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On Becoming Fearless and Making an Impact Through Technical Innovation

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Innovation, leadership, social impact. These three areas were the foci of the annual Anita Borg Institute Women of Vision Awards May 12th in Santa Clara, California. Three women took the stage to receive awards in each of these areas, and each is highly deserving in achievement - not just as exemplary women in technology, but also as global social innovators and role models.

This year's keynote speaker was not from a big high tech company like HP or Microsoft. Instead, she has built a new media empire, leading, innovating, and creating a social impact in her own right, on a blogging platform that never would have been possible without an understanding of technology and the Internet. Arianna Huffington immediately put the audience at ease, telling jokes and speaking about fearlessness.

Granted, we have a biased audience here, but after seeing her speak several times now, in widely varied settings and crowds, I can say that Huffington has a way of reaching people by talking about what's important to them and why it matters to the rest of the world. She spoke about leadership as looking beyond what's in front of us, and about the need to be bold and reject the inner voices of self doubt, guilt and fear.

On making an impact, she explained, "the most significant thing," she said, is "moving from despair to hope through action..." and "doing it all with more grace and more balance and more joy than others have done before us." Much of Huffington's poignant remarks were live tweeted at #wov10, but as she pointed-out, the headliners of the event were the award-winners and the women throughout the room.

The Anita Borg Institute Board Chair William Wulf, and CEO Telle Whitney, both spoke, emphasizing projecting a positive image of what women can do as technical innovators, and how to "reach inside ourselves for the fearless leader inside." Introducing the first of the three winners, this was fitting in that Kristina Johnson, Undersecretary of the Department of Energy, battled engineering school, cancer, and the highly competitive academic ladder before being named to the Obama administration where she fights daily for ways to save the planet. Her award category: leadership.

Kathleen McKeown won in the innovation category for her work as a computing researcher. Now, she says, her daughter thinks it's cool her mom heads the Computer Science department at Columbia University. And finally, Lila Ibrahim, who gave birth to twins three weeks ago, stood proudly to accept her award in the Social Impact category for her work in bringing technology to classrooms around the globe.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or an environmental engineer) to figure out all of these women are innovators and leaders who have made enormous social impacts. Looking around the room, students from colleges and high schools had been invited as guests to witness this empowering ceremony, and the talk was not just about those on the stage, but more appropriately, what the women - and girls - in the audience can do to make their mark, and how we can all help them.