Lisa Mae Brunson always wanted to change the world. While that probably sounds like a superwoman-sized mission statement, it’s not far from her reality. Through the power of tech, Brunson strives to solve some of the world’s major challenges that foster inequality. As the producer of both Hacks4Humanity and Wonder Women Hacks, along with a host of other media and tech related initiatives, like the “I Am Equality Campaign” that is a visual representation of what people look like around the world, Brunson is hacking the problem one major key at a time. She even launched a conference last year called Wonder Women Tech that offers educational programming and initiatives that highlights, educates and celebrates women and diversity in STEAM. Now with the conference in its second year, Brunson has learned a lot about what diversity in tech really means.
The Upload caught up with Brunson of Wonder Women Tech, just days before her annual conference on July 16 and 17 in Long Beach to learn more about her motivations for launching the conference, what she’s learned about inequality in the tech industry, and why we need more #bosswomen in the field.
EBONY.COM: What made you want to get into tech and help women and young people get into the industry?
Lisa Mae Brunson: I come from a diverse background; multiracial and poverty. Not always having the same access to opportunities as my peers, I always had to be innovative in how I accomplished my dreams. I knew I wanted to make a difference on the planet. I looked around and saw inequity and I always wanted to tackle that. As I got older, I realized there was power in writing and media and marketing. I went to school to study psychology originally and, after running a practice, I realized it wasn’t enough talking to people one-on-one. I wanted to reach masses. So I started building Equality TV and Web series and realized technology has the power to transform the world. It allows you to connect with people and it creates solutions around challenges that humanity faces everyday.
I launched a global photographic campaign, “I Am Equality,” in 17 cities that captures the diverse representation of who we are as people and through that work a professor of humanities at Arizona State University asked me to come up with solutions that focused on how technology was being used for social good. And that’s how Hacks4Humanity was born.
EBONY.COM: How did you go about building Hacks4Humanity without a tech background?
LMB: I knew I wanted to create an environment where developers could build apps for social good. When you build mobile apps, you’re looking at solving challenges and for me that came easy. I found a tech company that built those challenges and we partnered on the initial stages of building the hackathon. I ran it with the ASU Project Humanity team and we partnered with developers from high school and college and we were able to build some really great mobile apps. In fact, one of the apps went on to win $10,000 from ASU.
From there I was invited to build a hackathon for the California Women’s Conference. And that’s how Wonder Women Hacks was born. I was able to put together some programming inside of that conference. We put together a panel to have some folks talk about diversity inclusion in tech. While we were there some representatives from the City of Los Angeles from the Commission on the Status Of Women asked me would I be interested in building something like this for the city of Los Angeles. At this point, I really started to understand the importance of technology with regard to how it can change the landscape for women.
At the hackathons there were mostly men and they would say things like, “Women can’t code,” “Women can’t hack,” and these were our next generation men. They were scoffing and laughing about the few women who were in the room.
I watched this from the outside and I also noticed the difference between women and men’s approaches to the challenges. Women were more likely to come up with ideas that would serve a larger demographic while men sort of focused in on one thing like the functionality. Women innovated from the perspective of looking at the whole challenge holistically. When men are innovating they seem to forget about what the rest of the population looks like. And that’s why we need more women.
EBONY.COM: So how can women feel safer and more comfortable working in tech?
LMB: I just did some work with Microsoft with young girls and none of them even realized they could be in these fields. Not science. Not engineering. Not tech. Not space tech. Some of the girls were gamers and not even realizing they could build their own games. They said, “That’s for boys,” or, “Boys don’t like when girls do that.” We have to expose girls to the idea that they can. And we have to educate our young men that females are their counterparts. I’ve been in many environments where I felt uncomfortable because of a sexual undertone. I think we need to start restructuring what gender roles look like.
EBONY.COM: Has race ever played a role for you in the work that you’re doing?
LMB: I had been fortunate growing up not to have experienced any outright discrimination. Now that I’m going to these high-profile tech environments I’ve experienced it. For instance, some older [White] women were treating me differently, such as ignoring me while I’m talking to them or looking me up-and-down. Or I’ve led a discussion or meeting and the people are looking at me with their jaws dropping in shock. I’ve experienced this over and over trying to get someone to hear me. I just have to be confident in that room but that doesn’t mean it’s not discouraging or intimidating. I have to remind myself every day that I am not my skin color; I am not my gender, and I came here to do business and make an impact in the world. The tech world is a hostile environment for women like me, but I just keep forging ahead and leveraging the opportunities that I do have so that I can try to make difference.
EBONY.COM: What have you learned since launching the first Wonder Women Tech and what are your hopes for the future?
LMB: Wonder Women Tech is needed. We’ve been able to get men and women from around the world to back this initiative. I didn’t know there were these innovators leading STEM and STEAM conversations that looked like me. My hope with this platform is that others can be exposed to these diverse innovators if they want to work with them, hire them or highlight them. We can start to normalize this industry. There are women and people of color out there making a huge impact in tech. This can be a rich diversified space that takes into consideration all of the demographics on this planet. There are seniors. There are the disabled. There is the LGBT community. Wonder Women Tech is a legacy for the future that is inclusive of all of these communities and looks at creating solutions.
I also wanted to make sure programming was accessible. So our expo and career fair are free. And there will be some thought leaders in our expo sharing their ideas. Another thing I wanted to make sure we did was create free programming for underserved children and underserved adults, so we invited 300 kids and we’re teaching them how to code, to build games and work in a maker space. And we also invited 360 adults to get them exposed to these new ideas. We are also teaching seniors how to navigate the computer and build their own websites. And we have a workshop for the deaf and disabled. We wanted to bring everybody to the table.
EBONY.COM: Sometimes being a wonder woman and helping others comes at the cost of not taking care of ourselves. So, are you good?
LMB: As a social innovator you have to find the balance between saving the world and saving yourself. I’m still finding that balance. The first conference was 100% free to the public and I did not make any money. With this conference the mayor is supporting the conference for the next three years so they donated the Long Beach Convention Center to us. But we still need funding to make operating the conference possible. So we worked hard at finding sponsors. And while supporting diversity in tech should be a no brainer, we’ve found that some people are not putting the money where their mouth is. So-called proponents of diversity in tech are not really dedicated to supporting these types of initiatives or actually changing the industry.
We’re here to make an impact and tackle the issues of diversity and inclusion. So that little girl who always wanted to change the world is doing what she always wanted to do. And I’m going to continue to do the work and hopefully the money will follow.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of technology and everything else since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.