Inspirefest Day 1: Highlights from keynote speakers and panel discussions

19 Jun 2015

A captive audience, including Intel VP Margaret Burgraff (right), watches 10-year-old Lauren Boyle speak at Inspirefest 2015. Photo by Robbie Reynolds/Conor McCabe Photography

With day one done at Inspirefest 2015, we round up some of the highlights from history to present day, and from young and old.

Accenture research highlights Inspirefest’s purpose

In essence, Inspirefest kicked off not in the grand surrounds of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre but in the nearby offices of Accenture Ireland, where research in conjunction with Silicon Republic’s Women Invent campaign was launched at a breakfast event.

While Inspirefest attendees were filing in for registration, Accenture’s report highlighted the very reasoning behind the event, noting the lack of high-profile female role models in STEM as an issue impacting young women’s early career and education choices.

The history of women in technology

Back in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the keynotes had begun, starting with the Lessons from History session where Kathy Kleiman, historian and co-producer of The Computers highlighted the amazing – but often untold – history of women in technology.

Leadership advice from women at the top of their game

From past to present, historical keynotes were followed up with a panel discussion on Lessons in Leadership, offering advice from leading women in science and technology. One of the audience favourites was Bethany Mayer, president and CEO of Ixia.

Despite having a long-running career that has taken in radar-absorbing materials on aircraft, early mobile computers (AKA laptops), work at Apple and “building the Internet” with Cisco, Mayer still had to think long and hard before taking on the top job at the network-monitoring specialist.

“It was a very hard decision for me personally,” she said, amid a frank discussion on ‘imposter syndrome’.

A workplace and workforce for the 21st century

In a panel focused on the concept of a 21st-century workforce, Fionnuala Meehan, director of SMB sales EMEA for Google, spoke about the critical need for social encouragement and the importance of self-perception in encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM, referring to a 2014 Google white paper entitled Women Who Choose Computer Science – What Really Matters.

Diversity in STEM needs innovation

Closing the morning sessions was Fidelity Investments CTO Steve Neff, who warned of the worsening diversity problem in STEM in the US. With a keynote titled Innovation through Diversity, Neff’s closing statement followed the format of the day by flipping the script on this very idea, declaring that while innovation in STEM needs diversity, diversity in STEM needs innovation.

Motivation from the next generation

The afternoon sessions at Inspirefest included speakers aged from 10 to 80, inviting attendees back into the auditorium to witness new businesses being launched by EU Digital Girl of the Year 2014 Lauren Boyle and teen Google Science Fair 2014 winners Émer Hickey and Ciara Judge (who joined us remotely from MIT). Boyle and Hickey were then joined by Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of Stemettes and herself an early achiever, to share the wealth of experience and advice they have accrued despite their young ages.

Citizen science and the space programme

It may surprise you to know that Ariel Waldman, founder of Space Hack Day and, has no official astrophysics or engineering background. Motivated by a passionate interest in space exploration, Waldman found herself working for NASA and then moving on to bring space exploration to the people.

Irish space race launched by Prof Susan McKenna Lawlor

The biggest surprise of the first day of Inspirefest came during the panel discussion involving space-tech experts Ariel Waldman, Dr Lucy Rogers, Leo Enright and Prof Susan McKenna-Lawlor. As founder and MD of Space Technology Ireland, McKenna-Lawlor impressed the crowd with her keynote on the mission-critical technology her company supplied for the ESA’s pioneering Rosetta mission. Apparently, being part of an international team who successfully landed a probe on a comet is not enough for McKenna-Lawlor, who announced her intentions to launch an Irish spacecraft to an enthusiastic and supportive audience.

Well-behaved women rarely make history

‘Well-behaved women rarely make history’ were the closing words of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s headline keynote, borrowed from historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and there is no doubt that this pioneering astrophysicist has secured her place in the annals of science history. Generations to come will be hearing about Dame Bell Burnell, who took on – and excelled at – a career in astrophysics, fighting prejudice at every turn.

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin, connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.