Women Who Reign: Niharika Vattikonda
“You sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
Hi, I’m Niharika! I’m a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, and I love all things related to tech and politics — I believe that both the government and the private sector can work together to advance our workforce and use technology to improve our standing in the world. To that end, I’m the founder of Teens Transforming Technology, a national nonprofit organization that empowers students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to pursue computer science, and as the Director of Internal Affairs for my school’s Coding Lady Colonials club for female students in computer science, I also am an Organizer for HackTJ, our annual, 500-student hackathon in March. As a nationally-ranked Model UN delegate, I have learned how integral computer science can be to fostering developing economies and furthering the ideals of democracy and freedom of the press. I hope to combine my love of policymaking and computer science in my position as Student Representative to the Fairfax County School Board, where I plan to advance our school district’s analytics on past performance and promote computer science and algorithmic thinking education for the almost 188,000 K-12 students I represent, as part of a broader plan to improve equity in student achievement.
Fun Fact: My first experience in pursuing social change happened when I was a third grader and living in Southern California (which, at the time, was in a drought and recently suffered a major wildfire). I wrote a letter to our local grocery store chain about how they should reduce the amount of lighting in the store (or transition to solar panels and incorporate natural lighting), limit the use of air conditioning and heating, and offer incentives to customers who brought in reusable grocery bags. It took a while to see any results of what I had researched and written about, but the changes started happening! Now, all new stores of the chain are built to LEED Silver specifications, and energy and water conservation are key factors in the design of their stores.
What # would define your life journey?
Favorite website / app:
I absolutely LOVE using Trello to organize all my different workflows, ranging from a simple board titled “Stuff for School” to a color-coded set of lists and cards for Teens Transforming Technology. I used to use planners that were given out by my school, but the flexibility of Trello and its integration with a variety of apps I use (including Slack) make it much easier to use. I’m also the kind of person who thinks best in lists and in breaking tasks down into simple things that can be checked off the list, so Trello is a fantastic way for me to balance all my activities and make sure I’m not missing any deadlines or assignments.
Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:
The first literary character that I ever related to (and the one who has had the most impact on me) is Hermione Granger. As I seven year old, I remember that I saw who I wanted to be in the nerdy girl who was always the first to raise her hand, who was a voracious reader, and more importantly, who wasn’t content to let someone else drive change — she never sat back, and instead, became one of the driving forces behind much of Harry Potter’s heroics. She was never afraid to show what she knew, never afraid of seeming “over-prepared,” and even when others made snarky comments about her preparedness and dedication to her education, she persisted in being the brightest witch of her time. But even beyond that, Hermione inspired me in her commitment to service for the greater good — even after six years of intense dedication to schoolwork, she left Hogwarts in her seventh year because she knew that fighting Lord Voldemort was more important than her own personal ambition, and she was always working toward a more equal and just world, even though her friends sometimes mocked her for creating the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare. And I found a role model, an ideal to aspire to, in the girl whose hair was as frizzy as mine and whose commitment to something bigger than herself continues to inspire me every day.
Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:
As a middle schooler, I taught myself HTML and CSS — I knew that I loved computer science and coding, and for me, that meant that I would become an engineer. However, as a high school student, I realized I had an interest in economics/finance and policy-making, and it was somewhat difficult to reconcile these interests with computer science in a high school like mine, where classes and interests tend to be polarized into STEM and non-STEM categories. Oddly enough, my interests seemed to span the dichotomy of subjects and learning that permeated my school’s environment, and I didn’t understand how I could pick a career without sacrificing any one of my interests. Fortunately, this past spring, I was one of the She++ 2017 #include Fellows; my initiative (Teens Transforming Technology) to bring computer science education to low-income neighborhoods within the DC Metro Area was chosen out of over five hundred throughout the country. At the She++ Summit in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to learn about the tech community and the diverse set of roles that expand far beyond pure coding -ranging from venture capitalists at Accel who started their careers as computer science majors to policy specialists at Tesla who found their niches in clean energy technology to entrepreneurs at Robinhood who wanted to democratize access to stock trading without high barriers to entry. After talking to many of the people that we met with, I realized that I could combine my interests in computer science, economics, and policy — however, one piece of advice that I follow and will continue to endorse is that, regardless of career trajectory, the most valuable skill a student in the 21st century can learn is how to write elegant, useful code.
What are your future plans for Teens Transforming Technology?
As of now, Teens Transforming Technology has reached about two hundred students in the D.C. Metropolitan Area and in online schools, and moving forward, we’re looking to broaden our reach nationally while holding onto our guiding principle of providing computer science for historically underserved and underrepresented populations. This September, we will be hosting AppUp, a three-workshop series at Georgetown University for female students in the D.C. area — much of our work involves expanding access by funding transportation stipends (with the help of an amazing grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology) and other needs for low-income students to be able to attend our workshop. We have also partnered with PixelHacks, the Bay Area’s first all-female high school hackathon, to hold PixelHacks II in January 2018 and we look forward to reaching an even more diverse population of hackers than last year’s event. Moving forward, we’re also looking to create an online AP Computer Science curriculum for students who don’t have access to the course in their school, and we will be launching our CSChicas program (see our website for updates!) — middle and high school girls will be able to receive mentorship directly from the Teens Transforming Technology team to learn more about computer science and design initiatives to help us better serve the community.
My ideal job would be any job in which I get to combine my love of computer science, economics, and policy in my work. Having a thorough background in STEM, I think I would bring a unique perspective to some of the policy issues that are facing our country, particularly in developing a strong 21st century economy and creating education policy that prepares students for the jobs of the future, and my analytical, “left-brain” personality has always been drawn to economics and finance and the role that computer science will have in democratizing access to investment and other financial opportunities for the average citizen. However, I’m still learning and growing, so I don’t know for sure what I’d like to do, but a few things that currently interest me right now include government, policymaking, human rights and international law, venture capitalism, international economic development and nonprofit management. Regardless of what field I go into, I plan to prioritize active civic engagement throughout my life, whether it be through my job or outside of work.
What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives?
One thing that has helped me throughout high school is the ability to prioritize so that I have had plenty free time to explore my interests — it’s not always about pulling the double all-nighter to bump a grade up by a fraction of a percent. As a student at an extremely rigorous and competitive Governor’s school, it’s easy to get caught up in pure schoolwork and obsessing about grades, but even as a freshman, I knew I didn’t want to be drowned under a pile of homework at all hours of the day — I knew I wanted to enjoy high school and everything it had to offer. For me, I took every spare moment during the day to do homework — on the bus to and from school, in between classes, during study halls, and more, so that once I got home, my homework would be done by 8 PM (at least, on a normal day). After 8 PM, I had time to explore my interests in public policy, economics, international relations, and nonprofit management. It would have been impossible for me to found student-run computer science education nonprofit Teens Transforming Technology, serve as the Director of Internal Affairs for Coding Lady Colonials and help organize HackTJ, be a national-level award winning delegate and Director of Crisis at my school’s conference, or more recently, run and be elected to be the Student Representative to the Fairfax County School Board, where I represent over 188,000 K-12 students in Fairfax County and work with students to identify and solve issues from access to mental health resources to making sure our school system’s policies are inclusive to all. Being able to prioritize and knock tasks off my to-do list whenever I get a chance make it possible for me to enjoy learning and to pursue activities that I’m interested in.