LEHI — In a year dominated by the negative impacts of the pandemic, a group of exceptional Utah women are being honored for their ingenuity in helping to propel growth by driving innovation in various sectors of the state’s economy.

The Women Tech Council — a Utah-based organization that works to amplify the impact of women in the technology sector — issued its annual Women Tech Awards Wednesday recognizing the innovations of women statewide who have had a profound effect on their industries in the fight to mitigate COVID-19.

When the coronavirus outbreak struck earlier this year, it had a major impact on the lives of practically everyone in the state, especially school-age children, as well as the teachers and staff charged with educating them. Some school districts struggled to figure out a workable plan for continuing their curriculum programming, but one of the smaller Wasatch Front districts was among the first to transition to a workable virtual model.

“I knew that technology could open up the gateway and open up the doors to better impact students’ learning and to impact equity and open up different avenues for some of the underrepresented populations in our students,” said Melissa Hamilton, director of Elementary Teaching and Learning for the Murray City School District. “That’s kind of how I came into that tech bowl, just my passion for being able to service underserved populations and knowing that technology is that avenue.”

She said when the pandemic hit, she employed Google Earth Pro to map out students by demographic profile. What the district discovered was the same students who weren’t accessing their learning sufficiently were the same students that were economically disadvantaged. Upon further review, they noticed the disadvantaged students were clustered in a few apartment complexes in the area.

“We discovered that because they lived in those apartment complexes, their connectivity to the internet was limited or nonexistent,” Hamilton said. “We actually went to those apartment complexes and housing developments to talk to the owners and found out (internet service) was part of their rental agreement but it just wasn’t very fast.”

Because the high school was closed due to the pandemic, the district was able to repurpose 300 wireless access points and installed the access points around the affected apartment buildings, thereby providing those underserved students the internet capability needed to effectively stream their online educational instruction.

Another innovator who was recognized was Ancestry CEO Margo Georgiadis, whose company organized the largest ever genetic study with living participants to mine data on COVID-19 susceptibility and other genetic influencers.

“We have 20 million people in our genomics network, which we’ve used to really focus on helping people understand their ancestry. But that data also includes a lot of rich information about the human genome, and that coupled with asking people to take a survey (which) included a lot of really in-depth questions (regarding exposure, infection rates, hospitalization rates),” she explained. “People also included information around other comorbidities they might have and medications they might be taking so that we would have a rich set of both genetic information, and what we call phenotypic information so that we would be able to correlate those two things together with a massive analytics engine.”

The survey was returned by 800,000 individuals, she noted.

“The fact that we were able to recruit 800,000 people enabled us to have a scale of data that’s just never been seen. To be able to — in real time — to understand who’s been impacted, what their reaction was, what their exposure level was, what kind of jobs they have — all these different factors that we all know are important in the understanding of this disease and how it’s being spread.”

For their efforts, Hamilton received the Digital Education Innovator award, while Georgiadis was recognized as this year’s Trailblazer award winner. Each of the 13 award recipients was selected for their impact on the technology sector and the Utah economy, along with their community contributions, a news release states.

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Seven other finalists were also recognized for their contributions, including Kristiane Koontz, of Zions Bancorp., for Technology Transformation Excellence; Linda Klug, of Airin, for Founder Leadership; Qun (Maxine) Liu, of Health Catalyst, received the Strategic Innovator award; Rebecca Whitehead, of HealthEquity, won for Technology Leadership; Seraphine Kapsandoy-Jones, of Intermountain Healthcare, was honored for Operational Excellence; Wendy Steinle, of Adobe, for Leadership Excellence; and Jennifer Morales, of Weber State University, was the Student Pathway recipient.

“In a year when each of us has lost so much, the vision and inspiration these women bring through their stories and accomplishments has never been more needed,” said Women Tech Council President Cydni Tetro. “Through their innovations and leadership in health care, education, fintech, (artificial intelligence), engineering and nearly every other tech field, they are creating economic opportunities, uniting the community and inspiring the technology workforce to lift each other above the obstacles we are all facing.”

Women Tech Council President Cydni Tetro speaks at the Women Tech Awards at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. The awards recognized the women and innovations spurring economic growth, driving innovation and fighting COVID-19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In addition to the recognitions, the awards program also marked the launch of the Women Tech Talent Pipeline Alliance — a joint effort by Women Tech Council, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Code in Color, Latinas in Tech Utah, United Way, the state Department of Workforce Services and Tech Moms. The collaborative effort will work to expand the talent pipeline for women in technology across all demographics, races, socio-economic statuses, and life circumstances, Tetro said. Combining the efforts of these organizations will expand opportunity, resources, outreach and support offered to women, ultimately providing greater impact and reach, she said. 

“We’re only at 23.5% of the (tech) workforce and in the state we have equal men and women, basically,” Tetro said. “We want that workforce to increase so that we have equal men and women in these high-paying tech jobs, and we do that by highlighting them and giving them recognition and celebrating them, showing the power of their talents in the economy.”

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