Helping Girls of Color Smash the Digital Divide

The gap between innovators and consumers is the new digital divide. Black Girls CODE

As a daughter of the tumultuous 1960s, I thought revolutionaries were the men and women I saw on my television screen who marched and protested for equality. I remember immaculately dressed college students carrying signs exuding dignity, large Afros and extended fists, and their constant reassurance that "black is beautiful." It was a time of radical change, which altered the course of my history and shaped my belief in civic action as a catalyst for social progress. Little did I know growing up back then in the midst of those movements that I would one day be at the forefront of revolution during a new era of fundamental growth and sweeping change in our society.

What does this revolution look like? In April 2011, I founded Black Girls CODE, a non-profit organization with a mission to increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17-years-old to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology. Black Girls CODE was then and still remains the only program of its type targeting African American, Latina, and Native American girls in cities nationwide with training in mobile app development, game, and web design.

Imagine for a moment what it's like to be the only woman of color in the board room, at a professional networking event, or at tech conferences—time after time after time. This is exactly where I found myself in late 2010 as I left a very successful career as a biotech engineer with dreams of creating my own startup company and found myself at the center of the burgeoning tech innovation movement.

When I graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in electrical engineering in the late 1980s, the number of women and black students in my class was indeed in the low double digits, but I certainly did not expect to find the representation of these groups in the field to be even lower nearly two decades later.

This was all even more disheartening when I considered my reality as a mother. My tween daughter is passionate about technology—given the opportunity, she’d spend uninterrupted days glued to her Xbox. I enrolled her in several summer tech enrichment programs and noticed the same patterns start to emerge that I saw in my networking ventures: my daughter was consistently one of only a handful of girls enrolled and almost always the only student of color.

Here, really, was my moment of clarity. To change the ratio in the workplace of the future, girls of color needed access to role models and experiences that would encourage them to pursue STEM careers now. I surveyed the landscape of organizations in which I could enroll my daughter with this goal in mind, but I found to my dismay that they did not exist. While there were a few organizations that focused on youth in general—and even fewer that focused on girls—there were none with a specific focus on training and supporting what I felt were the unique needs of girls of color. If it was to exist it would be up to me to create it.

As we sit at the very tip of this period of fundamental change and transition in our society and at the forefront of the innovation revolution, we believe that teaching girls of color to code is critically important work. Not only do fewer women in general graduate with computer science degrees—less than 18 pecent—but according to the U.S. Department of Labor, black women make up less than 3 percent of those overall graduates. Latinas and Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of those graduates. These statistics shroud their true passion for technology: African Americans are more than 29 percent more likely than the average American adult to own a smartphone, are about 13 percent more likely to own a tablet device, and over index across all social media platforms. In an age of where most people have access to digital tools, this gap between the "innovators" and "consumers" is the new digital divide.

Black Girls CODE is poised to fill this gap. In two short years, we have reached more than 1,500 girls in cities across the United States and in South Africa, with classes in web design, robotics, mobile app development, and gaming. The response to our programs in every city has been phenomenal with class registration often exceeding 50-80 girls. We have waiting lists for our programs in well over 30 cities across the nation. This enthusiastic reaction validates the importance our work.

Our goal as an organization is to teach one million girls of color to code by 2040, becoming the "Girl Scouts of technology," and we are well on our way to achieving this mission. In June 2013, Black Girls CODE launched our second Summer of CODE—our annual outreach program which includes workshops in 10 cities across the US to teach 2,000 young women of color to code throughout the summer of 2013.

The Summer of CODE launch runs in parallel with an Indiegogo campaign to raise $100,000 in 45 days to support the programs, seed existing BGC chapters, and develop a web-series along the way to help us document our work and capture the stories of the many girls, parents, and role models involved in making our programs a success. It is indeed an audacious goal to be sure, but more and more tech companies are stepping up to support our campaign and our work. They realize that the diversity that drives innovation, creativity, and enhances the bottom line will remain a challenge until the pipeline of talent pursuing tech careers begins to more closely resemble America.

Click here to add supporting the Summer of CODE to your GOOD "to-do" list.

This project will be featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.

Image courtesy of David Lauridsen