Founding of the Grace Hopper Conference

By Telle Whitney

Telle Whitney

Telle Whitney


In 1992, one of my dearest friends, Anita Borg, came to me with an idea: a conference featuring women Computer Scientists. The conference would celebrate their contributions to the field and to the world.

I first met Anita when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1986, and we became close friends. At the time we decided to create this conference, I worked at a start up called Actel that built Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), and although I loved the work and the satisfaction of seeing the chip designs I was involved with going to customers, I worked in a world of men. Many of them were great, but my friendship with Anita was one of the ways that I reminded myself that I was not alone.

We decided to create a conference together. It began on a summer evening in 1992 at a restaurant in Palo Alto where we pulled out a blank sheet of paper, and looked at each other. Neither of us had a clue how to start a conference. There was this long pause and then the ideas started to flow. First, we needed to find an organization that would back us. Anita met with the Computer Research Association (CRA), and they agreed to be the sponsoring organization. We agreed that the conference would break even, and we would only spend money that we had. We also decided that this inaugural conference would be in Washington, DC, the US capital. Over that first year, we spent our time discussing the overall conference structure. It seemed obvious to name the conference in honor of Grace Hopper, who had recently passed away. She was, after all, one of the first women Computer Scientists. We reached out to her brother, and received verbal agreement to name the conference in her honor. We put together a list of potential speakers, reviewed the list, talked to others, and came up a revised list of desired speakers. Remarkably everyone we asked agreed to speak! The speakers from this first year include many names our community would recognize – Maria Klawe, Barbara Liskov, Barbara Grosz, Irene Greif, and others.

Once we had the location and the speakers, the work really started. We decided to hold a workshop on the final day featuring professional development. We spent our time getting the word out, and developing the program. Everything we did was new, and it took a lot of time. The first conference was in June 1994. Anita and I had worked really hard. I knew each and every one of the people who were speaking, although I had met only a few in person. But I remember walking into the hotel lobby and watching hundreds of women arriving. It was humbling, exciting and it changed my life forever.

The most impressive part was the people and organizations who showed up and contributed. The National Science Foundation provided scholarships for students that first year. Even today, when I meet people who attended that first conference as a student and they still remember its impact. Many women, who heard about the conference through their networks, submitted ideas for workshops. Besides NSF, we had the support of many organizations, both industry and academia. The first conference broke even financially. We showed a controversial new film, and discussed its impact, and we danced.

Our vision was that the conference booklet, full of incredible technical women would live beyond the conference, and be a resource for Computer Science departments year round. That didn’t happen, but today if you look at the speakers from the Grace Hopper Conference series; it is a who’s who of movers and shakers in the Technology world. Through the web, you can see the abundance of incredible women who are contributing to our world.

Who knew then what it would become.

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