More Women Than Ever at the 2011 Imagine Cup

Monica-Claudia Dobrea and Iuliana Vilcea of Romania’s Team Endeavour_Design, who are advancing to the final round of the Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals.

It’s well known by now that women are underrepresented in IT. One of Microsoft’s great challenges is identifying ways to encourage women to go into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. The Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in New York City this week are offering a lot of opportunities to show roles and careers for women in STEM.

The good news is that this year’s worldwide finals feature more than twice the number of women who participated last year – clearly a move in the right direction. Allison Watson is hopeful that the momentum will continue. Watson, who is corporate vice president of the U.S. marketing and operations group at Microsoft, spoke on Sunday evening at a special dinner and discussion on women innovators. She led a panel of five guests, four women and one man, who offered advice on how young women can pursue technology careers and how the rest of us can help them succeed. Mary Fernandez, executive director of distributed computing research at AT&T Labs, encouraged women to find mentors and to keep pursuing their education, and pointed out that technology careers offer great opportunity to earn good money and make a difference in the community. Meryl Frank, U.S. Ambassador to the UN for Women’s Issues, encouraged women who are looking for mentors to see what skills they can teach in return. And Watson described her own strategy of identifying a goal and different paths to reach it, so that an unexpected development along the way leads to detours instead of discouragement.

The women who came to New York as competitors this week are encouraged. They’re collaborating with male teammates, or competing on one of the four all-women teams in this year’s competition. They’re contributing computer programming skills, medical expertise, artistic talent, presentation skills and more. And their skills are being recognized; on Sunday night, Monica-Claudia Dobrea and Iuliana Vilcea of Romania’s Team Endeavour_Design took the stage as one of the six Embedded Development teams advancing to the final round. Their project, an autonomous robot that uses sensors to steer around obstacles, will be a contender for the grand prize of $25,000 and the Embedded Belt. Good luck to them; the winners will be announced Wednesday.

Win or lose, the women competing this week will have tremendous opportunities pursuing a career in technology. Jane Prey, senior researcher at Microsoft Research, is looking at ways to improve the recruitment and hiring of women at Microsoft, and says the challenge is partly one of supply. “It’s not that we’re turning women away; it’s that there aren’t enough qualified women available,” she says. She notes that it’s important to get girls interested by middle school, to ensure they’ll get the academic background they need to move forward with their education. Imagine Cup looks like a great goal for those young students to set their sights on.


Catalina Sierra Zamudio of Colombia’s Embedded Development contender Team Freakin’ Mind. The team’s project, S8VER, is a lightweight smart device that can fly over a disaster area to survey damage and identify human figures or voices, helping rescue teams direct their operations more efficiently. Zamudio did programming, market analysis and presentation.


Speakers at the Women Innovators Dinner and Discussion at the Imagine Cup. From left to right: Allison Watson, corporate vice president of the U.S. marketing and operations group at Microsoft; Earl Newsome, vice president of Global Shared Services at Estee Lauder; Mary Fernandez, executive director of dependable distributed computing at AT&T Labs; Zainab Al-Suwaij, founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress; Meryl Frank, U.S. Ambassador to the UN for Women’s Issues; Jane Prey, senior researcher at Microsoft Research.