If you look up "geek" in the dictionary, you find that before it's popular appropriation as a descriptor for some kind of computer nerd headed to an Internet fortune, it originally referred to carnival performers who'd bite the heads off chickens or snakes for the amusement of the crowd. A performer, in other words, willing to do something that no one watching would be willing to do themselves.
For Kristine Hanna, an Emmy-nominated producer/writer coming off a career-track gig as a visual effects producer for George Lucas, she saw what no one else was willing to do was train women to sling code, and use the machines and gadgets that were rapidly coming to define modern culture, commerce, and entertainment. "Working around George," she says, "you had to know how the technology works." And kind of like the drag racing and hot-rod building world from Lucas' youth, which he immortalized in American Graffiti, the world of special effects was a "very, very male-oriented industry." So she did the logical thing: she bit the head off a chicken.
Which is to say, she did something outlandish which no one else was willing to do: She co-founded GirlGeeks in 1998, with a mission to teach said girls "how using technology will make their lives better."
other founder was non-girl Peter S. Crosby, who'd input some time as editor-in-chief
of Tokyo's Time Out magazine, as well as other august journals, and done
some multimedia production of his own.
Even though Hanna says "right now, we're hardcore women and computing," that wasn't always the case. The initial plan called for the dissemination of training videos, along with a strong mentoring program, to provide information on how to wrangle and use a lot of film and television gear. "The website," she says, "was part of it, but not the main focus." But with the dot-com explosion, the webpage (www.girlgeeks.com) quickly became the centerpiece of the GirlGeeks operation, providing a forum, job-seeking info, and most importantly, distance learning to complement the work of the aforementioned mentors.
Being based in Lucas' beloved San Francisco Bay Area, GirlGeeks stayed more with the tech side of Geekdom, as befitting their close-to-the-Valley locale. But as pure content becomes more and more important on the Net, has the need to mentor geeky gals in the ways and wiles of online entertainment grown?
"We kind of go in and out of that," Hanna says, speaking of entertainment content in general, and Hollywood in particular. But Hanna has some Hollywood pedigree of her own, having overseen second and third unit production on Lucas endeavors like TV's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and the film Radioland Murders. Additionally, GirlGeeks current board of advisors boasts Elizabeth Daley, the Dean of USC's Cinema and Television School, and Titanic producer Jon Landau, along with other heavyweights like Esther Dyson. And, Hanna allows, "we're getting calls from non-IT companies." Not just content players along the Digital Coast, but stodgy blue chip outfits like Chevron, who figure there's no reason not to be Web savvy, while vending a product that contributes to global warming.
But while convergence may be changing GirlGeeks' mission, the tweaks to the original manifesto are not the ones you'd expect: Hanna isn't talking about rushing to open an L.A. office, or even one in New York. "It's not just Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley," she says, but everyplace in between--and beyond. She wants to get the goods and the info into distaff hands from Pocatello to Lake Ponchatrain, and she doesn't want to stop at the U.S. borders:
"Our next step is to go global," she avers, mentioning that women from countries like India, Japan, and China would be ready for their own dose of geek power. "We want to be a catalyst for other women around the world."
It's a noble undertaking, but what about parts of the world where putting power in the hands of women is deemed a threat to the state? Taking a feminist tack, one might argue that every country fears the true empowerment of women. But, one can imagine that GirlGeeks' worldview would be particularly unwelcome in some places: Afghanistan springs to mind, as do Iran and China. "We want to be in your face," Hanna says, thus adding to the sleeplessness of despots and demagogues everywhere seeking to limit Net access in their countries.
But GirlGeeks' expansion won't stop with geography; there's the question of gender, too: "It needs to be okay for men to say, 'you know what, I don't know how to do that,'" Hanna says. And she doesn't mean "ask for directions," but rather, asking for help on learning the same new soft and hardware that GirlGeeks are studying.
"We're going to empower the guy geeks, next!" she laughs. Good. And who knows? Maybe help them not get crazed with that power, like the guy-geeks at Microsoft.
"It's scary, it's challenging," Hanna says. But ultimately, "its about having technology work for everybody."
BAVC | HISTORY OF GIRLGEEKS