Cathryn Posey has worked in Silicon Valley and in 2015, made the move to Washington, DC to join the United States Digital Service, essentially a tech startup at the White House. Before any of that, she somewhat inadvertently founded what’s become an international movement, Tech by Superwomen.
Elliott Adams: So, tell me about how Tech by Superwomen came into being?
Cathryn Posey: Tech Superwomen has really evolved. It honestly started off as a hashtag.
CP: I was living in Alaska at the time, which is where I'm from. I had left for school, went back, started my career. I had an unusual career because for the longest time, living in Alaska, we didn't have jobs titled “product managers,” but that's what I was doing. I was actually working with a development team developing products that we could use to market the city of Anchorage to tourists. I found social media as a powerful way for me to stay connected and build a community of people who were into my space because I didn't have that locally, right?
I was heading to SXSW for the second time in 2011, and it was a month out, and Alicia Keys's song "Super Woman" had been released. I just love it because what's she's saying is what makes us super is not being invincible. It's resiliency, it's the ability to keep going, it's the ability to get back up after being knocked down. That's a message I could identify with, and so this hashtag popped into my head of calling all tech superwomen.
So, I did an informal meetup with SXSW in 2011. What happened there was, listening to all these women talk about what they're going through, I believed we needed more leadership in this space to produce a talk for them in 2012 or 2013, and it just took off. It turned into this platform. I started traveling, writing, blogging, profiling different women in tech, and for me, I wanted to have a platform that was inclusive. Often when you talk about women in tech, the stories that were told were from the same top tech women who'd already arrived, and that's not very accessible, right?
EA: Sure, I can see that.
CP: It was also often not very intersectional. It would be women in tech, but it wasn't showcasing the women of color as a part of the narrative, so it's tech superwomen. It's diverse and wonderful. It wasn’t that we're going to “do diversity.” We just integrate the voices. It’s just a big difference. It started growing and taking on a life of its own. I moved to Silicon Valley, and then people started saying, “You need to produce your own platform.” And at that time, I didn’t even know where to begin, right? But 2014, I found the right partners and produced the first ever Tech Superwomen Summit in 2015.
What we were focusing on was, for me, when I think about women in tech, oftentimes the conversation takes one of two metanarratives, right? Either this is a gender war or it's a scarcity message. There's not a lot of opportunity, and we need to push women through. It's women versus men, and someone's losing.
That's a very dangerous narrative if you're trying to actually make progress, but it's also just false. The goal of feminism is not that. It's about equality. It's about creating more. And then the other side of it is we’re “fixable.” So, this looks like, “Ladies, if you would just be a little more confident in your negotiations, you'd have a different outcome.” Or, “Girls don't like math and science, so we need to help them understand math and science to be cool.” That's all around, that there's something broken in women that needs to be fixed, and then the problem's solved. And that's completely false.
For me, this is an opportunity. In the tech entrepreneurship space, in the startup space, we want the mantle of entrepreneurship, and we also want the mantle of disruption. We're really proud that we can have breakthroughs that people swear could never be done or would take years and years and years. We want to get there faster. We need to take that same mentality and energy and apply it in the context of our culture. How do we hack the bias in our culture, conscious and unconscious, so that we create environments where women and people of color can bring their whole selves to work and thrive? So, that's the platform that I’ve been building for it.
EA: That's great. So, in the summit, what does it look like, and what's come out of some of this?
CP: What I was really proud of has actually resulted in where I am now, but what I was really proud of was that we got really powerful content. We had a sponsor that also sponsored students, we had students in the room, we had young professional sponsorships with young professionals in the room. It was this great mix of women who've arrived in leadership roles and people who were emerging. Sara Millstein gave a phenomenal talk about eleven ways companies can hack bias, and it was very practical with concrete steps people can take.
Harper Reed and Dylan Pritchard actually did a talk on how they failed the first two times to build diverse teams. It was a very humorous talk. One of the favorite lines for some of us: “We just would go to the white dude store and take a couple of those” and build their company. But they value diversity and what they were learning in building their third business together around building a diverse team. We had Raina Kumra talk about, as a mom, how building a startup was just like having a baby if she did it with a pitch deck. So, just celebrating the power that motherhood actually has, relevant to entrepreneurship..
It was just this really beautiful community space. And then from there, the White House were asking for some advice and counsel, and then asked me to join the United States Digital Service. So, I've put the summit on hold, and once my tour of duty is over, I'll be able to re-energize that piece. But in terms of advocating for women in tech, that work continues.