It’s the Little Things

By Wendy Rannenberg

Wendy Rannenberg

Wendy Rannenberg

Throughout our lives many of us dream of big things, becoming a C-level executive, to be a founder of a wildly successful company, to serve as a white house advisor, of hiking Mt. Everest or the Appalachian trail, or perhaps of being an inventor of great things or a tenured professor. I became a successful engineer. Along the way, I have learned, many times over, that in reality, it is indeed the small things that have the biggest impact.

I have been an activist of sorts since childhood, starting as a member of our junior high school environmental club. In college, I found myself surround by plenty of guys and few young women. Several of us decided to start a chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. When I had my first job as an electronics engineer, there were about 180 people in our group. Our secretary and I were the the only women. I discovered HR could be an asset, and with their help became one of the first to complete a special training program for new engineers. But we did not have any sort of support group or mentoring program available. I moved on to a larger organization, in the early 80’s, and found that they had a group of professional women who met on a regular basis. I contributed what I could to that group but mostly learned from the leaders. Then it was on to DEC, and a very progressive software engineering team. The VP of software engineering had worked with a local university to help determine why so many women were leaving the industry and what sort of things could be done to stem the tide. That was in 1988. I read the internal report and could hardly wait to get involved. We had a “center for women” with full time staff! They were engaged in bringing new ideas to help women succeed, not only as engineers, but as professionals within an engineering company. I joined the local Women at Work leadership team and spent years helping to bring in outside speakers, all focused on helping women succeed. Many were humorists, doctors, authors, specialists on communications and negotiation style of women. I became a trained facilitator and sponsored small support groups for women in engineering. I succeeded as an engineer. One of my close engineering mentors, a corporate fellow, introduced me to Anita Borg.

Meeting Anita changed everything. What a great person and mentor. Although I was on the east coast and she on the west, we were able to meet several times. We worked together to test many of the ideas that Anita had relative to helping women engineers succeed. The UNIX Engineering Group become home to a series of pilot studies and projects that Anita and I put forward with help from the corporate center for women. It was exciting. We didn’t revolutionize the workplace. But people listened, and management made some changes. All little things. But they had a measurable impact.

As Anita become busier she needed help with systers. It was starting to grow. Systers would likely not be as successful today if it weren’t for many of us who contributed in small ways way back when. My contribution was being one of the first people to help support the system and take on the the role of adding new systers to the community. I recruited a friend of mine to help out and we were off and reading! We read every request to join. We sent many requests for clarification, particularly reminding many that they had failed to include the line “I am a woman.” in their request to join. We did this for many years, until the underlying system was becoming outdated and difficult to support. Anita and I met with Robin Jefferies, out in Palo Alto, and another phase of systers life was taking off.

Around the same time, a few of us at DEC participated in a special program at Dartmouth College. We became long distance mentors, via email, to women engineering students. At the end of the program there was a dinner hosted at Dartmouth where we got to meet up with these wonderful students. Another small contribution. Yet, this was the foundation for what later became MentorNet.

And then we were off to the first Grace Hopper Conference as workshop presenters. To this day, I continue to be involved with the conference in a variety of ways. I had made a promise to my friend Anita that I would keep doing all those little things. She remains my thread of inspiration.

I am actively involved in my community and you can be too. There are opportunities everywhere, from helping out at a local school, getting involved with activities like Destination Imagination or FIRST, learning about the local Boys and Girls Clubs and Girls Scouts, taking leadership courses, volunteering for conference committees and more. It might seem hard to find the time, and sometimes you will feel overwhelmed. No matter the size of the effort or the amount of time you have, it is truly rewarding to be a thread of inspiration to others.

Make your promise on Anita’s Quilt and be a thread of inspiration to others!

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