CHARLESTON — Hundreds of businesswomen (and men), students and educators got a front row seat to learn how the state can boost the economy and close the gender pay gap during the West Virginia Women & Technology Conference recently held in Charleston.
The conference — featuring several informative panels and presentations highlighting a variety of topics — coincided with the highly anticipated opening of the offices of tech company Infor in downtown Charleston. Infor is a world leader in business cloud software products for companies in industry specific markets, and the Charleston site in Laidley Tower promises to add 100 jobs in the area.
Pam Murphy, the chief operating officer of Infor, served as the conference’s keynote speaker. While women are still under-represented in the technology field and have a higher turnover rate, she said the potential for women to make a meaningful impact in the industry exists.
For example, Murphy said there will be a million more computing jobs by 2020 than there will be workers to fill them. The constantly evolving nature of technology also presents new opportunities.
“There is no stereotype on what an AI engineer is supposed to look like,” she said. “That’s the beauty of tech; it’s ever-changing and requires lifelong learning.”
Given her experience in the industry, often being the only woman in the room during meetings, Murphy offered her insight as to how others can succeed.
Her advice included having the courage to make a change, accepting all opportunities regardless of scale or size, bringing fresh perspectives to the status quo, bringing one’s authentic self to the workplace, actively contributing to team efforts, empowering others, being inclusive, following one’s instincts without overthinking and doing what you love and finishing strong.
“Life is 10 % what happens to you and 90 % how you react to it,” she said. “As someone much wiser than me said, ‘There’s no such thing as a can’t, only a won’t.’”
Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin also addressed the conference. She noted that society still seems to pause whenever “female” comes up in the professional world such as “female engineer” or “female scientists” and so on. However, Goodwin said she doesn’t want her status as the city’s first female mayor to be the only thing that stands out.
“Being Charleston’s first female mayor will also be a part of my legacy, and I’m proud of that,” she said, “But I want to be known as the mayor who turned this city around, who turned it into a vibrant and forward-thinking place.”
Goodwin said she has a special policy: Anyone under the age of 20 can come see her without an appointment. She said the vast majority of these visitors are students, mostly female, seeking her advice on matters of business or leadership as they relate to their various projects, something Goodwin said gives her confidence.
Monday’s gathering was the sixth W.Va. Women & Technology Conference held by the Charleston-based business development nonprofit organization TechConnectWV. Its executive director, Anne Barth, said attendance has grown over the years as word has spread. She said the conference is a good example of TechConnect at work accomplishing its mission of connecting the dots for entrepreneurs, resources, talent and other assets that keep the economy growing.
By collaborating with partners such as the Chemical Alliance Zone and the Innova Commercialization Group, among others, TechConnect has helped more than 200 entrepreneurs launch 51 business ventures, creating or retaining 300 jobs across the state in the process while also attracting more than $7 million in follow-on funding.
Barth stressed the importance of male allies who also were participating in the W.Va.Women & Technology Conference. Among them was U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Between Infor’s opening, federal agencies in the north central region, Leidos expanding its operations and others, Manchin said there’s never been a greater time for the state’s women to pursue opportunities in technology. He added that these examples and the experience of Toyota has proven West Virginia’s value to the rest of the tech and manufacturing sectors.
He also reflected on the state of affairs both political and economic, nationally and globally. In looking at where things stand, where they’ve been before and where they might yet go, Manchin said the enterprising women at the conference can make the difference.
“I think the ladies in this room can make a difference in West Virginia politics,” Manchin said. “We’re still the greatest country on Earth and the world is still looking to us. The American Dream cannot die and will not die as long as you believe.”
Several of these women pursuing that dream shared their experiences.
For example, Lisa Allen, the president and CEO of Wheeling-based dessert maker The Ziegenfelder Company, said social media can present surprising opportunities. One instance of this, she said, was pop singer Justin Bieber taking to Twitter to noted the difficulty of finding double stick popsicles. Considering that this is one of her company’s mainstays, Allen said this was an opportunity for the brand to stand out on social media.
Nancy Bruns, the co-founder of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, said technology has benefited her business most when it comes to marketing and online sales. Recently, she took these concepts to launch J.Q. Dickinson Appalachian Mercantile, a subscription box of carefully curated Appalachian foods, crafts and home goods. The box can be shipped monthly, seasonally, or just once, and retails for $45, or less, depending on the subscription length.
Bruns said this concept allows regional businesses to support each other while reaching new customers.
“Through our work with other West Virginian and Appalachian producers it became clear that the talent and craftmanship in the region needed to be shared with a wider audience,” she said. “The subscription box model is the perfect vehicle to get these high quality products out into the world. “It just made sense to expand this direction. We have always been focused on sourcing locally and partnering with our neighbors.”