Racial Equity in Tech: The Pioneers

Black women contributed a great deal to the STEM fields despite gross underrepresentation in these industries. Thanks to the film Hidden Figures, which highlights the stories of tech pioneers Kathrine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, more conversations surround Black women in tech. However, according to a study by the National Center For Women & Information Technology, Black women made up only 3% of the computing and mathematical workforce in 2019.

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Image description: Bar chart showing percentage of computing occupations held by women in 2015. 25% of women hold computing occupations, but only 5% are held by Asian women, 3% are held by Black women and 1% are Latinx.

Although these numbers are slowly changing, there is much to be done to make these industries more inclusive. In the meantime, there is a new generation of Black women and girls in STEM who are blazing new trails despite the odds. Here are five of those Black women in tech you should know.

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Image Description: Donna Auguste wearing a white sweater and glasses. Image Credit: Getty Images

Donna Auguste, PhD

Donna Auguste was born in Texas in 1958 and developed an interest in engineering at an early age. She earned a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley, her graduate degree from Carnegie-Mellon University, and her Ph.D. in Technology, Media and Society at ATLAS Institute of the University of Colorado Boulder, College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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Image Description: Tweet from @IAmADataScient1 that reads “#iamadatascientist

During the early 1980s, she worked as a software engineer at IntelliCorp before becoming a lead software engineer at Apple Computers. Auguste held several patents for her contributions to the Newton personal digital assistant (PDA)–this is considered an early version of Apple’s iPhone and iPad. She eventually went on to become the founder of Freshwater Software Inc., a Colorado-based company that provides software solutions that maintain and monitor web applications. In 2001, she sold the company to Mercury Interactive Corp. for $147 million. Auguste is also the Auguste Research Group’s founder and has been a champion of diversity in STEM.

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Image description: Kai Frazier releasing VR headset. Image Credit: Forbes.com

Kai Frazier

Kai Frazier is a historian and educator who launched Kai XR to develop kid-friendly VR field trips and e-learning tools that allow children to explore the world from home. Using technology to provide more inclusive experiences for underserved communities, KAI XR improves kids’ tech skills by enabling them to create their VR adventures.

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Tweet via @Kai_XR that reads “Our new Kai XR Field Trip platform is now LIVE! Explore DNA with #CRISPR. Train to be an astronaut. Snuggle with baby pandas. Travel to Chichen Itza. Explore endless possibilities with our #VirtualFieldTrips at KaiXR.com”

As an educator, Frazier saw firsthand how students were consuming information online–not from books, but smartphones and on social media. She found that the existing resources for teachers weren’t keeping up with technology, so she developed and incorporated new digital tactics to engage her students–this eventually led to her digital platform, which educated audiences about museums, history, current events, and entertainment. As her platform grew, so did her clientele. She went on to create social media strategies for Capitol Hill and corporate entities. She eventually became the Senior Digital Marketing Strategist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its regional offices across the country.

Today, Frazier continues to educate others through digital storytelling and her online classrooms, which help address the barriers in education for marginalized communities and close the digital divide.

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Image description: Jewel Burks in a yellow blazer, facing the camera. Image Credit: Jewelburks.com

Jewel Burks

Jewel Burks is a maker. She strives to make the tech industry diverse and accessible to all people–regardless of gender, race, nationality, age, and socio-economic level.

She launched a cutting-edge computer vision app called Partpic, which allows users to use a smartphone to take a picture of a mechanical part you need to replace. Then, the app allows you to order those parts.

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Tweet via Jewel Burks “Raising a fund during a pandemic, with an alternative model, focused exclusively on Black founders is an epic challenge. I love challenges.”

Burks didn’t have a background in computer vision, but she saw the need for such an app and taught herself how to create it! She raised more than $2 million in venture capital and then sold it to Amazon, where its tech is powering replacement-part searches in the Amazon app. She now leads a team at Amazon and is an advocate for racial and gender inclusion.

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Image description: Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, facing the camera. Image Credit: Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant

Bryant was first introduced to computer programming during her freshman year in college. She immediately gravitated towards computing as an Electrical Engineering major and noticed disparities in the field as few of her classmates shared her cultural background. Bryant notes that a lack of access to exposure for Black and African-American communities in STEM is what leads to these disparities. She set out to change that.

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Tweet via @BlackGirlsCode that reads “ Tech companies must design for #diversity and inclusion from the ground up, rather than needing to fix issues after the fact. Check out this piece on how @BlackGirlsCode is working to change the narrative surrounding racial and gender diversity in #tech.”

Bryant started Black Girls Code with her 401(K) in 2011. She founded Black Girls Code after her daughter expressed an interest in learning computer programming, and none of the available courses in the Bay area were well-suited for her: mostly boys, and rarely had other African American girls attending.” (National Society of Black Physicists, 2019) Her organization provides computer science workshops, classes and after-school programs to underprivileged communities on a global scale. Since its start in 2011, Black Girls Code has taught over 14,000 girls in-demand skills in tech and computer programming. By 2040, she wants to train 1,000,000 girls to code. Learn more about Black Girls Code at blackgirlscode.com.

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Image description: Women Tech Charge podcast from Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon is 2020 Webby nominee. Image Credit: aimafidon.com

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE

Imafidon is a British computing, mathematics and language child prodigy. At 11 years old, she was the youngest girl ever to pass A-level subjects in primary school. At 20, she earned her Master’s Degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Oxford. That same year she co-founded STEMettes, an initiative to inspire and promote the next generation for young women in the STEM fields.

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Tweet via @aimafidon https://twitter.com/aimafidon that reads “‘The computer doesn’t care about the colour of your skin. It doesn’t care about the group you belong to. It doesn’t care if you are a dog. It processes your commands all the same.’ — same reason I love #ComputerScience. Thx for sharing @dialloibu”

In the West, technology usually defaults to white and male, despite Black people regularly contributing to the tech world–from inventing ironing boards to cell phones. Racist beliefs surrounding technology and race continue to impact this industry. Although the racial divide in technology is closing, issues of access and education continue to be barriers that need to be knocked down. We’ll explore solutions to this problem in our final post in this series of Racial Equity in Tech

More Pioneers

Article by Destinee Wright
Edited by Kim Wilkens

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