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Jennifer Wadella, Women in Technology

Who You Should Know: Jennifer Wadella of SMRxT (and KC Women in Technology

This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating a few of Kansas City’s women of entrepreneurship, 

Here, we introduce you to Jennifer Wadella—another one of those women who makes Kansas City one of the top cities for women in technology (like Angela Hurt and Kelly Tomlinson). By day, Jennifer is a software developer at SMRxT—and by the rest of the day, she shepherds young lasses and lads to careers in technology as a founder of Kansas City Women in Technology and the kid-friendly and -popular Coding and Cupcakes and CoderDojoKC. 

Jennifer Wadella, Women in Technology

What’s the Jennifer Wadella origin story?

I have always loved computers and problem solving and received degrees in graphic design and business management from Drake University. Unfortunately, I graduated into a terrible economy and struggled to find a job, so I did a lot of freelancing to support myself, and had to learn how to code the websites I designed to meet my clients' needs. Eventually I landed a job at VML as a front-end developer where I was really able cut my teeth as a programmer and meet other people who shared passion for their craft.

And in your “spare time,” you seem to be a woman and a coder on a mission. Tell us about that and how it came about.

I've been fortunate to be successful in my career, and I largely accredit that to supportive people in the Kansas City tech community. I knew I wanted to give back, and I knew I couldn't be the ONLY woman programmer in Kansas City, so I built Kansas City Women in Technology to help women in tech careers network with each other, and to create a way for other women to enter the industry. This became KCWiT's mission, to increase the number of women in technology careers in Kansas City. We have developed a core suite of programs to support this mission and try to cater to women at every level.

TechTalks - monthly networking events that feature lighting talks, panels and introductions for women currently in tech careers or those who are job hunting.

Pre-Meetups - Kansas City is host to a myriad of fantastic tech meetups, but they can be intimidating to attend if you're the only woman, and don't know anyone. We hold pre-meetups 30 minutes before regular events, like JavaScriptKC, and enlist an 'ambassador' to be a point of contact for women who want to attend to seek out.

Tech sHeroes is a mentoring program for middle school girls to learn coding from female professionals that meets every week after school. When KCWiT launched, we attracted the attention of a number of educators wanting to bring coding to them, starting with Shawnee Missions' Robert Hofmann. We were fortunate to have Jennifer Funk on our board around this time, she has an education background in addition to work experience in tech startups and was monumental in creating and spearheading Tech sHeroes. She is currently the program director for it, and runs the program with Jordan Kalal of Cerner. 

CoderDojoKC - CoderDojo is a global nonprofit that teaches kids how to code, and KCWiT runs the Kansas City chapter. Mentors from all over Kansas City are at the Google Fiber space every 2nd Saturday of the month to help 100+ kids learn programming. We make a special effort to encourage girls to attend, and always have laptop available to ensure kids from low-income families can participate as well.

How is KCWiT coming along? What’s your focus these days?

We have a lot of great things going on right now. We have some new additions to our board, which I couldn't be more excited about.

Thuy Copeland has stepped in for community outreach, and she's been absolutely fantastic at fielding all the requests we get, and making sure we can help with random community efforts without getting burnt out, because we get asked A LOT.  Ventura Rangel has come onboard as our event chair, and she can truly has a talent for running the show - from wrangling speakers and sponsors to making sure our event space has everything we need. Jessie Bauters is our new marketing chair, and couldn't do a better job wrangling our social media presence and making sure our newsletters go out on time! And our first male addition to the board is Jacob Schwartz. He's been a CoderDojoKC mentor since our first session, and when he offered to help with finances to support our growth I was ecstatic. 

KCWiT's membership base is steadily growing, and I'm very happy with the programs we offer and the state they're in. We're getting ready to launch two new ongoing programs, Coding & Cupcakes, and Coding & Cocktails.

Over the summer we held our first Coding & Cupcakes event, which was targeted toward mothers and daughters. Earlier in the year when I was pitching CoderDojo to parents, I would get very different reactions from fathers vs. mothers in regards to their daughter attending. Moms tended to be adverse to the idea, citing that coding sounds hard, or that her daughter wouldn't enjoy that kind of thing. We hosted Coding & Cupcakes at Sprint Accelerator and branded it very 'pink and girly' to try and change mother's perceptions, which ended up being very successful. The event sold out, word spread quickly, and we got several requests for more events so we decided to launch the ongoing series that started on March 17. In Coding & Cupcakes, moms and daughters will learn to build a website for a cupcake shop from start to finish, learning html and css, and how set up hosting.

We're also launching a new series called Coding & Cocktails, which is an event for women to get an introduction to programming, with adult beverages, of course. I joke that a lot of this program content is the stuff I wish someone would have been around to hold my hand through, like the command line - it can be terrifying! But it's such a powerful tool and a crucial part of a developer's workflow. Coding & Cocktails will be an introductory program and encourage attendees to continue their learning at programs like Girl Develop It! and other coding classes offered around the city. 

Outside of KCWiT, what are some of your favorite resources for women in Kansas City?

Michelle and Denisse of Cerner have launched the Kansas City chapter of Girl Develop It! - which teaches women how to code. They offer a more robust curriculum and offering of classes than KCWiT is able to, so women looking to learn coding more in depth should definitely join their meetup group. 

Athena League is a great group for women entrepreneurs and routinely has fantastic speakers and panelists. 

WiSTEMM held the first STEMMy awards in September, which was a fantastic way to start highlighting the work women in STEM careers in Kansas City are doing. 

I do also have to call attention to the male allies we have in Kansas City. I have always felt supported and encouraged by the men in the KC tech community, and while women need to lean in, men are important too in helping women succeed. All the guys who run meetup groups in town have been more than happy to collaborate with us to promote pre-meetups and to help women feel included at their events. 

What is Kansas City doing in terms of inviting women to the table?

There's a lot of good conversations happening, and companies are more than happy to help groups like KCWiT through sponsorship, event hosting, and providing speakers. Companies are asking what they can do to recruit and retain women, and are receptive to advice and criticism.  

What would make us better?

There are big problems to solve to help level the playing field, but I think the easiest way to make an impact is community involvement. In order to get more women in the industry they need to see more women in the industry. Total chicken and the egg problem. Employers letting their employees take time to participate in community events like career panels, job shadowing, speaking at conferences and mentoring is such an easy fix, and a great way to develop their own talent pipeline. 

What companies really get it?

I cannot speak highly enough of VML, they were so supportive of my launching of KCWiT, and have not withdrawn that support since my venture to another workplace. The developers there were so considerate and inclusive, and that isn't always the case at technology companies, which I have experienced firsthand.

Cerner is a setting a great example of being involved in the community and supporting women in STEM efforts, and Google Fiber has been a close ally since day one. And really, all of the companies that our Tech sHeroes mentors come from that allow them to take Thursday afternoons off to mentor girls really get it, including Firemon, DSI, Intouch Solutions, DST, Commerce, Perceptive Software, and more I know I'm forgetting. On another note, Garmin really seems to have nailed the work-life balance issue, one that I see cited often as a reason for women leaving tech; having to choose between a career and a family. 

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