Growing and Nurturing Female Tech Talent

sandee kastrul

A Q&A with ARA Chicago Co-founders Jane Gilligan Hamner, Megan McCann and Leslie Vickrey

By Sandee Kastrul, President & Co-Founder, i.c.stars

I recently sat down with Harvey Nash Managing Director and Vice President Jane Gilligan Hamner, McCann Partners President and Founder Megan McCann, and ClearEdge Marketing CEO and Founder Leslie Vickrey. (McCann Partners and ClearEdge are Chicago-based start-ups founded and managed by women.) This dynamic trio recently co-founded ARA Chicago, which aspires to attract, retain and advance women in technology by cultivating and nurturing relationships via mentorship and events/programs, thereby building strong female leaders to support and influence the IT community.

As the co-founder and president of i.c.stars, an organization that prides itself on creating the next generation of IT talent and supporting its growth through a strong mentoring environment, I was struck by ARA Chicago as a unique and necessary addition to the Chicago business community, so I set out to learn more.

Hamner, McCann and Vickrey – who are experts in tech recruiting, marketing and PR – founded ARA Chicago earlier this year based on the success of the Chicago Executive Women in IT Networking Group, which they started more than eight years ago and I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of since its inception. The group, which began as a quarterly dinner with three leaders in technology, has grown into a network of more than 150 women in the technology industry across Chicago. With ARA Chicago, Hamner, McCann and Vickrey are building on this strong foundation of leaders to create a community for women in tech.

I had a chance to ask the co-founders about ARA Chicago, why there aren’t more women in tech and what we can do to fix that. Here’s what they had do say:

Why did you start ARA Chicago?

Jane Gilligan Hamner:  We wanted to address the lack of women in senior leadership roles in business, in general, and technology, in particular. Harvey Nash publishes an annual global CIO survey of more than 2,000 leaders in tech, and last year the most published finding from the survey was the lack of women in technology. Women hold only 19% of CIO positions in Fortune250 companies, and there are only 4 female CEOs in the Fortune100. That’s something that needs to be corrected, we see ARA Chicago as an opportunity to fill the IT talent gap overall.

Megan McCann: Based on the strong foundation of female tech leaders we’d developed through years of networking dinners with the Chicago Executive Women in IT Networking Group, we had the perfect platform of C- and VP-level leaders to serve as mentors to women who were building careers in technology. And, we’ve made the group very accessible by securing sponsors such as Fieldglass and Hospira to eliminate the cost of membership as well as our partnership with the Illinois Technology Association to include their members and leverage their space at no cost.

What results are you seeing to date?

Leslie Vickrey: We’ve seen a tremendous response since launching this spring. In addition to hosting two sold-out events, we have 50 women matched in 25 mentor/mentee combinations with nearly 30 people in the process of being matched. And that’s just after two events! Clearly there’s a need. Additionally, we’ve had significant interest from organizations that want to sponsor ARA Chicago. We rarely hear “no” from people who we ask to participate in the group. We’re planning to add more networking events to meet demand.

JGH: We’re so impressed by the overall support from the community and the caliber of women involved. There are other organizations focused on women in tech, but we haven’t seen any take as organized an approach as ARA Chicago with mentorship and an eye on decreasing the tech talent gap.

What do you see in the future?

JGH: We’re planning to expand into other markets, including New York in the fall and Seattle in early 2014. We’re naturally aligning with existing Harvey Nash markets because they provide us with the infrastructure to manage growth. We’re also looking to partner with other groups that focus on women in tech, as well as marketing and operations-focused groups. Also on our radar is establishing scholarships for high school students going into STEM fields.

According to the 2013 Harvey Nash CIO Survey, 84% of CIOs think there is a lack of qualified women candidates for technology roles. What are the key drivers to increase the number of women entering the tech workforce?

MM: Awareness and visibility, along with more female tech role models, equal pay for men and women with the same skill sets, and more inspiration from parents and teachers at a young age are key. In addition to increasing the number of women in tech, we also must work to create the support systems and opportunities to retain them.

How does ARA help bridge that gap?

LV: Retention really is critical. ARA Chicago offers a platform for women to talk about work/life balance, entering back into the workforce after having children in addition to a variety of other topics related to the industry and skills in general. We’re giving them the tools to stay with and advance their careers. For example during our last event, one woman mentioned that she was a technical relationship manager, took eight years off to raise young children, and has had a really hard time breaking back into the field. Jane was able to connect her with a CIO for a job interview shortly thereafter and is now in the running for the position.

JGH: Also, ARA Chicago helps get women excited about being in tech. Women naturally build communities and lean on each other for support. ARA Chicago gives them a voice to discuss what it’s like to be a woman in a tech career.

Shouldn’t it be more about gender equality than women?

MM: It’s about talent in technology and inclusion in general, and because of what we’ve been exposed to as a group, we see a huge opportunity for women to help bridge the talent gap. We talk to many men about the need for more women in tech, too, so we’re looking at it holistically. Many men in technology want women on their teams and see the need to increase the female tech talent pool. ARA Chicago is about us supporting and investing in the industry that we know well.

How can we influence the talent gap and encourage more students to engage in STEM programs?

MM: As a community, we need to start talking with girls at a younger age about careers in STEM fields. Also, developing female tech leadership will ultimately have a trickle-down effect as we help match women with mentors and then they become mentors themselves someday.

Anything else to add?

LV: The sense of community is key. We’re making it very easy for people to get involved by taking the cost out via sponsorships and matching people with the right mentors. We’re giving them all the tools to be successful in a career in technology. That said, we also understand there’s a lot more yet to be done well beyond the walls of ARA Chicago and a lot already underway. We truly hope ARA Chicago is just one step closer to helping bridge the talent gap and helping women in business succeed at the same time.

If you’re as interested as I am to learn more, please mark your calendar for the fall ARA Chicago event, Thursday, November 21, 2013, sponsored by Hospira. The event will be hosted in ITA’s new space located in Chicago’s historic Civic Opera House at 20 North Wacker Drive from 5:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. Register here.

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LtoR: ARA Chicago Co-Founders Jane Gilligan Hamner, Managing Director & Vice President, Harvey Nash; Leslie Vickrey, CEO & Founder, ClearEdge Marketing; Megan McCann, President & Founder, McCann Partners

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