Cubicle Consciousness

High tech lends a helping hand to social causes

Ileana Abounader
Ileana Abounader (Photo By John Anderson)

Imagine for a moment that you're a 13-year-old girl in Britney Spears' world. You live in a country where there has never been a female head of state. Teenage boys try to stick their tongues down your throat on the slightest provocation. And Teen People is just no help at all.

But if you're lucky enough to live in these parts, at least there's GENAustin.

"GENAustin [GEN stands for Girls Empowerment Network] was started several years ago to help inspire girls to grow into confident, strong, healthy women," says board member Ileana Abounader.

For instance, GENAustin brings speakers to address junior-high-age girls about careers that involve technical aspects. "We took a poll of the girls -- there were about 80 girls in the audience -- and said, 'How many of you are considering some type of technology career?' And only a handful raised their hands. And at the end of the panel the moderator asked the same question and just about every girl in the room raised their hand. It was really amazing," Abounader recounts. "You really feel like you've impacted someone, opened up the possibility for someone who may have not even thought of it before."

Abounader runs the Web site,, which is a major part of the group's outreach. The site is used to publicize special events and meetings. It also functions as a safe place on the Web where girls can connect with their peers, find places to express themselves, and seek reliable information about things like why boys keep staring at their chests.

Abounader works as a software developer at i2 Technologies. Her commitment to GENAustin exemplifies an increasingly common symbiotic relationship between socially conscious high tech professionals and community causes -- a relationship that is the subject of an upcoming panel at South by Southwest Interactive.

The panel, called "Social Entrepreneurs," was organized by Katharine Jones, principal and founder of Milkshake Media. "One of the reasons I put the panel together is that there are just so many really talented people working in the high tech industry who just get so ingrained in their jobs and work and work and work and work, [that] they lose sight of the bigger picture of this community they're living in."

Jones herself is living proof that a successful career in the high tech industry doesn't have to mean a life of computer asceticism. Her credentials are impressive: Under her direction, Milkshake did the title sequence for Fight Club, and counts New Line Cinema, yM magazine, and 20th Century Fox among its clients. Not bad for a company with 10 employees. But on top of that, Jones makes sure that Milkshake takes on a steady stream of pro bono work, lending their creative talent to causes like GENAustin, Meals on Wheels, and the Austin Library Foundation.

Unlike Jones, who has combined her business vision with a desire to help the community, Abounader must balance a full-time job with the demanding task of keeping a Web site up to date. "A lot of times it gets frustrating, because we want the Web site to be so much better than it is, but everybody who works on it has full-time jobs and all kinds of other commitments. So it really is people sacrificing a lot of personal time to get it to where it is; it's hard to ask for more and more and more."

Abounader's frustration is nothing new for nonprofits. Another panelist, Amy George, has been working with nonprofits for more than 20 years. "When you look at the number of people that volunteer or actively donate, it's really a very small percentage of the overall population," says George, who is marketing director at Austin's Pavilion Technologies. "I heard a statistic that it's in the neighborhood of 2% of the population in a community that contributes to all the [nonprofit] organizations. It's not the top 2%, either; it's distributed throughout."

Jones, too, wants to get more people involved in community groups, specifically people from the high tech world. "I think there's a lot of people [in the high tech world] that find this emptiness. They're just working all the time. There are so many cool things that are going on right here in Austin, or whatever city you live in, that could just totally use your talent or brains or whatever you have to give. It's such a win-win." end story

Ileana Abounader, Amy George, and Katharine Jones will appear on the "Social Entrepreneurs" panel on Sunday, March 10, 10:30am-noon.

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GENAustin, Girls Empowerment Network, Ileana Abounader, social entrepreneurs, Amy George, Katharine Jones, Milkshake Media

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