While most of us are bemoaning the lack of diversity in tech, the Wonder Women Tech diversity and inclusion conference is actually doing something about it, bringing together a highly diverse group of tech luminaries to present to more than 3,000 attendees, about half of whom are college or even high school students, while the other half are mid-career or even upper-level executives, as well as entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Now in its fifth year, the two-day conference takes place this Thursday and Friday in Long Beach, California. Speakers include executives from Microsoft, Google, and Verizon, among others, as well as from high-profile startups such as Riot Games and ThredUp. The event includes sessions and panels on women in space, successful black innovators, and how awareness of bias aids inclusiveness, and a 3-D-printed fashion show.The group holds smaller Wonder Women Tech conferences in Washington, D.C., and London, and a new one is planned for April 23 to 26 in Manaus, Brazil.

The purpose of the events is to provide opportunities and inspiration for a better gender balance and greater diversity in all STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics). STEAM is a relatively new acronym--STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) may be more familiar--but it's important to include the arts, particularly media, when trying to improve gender balance and diversity, according to Lisa Mae Brunson, founder and director of Wonder Women Tech. Several of the event's organizers, including Brunson, have a media background, she explains. "Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are happening in media. Those are timely topics."

It started with Hacks 4 Humanity

From 2011 to 2016, Brunson had been working on a project called Equality TV, a planned platform, YouTube channel, and series to provide video programming highlighting marginalized and underrepresented communities and topics. Though that project was never fully realized, it led to several associated projects, among them Hacks 4 Humanity, a hackathon held at Arizona State University in which participants were invited to create mobile or web-based apps for social good. The first Hacks 4 Humanity took place in 2014, and it's still going strong as an annual ASU event. That initial Hacks 4 Humanity led to a second event called Wonder Women Hacks with the participation of the city of Los Angeles. 

"It turned into a full-scale conference through our work, sitting in my living room," Brunson says. "We had no budget, but everyone was raising their hands to participate." Now, she says, with the event taking place in the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, with the support of the city of Long Beach, whose mayor is one of the conference speakers, "it's taken on a life of its own."

The conference has a track on career development, she says, in which participants can meet not only executives from major companies but also startup founders. "We've seen people launch companies after attending the conference," Brunson says. Some of this comes from skills in things like negotiation gained during sessions at the conference, but the important benefit is getting to see successful founders and executives who don't fit into Silicon Valley's dominant white male demographic. "The most important thing is understanding and networking with people like themselves who are looking to make their mark in the world," she says.