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Sarah Kelly-Olatunji: My TechUPWomen Journey

by Sarah Kelly-Olatunji, TechUPWomen Alumna

TechUP Women – how do I even begin to describe this experience without writing a novel?

Do I mention I started off this adventure hyperventilating gently in a car and finished it as part of a group that managed to trend on Twitter?

Let’s start at the beginning…

The TechUPWomen course aims to retrain women for tech careers, focusing particularly on BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) women, and women from underrepresented communities. There were two parts to the TechUPWomen course, kindly funded by the Institute of Coding – the residentials and the online learning. There were four residentials which took place at Durham, York, Edge Hill and Nottingham universities bringing together the 100 women who signed up to do the online learning with the support of 100 mentors, led by the excellent Donna Herdsman.

The course work was varied and exciting, and caused me to open about 150 tabs on my browser into such things like cryptography, Artificial Intelligence, binary number systems and… train toilet doors.

I promise, I tell you no lies.

At times, it was tough getting through the assignments on time – working out what we needed to do, cracking through our code. The support from the other women and the people involved in making TechUpWomen what it was wasn’t just helpful – it was critical. Without it, I may have talked myself into quitting, but it’s hard to let pessimism win when you have so many people who believe in you and your ability to do this.

Also, our epic group-curated playlist really helped!

The residentials were nerve-wracking at first, but they quickly became just plain exciting. At any other conference, I’d have felt like what comedian Shappi Khorshandi once called ‘the box ticker’: ‘Woman… BAME… dependents… under-represented community…’.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Insecurity starts to eat at you. What if I’m not good enough? What if they only let me in so they could tick off diversity and inclusion but actually, I’m not truly welcome? Not truly included?
At my first residential I found a few other nervous and anxious hovering women at the door, talking in ways I found both familiar and comforting. We were all in the same boat. I quickly realised that I was going to fit in just fine.

I started to look forward to my two days away where I could be just me. Not a new mum, anxious about her new duties, or the wife of a brilliantly intelligent and supportive man but just… me. A woman who has interest in all areas of tech, loves having the chance to play with Lego and is the second person to join the conga line!

Not having to worry about where my little one was going to have to sleep or what I would have to do in terms of feeding him was great, since the TechUP team really made sure that the events were accessible for a wide variety of needs. They’re a shining example of what inclusion really looks like and even now, in my day job, it has transformed the way I think about accessibility.

Listening to the talks at the residentials I laughed so hard at times, I thought my face would burst. I learnt so much, my notepads were filled.

I felt like inspiration poured out of every second we were there. The speakers were like something on a wish list or from a dream – I personally met one of my life heroines and took my first (and last) ever selfie with her!

I managed to meet and listen to so many incredible people for whom their talent, ambition and achievement was… well, normal. Not only were these extraordinary people pointing out that the skills they had were now accessible to us, they were giving us the tools we’d need to get there too. As well as hearing that, it was great for them to acknowledge the hard knocks and mental barriers you might face and how to overcome them.

The ethos of the programme meant the environment was always respectful, supportive and warm. Preconceptions and stereotypes were left at the door. I came as I am and was accepted as such. Who wouldn’t want that?!

At the last residential, when we’d managed to get #TechUpWomen trending as our gift to the pioneering women who’d started it all off (Prof. Sue Black and Prof. Alexandra Cristea), I looked at them and said ‘I thought that doing this was impossible. But you’ve really helped me realise that… actually, we can make the impossible possible’.

Cheesy? Yeah, but it couldn’t be truer. Ask any of us who’ve gone through it all and, to some extent, they’ll agree.

But it definitely wouldn’t have been possible without every single person involved in TechUP 2019/2020. My self-belief has soared – I’ve been so fortunate to learn alongside a cohort of talented, determined and encouraging women. I can’t help but to have been inspired by them all. They made it what it is.