More than 3,000 young girls have learned to design computer games, engineer Lego structures and build simple webpages and mobile apps thanks to a four-year-old nonprofit called Black Girls Code. To date, the organization has hosted its workshops, summer camps and hackathons only in the Bay Area, New York, Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Johannesburg, South Africa.
But Raleigh-Durham is the first of several new regions rolling out chapters this year. And the program managers from Oakland Calif. are in town this week to secure volunteers, enroll students, find partners, set venues and organize details for the first Build a Webpage in a Day workshop and a weeklong mobile app development summer camp for Black and Latina girls ages 7-17 in July.
The lure to the Triangle was strong, says program manager Hope Lehman. There were organizations and parents emailing founder Kimberly Bryant (pictured above) to open a chapter here. And then Verizon came along to sponsor the effort. It also matched perfectly with a movement swelling, especially in Durham, to build an inclusive and diverse startup community. American Underground, host of tonight’s sold-out kickoff event, has declared a goal to be the most diverse startup hub in the world by the end of 2016.
Washington D.C. is also unveiling its first chapter in coming weeks and will be followed by Dallas, Miami and a renewed effort in Atlanta.
I first learned of this organization in 2012 when I wrote for Upstart Business Journal. Bryant was a year into a plan to get thousands of girls around the nation enthused about STEM careers, with a specific goal to increase the number of African American boys (programs for them are planned to launch too) and girls who sit for the Advanced Placement exam in computer science each year. In 2012, the number was 784 nationally. The former electrical engineer at Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies was inspired to start the organization after recognizing the few opportunities for young girls of color living in the neighborhoods just steps from Silicon Valley. They had little exposure to technology and the potential careers involved with it. She wanted that to change.
Since that time, major moves have been made to increase the diversity in Silicon Valley and the broader tech community. Leading technology companies now report the number of women developers in their workforce. Intel, while admitting its own lack of gender and ethnic diversity earlier this year, pledged $300 million to fund efforts to build a more inclusive technology workforce. And San Francisco-based CODE2040 has ramped up its programs for placing Black and Latino workers in technology companies, even establishing Entrepreneurs-in-Residence in cities like Durham, Chicago and Austin. (Here’s our story on the Durham program.)
All of that is happening as Bryant tackles the other side of the talent pipeline. She’s built an organization with a network of volunteers that annually lead workshops, field trips and/or panel discussions, a summer camp (for ages 13-17) and hackathon in each chapter city. Up to 100 girls per event learn skills like basic HTML and CSS (for the Build a Webpage workshop), game design using the open source platform Scratch, robotics and engineering using LEGO sets and App Inventor or Balsamiq for learning user interface design and development for mobile apps. They listen to women executives and managers talk about their careers in STEM, and visit the campuses of Google or Facebook or other high-tech powerhouses.
National sponsors like Comcast, Google, Verizon and Capital One have allowed Bryant to hire a team of four to help the organization expand. Though they subsidize many of the costs of the program, girls are asked to pay $36 per workshop and $155 for camp. Ten or more scholarships are typically available for girls who can’t afford to pay.
Assisting the efforts in the Triangle is the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, American Underground and North Carolina Central University. Microsoft has agreed to host a July 20-24 day camp at its RTP offices and Cisco will host the first workshop on July 11. But Lehman emphasizes that volunteers will be critical to the program’s success and growth in the Triangle. She’s on a search for both technical mentors, teachers or panelists, along with non-technical volunteers to help organize the logistics of the events. An application form is available here. The organization also accepts donations to help sponsor a girl to go to a workshop or camp.
If the Triangle is to boast the most diverse tech hub in coming years, Black Girls Code is positioning itself as a critical part of it.