But it seems very good from what I’ve seen.

Zoe: 

I think there’s been a like a massive upsurge in in chess interest. I mean lots of people who I was not expecting to be talking about chess have started talking about chess. I think that’s really super cool. All righty. So let’s start by, tell us a bit about like what GirlCon is, I guess to start.

Kyla: 

So GirlCon is an annual tech conference that is now international. Basically, we’re an annual event that brings together young women and professionals to talk about bridging the gender gap and explore how technology is impacting all different passions across the board and industries across the board. So it’s a very, very exciting event. A lot of energy, a lot of fun. And personally, one of my favourite days of the year.

Zoe: 

Amazing. So how did it start? You kind of both mentioned that your co founders. So it’s something I’m guessing that you both started together? Is that right?

Molly: 

That’s right. Kyla and I’s parents actually work together. And so a few years back, they introduced us because they knew we were both into tech. And then Kyla and I actually met up at a Starbucks, the infamous Starbucks in the middle of our houses. And we kind of talked about what we were doing at the moment, this was probably in like the middle of high school.

And we talked about wanting to maybe do something that could impact our community and something that could get us involved with other people in our area. So we just kind of started ideating about possible conferences that could happen.

We knew that there were already a lot of wonderful tech conferences out there that were doing really cool things. But something that we wanted to focus on was we know that every single person out there may not want to go into computer science or engineering or technology for that matter.

But we did want to emphasise that regardless of what field, you know, a girl might want to go into if she wants to study in college, they can still use technology to augment that field. So if they want to go into art, if they want to go into medicine, there’s a tonne of ways that technology can be integrated within those fields. And that’s just something we really wanted to highlight throughout the conference.

Zoe: 

And that’s going to get more and more important, isn’t it? So kind of speaking as a technology, professional technology is touching, like every part of our lives. So there is now no business that you can be in where you won’t use some form of technology, right? There’s no part of life.

Molly: 

Yeah, it’s crazy seeing how you know, everything’s being augmented. And there’s always new inventions and technologies coming out in every single field. So it’s just really important that everyone kind of has some knowledge of technology regardless of what they want to go into.

Zoe: 

And I’m really interested just to ask (a little bit tangential maybe but), in the UK, like we talk a lot about coding in schools and teaching technology in schools and there have been improvements, but it’s still not really where we would want it to be. And it’s still not kind of teaching people or helping young people to understand what it would be like to actually have a career in technology. And that results in a bit of a gap. What’s it like in the States? Do you learn technology in school?

Kyla: 

In the States, we definitely have classes like you’re saying. I think now they start as early as like kindergarten and first grade. They have these little kids pressing on on their little iPads and tablets, and drag and dropping code, which is awesome. And it’s really cool.

When we go into like classrooms and sort of, like, interact with students, I do a lot of that for my, my roles and in sort of community building.

But when I do interact with students, it seems like every year like younger and younger, they’re starting these students on these devices, which is a good thing that they’re so like, you know, accustomed to coding languages by the time they’re older and things like that.

But I think, as you’re saying, though, there’s definitely some gaps in terms of showing them role models that are representative of how they look like and the background that they come from, so that they can feel like they’re a part of a community when they’re joining technology and when they’re interacting with these devices.

So that’s something that we really aim to do with GirlCon is portray these role models right in front of these young women, to make sure that they have someone to look up to always as they’re going through their tech journey.

Zoe: 

Right. And to feel like it’s a community that they belong in that that they can be part of, and where they’re not an outsider, I guess, coming into it?

Kyla: 

Yeah, exactly. Where they can be sort of anyone that they want to be, and they have the community to push them forward.

Zoe: 

And when did GirlCon start? Has it kind of evolved, obviously becoming virtual, which I guess is a result of the global circumstances, or are there other other ways in which it has evolved?

Molly: 

It started a few years back, and since then, it’s honestly gone in so many directions that we didn’t even see coming, but you know, in a good way.

So the first two years were in person, the first year, we had it at university, Northwestern. And then the second year, we had it at Google Chicago office.

And once the pandemic started, I think we were definitely sad that GirlCon wasn’t able to be in person. But it kinda ended up ended up being like a really defining moment in the path of GirlCon, just because we were able to expand this conference from mainly having girls from the Chicagoland area, and maybe outside Illinois a little bit, to having attendees from all around the globe, and in all different places. So I think that was something that was really cool.

Over the past two years have we saw, you know, this growth of GirlCon, that we got to interact with people all around the globe and meet new people.

And then I think another big thing is that when Kylie and I started this conference, we wanted to ensure that it was a fully high-dchool-led conference. We wanted to, you know, have a team that was fully made up of high school girls, because we think that, you know, girls in high school, they can do a lot of cool things. And we’ve seen this, you know, displayed for many, many years, and what our incredible team does every year.

But now that Kyle and I are both in college, we’re now on the board. But we have a wonderful core team, national team and ambassador team of high school girls who are continuing this conference. I think just seeing their vision and their implementation, the conference has been just incredible to see all their hard work put in. And I think the mission of GirlCon still stays the same, but having this new input in these new leaders every year, it’s just really incredible to see the strides that GirlCon makes is we have all these incredible high school girls working on it.

Zoe: 

And actually, that’s the way to almost ensure that it continues evolving, right? That it’s not just something that you two have set up in the kind of vision that you’ve had. And then you just kind of keep doing the same thing over and over. And it’s one of the strengths actually, of getting more and more people into technology is new people bring new ideas and new ways of doing things. And that’s what makes things better, and how you improve and grow things. I can see that’s really, really exciting.

Molly: 

Yeah, it’s been super cool to like actually see, the conference evolved is we get new girls on the team and they come up with new ideas and then they implement them. It’s just been a really incredible thing to watch over the past few years.

Zoe: 

So is it is it hard to get young people involved in GirlCon, I guess either as attendees or then into this role of you know, I’m sure a lot of people have had challenges kind of, you know, maybe getting getting teenagers excited about anything. So it’s something that’s been a challenge to keep getting new people attending and, and running the conference?

Kyla: 

That is definitely something that was delightfully surprising for us as well as like in our first year, I think we went into it, we didn’t know if like people would come and people would register. But what we saw is when we put something good out into the community, young people are itching to make an impact and come and enjoy and be with other young people and kind of ideate these next generation solutions. So we actually saw like a really great group of like young people join us in our first conference.

And then from there, building, our team was sort of natural because a lot of girls who attended the conference actually became team members. And we see that happen every year, with more of our organising team being previous attendees, which, again, is as Molly and you were saying, Zoe, is always brings new ideas, because they’ve actually experienced the conference and have ideas for how to make improvements and what to add for next year. So it’s always really cool.

Just seeing how the team is basically ever expanding every year. And that’s something that is exciting. But also, we have to sort of balanced with our planning goals and expectations.

Zoe: 

It’s also like a good testament to the conference, right? That once people have attended, they want to be a part of that. And they want to carry it on.

Kyla: 

Yeah, we sure hope so. And that’s one of the really exciting things we care. There’s just more and more young women on our team and students in general. So we always love seeing new people.

Zoe: 

And how and how do you reach the students as attendees? Is that something you can put out through the school system? Or is it a case of like advertising on the internet? How do you find attendees?

Molly: 

Yeah, I think it’s a combination of all those things.

So we have a social media team within GirlCon, and they do an awesome job of, you know, posting about the conference, trying to get the word out as much as possible on various social medias.

And then we’ve also had a great support system within adults, both teachers, principals, school systems, and then also people within the tech industry, who have been super supportive and offer to push the word out about GirlCon within their areas and their groups of people that they know. And I think those two things have been huge, and just getting the word out about GirlCon.

Yeah, those are kind of the big things. And another thing that we aim for is making the event as accessible as possible. So it’s completely free, there’s food provided, all that stuff, we just want to make sure that if someone is interested in attending, there’s no barriers to attend. So you know, just trying to get the word out to as many people as possible, and then trying to make sure that anyone who is interested is fully able to attend.

Zoe: 

Right. And then they feel included as well.

Molly: 

Exactly. That’s our goal. We want it to be a really safe space for people to just learn and get as much out of the day as possible.

Zoe: 

So one question I’d like to ask you, because I attend a lot of panels and events around women in technology and encouraging women into technology and then supporting them once they’re there. So we talk a lot about why this is important. I would love to hear from your perspective. Obviously, this is something that you both came to with a personal interest in technology. But why is it important that events like GirlCon exist, and that we do address this gender imbalance that exists?

Kyla: 

This is such an important question Zoe, and one that we constantly remind ourselves as we traverse through the tech industry as well.

But I really think that at least for me, it comes down to the fact that when you look at our world right now, the products that we have in it, and a lot of the inventions that were created, were created for men. A lot of it was a man-made world in the past.

And that’s something that we really want to change now is having designers that involve more women voices in the room, women designers who are creating these products and spearheading these teams leading these boardrooms and a new era of conversation so that when we create something like airbags or seat belts, we have women input, and we have input of like the fact that, you know, these ideations and inventions take different meanings for different people of different identities. Just that core understanding.

It like takes me back to like, one of the stories that I tell sometimes it’s just that when I was going somewhere, I think it was at a conference and I was speaking at the conference and I was trying to like strap my mic on myself. And it was one of those mics that has like a clip in the back. So you have to clip it on to something like a waistband or like pants. But I was wearing a dress as many female speakers wear dresses when they’re speaking on stage. And it just occurred to me in that moment that like, the microphone itself was built for a man like they had expected a man speaker to come or, you know, expected me to change, like part of my identity to speak, which is what drives me forward and in this mission is just making sure that the conversation is all inclusive, as Molly said, and we’re including everybody, we make sure that everybody’s voice feels valued, because it really is.

Zoe: 

Yeah, exactly. You put the the pack on your pants, didn’t you? And then you clip it to your tie.

Kyla: 

Yeah, exactly. And it’s crazy.

Zoe: 

So can you tell me a bit about what are the best things that have happened at previous girl conflict? There’s always memories of like, I remember when that happened. And do you remember when that happened, I feel that will kind of give people listening a sense of what it’s like.

Kyla: 

My favourite moment is probably just when like, GirlCon starts every year because it’s like a whole rush through the door of registered IDs. I mean, every year it’s funny because we get like really some really young students as well. So I remember we had like a student, Jia, if you remember Molly, and she was like seven years old. And she came to GirlCon and it was the best thing ever. Like she’s really had a fun time.

She’s drawing on like whiteboards, and kind of showing us pictures of like, what a coder looks like in the future. And it was like she was drawing all women on the board. And it was just such a cool moment to envision, like not only that we’re making an impact on our generation, but also the generation after that’s like, watching us as their role models, which is like kind of crazy to think that like we could be role models for anyone.

But like, I think that was a moment when it said in that like, this was something we had to continue because like, we needed to make sure that students like Jia, grew up and and saw this as normal that like there were all young women in classrooms excited about technology.

Molly: 

Okay, definitely not just like tangible and exciting as your example, Kyla. But I feel like something really cool that I’ve kind of seen over the years is that when we’re at the conference, maybe it’s the break for lunch. And so everyone’s in the cafeteria, they’re eating, I just think back to all the like 3am chats Kyle and I had where we’re like, ”Oh my gosh, I don’t know how many sandwiches we should order. I don’t know, like, how we set up the tables,’ and all that like, you know, nuanced conversation and the decision making and how much work went into it.

And then you know, seeing something as simple as just a bunch of girls sitting around and eating sandwiches at tables, I feel like it’s been almost really cool to see that and think about how much work went into something that simple. And then see it actually executed. I feel like yeah, that’s when it hits me at the conference. It’s like, ‘Whoa, this is like real’, you know. We did something.

Kyla: 

Definitely. You can see that with the shirts too, the GirlCcan shirts. Like when people wear the shirts, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s real’. Like, we like talk so much on our end of like, how to design the shirts.

And we have a fabulous like young woman who’s also, you know, a young person (Gen Z) who designs the shirts. And so it’s really cool seeing like, hundreds of girls wearing her design. And that’s really rewarding experience.

Zoe: 

Yeah, exactly. It’s the having the vision, isn’t it, knowing why you’re doing it and why it’s important. And then seeing it all come together. I can imagine that that’s kind of magical.

And yeah, and then to see the longevity of it, and to see it kind of carrying on year after year. So where do you see it going in the future? Have you got plans for the future? Are there kind of? Yeah, things you want to try out?

Kyla: 

Yeah, certainly. So as we’ve talked about, we envision seeing GirlCon grow every year and continue to be an annual event.

So this year was the first year that like neither Molly or I were on the high school team. But we really see like going forward high school girls carrying this mission on and seeing, you know, a GirlCon 2023 and 2024. And I think that’ll be really, really exciting for us as well.

So right now we’re just seeing how we can structure the organisation in a way that promotes longevity, as you said, and sustainability, which has been a really cool learning process for us as co founders as well as, as how do you actually build and build an organisation that that means something in the world and is able to move forward through rain and storm.

So it’s been a really great learning process, I’d say and going forward, I’m really, really excited to see where the future is headed for an organisation like ours that supports students.

Molly: 

The most simple answer to that question is we don’t really know.

But it’s in a way that’s like really exciting because we’re going to continue to have new core teams, new codirectors.

And even this year, we saw that we would randomly get texts from the codirectors. And they’d be like, ‘Hey, I have this idea. How do you guys feel about this?’

And just to see the creativity, and the drive of our core team and the national team and the ambassadors, we know that the upcoming teams are going to do wonderful things. And we’re really excited to see where the conference goes as a whole. But I think it’ll just go wherever, you know, these creative young minds take it, which is really exciting.

Zoe: 

Absolutely. It sounds really fantastic.

And I can’t wait to yeah, see where it goes in 2022. And even beyond that, right

So thank you so much, Molly And Kyla for coming on to Techtalks. It’s really heartening and enlightening for me kind of at the stage I am in my career to see young women coming up with so much energy and enthusiasm and drive and kind of sense of purpose of what we what we need in the world.

And I think it’s absolutely the way it has to be done to be led from the bottom and from new people coming into the industry. So I’m really excited about you know what this means for the whole technology industry in general and where the technology industry is going to be in the future and whether it will be it will be that picture on the whiteboard. We’ll all have to wait and see.

If people want to find out more about GirlCon, is there a website they can go to?

Kyla: 

please visit our website at www.girlcon.org

And if you have any questions at all, you can also email [email protected]

And follow us on social media. We’re on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all of that stuff. So definitely check us out.

Zoe: 

Fantastic. Well, yeah, congratulations on the conference. And thanks again for coming on.