Monday, February 26, 2024

Industry Visionary Remembered for Planting Seeds of Change

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Dr. Anita Borg worked to open up the high-tech field to women, but she also worked to change the industry — and the technology it produces — by bringing women and minorities into it.

For Borg, the two concepts went hand-in-hand. Women needed to be guided into the well-paying industry. But the industry, Borg strongly believed, was more in need of the women. Women, as she told executives from IBM, Microsoft, HP and other industry giants, would bring diversity to what had largely been an industry run by twenty-something white men. Women would bring different experiences and ideas to the drawing board, and ultimately different products and services to the market. A more diverse workforce meant a more diverse product line. And that always means a wider market and a wider profit margin.

That was the thinking that grabbed the attention, and the support, of the industry’s largest players. And Borg was the woman who galvanized support for diversifying the high-tech workforce.

Today, after Borg’s death last week at the age of 54 from brain cancer, she is being remembered by her colleagues in the industry as a visionary and as the person who planted and nourished the seeds of change.

”Look at the electronic calendars that are being made,” says Greg Papadopoulos, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Sun Microsystems Inc. ”They’re cool. Anita would look at that and say, ‘What would an electronic calendar for a family look like?’ People want a calendar that will tell them who has a music lesson and when, and who is traveling and where. Maybe it could be the display on your Internet-connected refrigerator.

“You need people with more broad and diverse backgrounds to look at something and identify new needs,” adds Papadopoulos, who sits on the board of trustees for the Institute for Women and Technology, which Borg founded. ”Unless we are willing to break that cycle and get other people’s life experiences, we’ll continue to create technology that is cool and useful to nerdy white guys.”

Papadopoulos says it was that ‘compelling vision’ that caught the attention of the industry. Through the years, many people have espoused the need for women to benefit from being a part of the industry. Borg was the one who got the industry talking about the quality of the technology that is being created.

Borg also carried a lot of respect in the industry because she was long a part of it. She found a passion for computers in her mid-twenties and received her Ph.D. in computer science from the Courant Institute at New York University in 1981. She went on to work in research for major high-tech companies.

But in 1987, she was inspired by something that changed the course of her life. And it would come to change the industry, as well.

Borg was attending an industry conference in ’87 and was struck by the fact that only a handful of women were there. She gathered the group together — believing strongly in strength in numbers — and started Systers, an email list and information-sharing community providing mentors, support and encouragement to women in computing. Today, Systers has grown to include more than 2,500 women in 38 countries.

But Borg wasn’t stopping there.

In 1994, inspired by the legacy of Navy Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, she co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. The biannual conference has become the largest gathering of women in computing in the world.

Borg left her job in the industry in 1997 to found and lead the Institute for Women in Technology. IWT is an experimental research and development organization focused on increasing the impact of women in technology, as well as heightening the impact of technology on women around the world. It also oversees Systers and the Grace Hopper celebrations.

”The institute is the embodiment of Anita’s dream,” says Telle Whitney, a dear friend of Borg and the woman who took over the running of the institute when Borg stepped down to battle brain cancer. ”Seeing that dream continue was very important to her. I’m very committed to seeing her legacy through.”

Whitney says that since Borg’s death last week, she has seen visible evidence of her legacy.

”I’ve heard from so many women, highly placed women, who talk about what an inspiration Anita was to them,” adds Whitney, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Cal Tech. ”No question her true legacy is planting seeds for the future.”

The legacy that Borg left behind will have a ‘tremendous impact’ on the future of women in the field and on the industry as a whole, according to Kitty Didion with the Association for Women in Science.

”Many, many companies supported her and that was indicative of the fact that her vision was one that others could share,” says Didion. ”She was a catalyst. She was bold. While other people thought about today and tomorrow, she was thinking about years from now… She challenged assumptions and brought together disparate groups that actually found they had a lot in common.”

Didion says Borg, who was appointed to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology by President Clinton, was also inspirational because she wasn’t afraid of taking a major risk, of putting her career on the line, to follow her dream.

”She left a technical job because she had an institute to create,” says Didion. ”To what extent do we dare to allow our hearts and beliefs and visions to create an opportunity that has risks involved?”

Robin Jeffries, a distinguished engineer at Sun and the company’s liaison with the IWT, says the industry will feel the loss of someone with Borg’s vision and ability to inspire change.

”Anita had an impact on the process of change in this industry,” says Jeffries. ”I think she was reaching the point where things were starting to happen… I think she’s planted a huge number of seeds and it’s all up to us now.”

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