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Grrl Power

Suncoast Webgrrls are creating a network to help women conquer technology fields.

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 1999

TAMPA -- It's the Webgrrls' night out, a time for some serious networking.

"I'm job hunting," says one, as they introduce themselves.

"I'm here for wisdom," says another. "I need lots of mentors."

The Suncoast Webgrrls (www.webgrrls.com/suncoast) are trying to carve out a place for women in technology fields that are dominated by men. They're sharing ideas and information, supporting women who set up and run businesses, seeking work or workers.

In two years, the Suncoast chapter that includes the Tampa Bay area has grown to about 200 members. Most are entrepreneurs but there are also graphic artists, programers, Web site developers, technical writers and some just seeking to learn more about technology. Its members range from age 16 to over 60.

Webgrrls started in 1995 when six women gathered in New York. Leading the group was Aliza Sherman (also known as Cybergrrl), a Web designer and online consultant. Initially, she simply wanted to network with other women involved in the Internet.

"Webgrrls started when nobody knew where to go or what to do and were desperate for contacts," said Sherman, who estimates the organization has 10,000 to 15,000 members in more than 100 chapters in 13 countries.

Online communications helped the group grow, with e-mail and bulletin boards used to build the organization more quickly and at less cost than could be done by more traditional communications. Many of the group's contacts are electronic, with e-mail and newsgroups available for members.

Sherman calls getting women involved in the Internet a natural, a matter of translating their skills in media, communications and art into a new medium. It is also an entrepreneurial medium, where women can set up small or home-based businesses.

"There have always been opportunities for women in the high-tech field," Sherman said, but women "have not always made high-tech choices" early in their careers.

That is where Webgrrls comes in: highlighting women's contributions to technology (a woman led the team that developed the popular PalmPilot, for example), encouraging women to consider high-tech careers, and providing role models and mentors for younger girls.

"In grade school, the only role model I had was Madam Curie," Sherman said. "It's sort of nice to know that each one of us has a potential to be a role model for girls."

The Suncoast chapter started about two years ago, founder Linda Pedersen said, after she came across the national group but no local chapter. The first year was slow, but membership has grown as word spread about the group in the past 14 months.

Webgrrls downplay competition among its members, focusing instead on talking, sharing and cooperation.

"When you're starting your own business, you always need the contacts that will not only lead to clients but new work," said May Leong, Webgrrls' international director in New York. "It's the idea of not closing doors and of being open to opportunities. If, for example, there's a job I can't do, but I know someone who can, it makes it much better."

While the chapter includes a handful of men (one husband was in the group of more than 30 at the meeting), the group's focus is women helping women.

"It just makes us feel comfortable and relaxed" to meet and work with other women interested in technology, said Pedersen of CyberElf Inc., a Web design and hosting company.

When asked about communicating with men, Webgrrls answer carefully.

"I've never found any difficulty in communicating with men," Sherman said. "Gender differences in communications are sometimes heightened when talking about technological things. I think our brains are wired differently."

Pedersen says men are more competitive in business and don't always appreciate that women do understand technology.

"It's just the way (men) communicate. It's the way they are," Pedersen said. "Men aren't trying to hold us down."

At the meeting, lawyer Gail Flatow gave a presentation on copyright law and the Internet. Future topics include e-commerce, marketing and software demonstrations. The group also hopes to have events with students to promote high-tech careers.

For participants, the bay area Webgrrls appear to be providing inspiration along with networking.

Dorothy Byrne, a retiree from St. Petersburg, proudly talked about the Web page she was developing for the Pinellas Greens, an environmental group. The Internet, she said, "opened a whole new world for me."

Diane Schultz, who runs Schultz Design, heard about Webgrrls from a friend of a friend. "It's just a wealth of information."

Kim Dolcimascolo, a low-level programer, gave up the corporate world after 20 years to start her own Web design business, Planet Visions (www.planetvisions.com). She joined the local Webgrrls chapter last year.

Webgrrls helps eliminate the isolation women can feel in high tech businesses, she said. "For those of us with small businesses, there's always someone I can call." Dolcimascolo hired Rebecca Moss, a Web producer she met at a Webgrrl meeting.

Moss didn't have a traditional background for a technology-related career, having received a master's in English at the University of Florida. Moss moved to Tampa and followed a longtime interest in technology, particularly the Internet, for a career path with Planet Visions.

Dolcimascolo paused before answering one question: Would she hire a man?

"No," she said, "because I feel like I want to give opportunities to women. It's not an anti-male position. It's pro-women."

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