Lifting Up Women in Tech
As she advanced in her technology career, Jennifer Ketz ’09 experienced an increasing scarcity of female peers. “As I grew and began to immerse myself among other technologists,” she says, “I found myself being one of few women in the room.”
A senior director of product engineering at Northwestern Mutual, Ketz learned that 56 percent of women working in technology leave at the pinnacles of their careers for a variety of reasons, often jumping to other industries.
Attending a conference panel on workforce re-entry for mothers, Ketz — herself a working mom — found women who wanted to come back but weren’t sure how. A subsequent trip to the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in technology, “was so energizing and eye-opening and refreshing and amazing,” Ketz says, “that it really sparked this further interest of getting women to not only go into technology but stay in technology.”
When Ketz (pictured above, top right) told her NM colleague and fellow technologist Patricia Cabral-Mercado that she wanted to create an organization to support women looking to re-launch their technology careers, Cabral-Mercado was on board. In 2019, the two founded Lift Up MKE.
To be effective, the partners knew they would need to address re-entry barriers head on. Certainly, bringing women’s tech skills up to speed would be critical. But Ketz knew women would also need help knocking down personal barriers.
“Jumping back into a job or career is scary, so finding your cohort, your network, to help lift you up matters immensely,” she says. “I also think there’s a stereotype among hiring managers and leaders that says if you took time off, there’s something wrong, or you’re not motivated. It’s this double whammy: Women are probably doubting themselves, and they’re also getting that self-doubt projected onto them. Through Lift Up MKE’s courses and programs and interactions, we try to address both of those sides.”
The heart of Lift Up MKE is the Womxn’s Tech Leader “Re” immersion Program, which welcomed its first cohort of six women in early 2020. Complementing the program’s pillars of leadership, technology skills and personal branding are resume assistance, career coaching and practice interviews.
“They read books, they did a lot of self-discovery,” Ketz says of the participants. They also went through “heavy, hands-on technical skills training” — from Python coding to agile methodology — taught by outside professionals, most of whom volunteered their time and expertise.
The cohort finished with a group capstone project to incorporate and apply their learning, practicing leadership skills, collaboration, technical skills and public speaking.
The program’s parallels to her experience as an Alverno MBA student are not lost on Ketz. “The holistic approach, the small cohorts, the learning by immersing yourself into the projects, the presentations and the group work we did was all really, really helpful,” she says.
The six women collaborated to design a mentoring app for women in technology. A couple of the app’s designers took the idea to Lift Up MKE’s February “Hack a Pipeline” event, the second hackathon the startup has hosted. The two-day event attracted about 50 participants, who divided into groups and competed to create technology solutions.
Ketz says she’d like to potentially offer guidance on attracting venture capital to help creators take their apps to market. “We’re not venture capitalists,” she says, “but women are definitely craving that next step.”
As Ketz and Cabral-Mercado think through their own business model, they dream of creating Lift Up chapters in Madison and Chicago. “We would love to see it expand, because we know there is an absolute need,” Ketz says. “We’ve seen it be successful, and we have so many women knocking at our door, saying, ‘When do you start the next one?’”
To learn more about Lift Up MKE and get involved, visit liftupmke.com.