Anita's Quilt

Anita’s Quilt: Founding the Grace Hopper Celebration

In 2012, Ellen Lapham, Carol Muller, and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.

A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on October 11, 2012.

By Telle Whitney

In 1992, one of my dearest friends, Anita Borg, came to me with an idea: a conference featuring women computer scientists. The conference would celebrate their contributions to the field and to the world.

I first met Anita when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986, and we became close friends. At the time we decided to create this conference, I worked at a startup called Actel that built field programmable gate arrays. Although I loved the work and the satisfaction of seeing the chip designs going to customers, I worked in a world of men. Many of them were great, but my friendship with Anita was one of the ways that I reminded myself that I was not alone.

We decided to create a conference together. It began on a summer evening in 1992 at a restaurant in Palo Alto. We pulled out a blank sheet of paper, and looked at each other. Neither of us had a clue how to start a conference. There was this long pause… and then the ideas started to flow.

First, we needed to find an organization that would back us. Anita met with the Computer Research Association (CRA), and they agreed to be the sponsoring organization. We decided that the conference should break even, and we would only spend money that we had on hand. We also decided that this inaugural conference would be held in Washington, D.C.

During that first year, we spent our time discussing the overall conference structure. It seemed obvious to name the conference in honor of Grace Hopper, who had recently passed away. She was, after all, one of the first women computer scientists. We reached out to her brother, and received verbal agreement to name the conference in her honor. We put together a list of potential speakers, reviewed the list, talked to others, and came up a revised list of desired speakers. Remarkably, everyone we asked agreed to speak! The speakers from this first year include many names our community would recognize: Maria Klawe, Barbara Liskov, Barbara Grosz, Irene Greif, and others.

Once we had the location and the speakers, the work really started. We decided to hold a professional development workshop on the final day. We spent our time getting the word out and developing the program. Everything we did was new, and it took a lot of time. Anita and I had worked really hard.

The first conference was held in June 1994.  I knew each and every one of the people who were speaking, although I had met only a few in person. But I remember walking into the hotel lobby and watching hundreds of women arriving. It was humbling and exciting, and it changed my life forever.

The most impressive part was the people and organizations who showed up and contributed. The National Science Foundation provided scholarships for students that first year. Even today, when I meet people who attended that first conference as a student, they still remember its impact. Many women, who heard about the conference through their networks, submitted ideas for workshops. In addition to NSF, we had the support of many organizations, both industry and academia. The first conference did break even financially. We showed a controversial new film, and discussed its impact. And we danced.

Our vision was that the conference booklet—full of incredible technical women—would live beyond the conference, and be a resource for computer science departments year round. Today, if you look at a list of past speakers from the Grace Hopper Celebration, you’ll see a “who’s who” of movers and shakers in the technology world.

Who knew then what it would become!


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