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The Beginning of Black Girls Code

Students learning to code

My dream of starting BlackGirlsCode… was born out of this frustration that “blacks in tech” are often the unmitigated invisible men (and women) in the room.
– Kimberly Bryant

Kimberly Bryant graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. While still in college, she noticed something. Among students from her graduating class with the same degree, only a handful were women or people of color.

Flash forward twenty years, and Bryant was enjoying a long and illustrious career in biotechnology. Her daughter, infused with the same engineering spirit as her mother combined with a nascent love for gaming, decided to attend a computer science summer camp while still in middle school. But she faced exactly the same problems her mother did. She was the only black girl at the camp, and she noticed that the boys from camp received more attention and one-on-one learning than any of the girls. The experience was ostracizing and, unfortunately, not all that unique.

The tech industry has a major problem with diversity and under-representation. As Bryant noticed at the beginning of her career, this problem starts at the university level. Over the last 20 years, there has been a 64% decline in the number of women that receive computer science degrees. Only around 8% of these graduates are African American, and around 10% are Hispanic, though these numbers are starting to rise in recent years.

And yet, even women and people of color that do graduate with STEM-focused degrees are ultimately marginalized in the startup and tech world. Cut the above numbers in half, and you’ll start to see what the numbers look like inside Silicon Valley’s largest tech companies. As one USA Today report puts it, “top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate the leading technology companies hire them.” Of those that have released diversity numbers over the past few years,  just 2% of technical roles are filled by African Americans, and just 3% by Hispanics.

This is a complex problem, but Bryant was able to isolate at least one major failure. Women and people of color often encounter hiring biases, then enter hostile or discouraging work environments, and are underrepresented across the board in technical and leadership positions. They are rarely elevated, either by the press or in the public view. This, in turn, leads to a lack of role models as a guide, which then reduces excitement in various cultural communities.

Bryant experienced this firsthand when she moved to Silicon Valley to get involved in the world of startups, right around the time her daughter attended summer camp. The more meetings she went to, and companies she visited, the more she felt the lack of diversity. She was shocked by the convergence of her daughter’s experiences and her own. The issue wasn’t with a single company, or even a locale. It effected the entire technology field. And it was spreading from one generation to the next.

So she decided to do something about it.

While still working for startups in the Bay Area, Bryant founded a non-profit organization called Black Girls Code. Her goal was to inspire young people of color, especially young girls, to commit their lives to engineering. With the right direction, Bryant believed that she could help create the next generation of STEM-focused, minority role models.

Bryant didn’t go too far to start out. Just an hour drive from Silicon Valley is Bayview / Hunters Point, one of the largest African-American communities in the Bay Area. She set up a small pilot program with a local organization there. The first event Black Girls Code ever organized was attended by just eight excited students. But that was more than enough to start thinking through the curriculum and the right overall approach.

Bryant settled on a six-week, after school program for female students aged 7 to 16. During each session, students in small groups work with volunteer teachers and teaching assistants to learn all about computer programming, web development and robotics. Students are taught advanced programming languages like Ruby and Scratch, starting with the fundamentals and moving right through to real-world applications. Of course, computer engineering can’t be mastered in six weeks. But the program is meant to stimulate the curiosity of its students so they can go on and continue their education.

Black Girls Code quickly caught on in Bayview / Hunters Point. After that, it spread past the Bay Area to Chicago, and Detroit, and all over the country. In 2012, Bryant decided to take things to the next level with a summer camp called “Summer of Code.” To help cover the costs, she started a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign and began reaching out to different communities. “Summer of Code” extended the curriculum and ideas from the Black Girls Code after school program, but kicked things up a notch. The summer camp launched simultaneously in cities around the country, like St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, and L.A. The program was well received, and the following year a revitalized campaign raised four times as much to keep it going.

With each passing year, Bryant has hit new milestones and Black Girls Code has taken a new step. Right now, the non-profit organization has programs set up in over a dozen cities, including internationally in Johannesburg, South Africa. But each community has its own special needs and preferred approaches. That’s why the organization relies on a network of volunteers to mold the program and guide the communities. These volunteers organize events that range from weekend coding workshops to full curriculums.

The goal, however, is universal. To get young girls excited about technology. Because that kind of enthusiasm is contagious.

Black Girls Code is funded in part by donations from individuals. If you’d like to help this program grow, please consider donating.


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