For years, Kimberly Bryant worked in the biotech industry. When the company where she was working had a buyout in the 2010, the San Francisco Bay area resident took it as an opportunity to do something she always had wanted to do: start her own tech company.
Around the same time, her 12-year-old daughter, Kai, had come back from summer camp hooked on computer coding. However, she was also a little disappointed that there were very few girls in enrolled computer classes she attended, and few children of color.
The confluence of those two events prompted Bryant to found Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization designed to teach and encourage girls of color to learn computer programming. With some supportive colleagues and acquaintances, the first chapter was established in the Bay area in 2011. Hoping to get at least six girls involved in the pilot program, Bryant recalls she was shocked and delighted when twice that many showed up for the first class.
Today, Black Girls Code boasts chapters in seven cities, including one in Johannesburg, South Africa. More than 3,000 girls, ages 7-17, have participated, with more chapters in the works.
Bryant recently spoke by phone to Not Impossible Now about Black Girls Code, and how she hopes the organization will encourage more women of color to enter the computer sciences field.
NIN: How did Black Girls Code come about?
Kimberly Bryant: It was a bit of a couple of things happening at the same time. I’d left my corporate job at the end of 2010. There was a buyout of our company, and I took that as an opportunity to step out. I was really hoping to create a start-up. I still wanted to work in health tech but just not in the corporate world. One of the things that became apparent that the tech industry was very different from a diversity perspective than what I had been used to in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. It was like night and day. Especially coming from Genentech, which as a biotech company is incredibly diverse, and coming into the start-up phase and finding such a lack of diversity was really surprising.
I was not seeing very many women in these meetings, and there was maybe one other person of color. So, that was happening, and around the same time, my daughter was getting back from summer camp in 2011, where she discovered a love for coding and creating with computers. It just became obvious that that same type of environment that I was experiencing, she was experiencing as well. The camp mostly had little boys; very few little girls, not a lot of kids of color in the computer classes. Even when I found other classes for her to attend (outside of summer camp), it was a similar situation.
It just became apparent to me that in the tech industry, the makeup was not going to be much different. That was sort of a light bulb moment for me, and a welcome one. That’s when I changed my strategy.
How old was Kai at the time?
Bryant: She was 12; she was going into middle school. She was the only kid in her circle of friends who had an interest in gaming and computers and techie/geeky stuff. Only one of her other friends was even interested in computer games. The boys who shared her interest in computer games weren’t always welcoming, especially middle school age boys.
What was the first Black Girls Code class like? How many kids were involved?
Bryant: It was in a small community in the Bay area called Bayview-Hunters Point. We started the pilot program there because my core team included two other people I knew from Genentech. It’s a community outside of Genentech. It’s an underrepresented community. There is a lot of poverty in this community. And it was a community that this organization had adopted, in terms of doing outreach work in the area. So, we knew there was a need there, and it was an opportunity to reach some of these underrepresented communities.
We knew that would be the place to start to reach our targeted demographic. We also knew it would be a welcoming place to try and develop this program. We started by talking to people at the YWCA to find space to do our program. We found another nonprofit organization that allowed us to use their computer lab space. They only had six workstations. Our goal was to get six students in the pilot program, but we ended up with 12. We were surprised that we had that many. But we started anyway in September with a six-week program that we had on Saturdays for about five hours.
We found an open-source tool called Scratch that had a curriculum that was online. We grabbed it and tweaked it a little bit, and it just took off from there. Other than my daughter, none of the other girls in that pilot program knew what computer programming was, but they started to get involved, engaged and excited about this class, and it really took off. We didn’t know if they would want to sit in this cubicle and learn coding, but they did. Each class drew them more into it. They’d stay after the class was over and continue to work on the computer.
Initially, we thought we would just limit it to middle school girls, but we ended up with girls as young as 6 in that pilot program, and they flourished in it. That’s one of the reasons we grew our student base to where we accept girls 7-17. After we finished that pilot in mid-October, we did a few more activities with the students, and they were asking for more.
We were lucky that we had a (global software development and products) company called ThoughtWorks that found us through a random Google search. They reached out to us and asked how they could help. That’s when we started to grow our program throughout the Bay area and beyond.
They’ve been one of coordinating parties in various cities. We’ve done things with them in Dallas, New York and Chicago (where they have their corporate offices), and in our one international chapter, which is in Johannesburg (South Africa). The latter is run almost completely by ThoughtWorks employees. It’s been running for about the last three years.
How many girls are involved now?
Bryant: We’ve reached about 3,000 students to date. We have seven chapters: the Bay area, New York, Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit, as well as the one in Johannesburg.
How are you getting the word out?
Bryant: Two ways. One of the things we did from the beginning is we’ve always engaged through social media and social networks. We have large communities both on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Some of them have kids involved in the program. Some simply believe in the mission that we do. Some come from the tech industry. Not all of them are people of color. We have supporters in Dublin, Ireland and Canada that support the mission even though we haven’t had classes there. We’re just lucky to have a strong band of supporters.
Our other outreach is the publicity that comes from the students themselves. More than half of our students have been in the program before. They take multiple workshops and classes. They bring their friends and they bring their families. A lot of the new students in our program are primarily referrals from previous participants and parents and so forth.
What was the first big project that the students created together as a team?
Bryant: We actually had several teams that went [to a youth hackathon] and some of them made it into the semifinals. We had one team that created an app called Feed Me and Foodbank that they were able to share at a start-up convention in December 2013. They were really excited to go to the convention for two days and they loved it.
That encouraged us, as an organization, to create a new model program, which is a girls-only hackathon, which we launched in 2014. We were able to partner with Verizon and break the cycle and do this series of three hackathons on teen domestic violence. We did one in Oakland, one in Brooklyn and one in New Orleans. We had nearly 300 girls altogether that were able to develop apps on teens domestic violence, and how to address that in their various communities.
We were really happy to participate in the Global Fund for Women International Girls Hackathon event this past January. We had three groups of girls that participated in it. Here in Oakland, we had one teen, in particular, who created an app called Ohana, which involved creating a mobile tracking device paired with a mobile application, that addressed abduction of teens and women in their community. It’s not only available on a mobile platform but also on a wearable tracking device that really helps address the issue of abduction.
Are there particular standouts who’ve emerged from this program?
Bryant: One of our big success stories is a student who came out of our New York chapter. Her name is Brianna. She started out as a non-tech volunteer at the end of the 2014 school year. She was just finishing high school and interested in following a career path into medicine. She happened to sit in on one of the technical sessions, and a light bulb went off in her head.
Seeing these younger students learning to build these Web pages, she reached out to me directly and said she was interested in learning more about it. She asked to be a teaching assistant in the next workshop. She just took off in the coding and did some amazing things.
She is now attending Spelman College in Atlanta, and she changed her studies from pre-med to CS (computer sciences). She has received numerous awards and numerous scholarships. She did an internship at Google and Square (in the Bay area) for one of their internship programs during the winter break. So we’ve seen a student with experience in Black Girls Code change her whole career path, and become a superstar.
Coding and technology have been around for years. Why do you think it has taken so long for the story of black girls in technology to be told?
Bryant: Lots of things. Women, in general, and black women have been involved in technology for ages. I meet a lot of women my age and older that have been in the industry for years but they’re hidden. They’re not the stories that you hear about; they’re not the people that you see who are written about. So, not having those role models or mentors has definitely had a detrimental effect on the next generation of coders that have been coming up behind them. Not having that strong representation in the industry has really hurt in terms of attracting women into the field. There becomes this untrue perception that girls don’t like technology or girls can’t do technology, which is not true at all. So being able to push against that paradigm and push girls to the forefront, particularly girls of color, is going to make a tremendous difference in the industry in the years to come.
What does Black Girls Code have planned for this year?
Bryant: This is a year of growth and expansion for us. We’re adding new cities; we’re expanding into Raleigh, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. I’m hoping to move into Boston and L.A. this year. We’re really trying to expand our presence across the U.S. this year. We’re also looking into more opportunities to take the organization further internationally.
Learn more about Black Girls Code at their website and by watching the video below:
Top photo courtesy of the Black Girls Code Flickr page