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Celebrating women trailblazers in technology

March 18, 2022 in Community | 12 min. read
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Three-paneled image showing people, an underwater scene, and a person using a VR headset
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Women’s History Month is an annual celebration of women’s often-overlooked contributions to history, culture, and society.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed four trailblazing women – Karen Williams, Gayatri Parameswaran, Kat Cizek, and Susanna Pollack – who are using technology to change the world. Below, they share their experiences navigating prejudice, advice for breaking into the real-time 3D and technology space, and where they’ve found inspiration along the way.

Image of Karen Williams and her work

Karen Williams, is a game developer and founder of Hiccup Interactive, an award-winning indie game studio based in Atlanta, GA.

When asked about her experience as a creator, she shares that her journey into programming began just before college. This may seem like an early career start,  but at the time, Karen felt like she was behind in comparison to her peers – and she kept meeting other women who felt the same way. She decided to do something to challenge those feelings of inadequacy and promote inclusivity. “Now, I try to be as vocal as possible about what I do. I show my growth, encourage other women in the industry, and reach out to Black youth, as well,” she says. This inclusive approach has stuck with her. “Whatever my passions direct me towards, I bring others to grow along with me.” She also creates intentionally and loudly, “so that maybe someone sees their passion in something they hadn't considered before and gets started on it right away.”

When it comes to real-time 3D, Karen advises women interested in the space to be patient with the learning process. “The beautiful thing about development is that there are a million ways to approach any problem, which can feel overwhelming when starting out. Give yourself time to grow and understand what your options are before scope creep sets in. Start small, ask questions, and look for others on the same path.”

Karen credits her supervisor at work as a huge inspiration for her in the games industry. “My supervisor is the only other Black female developer at my company, and she’s an amazing developer and leader in our department. I felt like she embodied the confidence and skills that I always hoped I would obtain. Seeing her directly owning her skills made me feel less intimidated in an industry I just broke into, like I could make mistakes and grow without feeling put down or left behind.” Both Karen and her supervisor have put inclusion into practice, and we’re so glad they’re championing other future leaders in tech and real-time 3D.

Image of Gayatri Parameswaran and her work

Gayatri Parameswaran is an impact-driven creator and immersive director. She, along with her partner, Felix Gaedtke, cofounded NowHere Media, an award-winning studio in Berlin that designs virtual and augmented reality experiences. Their portfolio includes Teenbook India, an AR experience that helps educate teenagers in India about sexual health.

Gayatri’s advice for others who are interested in creating at the “juicy intersection of art, technology, and social impact” is that “you’ll need to always ask yourself these questions: Why are you creating the work? Who should benefit from it? What value are you adding to the current landscape? Answers to these questions may not always be easy to find, but they can guide the creative process.”

When it comes to being a woman creator in the tech space, Gayatri says she has experienced prejudice. “I am slowly beginning to reach a level of confidence and comfort being a female artist in the tech world. It has been a conscious fight to get heard.” Gayatri works with her partner, Felix, and has noticed subtle but meaningful differences in how they are both treated as creators. “Often, I enter into creative and technical meetings with Felix. And often, we notice there's so much prejudice in the room. When it comes to talking about technical things, people subconsciously or unconsciously turn their gaze towards Felix, and for ‘softer,’ non-technical themes, address me. It's so deeply ingrained in our systems and behaviors.” She finds that calling out these discrepancies in a professional setting helps face these prejudices without shame and creates a safer work environment.

Gayatri believes in building a fair, equitable, and sustainable world – the world she would like to inhabit. She blends those values into her creative output by “working with marginalized and underrepresented communities, choosing diverse teams and perspectives to have a say in creative processes, and making sure the end result leaves a positive impact on the planet we all share together.”

When asked about a woman that Gayatri looks up to, she shares, “On a deeply personal level, I look up to my mother. I've learned a great deal from just being raised by her: how to offer support in difficult moments, how to find a balance between being protective and allowing independence, how to draw energy from your surroundings and how to channel the same energy back into your community, how to handle all aspects of your work with care, how to respect yourself and those around you, how to be honest and authentic in your approach, and so much more.” In her work, Gayatri is also inspired by “the careers of thought leaders like Arundhati Roy, Gayatri Spivak, Ursula Le Guin, Donna Haraway, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf.” Women who, like Gayatri, are using their work to make a difference.

Image of Kat Cizek and her work

Kat Cizek is a Canadian documentary filmmaker and director of the MIT Co-Creation Lab. Her career has spanned many types of media, but she’s especially interested in the collaboration required to create meaningful and impactful work.

Throughout her career, Kat shares that she has “experienced a lot of male toxicity in the industry, especially in the technical silos of the work. Those were the lonely and scary times. But I’ve also had the immense pleasure of having formed and worked in many collectives and incredibly tight teams. That is the work I love best: full-on team work. Co-creation.”

To other women interested in getting into tech or real-time 3D specifically, she recommends courage. “Don’t be afraid or intimidated by anything. You can fly and be grounded at the same time, in RT3D and IRL!” Kat shares that she has always been inspired by her grandmother, who lived with her growing up. “She was the first woman professor of medicine – and of almost any field – in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. She was so self-assured and dedicated, both to clinical work and to research in pediatric endocrinology, which was cutting edge science at the time. After she retired and came to Canada, she volunteered for Planned Parenthood in the ‘70s. Imagine!” It sounds like the drive to create and give back to the community runs in Kat’s family.

As for what’s next, Kat is focused on the Co-Creation Lab, which has been “tracing the many contours of what collective creation can look like. Documenting it and giving it legitimacy. Giving it a place.” In fact, Kat and her colleagues have a book, Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating Media for Equity and Justice, coming out with MIT Press later this year. We’ll put it on our reading lists!

Image of Susanna Pollack and her work

Susanna Pollack is a tech industry leader and President of Games for Change, “a not-for-profit rooted in the games and tech space at the intersection of social impact.”

Susanna brought her experience working in film and television to her work in interactive media, having fallen in love with its potential. “The more I learned about games, the more I saw the future for me. Games are truly the storytelling platform for the 21st century.” Susanna is especially interested in XR for Change – a G4C initiative launched in 2017 – because she sees it as “an opportunity to affect change at scale with the use of immersive technology.”

When it comes to advice for women interested in creating at the intersection of technology and impact, Susanna says it’s key to love what you’re doing. “Focus on your passions when picking projects. You may not necessarily be an expert, but you have to be passionate in order to lead others. It’s a long road to creating just about anything using tech, and being passionate helps maintain the tenacity to get things done!”

You can see this philosophy in action through Susanna’s work with Games for Change. She has also recently executive produced two exciting projects: Minecraft: Education Edition with the Nobel Peace Center, which teaches students about four Nobel Peace Prize laureates to encourage them to become active changemakers, and On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World), a VR documentary that explores the threat of nuclear violence through the first-hand experiences of the people of Hawai’i, who received a false missile alert in 2018. On the Morning You Wake was produced by award-winning creators Atlas V and Archer’s Mark, and has been shown at Sundance and SXSW.

Susanna says another essential part of making impactful work is valuing people and relationships. “I’m a firm believer that the best way to make change is through partnerships. To me, connecting with people – cultivating and nurturing relationships – can lead to outcomes beyond expectations. I try to take that approach with everyone I speak with.” For her, each conversation is a new opportunity to make a difference.

Thank you to Karen, Gayatri, Kat, and Susanna for sharing their collective wisdom with us, and for championing other women in technology.

March 18, 2022 in Community | 12 min. read
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