How Black Girls Code Is Changing the Face of Technology One Girl at a Time
Kimberly Bryant is a nerd. Her 19-year-old daughter, Kai, is a geek. For Bryant, there’s a subtle yet important distinction between the two words.
“I was never the geeky kid,” Bryant says. Growing up, she read books voraciously, took advanced science courses and was on the math team. But she was never interested in video games, comic books or animation, all activities she deems geeky.
“But my daughter’s a geeky kid,” she says, laughing.
Bryant noticed that around age 10, Kai began spending all of her free time playing video games. She could regularly be found with her head glued to her Game Boy or immersed in World of Warcraft. To encourage this passion, Bryant enrolled her daughter in a one-week, overnight game development and design summer camp at Stanford University.
Her daughter loved the camp. But Bryant was startled when she picked Kai up at the end of the week.
“It was a room full of mostly Caucasian boys and just a few girls here and there,” Bryant says. “My daughter was the only student of color.”
Bryant had an idea. A big one. And now, seven years later, thousands of young girls like Kai, interested in computer science and coding, have been able to find community, purpose and drive through Bryant’s national nonprofit organization Black Girls Code.
In 2010, Bryant had just left her job as an engineering manager at Genentech, a biotechnology company. Genentech was experiencing a merger, and she had the opportunity to take a buyout. “I was ready to leave corporate America, with hopes of creating some type of startup of my own,” Bryant says.
She had no clue what type of startup she wanted to launch, so she dipped her toes in the water by attending networking events in the Bay Area of California, where she lives. Bryant was immediately struck by what she saw at these industry events, especially because the culture she had been a part of at Genentech was very diverse.
Not only did she see very few women at these Silicon Valley mixers. She saw very few women of African-American and Hispanic descent. “It was starkly bare in terms of black women in these spaces,” Bryant says. “I was pretty shocked by that.”
This was around the same time Bryant enrolled her daughter in the Stanford summer camp. The convergence of the same problem in her personal life and professional life was both surprising and eye opening. “It was just shocking to me that the same thing I was experiencing on the professional side, my daughter was experiencing as a young person growing up in this potential career path,” Bryant says.
Kai was about to enter middle school. Bryant worried about her daughter’s ability to fit in as a young black girl interested in computer science. Her daughter had expressed interest in many potential careers up until this point, from being an artist to a veterinarian, but Bryant could tell her interest in coding was different. She feared her daughter would never find her tribe.
“I wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to be ostracized in these environments that were going to be so heavily male-dominated even at that age where she might quit or give up,” Bryant says. “That was the catalyst that pushed me to do something.”
Bryant—who has tight curls, large eyes and can usually be seen with a pop of color on her lips— thought she would solve this problem by taking some of the money from her Genentech buyout and sending four or five girls to the Stanford summer camp. She met with a friend and former colleague from Genentech to discuss her plan. “Rather than sending the girls to this camp, why don’t you just create it on your own?” her friend suggested.
And just a few months later in 2011, Black Girls Code was born.
Black Girls Code, often referred to simply as BGC by its members, empowers young girls ages 7 to 17 to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields by hosting workshops, summer camps, after-school programs and special events in computer science and technology. Through its 13 chapters in the U.S. and one chapter in Johannesburg, South Africa, BGC has touched the lives of over 7,000 girls.
The nonprofit organization is almost entirely run by volunteers. In fact, the core staff at BGC comprises only 10 people. The organization’s nearly 3,000 volunteers across the country make everything possible. Bryant, who serves as the executive director, says BGC’s volunteers truly power the organization. She is proud of how diverse they are. “It’s not just women. It’s not just black women,” she says. “We have a really fantastic diversity of volunteers, and that’s one of the things I think has been the most rewarding to see come into play. It really paints a picture of what we’re hoping to drive and change in the industry.”
Many of the volunteers are from the organization’s corporate partners, such as Oracle, Google and Adobe. They teach girls from underrepresented communities various programming languages, such as HTML, Scratch and Ruby on Rails. By learning these programming languages, the girls become armed with the tools to create their own apps, design their own websites and even power robotic dolls. Not all volunteers are computer scientists; volunteers can do anything from serving as a classroom assistant to social media management.
Despite the nonprofit’s large-scale presence now, its beginnings were much more modest.
COURTESY OF BLACK GIRLS CODE
Following Bryant’s conversation with her former Genentech colleague, she formed a small core team. To start, they would host a six-week series of “pilot workshops” on Saturdays that would teach girls the coding language Scratch.
The BGC team was able to secure a computer lab space that wasn’t being used in another nonprofit’s basement in the Bayview-Hunters Point area of San Francisco. “They had six computers and we were trying to bring in six girls,” Bryant says. “It was just serendipitous.”
They began recruiting girls. “We knocked door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhood, within a mile of where the nonprofit’s facility was,” Bryant says “We went to all of the middle schools in the area with little fliers saying we were going to do this program teaching girls how to code, could they pass it out to their students?”
Eight girls—including Kai—joined the first cohort, which officially launched in the fall of 2011 from that tiny basement in San Francisco. “We’ve grown to where we are now from that really improbable beginning,” Bryant says.
“Who are we? BGC. What do we do? We change the face of technology.”
Bryant, 51, grew up in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee. She was never particularly interested in technology as a child.
“I grew up in a different generation,” she says. “During my generation, things like comic books, animation, video games, pinball games—those were the things that my parents and other folks in our community introduced boys to, but did not introduce me to… and it certainly wasn’t encouraged at all.”
Her mother and her community raised her to be girly. They thought her world should revolve around all things pink and frilly. She only developed an interest in technology through exposure from her older brother.
Bryant says she feels lucky that her school introduced her to the STEM field. “One of the things that was really a saving force for my siblings and I was the fact that we were put into accelerated educational programs from second or third grade on,” she says. These programs introduced her to the math club, honors science courses and AP calculus.
Despite the math and science exposure, Bryant says she truly stumbled into engineering. In fact, she always thought her calling was law until her guidance counselors encouraged her to apply for college programs that were recruiting students of color to go into engineering.
“It was indeed an impossible task for a young girl of color growing up at the end of the 1960s who never saw an engineer anywhere in my general vicinity or neighborhood to select a career in engineering,” Bryant said at a TEDxKC conference in 2013.
She attended Vanderbilt University, where she says she initially planned on doing something more humanistic in the field, like civil engineering, before switching to electrical engineering. This is where she was first introduced to computer programming.
Bryant graduated in 1989, at a time when 36 percent of people receiving degrees in computer engineering were women. That number has since shrunk. Today only 18 percent of graduates in computer engineering are women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers grow even more staggering when looking at minority populations: Only 3 percent are African-American women, and less than 1 percent are Native American and Latina women.
Cultivating More Than Coders
At every Black Girls Code kickoff event, the girls chant the BGC pledge, says Tecia Marshall, the volunteer lead for the Memphis chapter. Marshall, who has been a volunteer for five years, says the girls are always brimming with excitement, with wide smiles plastered on their faces.
“Who are we? BGC. What do we do? We change the face of technology. Why are we here? To innovate, to collaborate, to challenge ourselves. How do we do it? Through community and self-love. What is our purpose? To build our own futures.”
This pledge illustrates a crucial part of BGC’s mission. They’re not just teaching girls how to code. They’re teaching girls to be leaders, innovators and forces to be reckoned within the STEM field.
“We just want them to know that they can be creators and that they can be innovators.”
“The purpose of the whole organization is to make young girls aware of what they’re capable of,” Marshall says. “They just don’t know that they can do stuff the same way if not better than their male counterparts or than their Caucasian counterparts. We just want them to know that they can be creators and that they can be innovators.”
Bryant emphasizes that BGC teaches girls about leadership and entrepreneurship, and with those characteristics the girls inherently also learn about self-love, confidence, problem-solving and strength. Ensuring the girls know they can be leaders in their industry and not just followers is a core tenet of BGC, too. “We want them to be the job creators and not just the job applicants,” Bryant says.
Marshall says she realized the impact of Black Girls Code when she saw a 7-year-old girl come in for her first workshop, in which the girls programmed robotic dolls. Marshall says the girl had pigtails and a huge smile on her face. “I was walking around checking in and out of classrooms, and I heard her say to the young girl behind her, ‘Oh, I’m just so excited,’ ” Marshall says. “It’s always fulfilling when a girl as young as 7 skirts in on the tail of her mom’s dress to say, ‘OK, this is it. This is what I want to do.’”
Kimora Oliver, a 15-year-old girl who lives in Hayward, California, began attending Black Girls Code workshops in the Bay Area when she was just 8 years old. Her first workshop taught girls to build a website in a day. Oliver created a site about endangered animals.
“I loved it and told my mom I wanted to continue going to these types of workshops,” Oliver says. “Throughout the years, I’ve attended more build-websites-in-a-day and build-apps-in-a day events. And then once I got more comfortable, I started attending hackathons hosted by Black Girls Code.”
Oliver wants to pursue a major in the STEM field in college, but is torn between coding and engineering. She says Black Girls Code has played a crucial role in fostering her love of technology.
“When I was younger, I was told coding and tech were all male-dominated fields,” Oliver says. “So to go into different types of workshops in the tech field when I was younger and as I grew up and see other girls who looked like me and were working toward the same goal to learn coding was very inspirational.”
A Big Vision
In the summer of 2012, Bryant and her team took their nascent nonprofit on the road. They hosted a summer workshop in the Bay Area. Bryant didn’t think to check the room before walking on stage to give her opening address.
“I went into the room and almost passed out because there were 100 or so girls,” Bryant says. “We stopped counting after a while because there were rows and rows of girls.… That’s when we first knew we had something. This thing was going to take off.”
Bryant has garnered countless accolades and awards over the years, from the White House Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion in 2013 to the prestigious Paraha-Aspen Education Fellowship. Her primary focus now is growth.
By 2020, there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related jobs open in the United States. Black Girls Code has a lofty goal to fit in with this changing landscape: to train 1 million girls to code by 2040. Bryant, who has set BGC’s aspiration to be the Girl Scouts of technology, says the organization is constantly trying to expand and offer new programs to reach their goal. She also believes there is a ripple effect happening in this community of young girls that will help them reach this target.
“We know without a doubt if we teach one girl to code, she will teach 10 more,” Bryant said in her TED Talk. “Because women and girls are naturally change agents in their families and in their communities, and indeed in the world. By giving them this access, career skills and technology, we’re changing the trajectory of not just one girl, but we’re changing the collective trajectory of communities.”
Kai, Bryant’s daughter, is now 19 and just finished a gap year working as a student program assistant at BGC. This fall she has begun pursuing her bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Bryant credits her role as a mother as a crucial element of where Black Girls Code is today. She saw her daughter struggling, and knew she had to do something.
“The key piece of the puzzle was that I could absolutely see ahead to what could possibly happen in the future, because I had lived that personally,” Bryant says. “I was driven by that—wanting to change that outcome for my daughter before it happened by doing something today to shift this whole industry.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.