Amid the isolation and other challenges created by the pandemic, Women in Technology Hollywood (WiTH) has been able to undergo a major transformation over the past year thanks to factors that included the global shift to remote work, according to the organization.
Speaking during the panel presentation “Transforming Our Industry Through Community & Volunteerism” May 12 at the annual Hollywood Innovation and Transformation Summit (HITS) Spring event, moderator Nina Skorus-Neely, WiTH Foundation Secretary, said: “The intent of the WiTH Foundation is really to help our industry transform to better support women in diverse communities in the technology space.”
Like many other companies and organizations, “WiTH has had to go through its own digital transformation in response to the events of the last year,” she said.
Funding, for example, “has been one of the barriers the Foundation has run into over the last year,” she noted, adding: “We’re looking to expand our communities so we can expand our services to support the nonprofits that we partner with and the programming that we offer to our community overall.”
Through WiTH’s engaged board and committees, it has produced over 20 virtual events and transformed its engaged community through committee-based activities around community building, professional development, mentoring and networking and more.
By moving its tent-pole events to single-day, standalone community engagement activities, WiTH has transformed over the past year both retroactively and prospectively as it looks to the rest of 2021.
“I think there has been a lot of change over the past year that has directly impacted the network that we have of supporters,” according to Christina Aguilera, WiTH Foundation president.
“A lot of the change had to do with people transitioning in their careers and there was a lot of isolation over the past year, so there was an increased need for networking across all of our supporters,” Aguilera pointed out. “We wanted to step up and show some action in those spaces. There was definitely a lot more job searches that were happening and we wanted to make sure that we provided some professional development resources in the different areas of training to help [women] advance their careers and have those connections across the industry to find those specific opportunities that were best for them.”
There is an “increased need for diversity, not just within media and entertainment, but it’s widespread everywhere,” according to Aguilera. “We’ve known for a while that it wasn’t quite balanced but it was also important for us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. So this past year, we’ve definitely made some changes to help really show action where we can to increase diversity, especially on the gender front.”
There were technology barriers over the past year, Aguilera noted. “With everyone being remote, all of our programming has gone digital” at WiTH, she said, recalling that, when the pandemic started in 2020: “We needed to immediately go virtual to keep everybody safe.
However, “luckily we also had the support of MESA behind us to help us pivot really quickly and still provide the support across our community as a whole,” Aguilera said.
WiTH has also “leaned on” its volunteers to help it grow during the pandemic, Aguilera noted.
“Focusing on how” women and diversity initiatives can grow “across our industry is critical at this point in time so it’s an area that we know that we need to focus on as we continue to expand and grow as a foundation,” she went on to say.
Echoing Aguilera, Nadya Ichinomiya, WiTH Foundation chair, called MESA’s assistance “one of our biggest strengths.” Noting that WiTH has six committees, 100 volunteers and 3,000 members, she said: “We could not do it without the support of MESA” for the production of WiTH events.
“I think everyone was rocked with the uncertainty and the suddenness of what happened,” Ichinomiya also said. However, “answering the call and getting into action was more important than bemoaning what was happening to us…. So I’m really proud of the massive response” from WiTH and its partners, she noted.
Boosting the number of WiTH events from four to over 20 was a challenge, for example, Ichinomiya said, adding she was “really proud of everyone who stepped up” to multiply the number of events by five. “It’s a cliché that it takes a village but it’s really extraordinary what this group of individuals has done to make all that happen,” she noted.
Although some companies and organizations “found themselves in a difficult situation in terms of fundraising, we are very optimistic about the potential for fundraising and the future” at WiTH, Ichinomiya said. “Because of streaming and because of audience habits, there are a lot of companies that are doing very well actually in the pandemic,” such as in the gaming sector, “so I think the potential for fundraising is even greater,” she noted.
Stepped-Up Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives
At the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic, there have also been challenges and opportunities created by the stepped-up fight for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Companies are “becoming increasingly apparent about their diversity and inclusion numbers, Ichinomiya said, calling that “a great first step to at least establish that baseline and show that you’re willing to be transparent.”
After all, she said: “You can’t improve unless you know where your baseline is.” Companies also can’t outsource these diversity and inclusion initiatives, she said.
The Birth of Connection Corner
“We were kind of stymied by not having live events” during the pandemic, according to Iseabail Lane, co-chair of the WiTH Professional Development Committee. “We were really looking forward to getting people together in the room and developing” networking before the pandemic started, she said.
During the isolation created by the pandemic, the WiTH committees have worked together closely and been sharing resources “in a way that I don’t think we did before,” she noted.
And amid the isolation everybody was experiencing, “Connection Corner was born,” she noted. The monthly webinar series has been “really popular and we’re getting a lot of great feedback on it,” she said. The panel discussions and fireside chats with professionals inform viewers how to develop one’s career and get some “skills that we all need to stay relevant and reposition ourselves,” she noted, adding: “We absolutely have more Connection Corner coming.”
Also planned are tracks during the upcoming SoCal Women’s Leadership Summit on algorithmic bias and the state of women and girls, she said.
More Committee Updates
The WiTH Community Engagement Committee met via Zoom at the start of the pandemic, April Schneider, chair of that committee, recalled.
“We knew what our goal was, which is to help our community [and] make sure that we’re continuing to contribute to our non-profits, and so we had this huge brainstorming session on how can we continue to provide these services like we have before in a way that’s virtual,” she said.
As a result of going digital, her committee was able to host many events for the nonprofit organizations that it sponsors over the past year, she went on to say. “As a result, our outreach has grown tremendously,” she noted, adding: “Our ability to connect with not just local charities but those on the East Coast” have helped enable “a lot of our charities” to pivot “themselves into having a larger presence [beyond] not just the normal target demographic that they’re used to serving.”
The committee also went digital with some of its fundraising that included a social media push and it did a little more interim charity funding for its partners also, she recalled.
“We want to further improve our reach and increase funding so that we can do more for our charities” and also “focus on our digital presence,” she said.
In addition, “we’re working on summarizing kind of our impact to the community and the nonprofits” that it serves to “quantify it in numbers” and the lives it has reached, and summarize the events it’s done so “people can visually see the impact that we’ve made in the community,” she said.
“We also want to make it easier to donate and volunteer so we can get more active participation” and get more innovative thoughts, she added.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, meanwhile, the WiTH Mentoring & Networking Committee launched a group mentorship program called Knowledge Circles for Impact” that has an objective to “connect high-potential technologists with mentors across the industry,” according to Cybill Miklaszewski, co-chair of that committee.
It is creating a “space for multi-directional mentorship and expanding your network in a meaningful way,” she said.
As part of a pilot program, the committee launched six circles in the areas of cybersecurity, design and product, data science, emerging technology and, “due to high demand,” two circles focused on women in leadership, she noted.
Needs changed due to the pandemic and “helping those who are in underrepresented communities is really at the heart of the program,” she explained.
The committee will be keeping its focus on “developing a diverse talent pipeline of technologists” in the M&E sector, she went on to say. “We’re still in the middle of our pilot program but once the pilot is over, we’re looking to expand our reach,” she pointed out. The shift to remote work “has enabled us to pull the best talent from around the world and so we’re contemplating expanding our reach internationally,” she said, noting that a lot of interest came from Asia and EMEA during the pandemic.
To view the entire presentation, click here.
HITS Spring was presented by IBM Security with sponsorship by Genpact, Irdeto, Tata Consultancy Services, Convergent Risks, Equinix, MicroStrategy, Microsoft Azure, Richey May Technology Solutions, Tamr, Whip Media, Eluvio, 5th Kind, LucidLink, Salesforce, Signiant, Zendesk, EIDR, PacketFabric and the Trusted Partner Network.