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The Grace Hopper Celebration: bigger and better each year

This “life-changing experience” will bring together women in technology from around the world to learn, work, celebrate and “think big”

The Anita Borg Institute (ABI) Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC, www.gracehopper.org), the largest technical conference of its kind, will take place this year from October 2 to 5 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The theme for the celebration is “Think big. Drive forward.”

“The industry has become increasingly global, and we want to encourage women in technology to think big,” says Dr Telle Whitney, president and chief executive officer of the Anita Borg Institute. “What do these big ideas look like? Go for it, take action, make it so.”

“We challenged our community this year to help create a conference that was aspirational and forward thinking,” adds Seema Gururaj, director of the GHC. “At the same time, we at the Anita Borg Institute and the conference planning committee challenged ourselves to think big when we started planning this conference nine months ago. The result is a conference that enables in-depth conversations on cutting-edge technology in the field of software engineering, mobile experiences, media and entertainment, medical technology and education technology, as well as robust professional development offerings.”

A history of accomplishment
“Anita Borg and I founded the Grace Hopper Celebration in 1994,” Whitney explains. “We wanted to celebrate the achievements of women in computer science everywhere.”

The celebration is named for Grace Hopper (1906-1992). Hopper was a pioneer in computer programming. A Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy with degrees in mathematics and physics from Vassar and Yale. where she earned a PhD, she is credited with developing the first compiler for a computer programming language, which revolutionized the coding process.

“About 500 people attended the first conference,” Whitney recalls. “I came from the semiconductor industry where I was one of only a few women at the table. So it was invigorating to be able to network with some truly remarkable role models.”

The Anita Borg Institute co-presents the Grace Hopper Celebration with the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society. The ACM itself hosts several conferences each year and presents a variety of awards, including the annual A.M. Turing Award, which is regarded as the “Nobel Prize of computing.”

In the forty-seven-year history of the A.M. Turing award, three women have won it: Frances E. Allen in 2006, Barbara Liskov in 2008, and 2013’s winner Shafi Goldwasser. “All three of the women who have won it to date attended the first Grace Hopper Celebration,” Whitney says.

Dynamic speakers, exciting events
“Each day, the conference will open with a plenary session with a highly distinguished and accomplished woman,” says Gururaj. Among this year’s speakers are Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA); Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and co-founder of leanin.org; Ana Pinczuk, senior vice president of Cisco Systems; and Dr Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“We will also feature technical speakers who have changed the status quo in their fields with their innovative work,” Gururaj says. Speakers include Brenda Chapman, Academy Award winner and first woman to direct an animated feature, Brave; Sheila Nirenberg, professor of computational neuroscience in computational biomedicine at Weill Cornell Medical College (New York, NY); Thad Starner, professor at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) and technical lead/manager on Google’s Project Glass; Elaine Weyuker, ACM Fellow, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Fellow, and AT&T Fellow at Bell Labs for research in software metrics and testing; Pooja Sankar, CEO and founder of Piazza, a free online gathering place for students; and Elsie Foster, education practice lead at the Wiseman Group, an interior design company.

At the conference, several awards will be presented to individuals for their social impact and technical leadership, and for their success as change agents across the world. “These women span generations and exemplify this year’s ‘Think Big. Drive Forward’ theme,” Gururaj says.

On Saturday, attendees can participate in the Grace Hopper Open Source day, “an all-day ‘code-a-thon’ for humanity where two hundred women will code side-by-side with women from across the globe to contribute their skill and time to open source projects,” according to Gururaj.

The celebration organizers seek to engage young minds. “We are inviting forty Minneapolis high school students to attend this prestigious event as part of our Grace Hopper GenConnext program,” notes Gururaj. “Thirty percent of selected students will be from underserved or low-income groups. Their immersive experience includes being part of the conference activities and participating in a gaming workshop that requires no coding experience.

“The entire four-day event will culminate in an evening that celebrates all our accomplishments and the strides that we have made thus far,” Gururaj sums up.

Benefits to students and experienced pros alike
A lot of the content for the celebration is designed for women in industry, whether they are early, mid or late career. However, the sessions also cater to women on the threshold of their careers. “Last year, we had 3,600 attendees, and about 1,500 of those were college students,” says Whitney. “About half the students are in graduate school but we’ve seen an increasing number of undergraduates over the years. Many of these students are supported through our scholarship program or through their universities. It makes such a difference in terms of them remaining in their studies.

“There is a lot of professional development available at the Grace Hopper Celebration,” Whitney says, “but there’s also a lot of connection and inspiration. For many attendees, it’s a life-changing experience.”

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