A group of independent security researchers, and computer science researchers who believe that their field needs more diversity have gathered up to create Independent Fund for Women in Tech.
They had witnessed how women around the world are challenged by numerous obstacles when attempting to join the tech. From cultural biases through discrimination to lack of financial support, women have a lower participation in the tech community. They believe that they can help enable more women to enter and stay in this field. The fund aims to help women attend conferences by providing assistance with entry ticket and possible travel support.
They believe attending conferences is not only about getting access to talks and staying up to date with top notch research. The most important thing about these events is the community and the networking opportunities. For most women, the opportunity to attend conferences, talk to peers, see other women in the field, ask for advices and feel that they are supported makes a difference in their careers. Such support may help decide their future. We have interview the Fund’s founders to get to know more about it.
Could you introduce yourselves, please?
Salvador: I am a security researcher focused on digital payments, tokenization processes and specialized prototypes. I’ve presented my research related to security flaws in banking transactions and tokenization processes in several international conferences.
Veronica: I am an Argentine researcher focused primarily on digital threats, security and privacy. I’ve been working in the area for more than 5 years and I have presented my research in more than 15 international conferences in Europe, America and Asia. Now I work at the Czech Technical University in Prague.
Sebastian: I am a teacher and researcher in the areas of computer security, malware, network attacks and machine learning. I was born in Argentina and began working on security about 20 years ago as a penetration tester and teacher in several universities. Afterwards, I did my PhD and now I’m director of the Stratosphere lab, a research group at the Czech Technical University in Prague. I consider myself more attached to the hacker world than anything else. I’ve co-founded a hackspace in Argentina a few years ago and now I’m a co-founder of the Independent Fund for Women in Tech. I try to put technological advances at the service of the community as quickly as possible.
Ingrid: I am an Argentinean mother and researcher in computer science. I’ve worked for many years researching new machine learning techniques in general and recommendation systems in particular. I did my master’s and PhD in Argentina several years ago and after that I’ve focused on redefining my career towards the new branches of machine learning that are modifying our society. I like to put my knowledge at the service of society and when I co-founded the Independent Fund for Women in Tech it was a step in that direction. Now I work for a technology company in machine learning remotely, which allows me to better synchronize my work with my daily life.
How did you meet?
Good question! Salvador and Sebastián met a couple of years ago at the Ekoparty conference that’s held every year in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both participated as speakers and since then they’ve continued communicating through social networks. In 2017, Salvador and Verónica met at a security conference called Troopers, which took place in Heidelberg, Germany. Sebastián and Ingrid met about 9 or 10 years ago, when they were studying for their PhD in Computer Science at the Universidad del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, in Tandil. And Verónica and Sebastián met more than 10 years ago at Universidad FASTA in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
Ingrid is the only member of the team that Salvador has not had the pleasure of knowing personally yet. But hopefully it will happen soon! Maybe this year at the Ekoparty we will get together for the first time! It’s crazy but we’ve never been face to face.
How would you define Independent Fund for Women in Tech?
We want to change our industry’s status quo, we seek to change the number of women participating in tech events to generate diversity. We believe women need to get to know each other and know that there are several models to follow and that they aren’t all alone.
To understand this we need to put emphasis on the reality of our professional field. In most conferences and events in our area, male participation often exceeds the 95% of the audience and speakers. This nourishes a vicious cycle: companies go to conferences to look for talent, most of the attendees and speakers are male, companies end up with an unequal proportion of employees. If you are a woman who works in Computer Science, you are often the only woman in your whole University, at your job and in conferences, it is really tough! All of this makes new women working in tech attend event and lack models to relate to and follow, often causing them to leave the industry and dedicate their professional careers to something else.
When we noticed this situation, we decided to do something to change it. The proposal is really simple: we want to facilitate women access to technological conferences. In every way we can. We started by giving away tickets when some speakers had extra ones to share and little by little we tried to cover trips and hotels.
How did this idea come up?
Salvador: It was March 7 when I received a Twitter direct message from Sebastián commenting on an idea: “What if we put together security researchers to donate tickets for different conferences around the world to support women in the educational and technological fields.” He told me that the idea came after seeing how, simultaneously, Veronica and I have been donating tickets for several conferences in recent years. The vast majority of these tickets was donated supporting the woman for being clearly a minority in the area of “infosec”. My response was quick and clear: “It would be great!”
Veronica: Starting with this initiative was simple because it was something that we had been doing individually. The only thing that we needed was to coordinate and add up our efforts. We hoped that by working together the impact we could achieve would be much greater and stronger than when doing this individually!
Sebastian: Yes, as the guys point out, the beautiful thing was that the four of us already had a social inclination and we already had some ideas in mind. After we figure it out that we were doing the same but separately, we got together. It was so natural! We didn’t know each other and in less than 10 days we had already given away several tickets to women around the world. I think that then we realized that the idea and the group was going to work.
How is your team made up?
So far it’s made up by the 4 original members who founded the project and one volunteer. Some time ago we were lucky enough to add Elnaz Babayeva as our first volunteer! We are all professionals with jobs that take up 40 hours per week but we’ve decided to donate part of our free time to try to give some balance to our community that needs (and would benefit from) more diversity.
Salvador: All 5 of us do everything. From logistics to continuous 24/7 work to maintain a continuous flow in the project’s growth. Personally I admire each of them for their valuable work and their constant enthusiasm.
Verónica: The team is managed 100% remote, since most of us live in different countries (USA, Argentina, Czech Republic). Although not being in the same city requires more coordination and effort in terms of communication, it also gives us invaluable opportunities. When Salvador says that sometimes we work 24/7, it’s true! And living in different time zones makes that possible.
Sebastian: Including Eli (Elnaz) as a volunteer is enough for us for now. We do not want to add more people in the near future because more people means more coordination tasks and more management. It is fundamental that each one in the team is completely autonomous. The four founders share most of the tasks, which means that someone starts something and another may end it. Sometimes we do not even tell each other. It’s magic to have a group like this. We all know what we have to do to make this work, so we go and do it. Nobody cares who started it or who finished it. It also allows each of us to take time off without worrying for the rest of the team since they are able to adapt and keep working. In the case of Eli, we wanted someone to be in charge of doing the post-conference follow-up, so we looked for a trusted person to take on this task. We met Eli with Veronica at the Czech Technical University in Prague. Eli is from Kazakhstan, and it’s beautiful to have her on the team. She is the type of person that solves things.
How is the selection criteria you follow to choose who to give tickets to? Who is responsible for carrying out the selection?
What our initiative seeks, primarily, is to empower the selected candidates to boost their professional careers. We also look for each opportunity to generate a multiplier effect. When candidates apply to get a ticket for an event, they tell us their stories, objectives, ambitions and what they are willing to give back to the community after attending that event. Each member is responsible for voting each candidate. At the end we count votes and the one with the highest score is the winner.
Verónica: All of us have different life stories, some of us grew closer to cities and opportunities, others in remote and rural areas. Several of us had to work and study at the same time to be able to move forward. This diversity means that our selection is varied. Many times we agree and other times we argue heatedly because we believe one candidate or another is better!
Sebastian: I believe that candidate selection is a key part of the Fund. We’ve discussed a lot about how to do it and we believe that this process is really important when helping women in a better way. We know what we don’t want: we do not want to choose randomly and we do not want to give away the tickets to the first ones who apply. What we want is to find the women who will have the biggest impact on their lives by going to that conference. We want to know which lives we are changing. That’s why the selection is slow, it takes effort, and discussion. Many times we have Skype talks with the candidates. This has allowed us to give tickets to women that do not tell their stories easily. The problem is that if we do not make the selection like this, it is easy to give the ticket to the woman who best tells her story and knows exactly how to tell others what they want to hear. We don’t want to be biased to the ones that write better. For example, it happened to us that women in the United States knows how to sell themselves very well, compared to women in Africa or South America who are not so used to selling themselves as candidates. So to avoid bias to women who sell better, we delve deeper into the stories.
Another important part of the selection is to avoid knowing certain data,such as for example if whether candidates can pay for the trip. In this way we can give the ticket to those who really deserve it and not to those who have more resources. The important thing is to tell a candidate is that she won the ticket for what she is, although later we can not afford the trip. The impact in your life is different because you already knows that you have earned something and that you are good at what you does.
How do they get donors? Is there any benefit to them?
Fund for Women in Tech works through tickets for events donations. From conference organizers, speakers, or professionals, they give away extra tickets to support the movement. Sometimes when you are an event speaker you get an extra ticket to invite someone else. In those cases, they can choose to donate it to our initiative and then we’ll look for the best candidates. Other times the conferences decide to support the initiative and donate tickets. The Ekoparty, for example, has donated 10 tickets for its edition this year!
Verónica: The main benefit is the satisfaction of seeing our industry grow and become more diverse. We shouldn’t minimize this. Having a diverse team broadly affects each and every areas of our industry, from talent retention to product development, and research. Diversity is not only about feminine and masculine, it is also about getting to know and work with people from different cultures and countries. Having a diverse team makes the solutions we seek for the problems we try to solve have a greater chance of success.
Sebastian: Besides from tickets, we have received money donations by industry experts, companies, anonymous persons and awards given to researchers. They have the money, we help them choose the women who can get more advantage.
Why do you think it is important for women working in technology and security to attend conferences?
Salvador: This project alone was born by a meeting at a conference. If Sebastian and Salvador had not met at Ekoparty, maybe this project wouldn’t exist. This is how important it is to attend a conference, it’s a job opportunity, an idea for a new project, a new friend, a new life.
Verónica: Since I’ve started studying my undergraduate career I’ve always been the only woman in the class. Some years we were 3 or 4, but those years were the exception. When I started working in Europe, I thought it would be different. However after arriving and starting to work at a company, I was the only woman in a group of 50 employees. The consequences of this inequality are vast and often invisible. It was not until 2015 that I attended the malware reverse bootcamp called Blackhoodie that I realized what was going on. Blackhoodie is a bootcamp that’s just for women who want to learn to “disarm” computer viruses organized by Marion Marschalek. We were 15 women, all learning to reverse malware. It was the first time in my life that I was talking about technical things with other women, in such a relaxed environment, where I do not have to take care of asking questions or admitting that I do not know everything. It was fantastic! Community, not feeling alone, having role models: this is our initiative!
Sebastian: As the guys said, going to a conference changes your life. Seeing people face to face lets you see what is possible, motivates you, lets you get to know people as they really are, not as they are shown on the Internet. It is not the same to read someone on Twitter or meeting him or her personally.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face when creating the Fund?
One of the biggest challenges we have had so far is to provide financial assistance to the elected candidates. In many cases a ticket to a conference is not enough, you also have to consider the trip, perhaps the accommodation and sometimes the cost of getting a Visa to travel to another country. It is an issue that we have not yet fully solved, but we always try to do everything that’s possible to ensure that candidates can travel.
Sebastian: Yes, raising funds is the hardest thing. Many times we could not give away the tickets because we had no way to pay for plane tickets or the stay in the city where the conference was held. In some cases, women gathered money with friends, or crowdfunding sources on the Internet and there was even a case of a woman who took out a loan. That’s how important it is to go to a conference!
Our next challenge is to get women to have a safe environment to visit when they go to a conference. So we are organizing groups of women to receive new ones!
For now you provide assistance to women to get tickets for security conferences and computer science. What is the next step? Do you plan to provide that same service for conferences in other fields?
Salvador: Personally, I want us to be seen as an example so that many more organizations join in their respective areas to support minorities and have an equitable plan in all areas.
Verónica: It is a good question, the truth is that, as Salvador mentions, we will try to stay in the area of computer science, artificial intelligence and security. It is easy to get excited and want to cover everything, especially when you read the experiences of women who went to some events and found the experience life changing. However, we believe that expanding now would be too much, since there is a maximum of hours per day that we can dedicate ourselves to work on this project.
Sebastian: I think we’re going to continue working with technology conferences but we’ll see in the future. We have already given away tickets for conferences in other social areas, so it is possible. I believe that the next step is for women to receive other women at conferences so that they feel more secure (they have asked for it several times and it worked), and above all, to give back what they had learned during the conference. The newest idea that we discussed is to provide a mentoring service, where we would put women in contact with other women to help them advance their careers. But for now it’s just an idea.