photoKathleen Rogers and Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen at TEDWomen 2013.

TEDWomen 2013,  a conference held in San Francisco early this month, was like a 13-course meal at your dream restaurant; just when you think you’ve tried the most amazing food you’ve ever tasted, the next dish positively astounds your taste buds.

Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen, founder of Women’s Voices and my partner on this TED adventure, wrote about the inspiring women who spoke at Session 1. Sessions 2 and 3 were equally enthralling. From the all-women Rwandan drumming troupe to Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg, the women featured at TED had broken barriers on their way to heroic achievements.

Juliana Rotich, who calls herself a “maker,” explained how she was inspired by watching her Nairobi grandmother save and gather discarded and “used up” items, repurposing them into new, useful tools. She creates modern tools in her current life as the executive director of a nonprofit technology company that empowers technological entrepreneurs in Africa. One of the tools Rotich and her group created, the BRCK, is a brick-shaped metal box (think cool industrial chic) housing a modem with its own built-in backup generator.  This modem-plus performs in harsh, unforgiving places; it was designed to function in East Africa, with its frequent blackouts, unreliable connectivity, and challenging physical environment.  The BRCK successfully connects people anywhere, empowering them to build and to work.  But the BRCK not only connects 10 people with a wireless hotspot and creates an ad-hoc network, it also has GPIO pins with connecting sensors (I didn’t know what those were, either), which apparently can wirelessly send instructions to many kinds of equipment, opening doors to new uses every day.

Dr Paula Johnson, who was the first woman chief resident at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, (BWH), is now chief of the Division of Women’s Health at BWH. She studies how one disease can manifest very differently in men versus women—sometimes with life-threatening outcomes.  She maintains that we may know and understand important gender differences in diseases, but we still routinely fail at actually implementing this knowledge.  We learned about a woman with a history of heart disease (she already had a stent) who was experiencing new symptoms typical of coronary artery blockage.  When her physician ordered the “gold standard” test, a cardiac catheterization, it showed no blockage. Because she had good doctors, another, less common test, an intra-coronary ultrasound, was conducted. It showed the kind of coronary blockage found more typically in females:  Plaque was spread out more evenly along the artery walls, making it harder to see in the standard tests, which are designed to spot the typical male pattern of blockage, lumps of plaque clumped unevenly along the artery walls.  With this and other examples of one-size-fits-all treatments for men and women, Dr. Johnson made us see that knowing and doing are not the same.

Sarah Kay, a contemporary poet, founded Project VOICE, a group that uses the spoken word to teach and to motivate.  Kay observes that women often define themselves based upon their relationships with others (mother, wife, sister, etc.). She shared her poem describing another way women may define themselves.

If you grow up the kind of woman men want to touch, you can let them touch you

But sometimes it is not you they are reaching for;

Sometimes it is a bottle, a door, a sandwich, a Pulitzer, another woman . . .

But their hands found you first.


Her spoken version of the entire poem moved me almost to tears:

 She ends by encouraging us to accept ourselves:

Forgive yourselves for the decisions you have made,

The ones you still call mistakes when you tuck them in at night.

The women of TEDWomen 2013 touched and inspired me; even at 50, I learned about achievements made that I would not have thought possible.


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