Adriana Gascoigne: Why Girls in Tech moved to Nashville
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This summer, founder Adriana Gascoigne moved the headquarters of the Girls in Tech nonprofit women’s tech community group she started from California to Nashville, Tennessee. Oakland was becoming a tough place to stay, so she and her husband had tried to find another place in California. They succeeded for a short time and then picked up their things and relocated to Nashville.
Their story was a microcosm for many people who are leaving the ivory towers of Silicon Valley for cheaper and more livable places. In the meantime, during 2022 alone, Girls in Tech has grown from 80,000 to 130,000 members, as chapters around the globe are taking off.
As the organization’s own many chapters proved, Gascoigne found there were plenty of places outside of Silicon Valley — like Nashville — where technology communities are prospering. The pandemic also taught us that you can pretty much work from anywhere. With 55 chapters in 42 countries, Gascoigne could have pretty much moved anywhere.
I talked to Gascoigne, a tech executive who started Girls in Tech in 2007, about these issues, as well as how the organization coped with the pandemic and moved most of its programming online. We talked about toxic masculinity, Web3, career development and the goals ahead.
Girls in Tech recently had an event in Nashville that was attended by a few hundred people in person. AWS, Oracle and Meta all host offices there, as do a number of game companies. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: I wanted to catch up on Girls in Tech. What are you emphasizing right now?
Adriana Gascoigne: The big news is that we moved the Girls in Tech headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee. It was more like a personal decision between my husband and I. We were trying to find a new place to live in California. Where we lived in Oakland was getting really unsafe. We moved to southern California where there was no [housing] inventory. If there was inventory it was crazy expensive, out of the price range. We were outbid every time. It was very frustrating.
We decided to rent in Newport Beach, and simultaneously made an investment in a rental property in Nashville. The amount of money we were spending on the rental property versus what we paid for a really small place in Newport was a night-and-day difference. It was so hard to justify living in and staying in Newport Beach. We decided to up and move on a whim, on a beach in Hawaii while we were walking and looking at the sunset. We said, “Let’s do it. What’s holding us back?”
We have family everywhere. It just worked itself out that way. I was so pleasantly surprised about all the amazing resources and support and encouragement we got from the local community and government in Nashville.
VentureBeat: You’re like a microcosm of the Silicon Valley pandemic story.
Gascoigne: Exactly. I obviously wasn’t the first from Silicon Valley to move to Nashville. We had a couple of friends who loved the market and loved living there. They shared a lot of information about it. It was an easy move, for sure. Definitely very easy.
VentureBeat: Does that sync up with where the other members of Girls in Tech are? Is it spreading out into different areas?
Gascoigne: We have a growing number of members globally, but the U.S. has always been our strong suit. I think we had 80,000 members at the beginning of the year. We have more than 130,000 members now. It’s a massive growth spurt. More and more members are meeting in person and volunteering for the organization on a chapter level. There’s a lot of movement. I think people are lifting up from the COVID blues and now focusing on this new chapter in their lives. They want to start a company or build a business. They want to move up in their career, learn a new skill, learn a new trade. We’re seeing a lot more activity and need for human connections. It’s great to be able to observe that.
The South in particular, as I said, is shockingly — I was very surprised that it’s so entrepreneurial. Not just in tech, but in so many different industries. The mayor came out and spoke at our Girls in Tech conference. There are lots of incubators and accelerators and organizations, like Nashville Entrepreneurship Center and NTEC. So many different organizations support women and people in general who are jumping into the tech workforce. I’ve met all these people and they’re fully supportive of what we do. They want to be part of it.
VentureBeat: How did your Nashville event go? Is that your first in-person event recently, or have you done others before this?
Gascoigne: COVID put a damper on 2020 and 2021. Our last big events were in 2019, as you can imagine. This is the first round of events we’ve produced in the last couple of years. Design Thinking Bootcamps, we produce those all over the country, and a few outside of the country. Then we have the conference, which is now — it used to be called the Catalyst Conference, and now it’s the Girls in Tech Conference. We produced that on September 7 at Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, a pretty central location.
It was absolutely phenomenal. It was more intimate than the San Francisco events we’ve produced. We had more than 400 people in attendance, but the energy in the room, all of the speakers — again, all very accomplished leaders representing all kinds of diverse backgrounds. Racial diversity, but also diversity of background and profession, diversity of thought. All that made for a really engaged crowd.
We had a great conversation on different hot-button topics. Cybersecurity was a big one. We had a lot of talk about Web3. Everything in between. We had a couple of workshops. We had a great cocktail reception, a great speaker-sponsored dinner before at the Soho House.
VentureBeat: Would you say your group is pro-Web3, or mixed about it?
Gascoigne: It’s interesting that you ask that. We’re sort of learning as we go. I’m learning as I go, and I guess the group is as well. I think you know Sandy Carter. She’s the chairman of the board, and she’s the chief channel officer of a company called Unstoppable Domains, which is in the Web3 space. Obviously she’s totally pro, and I’ve learned a lot from her. We see more and more women from that industry come to join Girls in Tech and ask for events around Web3 so much that we decided to put together a webinar, a panel and a keynote for next year. That’s in our program calendar. We’re excited for that.
VentureBeat: When you were in the toughest part of the pandemic, did you struggle in any way? Did you find yourselves losing membership because you were unable to do events? Did you go all-online or anything like that? I just wonder how you were still able to run the organization and grow in the pandemic. And then how did that burst this year come about?
Gascoigne: Knock on wood, but the transition was actually very smooth. You hit the nail on the head. We took it all onto digital programming. We didn’t want to put everything on pause just because of COVID. Life goes on. All of our programs were online. Our hackathons, our startup challenge — which is the business competition for women — our mentorship program. We had our boot camps, which is essentially our global classroom, where we taught Python, machine learning and data science. We did webinars and so on.
We were able to work on projects that we weren’t doing before. A lot of new content, marketing campaigns. We launched a shop, so now we sell Girls in Tech merchandise through our official shop website to create brand affinity, for people to buy things with our logo on them. We launched a Girls in Tech Academy for on-demand learning in a variety of different hard and soft skills. We’re launching our next course very soon in early November on career development.
We also doubled down on our jobs board. It’s a white-label solution that we use, but it’s a platform that’s worked very well for us. We did a lot of marketing campaigns around it. We launched a digital career fair to support the career needs of our member base. We’re also now focusing on building an internship career fair and program specifically for the younger generation of members. Those are university students who are interested in getting a head start on their career and learning more about opportunities within tech. Whether they’re technical or non-technical, we want to be there to support them.
We honestly were thriving. It also gave us time to learn about new platforms that we can use now, that we’ve fully adopted and learned a lot about and tested. We’ve launched an intranet to manage all of our chapter teams and directors, which is great. Honestly, there’s a silver lining in everything that happens, but this was a massive silver lining for us. We feel very grateful and very blessed for having the time we needed to hunker down and transition fast. We have a great team that’s very nimble and able to transition very fast. And all of our digital programs were sold out, which was great.
VentureBeat: I think I saw one post where you said you felt it was a good thing to leave the toxic masculinity of Silicon Valley behind. To try to grow different cultures in different places where you have your chapters. It sounds like that’s an interesting theme as well, that the bro cultures are going to have to change.
Gascoigne: It is about there still being a lot of work to do involving the culture of tech companies. But it’s also about creating more opportunities and aligning the culture of the organization with the culture of a city. I’ve found a lot of balance, a lot of openmindeness, a lot of opportunity and resources, a lot of positivity. There wasn’t any kind of self-righteous mentality. There wasn’t a lot of talk of politics. It was just, let’s be us and thrive. Let’s use the education that’s always been there for women to build them. Let’s create educational opportunities, career development opportunities, and let’s thrive as a community, not only for Nashville but for the world.
It’s really worked out well. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. You just know word of mouth. We had some friends here before we moved. But we realized, once we’d lived it day to day, what a perfect place this was for our headquarters. We’re very blessed by that decision.
VentureBeat: It sounds like there’s no Silicon Valley FOMO.
Gascoigne: Yeah. I know you still live there, but no, we don’t have FOMO. Of course I miss my friends. I was just back there last month. I have some very close friends, basically family. But I don’t have FOMO in terms of Silicon Valley proper. I’ve always said this, but tech is everywhere. It’s not just limited to what was considered the Mecca at one point. It’s everywhere. Girls in Tech should be everywhere. Resources and education services should be everywhere as well.
VentureBeat: How much progress has there been on that front? Are you seeing the chapters get stronger because companies are getting stronger in these far-flung areas? Silicon Valley always had a disproportionate share of companies and wealth and successes. Do you see that spreading out?
Gascoigne: I definitely think that COVID has created a different work culture for everyone. It’s made it okay, in some cases, for people to work remotely. People realized they could function as a team with people living all over the world, in different time zones and geographies. It was a huge experiment, and it actually worked. From that perspective, I see a lot of interest popping up left, right and center in places I never expected. We’ve had interest in chapters in rural areas all over the country, a lot of rural demand. We also see a lot of interest in places like Bali, in developing countries where there’s not a lot of tech, but there’s a different lifestyle that people are looking for, a more balanced lifestyle. People are working remotely and able to function and make money and have a balanced life in these areas.
In terms of overall strategy for Girls in Tech, we’ve focused on doubling down and making sure our current chapters, our present chapters, have the resources and support and funding that they need to thrive and succeed. We’ve been doing a lot of training programs with the Myers-Briggs Institute. We launched a pilot for inclusive leadership training for all of our managing directors around the world. We’ve produced that twice, and we’re doing it a third time early next year.
We also partnered up with Culture Amp to do an audit and create a survey to ensure that all our chapter directors and teams feel supported and that they have the right resources to succeed as chapter leaders. As you know, they’re all volunteers on the chapter level. We’ve implemented that for our chapters, but also for our staff, which includes full-time staff as well as our consultants. We care a lot about that, but also a lot about resources, making sure they have the right documents and playbooks for events and communication.
We have an amazing chapter relations manager who essentially manages communication with them all and makes sure they have the support they need. We developed a program to really understand the metrics, understand which chapters are doing well and which others aren’t doing as well. We’re able to come in and really track, through a rating system, the health of each chapter, and then put a system in place to support them if they need help.
I feel very proud of the team and what we’ve accomplished based on all this new training and systems and processes in place. It’s not about just “more.” More is not more. Less is more if we’re making sure we have more quality programs, not just for our members but internally, for our volunteers, managing directors, teams, staff and consultants.
VentureBeat: If there are still struggles and challenges to address, where do you put your energy on that front?
Gascoigne: Education is number one. Number two is career development. Career development is a big category, but it could be mentorship. It could be sponsorship. It could be programs. Career development is a big part of what we do — after education, skill-building and all of that — because the focus should always be on where there are gaps. The focus should be on, for example, when I built the organization — okay, this is not education or resources that we had in the university environment. I wanted to make sure the younger generation had the ability to find those resources, have that mentorship and have support.
Also, just in terms of education and skill-building, I felt like that was a continuous learning process. You don’t just learn something and then you stop learning. Tech is ever-changing. There are always new things to learn, new technologies and innovations. Whether it’s technical or nontechnical, there are always new things you’ll need to adopt or learn on the fly. I wanted to make sure we provided that ongoing education and resources for our members.
Then there’s also the community aspect. The third part is community, which is so huge. Localizing the curriculum and content that we have, but also being able to provide that support network on a localized level, where they can create programs that are impactful for the needs and interests of local members, versus what headquarters activates or puts into place. As chapter teams, they’re required to produce two trademark Girls in Tech events, which are the ones that HQ produces, and then two local events. They have the framework, but they’re able to be creative and produce what they think the chapter and their members need.
VentureBeat: What are some goals for the coming year? It sounds like you have growth down pretty well. Do you have other goals for the organization right now?
Gascoigne: The main thing is bringing more partners on board. That’s number one. We’d like to scale the organization in terms of the programming we can provide our members around the world. We want to get more of our members involved in more of our programs and build bridges with other organizations that share our mission and see the value in the women’s equality movement within the tech space. It’s about providing equal opportunity for all of our educational and career development resources and programming for people around the world.
We do a lot of work with companies that align with our values. They see this not only as a way to recruit diverse talent or be inclusive in their mission to create more diverse workforces, but really focus on the social component, the CSR component. It’s the right thing to do. Not only does it help the company’s bottom line, but it focuses on empowering women and getting them the resources and education they need to succeed and thrive in their careers.
Also, in terms of our goals, we’re doing a lot of the same in terms of building up the programs that are working really well. From that perspective, we’re definitely a well-oiled machine. But one thing we’re focused on is Girls in Tech Academy. We’re building our on-demand learning so anyone can access our courses. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world or what time of day they want to access our courses. We definitely want to focus on that next year and build out our courses. We’ll probably be launching four next year. We’re announcing one in November, as I mentioned.
We’re continuing to focus on expanding our jobs board, making sure more companies know about it, that they know how to post listings and subscribe to the platform. We’ll also build out our big global conference, which will be in Nashville again next year. It’s an exciting time for us, being able to move to a new location, but also double down on a lot of things that are working so well for us, and continue to provide the great programming and products and resources that we always have.
As you know, it’s been a labor of love, but I’m very happy with where we are now and where we’ll go next year. It’s a very good place to be, a very positive place to be.
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