It’s been widely reported that while African-Americans are huge consumers of technology, there’s a significant dearth of minorities conceiving and designing software applications. The lack of access and education in public schools (in particular within inner-city schools) has further widened the racial gap within the field of computer science. Contrary to popular belief, having computers on site isn’t enough to groom future tech entrepreneurs.
In addition, the longstanding culture stereotypes of techies being introverted White male nerds has also played a part in keeping girls from actively pursuing computer science degrees. The U.S. State Department projects that in the next decade, more than one million computer science jobs will be created, and there won’t be enough graduates to fill these spots. Those who haven’t had an opportunity to learn basic computer science skills will be left behind—and young African-American girls are the most vulnerable.
Kimberly Bryant didn’t let any of those challenges stop her from studying engineering in college, and later working in the biotech industry. Reflecting on her own experience as a female Black techie, Bryant has made it her mission to introduce Black girls to computer programing through her non-profit organization, Black Girls Code (www.blackgirlscode.com).
With chapters in Memphis, Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York and Johannesburg, South Africa, Black Girls Code has set out to arm girls of color with the resources and skills to excel in this industry. “Early access and exposure are essential to changing the status quo,” Bryant says on the BGC site. “Black Girls Code is providing girls with new skills in computer programming, introducing them to role models in the technology space, and building their confidence to become tech creators and entrepreneurs.”
Bryant recently spoke with EBONY.com about BGC to stress how essential it is for Black girls to be fluent in the language of coding.
EBONY: How were you introduced to computer science?
Kimberly Bryant: My first introduction to computers and computer programming came during my freshman year of college. I majored in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science, so I learned during my required courses at Vanderbilt University. My first programming class in [the programming language] Fortran was during the mid-’80s.
I did not grow up around computers, so technology was not a tool used everyday in my household. I was drawn to computer science due to the creative nature of programming and the technology focus. Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), at the time electronics was the “hot” field in engineering at my campus. This correlates to the rise of companies such as Intel and the influx of the personal computer during the mid-’80s.
EBONY: Did you know any other Black girls studying computer science at the time?
KB: Actually the very first Black woman computer scientist I met was a close college friend of mine, Tanya Graham, who is now a very successful entertainment lawyer. When we both attended Vanderbilt, she majored in computer science and was a few years ahead of me. I remember vividly following in her footsteps in a work study assignment at our campus career center and hearing all about the job placement app she created for our career office.
She truly was the very first female computer scientist that I had ever met, and I was blown away by what she was able to accomplish as a student. I didn’t meet another female computer scientist until many years later in my career, which is a shame. Women are both talented and innovative thinkers, and tend to use computer science as a tool to solve larger problems.
EBONY: What inspired you to launch Black Girls Code?
KB: I wanted to find a way to engage and interest my daughter in becoming a digital creative instead of just a consumer, and I did not find other programs that were targeted to girls like her from underrepresented communities.
EBONY: Can you describe some of the classes?
KB: Black Girls Code offers programs in robotics, web design and development, mobile app development, game development, and traditional programming. All of our programs focus on integrating entrepreneurial elements in all of our sessions so that we cultivate these leadership skills in all of our students.
EBONY: How can parents get their girls excited about computer programming?
KB: Parents should try to expose their kids to STEM fields as early as possible, and find programs such as Black Girls Code, which will cultivate their interests and provide the guidance and mentoring support they need.
EBONY: Why aren’t more Black girls studying computer engineering, and why is it important for them to know how to code?
KB: Most girls in general drop out of STEM-focused classes by middle school. So by high school, the number of girls expressing an interest in CS is incredibly small. They don’t see CS or technology as a field which welcomes them. There are expected to be 1.4 million STEM-related jobs by the year 2020, and we can currently only fill 30% of computing jobs in the U.S. with our existing graduates. Computer science is the fastest growing discipline in the work sector, so it’s vitally important we give our girls the skills to compete for these jobs in the future.
EBONY: Shouldn’t public schools be taking these statistics seriously and implementing computer engineering classes and programs?
KB: Public schools are struggling to meet the basic needs of students today, so the introduction of computer science and the lack of skilled teachers adds even more complexity to what they are able to accomplish. But many schools are slowly integrating more STEM and design classes in their curriculum and partnering with organizations such as ours to make CS available to all students.
EBONY: What do you hope to accomplish with Black Girls Code?
KB: I hope to literally change the world with Black Girls Code, by changing the paradigm which produces the current monolithic ecosystem in technology. We hope to teach one million girls of color to code by the year 2040, and “change the face” of the technology industry. I see our students becoming the next generation of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg and Ursula Burns. Our girls are game changers, and we are determined to show the world all that they are capable of achieving.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.