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Why I love the Grace Hopper Celebration - and you should too!

Alyona Medelyan
Alyona Medelyan

Have you heard of the Grace Hopper Celebration, also known as GHC? It’s the world’s largest gathering of women in tech!

This year, 25,000 women met in Orlando, Florida. And it was epic!

I was honored to speak on a panel titled “So you want to be a CEO?” that was moderated by my friend, Lilia Abaibourova. I was joined by her and two other female CEOs, Jenny He and Seema Gururaj. Together, we had the opportunity to share our journeys and encourage more women to consider the path of entrepreneurship. Our panel turned into multiple 1-on-1 mentoring sessions for women considering becoming CEOs.

Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2019 Grace Hopper Speakers
Lilia Abaibourova, Alyona Medelyan, Jenny He, Seema Gururaj.

In this post, I want to tell you more about GHC itself, our panel and my overall experience at this event.

Who was Grace Hopper?

Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the world’s most accomplished computer scientists. She was one of the earliest computer programmers and actually coined the term, “debugging” for finding issues in code! 

Admiral Grace Hopper
Grace Hopper and the picture of the first computer “bug”.

Grace Hopper Celebration conferences started in 1994 to bring together women in computing. I attended one of the first events as a student back in 2006, when it had less than 2000 attendees and have seen the conference grew to 25,000 since then!

Grace Hopper Celebration San Diego GHC 2006
Lilia, me and Katya at the Grace Hopper Celebration, San Diego, 2006.

GHC is run by the, whose mission is to increase the impact of women on all aspects of technology, and are working to achieve equal representation of women in tech by 2025. 

Why does this matter? My sad Alexa story

Why do these women care so much about this mission? Because women have been left out of the process of envisioning and building the technology that is changing so many parts of our lives. If this continues, yesterday’s prejudices against women will be literally coded into our future, and all of us will miss out on women’s perspectives on what that future should look like. 

Here is a prime example from my life: When we got Amazon’s Alexa and started using it in my home, it would easily understand my husband, but it would not respond to me. And this wasn’t just because of my accent. It wouldn’t register when I said “Hey Alexa!” 

I complained on Twitter, and here is what the lead engineer told me: 

So, with all those billions of dollars that Amazon has, they cannot dedicate enough resources to teach Alexa how to listen to women? It’s a joke! And it’s especially ironic that Alexa has a woman’s name and voice. 

It shows that when men develop this kind of technology, they just don’t care enough to make sure it also works for women.

Needless to say, we don’t use Alexa any more. 

How GHC is increasing the impact of women in the tech world 

More and more companies are realizing that by not catering to women’s needs, they are missing out on billions in revenue, and that having a diverse team with equal representation of women is important.

Career fair, GHC 2019.

So, each year, hundreds of volunteers and the put this event together in order to:

  • (inspire) Celebrate women who are pioneers in computing.
  • (learn) Developing individuals by giving them access to program content that covers cutting edge tech and ways to build skills.
  • (connect) Access a vast support network and community.
  • (recruit) Access to over 200 companies that are looking for talented women at all levels.
  • (execute) Gather executives from organizations in one room to bring an awareness and brainstorm solutions on how to redesign the employee experience for women in tech.

The connections made at Grace Hopper are invaluable!

Lilia’s panel: “So you want to be a CEO”

Lilia Abaibourova, Director of Product at GoDaddy, has been surrounded by stories of entrepreneurs who are changing the world, and realized that the GHC’s mission could benefit from sharing the stories of CEOs and founders of tech companies. After all, there are only so many of us, and the support female founders receive is often negligible:

Jenny, Seema and I joined Lilia to tell our stories of how we decided to start our companies, how we turned them into real businesses, how we raised money, and what we love about being CEOs.

Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2019 Grace Hopper Speakers
Lilia Abaibourova, Seema Gururaj, Jenny He, Alyona Medelyan.

Seema Gururaj’s story

Seema is a social entrepreneur who has made significant contributions in the areas of; Gender Equity, Urbanization and Education.

An interesting fact about her is that in her decade-long tenure in the gender equity space, she also served as Director of the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC). The experience of working with over 5000 women every year from 67 countries and over 200 organizational leaders, gave her valuable insights that she used to start Square Circle, which helps organizations design organizational cultures that unlock the full potential of women at work.

Seema’s key piece of advice for aspiring CEO’s: “If not you then who? If not now then when?”

Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2019 Grace Hopper Speakers
Lilia Abaibourova, Seema Gururaj, Alyona Medelyan.

Jenny He’s story

As an experienced Chief of Staff and COO, Jenny has always been risk averse. She realized, however, that being a CEO is a different kind of risk: a calculated one. Taking that risk allowed her to secure $7M in funding and partner with the former CTO of Upwork as a co-founder. Her company, Egreon, finds novel solutions to old problems: getting work done on your house & garden. It’s not a surprise that her business is now thriving. 

Jenny’s key advice? Hire people that others would overlook and use the resulting diverse team as your competitive advantage.

My story

I shared my story of starting Thematic after spending more than 15 years doing R&D in AI, focusing on Natural Language Understanding: using computers to understand what humans say or write. What drove me to start Thematic was seeing my work in action, used by people who rely on it and seeing it make an impact, similar to Seema’s motivation of becoming a CEO. A turning point was a 2-day sales course that taught me to ask the right questions to help identify problems that really matter and need solving. Like Jenny, I also de-risked starting a company, by getting revenue from real customers as a first step. The most exciting things for me now are seeing my role in the company change as our team grows, and learning new skills every day.

Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2019 Grace Hopper Speakers
Lilia Abaibourova, Alyona Medelyan, Seema Gururaj.

Lilia’s story

Our moderator’s story is also interesting. After graduating, she joined Microsoft as a software tester, later becoming a software engineer, and eventually moving into product at HBO and now GoDaddy. More than 50% of the women in the audience worked at similarly large companies, and were grateful to see that regardless of where they are now, becoming a founder is in closer reach than they might think and has many rewards.

Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2006 San Diego.
GHC 2006, San Diego.

My experience and learnings from attending & speaking at GHC

I spent 3 days at GHC and spent most of the time doing the “hallway track”: Meeting women, and occasionally men, in 1-on-1 interactions. 

Here is how these happened:

  • Proactively reaching out to women who work in similar field as me (Customer Experience, insights and product research).
  • Mentoring two women who reached out to me after the panel.
  • Being mentored by reaching out to women who had interesting backgrounds.
  • Catching up with those I already knew.
  • And meeting new people in serendipitous way of being in the same place at the same time. My highlights were meeting the former CTO of the United States Megan Smith, Chief People Officer at GoDaddy Megan Bailey, Head of Data at Groupon, Head of Open Source Chris DiBona, and CEO of Sonos Patrick Smith and Chief of Staff at Google.
Grace Hopper Celebration GHC 2019
Dinner after the conference.

The nuggets of wisdom from all of these conversations, the positive energy of wanting to support each other, and simply sharing stories and laughs is what will keep me going for months to come after GHC.

I hope you consider attending/supporting the next GHC!


Alyona Medelyan

Alyona is one of the founders of Thematic. Her love of writing comes from spending years of publishing papers during her PhD. She believes customer feedback should be top of mind at every company.