Women’s Tech Council Honors Leaders for Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges

You can tell a lot about a place by what kind of conversations are taking place there, observed Julie Hanna, keynote speaker at the Women’s Tech Awards Thursday.

“[In Utah], I feel like I’m in the future,” Hanna said. “You have a mindset I think is an example for the rest of the world and the country.”

That mindset and the women promoting it were recognized at the ninth annual Women’s Tech Council awards. Hanna, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor who has founded or headed companies like WebMD and who currently serves as executive chair of the board at Kiva, drew on her experience as a refugee and immigrant to illustrate the power of dreams and perseverance.

When Hanna was a young girl living in Egypt, war broke out near her home, and she and her family had to flee, first to Beirut and eventually to the U.S. Dreams, she said, are the great equalizer, regardless of circumstances, and the gap between having a dream and succeeding is determination.

Hanna’s dream was to help create a world where there was more fair access to opportunities, whether someone was born into a place filled with possibilities or into a war zone.

“It took me the better part of a lifetime to realize if your circumstances are broken, it doesn’t mean you are. And if your circumstances are extraordinary, it doesn’t mean you are,” she said.

The ease of communication and information access brought about by cell phones and the internet have brought previously unimaginable possibilities to people in every corner of the globe, she said.

“For the first time in our history, almost anyone has access to the body of the world’s information and can communicate with virtually anyone in the world,” said Hanna. “We’re living in a digital age where what’s local is global and what’s global feels local.”

In her current work at Kiva, an organization that facilitates microloans across the world, Hanna said she has seen remarkable things come about for people living in what might have been considered hopeless circumstances.

Kiva has facilitated roughly $1 billion in loans to 2 million entrepreneurs worldwide—1.5 million of whom are women—from 1.4 million citizen lenders. The loans have a 97 percent repayment rate. Hanna said the loans to female entrepreneurs in particular have a significant impact on the surrounding areas, as those businesses tend to elevate their surrounding areas as they grow. In addition, women have historically had the fewest monetary opportunities, especially in developing countries, Hanna said.

But there is still much work to be done abroad, as well as here, she said. Wage inequality, sexual harassment over the internet, cultural gender roles that demand women be demure and men not show their feelings, and other attitudes that ultimately harm both women and men need to be rooted out of society, she said, but organizations like the Women’s Tech Council help.

“Your tireless work to [encourage women and technology] at every turn is so important,” she said. “You instinctively know it is better to light a candle in the dark than to curse the darkness.”

Out of more than a hundred nominations, judges selected 17 finalists. From those finalists, one was selected for each of eight awards:

Student Development—Christine Mooth, mechanical engineering student, Brigham Young University

Rising Star—Kat Archibald, chief product officer, Degreed

Innovator—Christina Qi, co-founder and partner, Domeyard LP

Educational Excellence—Shalini Kesar, Ph. D, associate professor of information systems, Southern Utah University

Technology Trailblazer—Yelena Makogon, VP senior engineer and regional manager, Goldman Sachs

Customer Excellence—Gwendolyn Smith, VP of professional services, Instructure

Leadership Excellence—Vicki Fish, VP of dermatology, Myriad Genetics

Imact Award—Utah Valley University

Find out more about all of the finalists and winners here.