As we enter year two of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are finding new ways to make virtual what was once in-person. For more than a century, International Women’s Day (IWD) has featured conferences, breakfasts, and other in-person events focused on connecting and celebrating women. In 2021, IWD will be a fully virtual affair.
BetaKit spoke with a variety of organizations – from startups to global corporations – about how they are grappling with honouring the spirit of International Women’s Day in a new virtual world.
“We needed something more.”
“I have always organized Women in AI/tech events, but now we needed something more,” said Helen Kontozopoulos, founder of AI startup ODAIA. “We needed an event that can coach, mentor, teach, and network, all in one week and beyond.”
Kontozopoulos has a lot of experience planning women’s events, having organized multiple events over the years for the University of Toronto, her own companies, and in partnership with other organizations. So when COVID hit, she knew change was necessary and welcomed it, taking the virtual format as an opportunity to expand the reach of the event. Kontozopoulos connected with Dentsu Canada VP Kate Dobrucki and BDC’s Women in Tech fund managing partner Michelle Scarborough about putting on an event for all Canadian women entrepreneurs. The result, Forging New Frontiers, features a wider range of speakers and topics than she could typically have in a local in-person event.
“For me personally, it’s about sharing our knowledge and resources with the world,” said Kontozopoulos. “Pre-COVID, this event would have been in person – but the virtual format now provides us the opportunity to be global and have an even larger impact.”
A larger stage “for courageous conversations.”
Cisco Canada has felt a similar pull towards a change in focus. The multinational technology company has had a global program supporting women since 1997 with the launch of Cisco’s Connected Women, which now spans 4,000 Cisco employees across 40 different countries and 100 different chapters (the program merged with Cisco’s externally facing group, Cisco Empowered Women’s Network, in 2019, taking the new name Women of Cisco).
“The virtual format now provides us the opportunity to be global and have an even larger impact.”
– Helen Kontozopoulos, ODAIA
The Canadian chapter now has over 400 members nationally after spinning out of the broader North American group. Each year for IWD, local chapter leads would typically host events for specific offices featuring local partners and panel discussions. Now, with remote work eliminating geographical boundaries, Cisco Canada chapter suddenly found itself taking a leading role across the Americas network for a virtual IWD, joining women’s networks from the United States, Central, and South America.
Mariam Leon, the Canada co-leader for Women of Cisco, said that the strategy was to align its internal initiatives with the United Nations #ChooseToChallenge, a movement to challenge the status quo of women’s rights. However, event content was decided at the regional level. For Cisco Americas, the choice was to celebrate over three days – March 10th through 12th – and invite all Cisco employees to come to the event. The new Americas-wide event will broadcast talks and panels to the nearly 10,000 employees Cisco has between North, Central, and South America.
Leon said Cisco took the virtual opportunity to revise its approach from hyperlocal to larger issues, and push for more intersectional conversations. In addition to skill-building activities, the event would feature panel conversations focused explicitly on the experience of intersectional identities at Cisco, produced in collaboration with the LGBTQ+ resource group and the Black employee network at Cisco.
“A larger virtual stage gave all employee resource groups (ERGs) – the women’s network, pride LGBTQ+ network, and the Black employee network – the opportunity to collaborate to have courageous conversations and learn together,” said Leon.
“Recovery, then continued success, was our priority.”
With a dedicated local focus, Genesis faced a slightly different challenge. Founded in 1997, the St. John’s, Newfoundland innovation hub has a specific mission to “create economic wealth and opportunity in our province” through supporting tech entrepreneurs, said Genesis marketing and communications coordinator, Annagray Campbell.
Lesley Galgay, the program leader for Genesis’ women in tech and diversity efforts, said the program had zero women entrepreneurs in 2014. She came on board to “challenge the preconceived notion of what a technology entrepreneur looks like.” After launching a locally-focused women’s community called the Women in Tech Peer Group, the program moved from zero to over 30 percent of Genesis’ founders identifying as women.
When COVID-19 hit, the Genesis team thought about both how to support their local community and take advantage of new opportunities.
“Our focus on the recovery and continued success of our clients was our first priority,” said Campbell. “COVID-19 challenged many of our clients, but it also presented opportunities for them to help solve problems that weren’t as pressing before the pandemic.”
For IWD, Genesis is leaning into those pressing problems. The innovation hub will host a virtual event with Granville Biomedical co-founder and CEO Christine Goudie. Granville’s mission is to advance women’s health, but the company is also known for developing one of Canada’s only home-made COVID-19 swab tests. The event is intended to celebrate women in keeping with the spirit of IWD, but also to inspire local entrepreneurs by demonstrating the innovations coming out of St. John’s that can have global impact.
New look, new opportunities
The first International Women’s Day gathering happened in 1911, according to the IWD official website. For most of the event’s history, virtual gatherings weren’t even a known idea, let alone a technologically feasible possibility. Then, overnight, they became the only option.
Nouhaila Chelkhaoui, the manager of Women Founder Programs for the DMZ, thinks the virtual format is a fantastic way to offer more value to people. However, she also cautions that virtual events should be different than, not a complete replacement for, in-person gatherings when it’s safe to do so.
“I think it’s important that organizations continue to run their programs, and events virtually to ensure entrepreneurs don’t miss out on the networks and resources they need,” said Chelkhaoui. “That said, many founders do miss the in-person setting; that’s hard to replace I think.”
As organizations figure out how they will pivot for 2021, a common thread emerged in the ones BetaKit spoke to about using this moment to capitalize on new opportunities to effect change. While the goal remains the same – celebrating the social, economic, and cultural achievements of women – COVID’s prompt to think fast also has these orgs thinking bigger.
“We need to have conversations that are relevant to all allies as well,” said Cisco Canada’s Jennifer Rideout. “How will allies learn about the experiences of women if we don’t talk about them?”
Go here to read an (incomplete, but growing) list of events, programs, and organizations supporting women’s initiatives in Canada.