Serena Williams will be the opening keynote speaker of the 2020 Grace Hopper Celebration, which will be completely virtual this year.
The GHC is an annual event that brings together thousands of women in tech. It’s usually held in Orlando, Florida, but its organizers decided to take GHC all online this year, due to the pandemic.
“The change in direction came about for the same reason that it has for everyone else. But it actually has given us an opportunity to do some pretty amazing things,” Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of AnitaB.org, which puts on the conference, told Digital Trends.
Last year, the conference had 25,000 attendees. This year, it could have double that, Wilkerson said. Without the cost of travel, attending is more accessible for many people, including the 9,000 students who have already registered.
Tennis legend Williams will open the conference, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe will deliver the closing keynote. In between, sessions will take a holistic approach to women’s careers in tech and include sessions on mentoring, negotiating, and networking.
Wilkerson said the work Williams does in funding companies with her Serena Ventures organization was one reason to have her speak at the conference. “The other thing that is really important about having someone like Serena come out and speak to our women is, you know, though we are tech women, we are women first,” she said. “And what we’ve been trying to do is really expand our approach to ministering to all of the needs of women and talking to them about who they are, who they can be, regardless of what their background is.”
Williams has taken on new roles and is now known for more than just her tennis skills, which Wilkerson says is another reason why she’s a good fit for GHC, especially when it comes to diversifying tech culture.
“In the past, it’s been about how do we fit in?” Wilkerson said. “It’s going to be more important that tech understands that all the things that we bring are the things that are important to help tech be successful, because tech impacts just about every part of our lives.”
While there are some challenges to transitioning the conference to an online format, Wilkerson thinks certain aspects are actually improved. Attendees will be able to access the content for a year, so they can catch sessions they might otherwise miss. The coronavirus also prompted the organizers to focus even more on health and well-being.
“We’ve got three hours of health and wellness sessions that include anything from mindfulness to yoga to meditation,” she said. “You’ll see panels and fireside chats that discuss human-computer interaction, as well as other areas that overlap with tech in a way that I think has always been something that has made tech much more interesting and impactful for women technologists.”
The lack of diversity in tech is a long-standing problem. In 1995, Dr. Anita Borg, the founder of AnitaB.org, started pushing to have women make up 50 percent of the tech sector by 2020. “We re-upped that challenge years ago to intersectional gender and pay parity,” said Wilkerson. “So that’s ethnicity, that’s age. It’s against all of the ‘isms’ that exist. So this isn’t a new fight, obviously.”
In the past, the GHC has drawn criticism for its own lack of diversity. “We’ve been looking to change the diversity within our organization at all levels, changing the diversity of our community internationally,” Wilkerson said. “So this is not something that is foreign to us at all, and we’re excited to work with the companies who are pledging to make a difference.”
The GHC conference begins September 26. The full schedule will be released on August 26.