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WOMEN HELPING WOMEN BREAK INTO THE WORLD OF HIGH-TECH CAREERS

Aliza Sherman, the original Cybergrrl, passionately claims she is "not a techie"; the founder of one of the largest Internet-based networking groups for women says she simply "fell into" a life forever changed by technology.

She "never touched a computer" until after college. "I originally got computer training so I could make a few extra dollars an hour as a secretary," Sherman said recently while in Buffalo.

Sherman discovered the World Wide Web in 1994 when she briefly fled New York City to recuperate in Santa Fe, N.M., after surviving an abduction at gunpoint. She answered an ad in a local art magazine for $10 an hour HTML lessons, created her first Web site and never looked back.

Webgrrls International began in 1995 when Sherman, then founder and president of Cybergrrl, began looking for a place to network with other women working on the Web.

Cybergrrl was one of the first general-interest Web sites for women. After locating five women in the New York City area with Web sites, she met with them at a cyber cafe. The six women envisioned a group that offered women face-to-face networking, Web-based job lists, classes and e-mail discussion lists.

Sherman devised the quirky double "r" spelling, shared with Cybergrrl, to convey a stronger image than the conventionally spelled "girl." It suggests a female with an attitude, a sense of humor and perhaps a kick-boxing lesson or two.

Although Sherman has since moved on to a writing career, today there are more than 30,000 Webgrrls in more than 100 chapters around the world and, most recently, in Western New York.

Once a self-styled "closet computer-nerd," Gwen McIvor, founder of WNY Webgrrls, launched BridgeLight Group to provide technology/new media training to non-tech business owners and managers. She saw the need and created BridgeLight to fill it.

In much the same way, McIvor founded the Western New York chapter of Webgrrls, an international networking and educational organization for women working or interested in high technology/new media, because she saw firsthand the need for exactly this type of support group.

In Western New York, as in the rest of the country, there exists an 8 0/2 0 gender split in the info-tech industry: 80 percent male, 20 percent female. While women do attend "mixed" new media networking events, they are usually outnumbered and many find themselves uncomfortable with the male style of networking.

"Sometimes," McIvor says, "when men are in the room the dynamics change; there is something different about women getting together. It is non-competitive - there's a sense of camaraderie.

"Men are not as direct in asking for help. There is a high premium (in info tech) put on "getting it.' The message created is that if you don't "get it,' you don't belong."

In such an atmosphere, women often find it uncomfortable to ask for help. Enter Webgrrls.

Intrigued by a brief wire article on Webgrrls in The Buffalo News last August, McIvor contacted the New York headquarters and began planning a local chapter. She recalls thinking, "This is exactly what women in Western New York need."

Today, McIvor says, "Tech in Western New York is burgeoning - women, though still a minority (in the industry), play an important role."

Through e-mail and word of mouth McIvor gathered 25 women interested in both high tech and networking last September; six months later WNY Webgrrls has 50 paid members and a distribution list of more than 200.

Fear not: You don't need to be a code-writing tech-wizard to benefit from the new group. "WNY Webgrrls provides a non-threatening, supportive place where women and young girls can learn, network and mentor," McIvor explains. "We draw a wide range of women - those just out of college to women who have been involved with technology for over 30 years."

McIvor has already seen actual business success come out of her involvement with the group. "I've just closed on a project that came about as a direct result of another Webgrrls contact information. I've connected with terrific, dynamic highly skilled women. I've also seen strategic alliances formed - a Web designer that may need someone to write Java script, or database integration.

"Yet, this isn't just about business: I've been overwhelmingly surprised at the amount of (personal) support."

Pam Shannon of InfoTech Niagara was one of the first women to get on board. "I thought it was a wonderful idea - desperately needed." she says. "As one of two female board of directors at InfoTech Niagara (out of a group of 20 people), I have always been treated as an equal. However, there just aren't enough women involved."

Shannon saw Webgrrls as a way to recruit and educate more women in the info-tech (IT) field. "The strength of IT is the strength of networking; it's the strength of all people in IT and should be the strength of women in IT. Let's face it, men are used to being part of an "old-boy' network. Being part of a network is critical; you can't substitute it. Women are not always in the loop. This is a way to bring them in."

Both Shannon and McIvor are quick to point out that men are not excluded from Webgrrls. "We welcome any men supportive of women in IT. We don't have any male members (of WNY Webgrrls) yet, but male colleagues have been involved behind the scenes," says McIvor, citing as examples InfoTech Niagara CEO Cian Robinson and Marc Rachiele of RHI Consulting.

Steered by InfoTech Niagara and WNY Webgrrls, a Women In IT series was held at the University at Buffalo's Center for Tomorrow in February. The well-attended first event featured Webgrrls International Founder Aliza P. Sherman and Judy Feldman, CTO, Remarketing Services of America. The evening's topic was billed as "Women In IT: From the Cradle to the Boardroom," but as Sherman and Feldman recounted their experiences in rising to the top of the high-tech industry, the theme became, as Sherman put it, "Respect yourself and learn to command the respect of others as you move forward."

Jennifer Fisher, co-chair of WNY Webgrrls' marketing committee, foresees more events with an educational focus: a Tech Trivia Panel (where five area business people would be paired with five Webgrrls) and forums targeted for non-tech-savvy women.

When asked what advice she might give to women or girls beginning to develop an interest in IT, McIvor gives a two-part answer: "First, to be successful you need hands-on opportunities - intern, find a mentor, get involved with a shadowing program. Just do it!"

Not surprisingly, the second part of her answer underscores the need to network. "Find a group like Webgrrls and get involved - professional organizations have support built in."

For more information, or to join WNY Webgrrls, visit their Web site at www.wnywebgrrls.com contact the group via e-mail at info@wnywebgrrls.com or phone Marlene Buffamonte at 856-3994 or Brooke DeLucia at 883-0771. For more information on future Women in IT events contact Julie Giles of InfoTech Niagara at 433-2260, or rsvp@infotechniagara.org.

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