Aleisha hardly remembers a time when she wasn’t surrounded by tech. Playing around with devices at home, helping set up projectors at primary school, serving as technology prefect at Wellington East Girls’ College, and a school trip to Silicon Valley accelerated her natural passion for technology study. “A lot of girls aren’t pushed toward science and tech, but my parents let me try it out. I think that’s an important message: the decisions we make later in life are so heavily impacted by the things that we see when we grow up. I saw women of colour working in a tech space, got to see the world’s biggest companies in action—and that was really exciting.”
The same passion for development and coding led Aleisha to a conjoint degree in science and commerce at Victoria University of Wellington, which she quips has served both sides of her personality. “Computer science challenges me in the right way; it’s a really satisfying subject because I can learn and struggle and then see my learning play out in front of me. Commerce taught me to communicate with people, about management, ethics and core skills, which I think are equally valuable.”
Aleisha is frank about the challenges overcome during her study, and those that face women in the ICT industry more broadly. “I’ve had one of the luckier paths in tech—I haven’t faced many of the challenges I know other women have. But interacting with those in the industry who don’t experience the struggles of women or gender diverse people, and having them invalidate your experiences based on assumptions, takes courage and resilience.” One way to gain this resilience, Aleisha suggests, is by surrounding yourself with like-minded people: as she did through VUW Women in Tech (VUWWIT).
VUWWIT was founded in 2017 by alumnae Hannah Craighead and Divya Patel. Originally a sub-group within the Victoria Engineering Club, VUWWIT held movie nights and quiz nights for female identifying students to socialise and connect. When Hannah and Divya graduated, Aleisha took on leadership of the club for 2018 and 2019, formally registering it with the University—and leading it to explosive growth. “Growing from a Facebook group to a club with over 200 registered members in just two years was very exciting, and it’s a sign of how much the committee cares about it.”
The executive committee, made up of eleven students committed to the club’s organisation and promotion, see VUWWIT as a huge friendship group. “We have low barriers to entry; we figure anyone who’s interested in tech should have access to our events. We hope people can also gain career or academic development through us with talks, mentoring, study sessions: we want to give people a little bit of everything they need to keep studying.” The success of this approach is clear, with their capstone event WITCon (Women in Tech Conference) selling out for two years running, and the club winning the University’s ‘Faculty Society of the Year’ award in 2019.
Running an award-winning club, studying full-time, and working as a developer at Wellington firm Catalyst IT is an enormous workload, but it’s business as usual for Aleisha, who is exploring other ways to serve the community and lead with influence now that she has graduated with two degrees, a ‘President of the Year’ award for her 2018 work with VUWWIT, and a coveted Wellington Plus service and leadership award. “I’m so far really enjoying my work with the National Council of Women, and I’m keen to keep doing that, as well as working for Catalyst—they’re such a supportive and inclusive company.”
One can’t help but ask what it is that keeps Aleisha motivated. “I love working in tech, and I really love VUWWIT and what we stand for. When I started my degree, I was questioning whether I could keep doing it, or whether it was even for me. I don’t want other people to feel that way as they come through.”
Aleisha also attributes much of her success to her upbringing. “My parents were really good at making sure I knew I could try anything as I grew up. A lot of the ambitions I have are because I was always told I can. And if I can, I should.” She also believes leadership is formed through these kinds of values. “The first thing with leadership is that you need to work out what’s important to you, and then you have to care about what you’re involved in. Not only does it mean you’ll do a better job, it also makes decision-making easy if you’re clear about your purpose.”
Teamwork is another key element of Aleisha’s leadership style, and she commends VUWWIT’s dedicated executive for much of the group’s effectiveness. “I was there to hold people accountable: we were excited to achieve so many different things, and so much could have slipped through the cracks. My style of leadership stemmed from keeping such an active, engaged executive committee on track.”
In 2020, Aleisha hands the VUWWIT reins over to incoming President Angitha Ramesh. She hopes to see more students attending events, and ultimately, more women completing their degrees. “I want to make sure that I do everything I can to improve the industry for the future me, and girls who look like me.”
You can find out more about Victoria University of Wellington Women in Tech at womenintech.nz, facebook.com/vuwwit or @vuwwit on Twitter.