Carnegie Mellon University
December 10, 2015

Women at INI Decade of Diversity

By Jessica Corry

The student-run organization Women@INI addresses the challenges faced by women in the male-dominated field of engineering.

After leaving her home in India to embark on a master’s program at the Information Networking Institute (INI), Hiral Shah (E, 2009) discovered a vital community of support within Women@INI (WINI).

“I still remember how helpful the organization was eight years ago when I first came to the USA,” Shah said. “WINI made the INI feel like home and helped me navigate important career decisions.”

The student-run organization is celebrating its tenth anniversary, marking a decade of working toward a more inclusive and welcoming environment for women in technology. In doing so, WINI has enabled female students like Shah to thrive during their time at the INI and beyond.

Co-founders Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of the INI, and Chenxi Wang, former Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) faculty member, established WINI in 2005 to address the unique challenges faced by women in the male-dominated field of engineering.

“Our goal is to create a nurturing and inspiring learning environment that promotes and celebrates gender and cultural diversity. And it has worked remarkably well,” Tsamitis said. “Since 2005, the INI has seen growth in its female population and in the number of leadership roles women secure upon graduation.”

When Tsamitis joined the INI as director in 2004, not even one in 10 students were female. Seeking a more diverse student body, she explored the research conducted by Lenore Blum and Carol Frieze, both professors in the School of Computer Science. A key finding was that changes in culture needed to occur for the environment to be inviting and supportive for women.

Tsamitis established WINI to enable that culture shift.

Modeled after Women@SCS, WINI hosts networking opportunities, social events and community service throughout the year. Members take away lasting friendships and mentorships.

In addition to the confidence to overcome obstacles in their personal and professional lives, members are equipped with tools for success through workshops, speaker series and mentorship opportunities. For instance, the INI has forged a partnership with the Executive Women’s Forum (EWF) that has resulted in a scholarship program and exposure to senior women in the field.

“WINI events are a great way to connect with my fellow classmates who come from very different countries, cultures and backgrounds, yet have similar interests as mine,” said Divya Balasubramanian (E, 2016), a WINI student officer. “Not only did I learn about new opportunities, and get insights and advice on professional issues at the events, but also developed some really great friendships.”

Beyond the community of support, Shah said WINI played a role in guiding her career decisions. The positive experience inspired her to co-found a similar organization during her time as a software and product engineer at Apple. Under Shah’s leadership, Women@Apple-Tech became a strong community of support encouraging women to have the confidence to take charge of their careers and personal lives.

Shah recently left Apple to begin a full-time MBA program at Stanford University. Today, she looks back on her five years at Apple as a "wonderful journey" and looks forward to the business opportunities ahead.

“It is deeply fulfilling to serve as a role model and to help women understand that education and employment in technology is a viable pathway to self-esteem and financial independence,” Shah said. “Organizations such as WINI are absolutely necessary to encourage women to pursue their dreams.”

As WINI reaches its 10-year mark, Tsamitis said now is the moment to reflect on how far the organization has come. For women at the INI, the organization has positively effected the graduate school environment and equipped them with the confidence and tools for success after graduation.

Participation in WINI also inspires its members to bring about far-reaching change beyond the INI, as demonstrated by Shah’s initiative at Apple.

“An alumna founding a women’s organization at a major company like Apple is a shining example of how our members pay it forward,” Tsamitis said. “It is deeply rewarding to witness the INI’s women take the lessons learned in WINI and put them into action for wider audiences at greater heights.”