Learnings from 5 months of R-Ladies Chicago (Part 1)

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by Angela Li, founder and organizer of R-Ladies Chicago. This article also appears on Angela's personal blog.

It’s been a few months since I launched R-Ladies Chicago, so I thought I’d sit down and write up some things that I’ve learned in the course of organizing this wonderful community. Looking back, there are a few things I wish someone told me at the beginning of the process, which I’ll share here over the course of a few weeks. The hope is that you can use these learnings to organize tech communities in your own area.

Note: some of this information may be more specific to Chicago, a major city in the US that has access to many resources, or to R-Ladies as a women’s group in particular. I tried to write down more generalizable takeaways. If you’re interested in starting a tech meetup in your community, R-related or not, use this series as a resource!

Part 1: Starting the Meetup

Sometimes, it just takes someone who’s willing: 

  • The reason R-Ladies didn’t exist in Chicago before July wasn’t because there weren’t women using R in Chicago, or because there wasn’t interest in the community in starting a Meetup. It was just that no one had gotten around to it. I had a few people after our first Meetup say to me that they’d been interested in a R-Ladies Meetup for a long time, but had been waiting for someone to organize it. Guess what…that person could be you! 
  • I also think people might have been daunted by the prospect of starting a Chicago Meetup, because it’s such a big city and it’s intimidating to organize a group without already knowing a few people. If you’re in a smaller place, consider it a benefit that you're drawing from a smaller, tight-knit community of folks who use R.
  • If you can overcome the hurdle of starting something, you’ll be amazed at how many people will support you. Start the group and folks will come.

You don’t have to be the most skilled programmer to lead a successful Meetup:

  • This is a super harmful mindset, and something that plagues women in tech in particular. I struggled with this a lot at the outset: “I’m not qualified to lead this. There’s no way I can explain in great detail EVERY SINGLE THING about R to someone else. Heck, I haven’t used R for 10+ years. Someone else would probably be better at this than am.” 
  • The thing is, the skillset that it takes to organize a community is vastly different than the skillset that it takes to write code. You’re thinking about how to welcome beginners, encourage individuals to contribute, teach new skills, and form relationships between people. The very things that you believe make you “less qualified” as a programmer are the exact things that are valuable in this context — you understand the struggles of learning R, because you were recently going through that process yourself. Or you're more accessible for someone to ask questions to, because they aren’t intimidated by you. 
  • Being able to support and encourage your fellow R users is something you can do no matter what your skill level is. There are women in our group who have scads more experience in R than I do. That’s fantastic! My job as an organizer is to showcase and use the skills of the individuals in our community, and if I can get these amazing women to lead workshops, that’s less work for me AND great for them! Pave the way for people to do awesome stuff.

Get yourself cheerleaders:

  • I cannot emphasize enough how important it was to have voices cheering me on as I was setting this up. The women in my office who told me they’d help me set up the first Meetup. My friends who told me they’d come to the first meeting (even if they didn’t use R). The R-Ladies across the globe who were so supportive and excited that a Chicago group was starting. When I doubted myself, there was someone there to encourage me. 
  • Even better, start a Meetup with a friend and cheer each other on! If I could do this over again, I’d make sure I had co-organizers from the very start. More about this in weeks to come 🙂
  • Especially if you’re starting a R-Ladies group, realize that there’s a wider #rstats and @RLadiesGlobal community in place to support you. Each group is independent and has its own needs and goals, but there are so many people to turn to if you have questions. The beauty of tech communities is that you’re often already connected to people across the globe through online platforms. All you need to know is: you’re not going it alone!
  • The R community itself is incredibly supportive, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much support R-Ladies Chicago has received from David Smith and the team at Microsoft. Not only did they promote the group, but I reached out to David a month or so after starting the group, and he immediately offered to sponsor the group, get swag, and provide space for us. R-Ladies Chicago would be in a different place without Microsoft's generous contributions. I’m grateful for their support of the group as we got off the ground.

Next week: I’ll be talking about Meetup-to-Meetup considerations, or things you should be thinking about in the process of organizing an event for your group!

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