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Building diversity in tech with Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant aims to solve the decades-old problem of minority women's under-representation in the technology industry by getting to the core of the solution: teaching girls how to program.

It’s no secret that women and minorities—and especially minority women—are severely under-represented in the technology industry. Most people bemoan that fact and move on. But not Kimberly Bryant. An African American electrical engineer who has held top-level technology management positions at multiple Fortune 100 companies, Bryant is used to analyzing problems and then solving them with hard work and creativity.

So, rather than just complain about how few black women work in technology, in 2011 Bryant founded Black Girls Code, which aims to address the problem by teaching programming to black girls and giving them the tools they need to succeed in the technology field—and in life.

Since Bryant founded the nonprofit, it has trained thousands of black girls across the United States and in South Africa, and it’s growing still. As a result of her work, she has won many honors, including being named a White House Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion, winning a Smithsonian magazine American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress, and being named by Business Insider as one of the 25 most influential African Americans in technology.

We spoke with Bryant about what sparked her interest in technology, the problems she has faced as an African American woman in the technology industry, the mission of Black Girls Code, and the state of diversity in the tech field today.

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Kimberly Bryant, founder, Black Girls Code

 

I arrived at Vanderbilt at a time where there were very few women or people of color in the School of Engineering. There were probably only five to eight people of color in the entire freshmen engineering class and no more than 20 in the entire engineering school. So, in most of my electrical engineering classes, I never saw another black student.

There were very few women as well. By my junior and senior year, I never had a female engineering professor or another female in an engineering class—not a single one. I would find myself the only person of color and the only woman in my classes.

It’s hard getting an engineering degree. Did being one of only a few women and people of color in the entire engineering school make it tougher for you?

It made it extremely difficult for me. I came to Vanderbilt as an honor student who had been in the top 10 percent of my graduating class in high school, in one of the top high schools in my hometown. I had always been on an accelerated path since elementary school, but college was a different beast. It was not an environment that I was accustomed to, coming from an inner city. It was also much more rigorous in terms of what I needed to do, especially in a major like engineering.

I had to deal with all those things plus feeling isolated, feeling a lot of bias in the classroom, sometimes by my own professors, sometimes by students. And there's absolutely no way you can get through an engineering degree without having study partners or by working in teams and groups. For me, that was very difficult to do, because I did not have that network. And classmates weren’t asking me to join their study groups. I would reach out to students of color, but it was still very difficult. So, literally, the last years of college, I did nothing but lock myself in a room and study.

How about when you graduated and went out into the working world? Did you face similar issues?

The workforce in engineering departments was mostly men and rarely had any people of color. One of the experiences that I often recall is in my very first engineering role as a project engineer. It was at a Fortune 50 company, and when I was introduced to my work team by my supervisor, a manager who was a white male, he introduced me as “twofer.” He called me that because with me, the company got credit for hiring a person of color and a woman.

And he turned out to be one my most beloved managers in my entire career, someone I consider a good person and a good manager and mentor, a good advocate for me in my early work life. But with that being said, having your manager introduce you that way and calling attention to your difference within the team could have had a very negative impact on me in the workplace. And that type of perception, that type of environment, was something that I dealt with all through my entire career. There was always that pushback, that bias that I felt being both a woman and person of color in a technical field and then later in a leadership role.

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In college, you survived those kinds of challenges by locking yourself in a room and studying. But you can’t do that in the work world, especially when you became a manager. So how did you do it?

What helped in those often-hostile work environments were support groups. So, either being a part of a women's network or being part of an affinity group for African American employees. Those organizations and affinity groups were lifelines in my career, because I was able to often find a support system and role models and mentors to help me navigate the issues that I was encountering on an ongoing basis. Those were so necessary for my success. Without those outlets and that community support, it would have been much more difficult for me to survive and thrive.

Can you think of one moment that changed your life?

I would say without a doubt it was becoming a mother and having a daughter who developed an interest in following in my footsteps with her interest in computer science and technology. And that was the spark of inspiration for creating Black Girls Code. The very first workshop we did back in 2011 was a life-changing opportunity for both her and me. It was life-changing for her because that's where she found her tribe, so to speak. She found that this is what she wanted to pursue, a computer science and technology career pathway, and she grew from there.

It was life-changing for me because I recognized at the time that she did not have the support community that she would need to actually stay with this as a career field. If it was to be, I was going to have to create it, which meant I literally dropped everything that I had envisioned myself doing career-wise to focus on creating this community for her. So that significantly changed my path in terms of what I've been doing for the last seven years and what I think I'll be doing in the future.

Tell me about Black Girls Code and how people can help if they’re interested.

We started Black Girls Code in 2011 in San Francisco as a pilot program. It was really driven by what I saw as a lack of opportunity for girls like my daughter to engage in after-school or summer programs with other girls that had the same interest as she did. There weren't a lot of opportunities like that back in 2011. We started very small, with only six students, to bring girls together and teach them how to build websites or teach them how to code and introduce them to technology. It blossomed from there. We formally incorporated in 2012 as a nonprofit organization and began to build a vision of a hyperconnective, volunteer-powered organization with chapters in cities all over the U.S. and the world.

To date, we have 15 chapters. There are 14 in the U.S. and one in Johannesburg, South Africa. We have about 2,000 volunteers engaged in workshops and classes that we do from January to December. We’ve reached approximately 10,000 students.

People can help us by reaching out and finding ways to get involved in their community and joining a chapter or supporting a chapter in their local community. The best way to do that is to go to the Black Girls Code website in order to donate their time or resources. Every bit of support helps us reach more girls all over the country. We also have lots of corporations become sponsors.

You’ve been involved in technology for quite some time. Has there been a change in opportunities for under-represented groups since then? For example, for women, African Americans, and other minorities?

Change has been very slow—and I’m saying that in the most optimistic way that I can. When I was in college in the 1980s, there were more women receiving doctorates in computer science than there are today. About 30 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science went to women then, and now it’s only around 12 to 14 percent. So it's decreased by more than half in the last couple of decades. The rate for black women is only about 3 percent; for Latinas, it is about 1 percent, and it’s even less for Native American women.

That's been very discouraging. I spent a lot of time at Vanderbilt over the last two years giving back as an alumna engaging with the students. And unfortunately, I find that some of the same issues that I found in my freshman year are still there for students now. There are still just a handful of black women in the School of Engineering, and they have a very difficult time graduating. They don't have a lot of support.

I think that until we can see the needle move to where we're more at parity with our male peers, or at least to the level that we were 20-plus years ago, I don't think we'll see a change in the workplace. I think it has to get back to those levels of engagement for women and people of color.

How do you think Black Girls Code can help?

We focus on black and brown girls, and we’re attacking the problem of diversity inclusion in the technology field from two different perspectives. One is from a gender perspective and focuses around how we get more women in the room. And the other is a racial demographic issue and focusing on issues more specific to students of color. And when those two dynamics, those two identities, intersect, it creates a whole pool of different challenges for women of color. And by focusing on it that way, we believe the work we're doing with our students and being a voice for these girls will help the numbers increase.

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This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.