Somewhere along the way as female freshmen and sophomores take their necessary general education classes and prereqs, a direction for the future winds into their consciousness.

A major is chosen, a summer internship is completed, four-year plans are set and, eventually, degrees are awarded.

For women interested in computer science majors upon entering college, the chances are high during this period they’ll change their minds and pursue an alternative course of study and eventually, an entirely different career.

High quit rates for women in computer science majors were calls for concern for Sue Harnett and Kimberly Jenkins, two women who’ve spent decades building careers around technology and innovation.

That’s why they took on a project aimed to combat tech dropout rates among women. After placing 10 female students from Triangle colleges in Silicon Valley internships and creating a peer-to-peer network among them last summer, the pair decided to create a national nonprofit to scale up the operation. Their mission at launch this spring is to keep women focused on computer science and close the gender gap in technology oriented fields.

The organization, called Rewriting the Code, connects female college students with internship opportunities, career readiness resources, peer and mentor introductions, virtual and in-person communities and support they need to thrive in their computer science majors.

It initially targets students at high-achieving universities in four geographical tech hubs—the Research Triangle Park region, Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York City. So far, 150 students from 25 top-tier and Ivy League universities have been accepted for the first official cohort.

Half will work in companies such as Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, The New York Times, Salesforce, SAS and YouTube. The other 60 are involved in the program virtually, building their skills and confidence collaboratively through online courses and Facebook and Slack groups, and preparing to land future internships.

While providing a network of support and opportunity for these students, Rewriting the Code also aims to resolve a pressing problem as tech companies work to meet a demand for more gender diversity.

Universities are falling short in their efforts to prepare women in tech majors for jobs, Harnett says.

“Career services help, but an interview for a tech position is an entirely different animal,” she says. “By being nonprofit, we can provide a lot of those resources for women so they have a community where they can start to learn from each other in a really powerful way.”

Empowering confidence, addressing computer science major attrition rates

As two women who’ve spent their careers embedded in the male-dominated technology sector, Jenkins and Harnett felt close to the issue.

Harnett has a background in entrepreneurship as founder of sports e-commerce business Replay Photos, which she sold to Raleigh-based Lulu in 2013. She served as Lulu’s senior vice president for sales and business development before becoming an independent consultant providing business model strategy to emerging companies and startups.

Jenkins is also well-connected within the local startup and tech scene as co-creator of Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiative, former program director for the Duke in Silicon Valley Initiative and co-founder of SoarTriangle, a mentorship program for female startup founders.

Jenkins worked in Silicon Valley in its younger days. She held a leadership position at Microsoft when it was in the early stages until Steve Jobs recruited her to work on the software team at NeXT, his Apple spinoff.

Sue Harnett and Kimberly Jenkins are the co-founders of Rewriting the Code, a program that connects female college computer science students to internships at tech companies, and to each other for peer support.

The two founders cite internal and external barriers that keep women from remaining in tech-centered majors. There’s what they call “the three Is:” the feelings of isolation and implicit bias both from non-tech female peers and male classmates, along with an “imposter syndrome”, that impede women from feeling comfortable in technology majors and fields.

The problem is increasingly being addressed for younger generations at the K-12 level. These initiatives aim to close the gender gap at the root, opening more doors for girls to enter the STEM field once they get to college.

But women already in college have been left out of the budding progress, and at the most crucial time of their pre-career lives—as they try to figure out where they’ll head after graduation. It’s during those years that many end up choosing alternate paths.

Statistics show only 17.9 percent of computer science and 19.3 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, a low count that leads to a lopsided talent pool in a given workplace.

These are the barriers Harnett and Jenkins focused on in last year’s consulting project with Duke, which aimed to help the university better understand why the quit rate was so high among female computer science majors.

The project, called DTech, was the result of a donor gift proposing to launch a program to help retain women’s degree focus throughout their college years.

DTech helped its 10-student cohort land summer internships in Silicon Valley and provided group housing in Mountain View so they could support each other as they were completing their internships.

The program also matched each woman with a female tech professional who could share tips and advice both virtually and in-person (some lived nearby in California).

The fellows returned three months later to continue their coding passions. All stayed in their majors and most lined up future internships. The program was a proof-of-concept for Harnett and Jenkins.

Harnett says the pilot helped them identify a glaring confidence gap for women in college.

“Women talked a lot about being isolated,” she says. “There was an ‘imposter syndrome’ situation where a woman takes on a tech position but if someone really knew their qualifications, you wouldn’t be in that position.”

Harnett and Jenkins asked the group what would help address those challenges. Their feedback led to Rewriting the Code’s mission to help support women in growing their skills year-round, while connecting them to opportunities to apply their skills in a corporate setting, both experiences hard to come by given the competitiveness of tech internships.

The plan was to recruit female students from high-level universities to join the program, Harnett says, “not only looking for people who know how to code, but also critical thinkers with strong personal and communication skills.”

Many of the DTech fellows became guerilla marketers for program, spreading the word to recruit their peers around the country to join the initiative.

The 150 participants—whether they’re granted internships with corporations or not—get access to a virtual community where they can meet their peers, swap stories and tips, celebrate their accomplishments, and ultimately find their next internships and future jobs.

Experiences in the pilot cohort: Camaraderie & career affirmation

There’s no better testament for Rewriting the Code than from the women who piloted the program last summer. They tell stories of the strong community they built, in and outside of their daily internships.

Rising Duke sophomore Melanie Krassel worked an internship at ecommerce sports merchandise company Fanatics while she lived in the house.

The most striking impact of the program, she says, is it gave her the aspirations and confidence boost she needed to stay in tech long-term, adding what’s best about the program is that it helped her realize what specifically she wanted to do in the field.

Krassel’s new goal is to pursue management and/or leadership positions in tech, with job titles such as CTO. She will spend the 2017 summer working as an intern at Salesforce.

Duke senior Annie Haueter was accepted into Apple’s internship program, and left with a return offer before she finished last summer. She’ll return to the same team, working on new projects as a software automation engineer.

Haueter says she entered the program familiar with the sense of self-doubt and career uncertainty many of her peers also faced, especially having taken higher levels courses at Duke alongside mostly male classmates.

“Up until that point, I didn’t have much experience in the real world; had a lot of school work application and a few minor work on the side but wasn’t sure a career in tech was something I wanted to pursue,” Haueter says.

But the Rewriting the Code served a role in “reinvigorating a desire to go into tech.” The specific tasks and projects she worked on at Apple affirmed this is a career she can pursue and thrive in.

“There’s nothing quite like working on real-world projects to teach you,” she says.

Lucy Zhang (left) and Annie Haueter (right) were two fellows in Rewriting the Code’s pilot phase, a donor-funded consulting project with Duke University.

Another pilot fellow was Lucy Zhang, a sophomore at Duke University and a software engineering intern at Durham wearable sensors startup BioMetrix. She applied to the program on a whim after a professor sent an email about paid internships and mentoring help for students. She was shocked when Apple had accepted her resume through the Rewriting the Code program.

Zhang had an interest in coding before college, but never got into it until she went on vacation with her family during spring break her freshman year. She was in an area with minimal access to the Internet so she used programs already installed on her computer to code throughout the vacation. After that, the practice became a passion.

Rewriting the Code and the passion of the other fellows helped her choose coding as a career.

“When I talked to other people in the program, I could see they liked learning for the sake of learning,” she says, “rather than students on campus who just ask questions to get the answer to a homework problem.”

The experience redefined her perspective about the software engineering industry, while offering the added benefit of bonding with a community of women walking a similar career path.

“Everyone shared the desire to learn,” she adds. “That transcended any kind of gender tension that might have transpired.”

Serving corporate interests

National awareness has built around technology’s gender gap, largely since Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” manifesto evolved into a global movement, and the development of national programs like Girls Who Code. A growing number of corporations have joined in on the effort.

Jenkins says a big reason why companies need more women is because so much of their customer base is made up of them.

“They don’t have women on the technical side doing product and development, [despite] the data that says having women on a team enhances productivity and performance,” she adds.

Filling this gap is important to Raleigh communications technology company Bandwidth, which is in the beginning stages of forming a partnership with Rewriting the Code.

The company is already involved with female hackathon programs like Pearl Hacks at UNC Chapel Hill and NC State’s Diamond Hacks. And Rewriting the Code is the latest extension of that effort.

Bandwidth hired its first intern from Rewriting the Code and can already feel the program’s talent base shining visibility on the company. The team has seen an increasing amount of inquiries about career opportunities.

This is of value to Bandwidth as it works to fill its team with highly qualified and diverse technical talent. But Bandwidth Chief People Officer Rebecca Bottorff notes that can often be difficult in the Triangle where the pipeline for diversity in tech is small, especially for female engineering candidates.

“Diversity produces more strategic inventions and products as well as formulating higher achieving teams, [but] the university programs for producing the next generation of technical talent is weak in delivering diversity,” she says. “Too many talented minds enter the university with dreams of entering the field, but they drop out of these critical technical majors at an alarming rate.”

It’s important for universities to be graduating enough talented students to fill the amount of jobs companies offer new grads, a supply-and-demand trope that applies to the success of a business and to those who work within it.

Governments need that diverse talent too. Town of Cary Chief Information Officer Nicole Raimundo explores new ways to implement technology into town services, such as deploying an IoT tool for residents to call for trash pickup if they missed taking out their bins on the designated days.

She welcomes interns from Rewriting the Code so they see how technology can be used to improve local governments, with an added opportunity to mentor and encourage high school students completing tech innovation internships in her office.

Raimundo is working to spread the word about Rewriting the Code, while introducing Harnett and Jenkins to vendors she has relationships with so fellows can be offered internships at major tech employers like SAS, Lenovo and Citrix.

Scaling for the future

Rewriting the Code’s official launch date is this spring. On April 27, corporate executives and students will gather at RTP for a kick off event, where student fellows will share their stories.

And despite growing Rewriting the Code’s network from 10 to 150 fellows in less than a year, Harnett and Jenkins look toward a future of even more scale. They’ll aggregate additional internships with big and mid-sized tech companies around the U.S. and recruit more fellows in subsequent years.

The more conceptual objective is to comprehensively maintain the quality and mission of what Rewriting the Code is doing for students. “There’s a real human component to this,” Jenkins says, noting an example in face-to-face interactions between fellows and the RTC team and mentors.

The virtual community works well, she says, and will allow RTC to eventually add fellows in places like Phoenix, Austin and Chicago.

Rewriting the Code’s website cites statistics around attrition rates for female college students in computer science majors.

Rewriting the Code is funded by individual donations so far, and they go toward creating online training around both technical and soft skills.

An example is an online program that teaches women how to create a technical resume, a skill many of them haven’t needed for jobs or internships outside of the tech arena. Rewriting the Code also helps women prepare for an interview at a tech company by hiring a career counselor at LinkedIn and Facebook to hold office hours for fellows over the phone and Skype. Jenkins compares the interview process to preparing for the SAT, with a goal to help students become less anxious and more confident.

One area of growth for Rewriting the Code involves collecting data and publishing research that supports the organization’s mission. Jenkins hopes to raise additional funds to make that happen.

“One of the biggest needs in this field is there’s no data,” she says. “We have to get an understanding of why women are staying in computer science majors after these programs, what they’re doing to stay in the field.”

She’s putting together a plan for a five-year research initiative to quantify and prove what Rewriting the Code is doing, where women will be asked to record experiences in micro diaries and hold interviews over time.

Jenkins notes that the demand for tech talent has grown to a point where companies don’t have to be offering a computer-based product or service to need people on their team with those skills. Rewriting the Code plans to capitalize on that, partnering with companies spanning a larger range of industries than just technology. For instance, many women are expressing interest in the national intelligence and cybersecurity fields.

As funding comes in and the organization grows geographically, Rewriting the Code hopes to position itself as a key resource and accelerator for students’ personal and professional growth, as well as a toolbox for companies looking to hire talented, experienced and confident young women out of school.