It Was Never a Dress Conference Mixed Capes, Coding at Scottsdale's Axosoft

A conference attendee decorates her superhero cape at the #ItWasNeverADress conference in Scottsdale.EXPAND
A conference attendee decorates her superhero cape at the #ItWasNeverADress conference in Scottsdale.
Robert Isenberg

A girl whose name tag reads Lauren draws a large letter "A" on a piece of red fabric. The lines are straight and angular. At the top of the big letter, she draws a rectangular face and affixes two googly eyes. Lauren confirms that the face is a robot.

Why a robot?

“I have no idea,” she says.

But Lauren doesn’t sound disheartened. She sounds excited and energetic. She also has no idea why she drew an "A" and not an "L." The images just came to her. Then comes the big question: What is her super power?

“I have no idea,” she says again. “I’m just going to keep going till I find out.”

The classroom is filled with spirited teenaged girls just like Lauren, and they are all decorating scarlet capes. Their desks are crowded with crafting materials – feathers, popsicle sticks, glitter, glue, rubber bands, fuzzy balls, and even twirly mustaches. At the end of the workshop, they will add the finishing touch: little rings outlined with colored lights. Each ring will light up in a different way. But to get them to work, each participant has to go to a computer and type out a code. As in, raw computer code.

This was the inaugural #ItWasNeverADress STEAM Conference, a kind of bootcamp for female empowerment that took place last weekend. The event was hosted by Axosoft, a 13-year-old tech company based in Scottsdale. Axosoft won international attention earlier this year when its marketing team created It Was Never a Dress, a modified image of the women’s restroom icon. The campaign redrew the classic symbol as a woman wearing a superhero cape. The concept is the brainchild of two Axosoft employees, performaning artist Tania Katan and “marketing unicorn” Sara Breeding, who presented the image at Phoenix’s Girls in Tech conference in late April. It promptly went viral.

Tania Katan shows the prototype she drew during a brainstorming session. Katan and Breeding first decided to “hack” the women’s restroom sign, then came up with the idea for the cape.EXPAND
Tania Katan shows the prototype she drew during a brainstorming session. Katan and Breeding first decided to “hack” the women’s restroom sign, then came up with the idea for the cape.
Robert Isenberg

“It went around the world in a matter of days,” recalls Breeding, who has worked for Axosoft for two years. “I think the stars aligned. The climate was right for it.”

“It’s something everybody sees every day,” adds Katan, who drafted the original sketch. “We thought, ‘How can we change this?‘”

Axosoft is best known for its project management software, which developers use to streamline workflow and track bugs in the system. But Axosoft actively cultivates tech culture in Arizona, hosting codathans, scheduling speakers, and partnering with other organizations. Their latest: a conference for ambitious young women.

Because Axosoft is a tech company, the weekend-long event focused on technology and entrepreneurship. “STEAM” stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and math,” and the 50 enrollees took workshops on coding, fundraising, brand-building, and developing pitches. Organizers specifically targeted participants between 12 and 17 years old, because girls in this age group often become more passive in school – a phenomenon the psychologist Carol Gilligan describes as “losing their voice.”

Like Netflix and Google, Axosoft has an unconventional business model. There is no rigid chain of command, and employees do not take official titles. Axosoft headquarters contains an old-fashioned popcorn machine, a climbing rope, and Pac-Man mosaics. Instead of an executive office, a shared gym occupies the corner room.

Lauren McBurnett helps a pair of participants with their capes. McBurnett was recently crowned Miss Gilbert 2015, but organizers note that she is also pursuing her PhD in environmental engineering.EXPAND
Lauren McBurnett helps a pair of participants with their capes. McBurnett was recently crowned Miss Gilbert 2015, but organizers note that she is also pursuing her PhD in environmental engineering.
Robert Isenberg

Axosoft’s CEO is Lawdan Shojaee, who helped create the company with her husband Hamid in 2002. At first glance, she seems like an unlikely head of a technology firm: Shojaee earned a PhD in physical therapy and is a licensed pilot. Shojaee now leads by example – a multitalented woman in a male-dominated industry.

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“You can see lightbulbs coming on,” Shojaee says about the conference. “There was a recent Harvard study that concluded that this is the age when women start to doubt themselves. We need these kids to tell other kids that [learning] is important.”

To this end, the project is ongoing: Participants were asked to generate ideas for their schools’ curricula. Shojaee used the example of studying Javascript as an alternative to traditional algebra, which provides similar math skills and also has a real-world application. After the conference, students are expected to return to their schools, present their ideas, and see how they can enrich their classrooms. They will have to report their progress to mentors, here referred to as “board members.”

“We’re going to hack the education system,” said Shojaee. “And we’re giving them entrepreneurial terminology to get them excited.”

Artist Hilary Harp demonstrates how the LED medallions light up, once the students have programmed them using computer code.EXPAND
Artist Hilary Harp demonstrates how the LED medallions light up, once the students have programmed them using computer code.
Robert Isenberg

The crowning moment was the “Wearable Tech Workshop,” where participants crafted their own capes. Led by ASU professor and multimedia artist Hilary Harp, the workshop asked the girls to create images that celebrated their personal super power. After they programmed their LED lights, organizers switched off the lights so that the medallions could all flicker triumphantly in the dark. While the Axosoft staff plans to replicate the conference in the future, they were tentative about their plans. The conference easily reached capacity, and about 30 more girls were still on the waiting list. Someone had proposed a much bigger version, including as many as 500 participants.

“I’m not sure about that,” Breeding says. “I think we might lose something with a group that big.”

Did she have anything like this when she was young?

“I wish!” Breeding says with a laugh.

To learn more about the #ItWasNeverADress campaign, visit the official website at itwasneveradress.com.

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