In Conversation: Black Female Tech CEOs on Leveling the Playing Field for Youth of Color
At a time when the women’s movement is making headlines across the country, females remain vastly underrepresented in the industry that shapes our future: technology. This underrepresentation is especially prevalent for women of color. For example, African-American women hold only three percent of computing occupations, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
This isn’t a pipeline problem. Girls Who Code reports that 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science. Many organizations, including Black Girls CODE and DreamBox Learning, work to ensure that girls of color have ample opportunities to learn in-demand skills in technology so they will become lifelong learners who are equipped to reshape their skills as the workforce evolves. These two organizations share a bold vision of a future where girls of color are not simply “surviving” the information-driven globalized world, but are thriving and will become principal drivers of technological innovation through the next century.
Two African-American, female CEOs at the helm of technology companies—Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning, and Kimberly Bryant, CEO of Black Girls CODE—recently sat down with each other to discuss how technology and innovation will level the playing field to increase opportunity for youth of color.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson: It’s wonderful to talk with you about how important it is to grow opportunities for young girls in the area of technology. Tell me about your own educational background and what inspired you to learn how to code.
Kimberly Bryant: I’m actually an engineer (electrical) by trade and not a computer scientist. I graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.E. in Electrical Engineering and a minor in Math and Computer Science. My first introduction to computer programming was during my college years and was heavily focused on machine language due to my major concentration in electrical engineering. But it was my first class in Fortran and spending many long nights in the computer lab that introduced me to the sometimes brutal and yet rewarding path of a computer scientist.
JWW: Your story will no doubt inspire a lot of young women in computer science to believe in the value of hard work and perseverance. One of the things I’m passionate about is the belief that all children can excel at learning, no matter where they start, where they live, or who they are. In what ways do you believe educational experiences have changed, and how do you see them continuing to evolve?
KB: When I graduated from college, the worldwide web was still a relatively new phenomenon with which not many non-academic or government folks were familiar. In most cases, learning a new skill, tool, et cetera, was not as accessible as it is today now that the internet has narrowed the boundaries for accessing information and democratized learning—to a certain extent. Students today have broader opportunities for learning in non-traditional environments than those that were available to me as a student. This is the positive power of access to knowledge in this information age. However, more traditional learning environments still exist and remain necessary.
I believe some youth, especially youth of color, remain disadvantaged and marginalized in these traditional education structures. There are still documented inequities in the educational experiences and opportunities for underrepresented youth which severely impact their access to resources which would allow them to compete on a level playing field with their more advantaged peers. I’m hopeful that digital tools and innovation will serve as an equalizer in this regard and level the playing field for youth of color.
JWW: I wholeheartedly agree that innovation and digital tools, especially those that meet learners where they’re at, will help level the playing field for youth of color. Specifically, what can we do to ensure a future where more women of color are in STEM professions?
KB: We absolutely must look at how current processes and systems disenfranchise women of color all along the STEM pipeline from kindergarten and beyond. The issues we face are systemic and require a multi-pronged approach which addresses everything from what images girls of color are presented with as STEM role models, how we train, educate, and encourage girls of color in the classroom, to how women of color are recruited for STEM roles once they enter the workforce. There are numerous levers which need to be adjusted and disrupted in order to ensure that women of color are afforded both access and equity in STEM.
JWW: You make a great point of how important it is for us to help young girls envision for themselves a future in STEM beyond school—one that encompasses successful STEM careers and becoming role models for subsequent generations. On a related note, what inspired you to create Black Girls CODE?What is your own vision?
KB: Our vision with Black Girls CODE is to train 1 million girls of color to code by the year 2040 and to become the “girl scouts of technology.” It’s a lofty goal but certainly one I believe is reachable as we continue to see our programs grow and thrive.
I was inspired to create Black Girls CODE back in 2010 as my daughter Kai began to express an avid interest in game development and computer science. I was shocked to discover that the STEM industry, particularly the technology space, had even less representation of women than it did when I graduated from college three decades ago. The prospect of seeing my daughter traverse some of the same adverse experiences as I had was a catalyst for me to create an alternate outcome for her and girls like her. I really wanted her to maintain a love for coding and game design, and to have a thriving and vibrant community of allies all along her path.
JWW: There is almost always something personal that helps drive our professional ambitions. What role do you think early-math education plays in a child’s desire to pursue a career related to STEM?
KB: Early-math education is critical to a child’s pursuit of a career in STEM. Math is a fundamental building block in every other discipline represented in the word STEM. I’d even venture to say that math is the common thread that weaves all of these disciplines together, so a mastery of or at least a solid foundation in math is imperative for students to thrive within a science, technological, or engineering field.
JWW: What role will coding play in the future workforce?
KB: Every current and future industry will involve technology in some form or another. It’s important that we prepare youth both to have access to and understand computer science since it’s inevitable that they will be users and consumers of technology in whatever career path they select. Our goal is to ensure when they enter the workforce they will be empowered with skills as technology creators and not just consumers.
JWW: As leaders of technology organizations, we’ve talked about how incredibly important it is to be mindful of the inequities that exist when it comes to getting more women of color in STEM careers. How can we better support students of color, and what is technology’s role?
KB: The next step in moving the needle forward in the technology space will require a more intersectional approach to interventions and solutions to address the lack of diversity. Supporting organizations that are developing interventional models tailored to the unique needs of students of color, with a focus on cultural identity and relevancy embedded in their program models, is the key to ensuring we see sustained improvement in representation in these fields for students of color.
JWW: Support for those organizations is key, and I would add that all of us, on an individual level, have a responsibility to help unlock the learning potential of every child. We must do things like support teachers with professional development, advocate for increased funding and access to technology, and prepare students for college so they can make their mark in STEM or any other ambition. How do you hope the girls you are educating will impact history?
KB: I am very certain that the girls, or “tech divas” as we call them, who are a part of Black Girls CODE will become the future leaders in the industry. Although the core of the work we do is focused on teaching them tangible technical skills, at the heart of our work is a focus on ensuring our girls develop strong leadership skills, confidence, and self-efficacy. These are the skills that will allow them to step forward and drive real change in this industry and the world. I’m looking forward to that.