When Girls Code
Kamila Sidor—entrepreneur, social activist, founder of Geek Girls Carrots global community. She wants more women to work in IT. Thanks to Geek Girls Carrots already over 2,000 women learned to code. Her many social campaigns attract girls to new technology. Today Geek Girls Carrots exists in 14 countries.
Life is not about me helping you, if you help me. But about you helping me, me helping someone else and that someone helping someone else still… According to the “pay it forward” rule in Silicon Valley.
I meet Kamila in San Francisco. This year she came to California to rest and to go to the annual Burning Man festival at Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Kamila regularly visits Silicon Valley to breathe some “Valley air of innovation” and get energized for her next challenge.
She tells me that it is worthwhile to chase your dreams, it is worth to believe in oneself and what’s most important—it’s good to support others.
The First Computer
All the money from my First Communion gift I spent on a Commodore 64. It was a great experience. I wanted it to play games, of course!
My dad took me to the computer store to get it. I remember clearly how we couldn’t wait to unpack those boxes! We started unpacking them right in the car.
You’ll Be a “Marketer”
At home I was encouraged to study science; in high school I was in a math-science curriculum. My dad got offended when I did not go to Warsaw University of Technology, although I was accepted there. I chose geography instead; a year later, I applied again and was accepted into the marketing and business administration program at the Warsaw School of Economics. My dad did not understand why I did not want to study technology, since with a technology degree it is easier to find a good job. He laughed that I would be “a marker.”
Dream Come True?
I graduated from Warsaw School of Economics. As a student I dreamed about working for an international corporation and participating in international projects. My dream came true. Although I quickly learned that this type of work was not for me, I was very disappointed. I had dreamed a dream which did not fit my need for self-realization and growth.
I Met My People
At the same time I started getting together with a friend (Tomek Kolinko), who worked, and still does, in tech start-ups. He always took part in relevant events, although in those days there was really just one start-up event—Aula Polska (Polish Aula). I went to those meetings once a month and really liked the start-up community. I felt I had met my people, people who want to be creative, who believe that you can change the world. These people were active, open-minded and full of new ideas that they were consistently turning into reality. I liked that mentality a lot. That was the beginning of my start-up adventure. Earlier I had worked in various places: in a bank, in an employment center, in tourism.
First Startup Weekend
Eighty percent of success is showing up—this is one of Woody Allen’s favorite quotes. I showed up in places where one could meet interesting people, where interesting things were happening. I followed closely what was going on in the start-up ecosystem.
During one of those meetings I met my future boss who at the time planned the first Startup Weekend in Poland. I got invited to help coordinate that event. My job was to organize it. I accepted the challenge. It was a great success!
Stepping Up My Career
English was the official language of the first Startup Weekend. We hosted many international mentors. Organizing and participating in this event helped me get noticed in Poland’s start-up ecosystem. I developed my network. That first Startup Weekend gave me a great boost of energy and was a huge step forward in my career.
My partner at the time was building his next start-up and I decided to invest in it. I got shares in the company. At the same time I kept attending many events; on a daily basis watching the process of start-up development at home. This was the beginning of my career in the start-up industry although I did not have tech education, I am not a techie and I cannot even code.
Organizing Startup Weekend, I spent a lot of energy pitching the event to women—I wanted them to come, to speak and to actively participate. I turned for help to a friend, (Ola Sitarska), who had already done some start-up projects. Ola appeared in the media explaining why it was worthwhile to come to such events and encouraged girls to take part. We had a pool of discounted tickets meant especially for ladies.
I told my boss that my goal for the Startup Weekend was for half of the participants to be female. I did a whole range of marketing actions around this idea but ultimately I failed. Of 120 participants there were 10 women. It also turned out that half of the girls were “plus ones”—they came with their partners.
I decided to change that.
I thought that it would make sense to organize tech meetings for girls. With my programmer girlfriend we started planning a specific event that would have the word girls in the name. No one could then complain that the event was not for women. The first meeting took place in July 2011 in Warsaw. It had 11 participants, mainly our friends.
We Don’t Complain
The girls liked our idea but already at the first meetup we heard complaints about how hard it was for women in IT. I did not want to create a “complainers’ club” but instead a community with a positive message that would encourage girls to activity.
Initially building an organization for women was just a side gig. Still, soon my actions gained momentum. I began to devote more of my time and energy to building this community.
Our first Warsaw meetings were mentioned on antyweb.pl blog. As soon as the information appeared I was contacted by a girl from Wrocław (Kasia Marchocka), who asked me if she could organize a similar event. I wasn’t sure, I replied, but suggested we should talk. This is how we created meetups in Wrocław.
Later we got contacts in other cities and when those centers were established girls from other places kept joining… It was amazing. I had never dreamed of such growth. We were already in 10 cities even though I still had no procedure on how to add new chapters to Geek Girls Carrots. At every point I was sure that it was “the last town that wanted to join us.”
Meanwhile my friend Kamila Stępniowska, who worked hand in hand with me establishing the organization, went to a conference in Berlin and there met another Polish woman who got very interested in our activity. When she got back from the conference she said: “Our next city is Berlin!”
Soon the girls from Berlin visited us in Warsaw and we started working together. We began to get offers from more cities all over the world. Initially we were contacted just by Poles who had gone abroad and wanted to get involved. Now we hear from girls from all over the world. We became a global organization.
Geek Girls Carrots
There are two schools of marketing. One says that the company’s name is essential, it defines the values of the organization and the product.
Another school teaches that the name is not important. What is crucial is the product, which must meet the expectations and needs of its users. And even if the product is called “Osram” (a light bulb brand name; also, a taboo word in Polish) people will buy it anyway.
In the case of Geek Girls Carrots I followed the latter school. In 2007, my friend and I were planning to open an alternative travel agency. We called it “Flying Fish.” For six months we worked on the logo, the website color scheme, the slogan, and so on. But when everything was ready the project failed to take off because after all our marketing tasks we had never taken the time to find out if our business plan made any sense. We never even created a prototype. That setback taught me that the name isn’t essential. What is important is to start operating. You have to get the product to the market and see whether someone wants to buy it.
Carrots or Pizza?
When we started our women’s organization we did not spend much time on coming up with a name. We decided that geek girls sounded too generic. We decided to add another element. We asked ourselves what was associated with geek culture. Pizza! But pizza is unhealthy… And we wanted to create something different, something especially for the girls. We wanted something not associated with fast food and an unhealthy lifestyle. This is where the carrots came from. We decided on an English version. So we called ourselves Geek Girls Carrots. Somewhat by accident. It took us literally three minutes to come up with this name. After our bad experiences we did not want to wrack our brains on terminology… we just wanted to get to work.
The name turned out to be a good fit. Everyone asks about it. Carrots became our symbol. We have the color, the gadgets, carrot mascots, even carrot cookies. It is a distinctive symbol that we use to promote our work through the companies that cooperate with us. At many conferences our carrots are used as the background for photo ops. But no one would use our images if our brand was associated with something boring. What’s essential is the quality of the product and the service.
No Institutional Backing
Four years ago I did not expect our organization to grow so fast. If I had to decide what I needed money for, I would have said, “I am establishing a programming community for 20 girls and organizing a meeting in Warsaw.” That one sentence would have summed up our whole activity. Luckily I did not write our bylaws or business plan because created too early they could have limited our flexibility. From the very beginning we were a grassroots organization, not backed up by any corporation or institution.
When Facebook offered to organize a recruiting event for us we agreed and it soon came about that recruitment meetings became one of our sources of income. Since we did not have any business plan we were able to listen to the needs of the market. We’ve been open to various forms of cooperation; although now, after being on the market for four years, we know our value.
The organization is registered in my name. We are a nonprofit. There are three principles of our operation: all the profits go to social causes and the running of Girl Geek Carrots. Some employees work full-time, others work with us pro bono and just develop their skills. We cooperate with companies who support our social mission, which is getting women interested in new technologies.
Good PR is crucial to our organization—we make sure to get media coverage, we participate in many conferences. When we create a buzz, companies or potential event organizers find us easily and get in touch.
Geek Girls Carrots doesn’t have a marketing department but we do rely on public relations and, Maja Sztenke is in charge of that. We make sure that the media invite our specialists and technology experts. We cooperate with the media to show as many female role models as possible. With our activity we want to reach young girls and women who would not come to our meetings but are looking for a path for themselves. Via press, radio, and TV, we can show them inspiring stories of women in IT.
How We Get Financing
We work with many firms. Companies recruit workers via our organization, using our Internet channels and commission us to organize meetings. Some enterprises buy our programming workshops, which are free for the participants and consequently get access to potential workers. These are very helpful initiatives because usually the workshop participants are women—it eases their career paths, opens up lots of possibilities. At every workshop we discover some gems—girls with fantastic programming talents who, although they might not yet know how to code, learn very fast. We always look for such people. Companies can look for employees for their teams through our ads and enhance their branding by becoming our partner. Our organization is respected by many parties. We don’t just help girls. We are an integral part of the start-up ecosystem and IT industry.
My Salary Is Below Average
On Internet forums you can find many comments on us. Some people say we got money from the EU. This is not true. You can look into our finances which are maybe not the best but we are still going through the stage of intensive growth. You can read the financial report of the first three years of our operation—one can see where the money comes from, how much we have, and how we spend.
I once met Jurek Owsiak. We talked about Internet hate. Owsiak says that as I create larger, more important events I will encounter more hatred. He told me to always remember in such moments why I started this work, what were my core values. This is what make us what we are and it should be the bedrock of our activity. If I remember that advice, no one will be able to break me.
It’s Worthwhile to Catch Up
After two years of organizing regular meetups, we began also to hold programming workshops—Code Carrots, which are weekend quarterly programming workshops in Python, JS, SQL, and Java. These are popular courses taught by excellent programmers. We want to show girls that learning and growing pays off, giving them the opportunity to learn how to code and encouraging them to update their skills and competencies.
Our meetups have a simple format: the official part, the lecture, then networking and socializing. Networking and chatting, often over a beer, are the two key elements of our events. We want to attract girls to our organization and teach them to mix with various people, grow their networks. Sometimes we organize games to get people off their seats and at the same time demonstrate how important it is to communicate and get to know each other. Without the ability to create business relations, maintaining them and using them won’t get us anywhere in either a corporation or a start-up. At some point someone has to recommend us.
The leaders are encouraged to organize interesting meetups. Friendly atmosphere determines the quality of any event. Creative speakers who share their experience are also the key to a successful meeting and featuring technology gadgets like Oculus, AirWheel, OneWheel, 3d printers, Sphero balls help develop fun atmosphere. There’s a lot happening at Geek Girls Carrots events.
End of the World or an Easy Hurdle
The lecture is not the main part of a meeting; the important thing is that people turn up and get to know each other. When people meet, “magic” might happen. Direct interaction often means creating and implementing new ideas, which might open new possibilities.
We can meet someone facing problems similar to ours, which in turn will help us solve them. We will not feel alone with our insecurities. By talking to people, something that seemed like the end of the world turns out to be an easy hurdle.
Moments of Weakness
I could tell many stories of girls who tried to build their projects but lacked self-confidence, who say they are not entrepreneurs and don’t have the knack for business. Only after coming to our meetup and listening to the presentation of a person who had successfully accomplished a project do they understand that moments of despair and self-doubt are completely normal! We all have moments of weakness and bad days. Entrepreneurs go through times of doubt. It is not that I cannot cope or don’t have a talent for business. Our speakers often become mentors to young women who are starting up.
We have presentations during which we get shown ultramodern solutions and concepts. The girls tell stories of how their interests and careers evolved, how they got from point A to B. “I studied humanities and now I’m a Java programmer.” Such stories are motivating. A friend of mine, who after studying psychology learned coding at the Code Carrots, today works as a programmer—she teaches and writes workshop scripts.
I remember a lecture when our speaker demonstrated how to animate illustrations. During a 30-minute session she animated a drawing and proved to us that movie making applications were not so scary.
Without Men It Is Impossible to Change the World…
Men are also the organizers of our meetups, although they are in the minority. Gentlemen are welcome in Geek Girls Carrots and we are very grateful for their assistance and involvement. Without men it is impossible to change the world because social change needs wide social support. If men don’t want to have more female colleagues in IT companies we will not force that change. Men must be open to changes, too.
At the moment our team has about 90 members, we are all a part of a closed group on Facebook. It is hard to say where our organization starts or ends—even I don’t know all the people active under the Geek Girls Carrots umbrella. I am in touch only with the main organizers. We tried many communication tools and it turns out Facebook is the most effective—all of us Carrots have FB accounts so there is no need to build another system.
Every country is different and has its own proven customs or principles. For instance in the United States there is Meetup. That’s why depending on where we operate we will use popular channels of local communication.
After Hours Project
For most people, Geek Girls Carrots is an additional after hours project. At the moment we have just full time employees and for the remaining organizers it is an after work diversion from everyday routine and a chance of acquiring new skills. Our organizers learn to manage people, projects, web content, social media promotion or script writing, there is always more room for learning.
At work we don’t always have the chance to acquire new skills and competencies that are required for promotion or changing jobs.
Organizers who leave us, usually keep in touch while building their own careers. A good example is a friend of mine, who started out as my assistant (Katarzyna Frąszczak) after two years of hard work she became my deputy. Today she is leaving the project to develop her own career abroad. Geek Girls Carrots is a big step forward in our careers.
Help and Be Helped
People who join Geek Girls Carrots sometimes have no experience but would like to gain it, that’s why for me an ideal candidate is a person who will say straight up she wants to learn! We address our social programs to people who want to get involved. I think it is essential that the participants in the social projects are open to both giving and receiving, taking advantage of an opportunity. Unfortunately women have tendency to help others rather than seek support.
In Geek Girls Carrots we stress the importance of mentoring and the exchange of knowledge. Our organizational structure is flat and the girls acting locally have no bosses. That’s why new people can sometimes feel lost and don’t know how to navigate the organization. We keep accumulating know-how and record our knowledge in the manual but what’s most effective is mentoring. Every new organizer gets a helper with at least one-year experience. Our international experience is also very valuable. An example of an excellent mentor was Paulina Bagińska from Berlin who mentors Vanadana Gupta who is developing a new chapter of Carrots in New Delhi, India.
Up till now we’ve implemented our projects in 14 countries. We are in Japan, South Korea, Portugal, Ireland, and the Czech Republic, to name just a few.
Recently I spoke with girls from Tel Aviv. I met them through Monika Synoradzka, our former organizer from Poznań. In this way we operate and make contacts, find out about one another and begin to work together. Many women want to collaborate with us since we share the approach to the issue of females in IT: we want as many women in technology as possible but at the same time we don’t exclude men. We use the language of positive communication and give women “fishing rods, not fish.”
Freedom of Action
Geek Girls Carrots organizers enjoy independence in decision making. We also have a simple rule—if there is a problem the organizers contact me, in crisis situations I step in. I am always available and I can be convinced to make some changes, although sometimes I stick to my decisions. The girls independently build their teams and implement their rules. We do not have stiff regulations. The organizers themselves know best what their local communities need.
A good leader can present his or her mission to the team so the employees can identify with it. Team members should feel that the mission is not just their professional vision, but also their life vision. A good leader knows the strengths and the weaknesses of the team and creates a clear framework for the organization’s structure so every member of the group can fulfill their professional ambitions and develop their competencies. Most people progress when they are given the space for action and the freedom to make decisions. When they are respected, they identify with their project and devote maximum time to it. Such employees will not just be involved in their job but also professionally fulfilled.
Of course some people demand clear, specific orders and are motivated by monitoring. In practice, however, such persons choose tasks that are less ambitious and as a result they make slower progress. It is up to the leader to find a place for them in their organization, if there is one.
After Action Review
Sometimes we all encounter failure. In such cases we don’t look for a witch to burn at the stake but work together analyzing the situation and identify what went wrong. After completing all the projects, we do an after-action review. This is our favorite method to assess projects. We evaluate what went well, what makes us proud, what we can repeat, and what we can do better. We always write down the most important points of the meeting and update our manuals.
We give each other honest feedback about what didn’t work and we make new decisions. I always ask why things happened the way they did and what we could have done better. At the same time we analyze our mistakes. In my opinion this works really well.
People who take part in social projects or start-ups are motivated by the wish to learn and develop. Start-ups can teach you what corporations won’t. Start-ups are about rapid development, changes, making money. Social projects are about sharing. The common denominator is flexibility combined with effectiveness, which often lacks in large companies.
Together We Create a Wider Coalition
Geek Girls Carrots was the first project in Poland addressed to women in tech and IT. It was annoying when new, analogous groups started sprouting. I asked a rhetorical question: why do they start a new community while we are already there? But a friend of mine convinced me that it’s worthwhile to learn from one another. I observed what other groups were doing better and in my next projects I did not repeat their mistakes. Watching your competition helps identifying the solutions that work without testing them yourself. I realized we were all a part of a wider coalition and accepted that while some people are attracted to Geek Girls Carrots, others prefer different groups. At present we cooperate with competing groups and even hold joint meetings.
Recently we had 581 candidates for our programming workshops, for only 40 available spots. We are unable to meet all the demand.
With start-ups it is similar, new business models are being tested on a regular basis. Competition means more people are active in the same field, they introduce new solutions. This is of great value. You just need to know how to use it.
On Important Moments
I Feel Moved
Today it seems almost unbelievable that my organization, which I created from scratch with one friend, is present in 27, soon 30 cities! The size of the organization and its international character is overwhelming and requires great responsibility. Thanks to our efforts, 2,000 people have learned how to code! When I look back on our history I am very moved. When I receive birthday greetings from people I don’t know and who tell me how my organization changed their lives, it feels great.
I believe my projects are important and needed and will influence people’s lives. Finally, the fact that I don’t work for a corporation or for someone else, but instead realize my own ideas, makes me happy.
Successes Small and Large
In the past few years, we have continued to expand our organization overseas. For me it’s a giant success. Recently I got pictures from various places, among them from Tokyo—the photo shows a group of 50 Japanese women with our symbol. These moments are precious.
There are other uplifting events. Not long ago I was invited to a meeting at the Presidential Palace, not as a tourist but a conference participant. I was the only woman among the speakers and the only one under fifty. I was speaking on behalf of young entrepreneurs.
I was also invited to a cup of tea with the Duchess of Luxembourg, we discussed the problems of educational systems.
Every time I receive such an invitation I feel honored. It is important that our voices are being heard. We keep having small successes. For me they are like points on a map, which at the end of my life will form a beautiful picture.
I would like to do other social projects. At some point I will probably decide to give up my “Carrots.” That will happen when I create a structure solid enough for the organization to run by itself. To be able to leave with no worries I have to address many weaknesses of the organization which are connected to my own personality and character. I have noticed that wherever I encounter problems, so does my organization. If I cannot, or don’t want to do something all the shortcomings show up in Geek Girls Carrots. I have new ideas for other social and educational projects, which I would like to implement…
All Over the World…
Our organization has been expanding rapidly. We have a plan to grow tenfold. I think this is feasible. We want to organize more meetings and have our blueprints and programming scripts used all over the world. Our goals are very ambitious. We have our aspirations to expand, which means we want to organize more regular events. My team, working full time, is overwhelmed. This slows things down. I am also a factor in the slow-down. So soon we need to prepare a strategy of development, which will be another milestone.
Women in IT
Stand on Your Own Two Feet
I have my own theory why there is a gap between men and women working professionally. Men are raised to fight, compete, conquer, prove their worth and masculinity to the world. Society rewards them for sharing their knowledge and being active in the business sphere. Women are not taught those skills in their socio-educational path or while growing up. Girls are taught to sit tight and wait until they are called and praised—then we can feel singled out and satisfied. This makes it hard for us to step forward with our proposals, to self-promote. Sure it can be risky but we should not give up.
When a Woman Is Successful…
…her success is much talked about, there is more media coverage. Men who achieve similar successes are less talked about, as there is nothing interesting or unusual about it. This is why we encourage women to promote their own achievements. A successful woman impresses both women and men. She becomes a strong inspiration for both sides.
There are all kinds of women in IT. This is beautiful, as thanks to our diversity we have a lot to offer to the world of technology. To be really simplistic, there are two types of women in IT—(probably more, but this is my personal observation). The first type are girls who believe themselves to be superwomen. They know the IT world very well, are popular and recognizable. They stand out. I was one of those women. I took part in many events, so everybody knew me. During events the male–female ratio is usually unequal, even as low as one to fifty. Some girls can take advantage of such situations. They run a company, employ programmers and are, for the most part, professionally fulfilled.
But there are also many people who are low key, who like to hide in the shadows. Women in IT, being a minority, are constantly subject to public scrutiny and criticism. IT girls are always in the limelight. For a sensitive, introverted person such a situation can be uncomfortable—they would likely withdraw and this is not easy. Minorities live in constant stress, become weary of being exposed. If in a team of five men there is one woman she will probably attract more attention, her mistakes will be immediately noticed and commented on. Being in an exposed place can be very stressful.
Another question connected to the presence of women in IT is the fact that society always questions our qualifications. I know a woman who fixes computers, working with hardware. Her clients always question her abilities and ask whether she would be able to do the repair. Every time she has to explain that it is her everyday job. She tried to be aggressive, and to stay calm. People don’t trust her and ask her to consult with a male colleague. This is alarming in our society. People do not believe a woman can be competent doing “men’s work.”
Our society undermines women’s feeling of self-worth. This is a cause for concern and should be changed.
Education of Women
There are too few women working in IT. We are raised to be good mothers, wives, housekeepers. Society charges us with responsibility for a peaceful home, creating a good atmosphere for the family. Women are not expected to be successful in business, making big money. In our culture a woman can stay at home or work professionally. Society accepts both roles. A man does not really have this choice. Although it has been changing in recent years.
Why are there not many women in IT? The answer is simple. Societies do not put much emphasis on the education of women. As a result girls do not have some skills that are essential in business.
Can You Be a Mom and a Career Woman?
Of course you can. Some women prove that you can do anything! The question is if we can divide our attention. We do not have to do everything ourselves. We just need to know what makes us fulfilled. An unhappy mom is not a cool mom. We should understand what we want for ourselves and what are the expectations of the society or our family. These matters should be separated. We have to honestly answer this question: who did I want to be when I was a little girl? It is worth revisiting.
Many women are successful in science while raising children and attending to their family. My personal idol is Professor Agnieszka Zalewska, chair of the CERN Council. She is the first woman in CERN elevated to such a high position. She is a professor of physics and a mother of five. It is possible to reconcile a professional career with kids and family? Yes, but not every one of us wants to choose this path.
You Can Manage!
In Warsaw the start-up women don’t need to become more masculine. I think it is sometimes easier to be a girl in predominantly male environment. In Poland I’ve never heard stories such as those from Silicon Valley, when an investor after a business meeting invites a girl to dinner…
Start-up girls are much admired and perceived as go-getters although, unfortunately, there are still too few of us. My impression is that women too often choose the “warm slippers” as society rewards them for such behavior. They are not motivated, cheered to go forward. Women need support, someone who would just say: You can manage!
Three Pieces of Advice
Advice for Everyone—Be the Dumbest Person in the Room
My first piece of advice for everyone is to realize whose hand we are holding. Is our closest person supporting us? Will they support us when times become hard? Or maybe they will be complaining and blaming us for everything. Surrounding ourselves with valuable, supportive people is very important. When you come across someone who constantly criticizes your actions, you will probably not get very far. Very little can be achieved individually. We build our success cooperating with people. If it wasn’t for my partner Tomasz it would have taken me much longer to get where I am now. When I was feeling discouraged, when I was coming home in low spirits, he would say: It’s only a moment of doubt, you do wonderful things, get to work and keep going! Those words helped a lot and I am very grateful for to him for them.
Today I surround myself with friends who can “blow in my wings” but who also can be honest with me. I know they have good intentions and they want to support me in my activity. Sometimes I hear: You will do it! Don’t worry! And sometimes they say honestly: It must be your ego speaking!
I have always had a simple strategy in my life—to be the dumbest person in the room. In my dorm I was the worst student of all my roommates. I always wanted to push myself up, to catch up to the best. I like to surround myself with people who believe in me, who are smarter than me and are three steps ahead of me, because they are the greatest inspiration.
Another Piece of Advice—Effectiveness, Keep Active!
The second matter concerns effective action and persistence. When we have something to do we just need to sit down and do it. If we don’t know something we need to research. You should use what is already there. Don’t spend weeks browsing the Internet, do something! The final goal should include the first step that I need to take to get going. This is my approach to work. It is worth testing.
Sometimes before making a decision I get stopped by fears—I try to accept them. And although I’m still scared I make the decision and act. It’s like jumping with a parachute: you are afraid but you know you will survive. You just need to check the equipment. And then you are flying! You are living your life to the fullest! Boom!
Advice no. 3—Learn!
The third piece of advice might sound banal: we learn all our lives. Learning never stops. When someone says they are 30 and it’s too late to learn programming I answer, no, no, it’s not too late! It’s never too late. We had a participant named Renata. She was about to retire and at 60 she started to learn programming. She wanted to create a website and have her own online store. She wanted to write the program herself. And she did it!
It doesn’t matter how old you are. You have to move forward! And the fact is, we make mistakes. We fall, get back up. All this enriches our human experience. Today your company can be wonderful but in five years it might be worthless, because the technology will change. No need to wait for some special moment, you need to act now, because the moment is now.
It is important to have role models. I am very fond of what Ela Madej says and does. Her experience in business and at the same time her approachability and authenticity attract many people. She is effective in her work and at the same time maintains a healthy balance in her life.
I have also been watching Sheryl Sandberg. She started Lean in project about the same time I was starting mine. Of course the scale of these projects is completely different. After reading her book Lean in: Women, Work and the Way to Lead I realized that what we have in Poland is not so bad!
I like the biography of Marie Skłodowska-Curie and the story of her daughter. Sometimes I look at photos of physicists’ reunions from the early 1900s. Maria Curie was the only woman but she looks at ease. Yet, she did break into the male dominated world of science.
“Women to the Tractors!”
Historically women in Poland managed large estates, especially when men during wars or revolutions died or were exiled to forced labor. Compared to the rest of the world Polish women got voting rights quite early, in 1918, while in Switzerland as late as in 1971. When men fought in WWII women worked in factories and during the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) one of the slogans said “Women to the tractors!”—and they indeed began to drive tractors.
In my family I also have strong women. My great-grandmother as a young person immigrated to the United States. It was in 1897. She left from Poland Galicia region, she never returned there. In America she lived in Brooklyn where she started a business. Poland and America were worlds apart. There was terrible poverty in Poland. Still, my great-grandmother decided to come back to her country. She sold all her estate, took the money and a gun. She boarded a ship, where she gave birth to her second child. She came to Gdynia (a port city in Poland) to be with the family of her husband. Later, she took the kid, the gun, and the money and left for eastern Poland, where she spent the rest of her life. Her strength, determination, and courage inspire me to this day.
She lived almost to a hundred. I was six years old when she died. If you grow up with such role models, it does not even occur to you that there is something women can’t do!
It Is Important to Support Others
In 2002, before going to college I went to Warsaw to attend a preparatory course for the entrance exams. For a month I stayed with auntie Helena. She fixed me breakfast, gave pocket money, and took good care of me. The woman I’d never met before took me under her wings. One day I asked her: Auntie, how do I pay you back? She answered: Child, you don’t need to pay me back, just help out someone else in your life.
I often remember those words and compare it to pay it forward rule in Silicon Valley. If you help me, I will help someone else and they will help still someone else.
Girls You Have Helped
“It is important to believe in yourself. It’s important to look at the person holding your hand…” This is my life philosophy. Girls thank me for talking them into programming. They thank me for finding a mentor.
I get messages in which girls tell me how Girls Geek Carrots matter in their life. They write they cannot make the meeting because they live in a small town but thanks to us they feel really motivated. They study by themselves, read our articles. Sometimes someone approaches me in the street and thanks me for the workshops or self-study guides available on the Internet.
Sometimes I regret not collecting those stories. I look forward. I never look back.
Link to the Future
I cooperate with many young people and participate in the program “Link to the Future” where I met with youth from small towns. With some of them we keep in touch for a long time, we discuss what studies to pursue, or whether it is worth traveling abroad, they rely on my advice and mentoring, because instead of learning from your own mistakes you can learn from mistakes of others. It is worth remembering.
Public Speakers’ Club
I am a co-founder of Speaking Elephants TM—a public speakers’ club. It was my first social project. I was very involved in my work. It is there that I realized that I find fulfillment in social projects. On my team I had people who today run many projects and companies. When we were joined by a newbie they always said: Kamila, go talk to them, you are good at it.
I was returning home after midnight. I entered the elevator, which had a large mirror. I looked at myself. I was completely exhausted; my head was killing me. I thought: I have a headache, feeling sick, but I am happy, I am satisfied! This is the life I want! I want to have a job that would make me happy, even if I am to get home after midnight, totally wasted!
Being an entrepreneur is like riding a roller coaster. One day you accept an achievement award, the next day you are facing bankruptcy. The fear that I might not cope, make the wrong decision or that my key workers abandon the project is with me every day. It will never leave me.
I am learning how to distinguish fear from instinct and common sense. Observing your emotions, thoughts, and feelings is very useful in this process. By building new habits and rituals I arm myself for the times of crisis. They will be my fallback and a starting point for new actions.
I get up at seven. Yoga. Coffee. Breakfast.
Evening—twenty minutes of meditation and a few pages of a book.
A few times a week I write in my diary the most important thoughts and events of the past few days. In difficult moments I start counting my breaths: inhale, exhale.
The interview was conducted on August 27, 2015 in San Francisco.
1 In Polish it says: “marker” and it comes from word “marketing”; world “marker” doesn’t exist in Polish, it is a word play in Polish. Her dad was saying: “You will be a marker.”
2 Jerzy Owsiak: A founder and President of the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (WOŚP), one of the largest nongovernmental, nonprofit, charity organizations in Poland.