When Hanni Ali, ’17 Chemical Engineering, took the Student Union Ballroom stage, she prepared to share an all-too familiar experience with over 300 female engineering students and professionals as part of the second annual Silicon Valley Women in Engineering (WiE) Conference on Saturday, March 12.
“Usually, when people ask me what I’m majoring in, I reply with ‘engineering,’ and they give me a confused look and ask me ‘Why?’” Ali said. “And I reply, ‘Why not?’”
Ali attended the conference last year as a prospective transfer. This year, she was selected to speak at a gala dinner. The event offers the opportunity for professional women engineers to share with students their perspectives on entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership in the predominately male dominated industry.
“It is crucial to continue to hold events to encourage and empower future generations of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) women,” Ali said. “This year’s conference is bigger than last year’s, with a lot more professionals donating their time to inspire the next generation of women innovators.”
Speakers included Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Apple Vice President of Wireless Technologies Isabel Mahe, and Facebook Vice President of Product Management for Social Good Naomi Gleit.
Guests attended 25 workshops throughout the day in topics including mentorship strategies, women in STEM leadership, smart cities, renewable energy, water sustainability, 3D printing, robotics, self driving cars, precision medicine and big data.
The conference was supported by a gift from the Mark and Carolyn Guidry Family Foundation. The late Carolyn Guidry, ’79 MS Computer Engineering, worked at Hewlett-Packard and then founded two companies in partnership with her husband. The conference is part of a wider effort to support aspiring women engineers. Applied Materials was a sponsor.
“I was deeply touched by the level of enthusiasm and energy of conference participants,” said Belle Wei, conference chair and Carolyn Guidry Chair in Engineering Education and Innovation Learning. “It is about building a community to inspire the next generation of women engineers to change the world.”
With the help of each speaker and activity, the misconceptions and concerns expressed by many in the beginning of the day were exchanged with supportive, excited chatter come dinnertime.
Apple’s Isabel Mahe silenced the common concern that women can’t be successful engineers and also be strong mothers when she shared her experience getting invited to dinner by Steve Jobs while she was still on maternity leave. After two hours of conversation with Jobs, Mahe accepted the position that she has held for eight years. She is now a mother of four.
Grumblings of the “glass ceiling” limiting women in the industry were shattered when Catz shared her journey from a stint in the “boys club” investment banking realm to the evolving software industry — all while donning a pair of blue pumps.
“Advice that I learned: if you really want to be successful, you have to change the game entirely,” Catz said. “In my case, I decided ‘I’m going to take a risk with my very fledging career and look at software.’ But you see, it was against crazy odds in those days. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs Manager for IBM Kristina Vasquez, ’02 Computer Engineering, hosted an interactive mentorship workshop with nine engineering students to discuss the importance of mentors and how to find them.
“I remember being in their shoes and I remember the people who helped me, and I don’t think I would be here today if it weren’t for them,” Vasquez said. “I have a daughter and these girls are like my daughters. I want the best for them.”
Vasquez, who graduated from San Jose State in 2002, said she saw this conference as an opportunity to not only maintain the sense of community among women engineers at the university, but also teach women that anyone can fill the role of being a mentor.
One attendee of the workshop, Solango Altanparev, raised her hand during a discussion portion and admitted her initial interest in attending the conference was beyond merely receiving professional advice.
“I came here to this conference in a way seeking a mentor because I don’t really have any guidance,” Altanparev said.
Altanparev, who has been accepted as an SJSU transfer from Peralta Community College as a civil engineering major this fall, said the conference gave her a sense of hope and preparedness as she continues her academic career.
“I thought it took a lot of bravery and initiative to share her story with us,” Vasquez said. “If we can help someone feel better about their career, feel better about what they’re doing and make a difference — that’s why we’re here.”
Kaitlyn Bell, ’18 Mechanical Engineering, said she struggles to find representation in her department, where just 17 percent of the students are women, but felt warmly welcomed into the broader evolving engineering community.
“When I first saw everyone here, it honestly kind of choked me up,” Bell said. “It’s always nice to meet other female engineers so you can relate with them and know that someone feels the same way you do — together we can all get through it, being a minority in such a male-dominated field.”
The idea of girl power was a common discussion point across several workshops and even in the final keynote speech of the evening, delivered by Leyla Seka, senior vice president and general manager of SalesForce.
“You have to help other women,” Seka said. “This is not an optional situation given where we are as a nation, as a world and as an industry.”
Seka pressured the women in attendance to raise their voices in the professional realm so they may pursue opportunities, demand equal pay compared to male counterparts in the industry, and take risks.
“There are things that are built into society about the way we think about ourselves so it’s important that we as future leaders — you more specifically as future leaders — are the people that can write technology and the next generation of technology,” Seka said. “We will push the world that much further.”