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Innovation & Job News

Speaking out: Women in tech tackle (lack of) diversity in their field




As Grand Circus ramps up its Grand Rapids launch, the company hosted a panel discussion with all women in tech. I mention specifically a discussion with all women in tech instead of a discussion about women in tech because of how each woman framed their professional experiences that night.

If you weren’t able to make it out to Start Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 8, you really missed out. As packed as we all were in the main room, there was spillover space in the far back, and it was worth the standing to hear the gems powerful messages that each panelist brought to the stage.

Grand Circus gathered an array of professional women in tech from around the city. There was Emily Carbonell-Ferguson of Mighty in the MidwestBecky VandenBout, an independent freelancer; Beth Zuke of Amway; and Andrea Napierkowski of Curly Host, a Grand Rapid-based firm that specializes in Wordpress websites.

To a standing-room-only crowd, panelists spoke about their experiences in the tech field, their opinions on what it means to be a woman in tech, and what they hope to see in the field.

As the night drew on, panelist Andrea Napierkowski found herself behind the mic more and more, adding wit along with some much-needed candid answers to the mostly male room.

When posed with the question, “how do we empower women to succeed," Napierkowski’s replied quickly, saying, “To say that women need to be empowered feels as if we as women do not already have what it takes to do the work. I disagree with that; I think we as women already have what it takes to do the job. What is happening is that we are being overlooked.”

After a brief pause, Napierkowski pressed on to declare, “It seems to me that what the industry needs to be doing is educating our male counterparts as to why they need diversity and inclusion. We women aren’t the problem.” A quick look around the crowd showed a room filling with smiles, nodding heads of agreement, and attempted slow claps, surely paused by the prospect of hearing more from Napierkowski. It was clear that this response summed up the feelings of many in the room.


After the event I took some time to sit down and chat with Napierkowski to further the conversation she championed on the stage.

We hit the ground running and started talking about her strongest response during the panel discussion, and I ask her how she has come to that point of view. Napierkowski tells me that it was not something she came into the field thinking about. “It was actually a surprise to me when I came to the realization a few years ago that there weren’t many women in tech,” Napierkowski adds.

She recounts how she came into the industry really by chance. “It started with one project I gained through a connection; I was coming into all this from international relations and political science background.” Napierkowski shifted careers from her college major to working in the food service industry to building websites. I asked her if she didn’t grow up programming or building websites, what then was her dream job?

“My dream job was to come into people’s houses and clean and organize everything, then make them an amazing meal from whatever was in their kitchen...that never materialized," Napierkowski replies.


I ask her about her prior perception of the tech industry and how it is unusual that she was unaware of the gender gap. “I hit the ground running; I became so involved with my work. I come from a family of very thoughtful learners. We all dive deep into our work and passions” Napierkowski responds.

Napierkowski’s  learning and working approach is different. “Starting off, I had to do everything myself, often taking work and learning it on the go. I picked up a lot of skills, so by the time I had enough work that I had to begin hiring people and collaborating, I realized how advanced I’d become.”

“I imagined everyone in the industry was like me, or better," she elaborates. "You see, I would start a project and have to collaborate with others and realize that they hadn’t touched design, or marketing, or user experience, or backend code. So it made collaborating a bit more difficult; I had to search harder for collaborators that I could work with well.”

Collaboration can be difficult, so we talk about the biggest roadblock to her collaboration process.

“I have worked with very talented programmers who pride themselves in building sites from the ground up," she says. "The sites end up meeting exactly what the client asks for, but they are impossible to figure out on the backend, and makes any adjustments or maintenance tedious.”


Napierkowski adds that her "goal isn’t to make my clients dependent on me. I want them to run their business and use the site flawlessly. I try and make it easy enough for them to update and adjust as they need.”

I point out that I see this trend, coming from small design shops in Grand Rapids, of building a business with a conscience. I ask her if she would describe her business in this way and she replies, “I love my work and clients, don’t get me wrong, but my hope is to not have to see them after the project is done. My work has to be good enough to not break. I actually encourage my clients to try and break it!”

Napierkowski tells me that a website has a life of about two to three years, and that her work quality of work stands the test of time so well that most clients return for their updates and rebuilds.

“There is this idea in the industry that the higher the price the better the quality," she says. "I sometimes take on clients who currently have a custom site that cost them nearly double my rate and I have to go in and fix the mess.”

I press Napierkowski to see if she is willing, or has in the past, arbitrarily raised her bid to get the project, and she sighs, saying, “No, it just doesn’t make any sense. The goal is to get them up and running, I just don’t have time for anything else.”

Napierkowski and I stay and talk longer about tech, client war stories, and the latest films we want to see. In full disclosure I have known her for some years now, but in a different capacity. I have been part of her documentary film club since returning to Grand Rapids some years ago.

Her vast network, kindness, and ever-curious mind have helped to build an impressive roster of clients. Her welcoming approach of having people into her home to orient themselves in the city has always been refreshing in this ever-growing metropolis.

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
 
Photos courtesy of Start Garden
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