If you were to look to Silicon Valley and some of the most successful tech entrepreneurs, you’d think that African-American women weren’t into technology. Young, white males dominate the scene there. Statistics say only 1 percent of tech startups are founded by African-Americans.
However, Kimberly Bryant is convinced that the next Mark Zuckerberg will be a woman of color. With a bit more exposure and education, one of the Black girls whom she mentors through her nonprofit, Black Girls Code, could be dubbed “Markia Zuckerberg” in the next few years.
Black Girls Code’s mission is to teach girls from 7 to 17 about programming and technology, so that they can become the next innovators of the future. Through workshops in cities across America, its participants are introduced to HTML, CSS, basic web structure — and more recently — robotics. BGC’s workshop in Atlanta in mid-February quickly filled its 80 spots. And an event in Memphis sold out so fast that BGC created a second workshop for next month.
It’s clear that Black girls are excited about technology and that the demand for these workshops is out there. To see Black girls among other Black girls who are just as enthusiastic about computer science is an environment that Bryant was happy to create.
“We are not generally included in that narrative — people of color — definitely women of color don’t normally fit that narrative that has been built around the whole image and the whole story of the Silicon Valley,” she told BET.com.
Bryant, who was a biotechnology engineer for several years before moving to the Bay Area, saw this firsthand. After attending several tech networking events — sometimes twice in one day — she realized that she was often the only woman of color in attendance.
Her daughter, Kai, 13, had a similar problem. She was really into gaming and computers, but was one of the only girls at a 2011 summer computer programming program at Stanford. So Bryant started Black Girls Code in 2011 to raise up a new generation of tech innovators who looked like her.
“We realize that our kids don’t tend to have software engineers living down the street who look like them or have parents that are even in the tech industry,” Bryant said. “Although we use a lot of technology and consume a lot of technology as people of color, we’re usually not the ones at the tables doing the creating of it.”
For Bryant, who grew up in the inner city in Memphis, Tennessee, she had the same struggles as her daughter. She excelled in math and science and was pushed by her high school guidance counselors to pursue engineering. She ended up working for a biotech firm for several years before moving to the Bay area to take part in the big tech startup boom.
Black Girls Code hopes to stop the cycle of Black women not being exposed to technology at young ages. At South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, she and several other techies of color will present a panel titled “Tech Them While They’re Young.”
“If they’re already in high school, it’s a lot harder of a hill to climb to convince them this is something that they would actually be interested in,” she said. “Because by that time, a lot of the images of computer programming [are of] the nerds, the geeks.”
Black Girls Code, like many start-up tech companies and nonprofits, is a very lean organization: Bryant works with a community manager and a development/communications consultant. The manpower to teach the girls comes from 300-400 volunteers in the local chapters of Black Girls Code in San Francisco/Oakland, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Las Vegas and New York. She hopes to expand to other cities by 2014.
“We want to do something that’s going to change the world,” Bryant said. “Once we match that desire for us to kind of change the world and make a difference in society with the tech field, then ‘Markia Zuckerberg’ will be the next big innovator.”
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(Photo: Courtesy Black Girls Code)