Melinda Gates Has a New Mission: Women in Tech
Jessi Hempel
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Hi Jessi.

Fantastic article and great responses.

So this year I have been lucky enough to be apart of two teams that won hackathons. The results of which have lead to interesting ideas around how to get more women in tech which I would like to share.

Bayes Impact Hackathon and an “UnHackathon”

First I was apart of the winning team for this years Bayes Impact Hack in April (coincidentally backed by The Gates Foundation). Though neither the hackathon, prompt, nor solution was specific to improving diversity in tech, the conversations I had this week during our “prize” did.

As our prize, our team was able to go to the DoI and present to Secretary Jewell and do a brown bag. It was very cool and the DoI staff seemed really invigorated by the visit.

While I was there I was discussing my addiction to hackathons and how the government could possibly do more with them with Emily Bokar from DoI. The one idea we came up with is of an unhacakthon (thank you Shums Hoda for the name).

So…. let me stop here for a moment and say that if Melinda Gates is actually reading this, please know that before you read further, it was a complete honor and privileged to compete in the Bayes Hackathon. It is one of my proudest achievements and a truly valuable event…thank you, thank you, thank you for supporting it…please continue to do so…however…

I have noticed a few things about hackathons. Firstly, it can be really intimidating to participate in a hackathon, especially if you are new to the industry. It is however, one of the best experiences a developer can have and a great way to connect with others (potentially get a job). It’s not only a rapid-fire education, but also a playground for trying out new technologies, ideas, and roles.

Second, the government is starting to embrace hacakthons and civic hacking but they really need go further. The government needs innovation, ideas, and crowd sourced data management ala citizen scientists. At Bayes we hacked 11 really good ideas in 48 hours, and that was with the data we had…there was so much more we could have done.

Third, there are a ton of code schools General Assembly (disclosure: shameless plug as I will be teaching for them this month) and organizations like Black Girls Code (mentioned in comments by others and I will mention them again in the next section) where 1000s of women, men, minorities, old, young, etc go to try and learn to code without having to pay for a college degree…and they are waiting for experience and are struggling to get work even though they have the skills. (When we look at how few women are getting CS degrees, it makes me wonder if whether they are perhaps shifting to alternative education sources? dunno.)

I didn’t go to code school myself but am of that kin. I have two BFAs and am self taught. It was MISERABLE trying to get my foot in the door as a female developer with 10 years graphic design experience. I basically paid my dues in Power Points…still sometimes do.

So, why not create an Unhackathon that, instead of being highly-competitive and rewarded with Angel investments, make it about learning and civic hacking and taking part in the modernization of our government (Shout out to POTUS Barak Obama for Digital Initiative). The tech industry doesn’t need another Angel Investor and certainly doesn’t need encouragement to be MORE competitive. What it needs is an event held semi regularly that, like Bayes, uses government prompts and has a first place prize of presenting to and participating with our government, even if it is just to give the prototypes and ideas or collect and organize data. What we need is a place where the tech non-elite feel comfortable and of use.

If for this unhack you provided one expert per team (sort of like The Voice) that coached the team through the event…that would be worth the price of admission right there. You’d leave the event with your idea coached to completion, a sample to show potential employers and maybe even have a special title to put on you resume, such as “The Gates Foundation Developer for Good”. How cool would that be? You do good work AND help get people employed.

The other idea…

“Alika’s Treehouse: Improving cultural diversity in the tech industry through Digital Interactive Comic Book”

The other hack I won with just myself and the amazing artist Mark Mandolia was the Capital One Women In Tech Demo Day. It was amazing. The prompt was to “Help inspire more girls of color to learn coding by creating a solution that enables our tech divas to imagine themselves as computer scientists.” And that is it right? I know personally I have sat around waiting for someone to tell me I was an artist or a developer and the problem was just that I needed to “see” myself as a developer. My father was a computer salesman for Wang Laboratories. I remember being in his office in him holding me in his arms and asking, “What is that [loud closet-sized thing]?” And him saying, “Honey, that’s a computer”. And though that should have been a cute story of my first introduction to my life long career in computers, it wasn’t. I never saw myself as a developer. I went on to become an artist which I don’t regret, but as I mentioned before, it was a long, tough road to get to where I am today.

So along comes Kimberly Bryant from Black Girls Code with this phrase “see themselves as a computer scientist” and Alika’s Treehouse was born. I won’t go into too much detail about that project as we are still putting it together, but here is a brief synopsis (there more but can’t give away all the cool stuff):

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At its heart, Alika’s treehouse is a charming story about a young girl from New York that visits her widower grandfather for the summer and their adventures building a treehouse. But like all fun tree houses, this one has hidden secrets. As readers progress through the story, they find lessons in coding and development whimsically woven throughout that, thanks to a clever cat named Charles, coincides with the dialog and tempo of the story.

The goal of this project was to not only help young women see themselves as developers, but also to learn to code, experience the amazingly creative world of development, and demystifying some of its more intimidating concepts.

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The gist, and my advice to Melinda, is to not JUST look to the STEM industry for solutions or for diversity just in DNA, but look also in types of thought. Look to artists and surgeons, parents and uncles, police officers and criminals (kidding…kind of).

There is a great book I just read by Adam Grant called Originals that talks about (and I am butchering this reference) how when you are generating ideas, throw a roller blade into the mix. (read the book). The idea for Alika’s Treehouse didn’t come from static research in tech and teaching kids. It came from a culmination of experiences. The times when peanut butter was put in my chocolate, or a roller blade was added to my chair a design, or science was add to my high school english class ( thank you Dr Chan and Mr. Penna!)…all times when someone showed me how to connect my Steve Jobs dots.

Anyway, there are creative ideas out there. We just need to stop looking for them from the same faces and places.

Last thing to tie this back to what Kimberly said about “seeing themselves as developers”. Growing up my dad always told me the “perception is reality”. That if I dressed like a punk, people would treat me like a punk. He wasn’t wrong (Love you dad!). But I am making Alika’s Treehouse a reality because I believe in magic. I believe that if you see yourself as a developer or artist or president, you will become one and people will treat you like you are. So my challenge is, if you present an alternative perceptions of what tech looks like for a day, week or month can you (Melinda Gates or just the average person) change reality?

Best wishes,

Leigh Michelle

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