The rebel alliance: The African chapter

The African chapter is an initiative very near and dear to me. This chapter is the story of Tech in Africa and the people that make it possible. I have been fortunate to grow up in a conflict-free zone of Africa, South Africa to be specific, surrounded by a diverse group of determined individuals passionate about change and tech. This post is a bit about me and some stuff I’ve done.

My background

The Girl-Hype chronicles

I started off my work in social tech as a tutor at an NGO called Girl-HYPE. Girl-Hype is a STEM institute to teach underprivileged girls how to code and inspire them to get into the coding industry. My work while there included tutoring Java and mentoring the Technovation challenge. It was an incredible experience hearing the struggles and strife that these girls faced daily and their amazing ideas of how to change it and changing their community as a result.

My favorite idea that came out of the initial think tank for the Technovation challenge was a demerit system for teachers which either refused to come into teach or chose to ignore students in their class. The idea was an attempt to fix the teaching system in South Africa where teachers aren’t always qualified and the government not doing enough to change that. Other ideas presented were an attempt to aid in security measures in the unsafer areas and traffic identification such that these girls could get to school on time and get home at a reasonable hour.

Each member of the groups were determined and excited at the prospect of building their projects. Initially some girls were a bit shy to voice their opinions especially to a relative stranger which has no idea about their community or their lifestyles. The main reason for this is the massive economic divide and general population ignorance. Others were very hestitant to even do the project and the main reason they joined was because their friends joined.

One of the girls present actually said: “I can’t wait for this to be over. Computer Science is not my focus and I’m bad at it and I’d rather do something else. ” Over time her opinion changed through the efforts of the organization and her realization that she is smart and capable and could be a programmer one day.

Another girl, from the shy bunch, grasped concepts almost immediately during the tutorial sessions and turned into a valued team member. During the course of the Technovation challenge, she took it upon herself to explain concepts in a way which was relatable and tried her best to keep everyone around her encouraged and motivated. As she finished high school, her hard work paid off by getting an A for computer science and decided to pursue computer science as a profession.

I was also able to assist in doing a tutoring session at the university I attended with other members of the university passionate about the cause.

Internship Chronicles

Over the next few months, I was fortunate enough to experience my first internship over my December Holiday. The company was focused on real estate solutions for international companies and were working with virtual reality technology. I was fortunate to be in an intern team which was predominately female and after the demographics experienced in university, this was something I did not expect. In university my parents were a bit surprised as to why I suddenly had so many male friends. I initially explained to them that if I did not have male friends in my degree programme, then I simply would not have friends. In almost every undergraduate course I had, the number of women were maybe 10–25% of the class. As the years went on, the number dwindled as students chose their specialities and for some, computer science was just an elective.

The intern team were assigned two technical mentors and one for soft skills and we were well taken care of with the amount of support received for the internship project done.

Thereafter I also interned for two other local companies and and of these experiences I would gladly repeat. Each sparked a different interest and I was lucky enough to be in a supportive environment each time.

Under the Texan Sun

In August 2106, out of the blue, I recieved an email from Maya Tudor stating that I had recieved a travel grant from Google to attend the Grace Hopper Conference in Houston, Texas. My thought process was first surprise, then skeptism(most South Africans are skeptical so my first thought was: “Will I be sold into human slavery? Will I get back with all of my organs?”), then intrigue and then excitement when I realised this was real.

After I confirmed my attendance, I was put in touch with other recipients and we organised transport to the hotel and we kept each other posted on any interesting conference events or presentations.

During the course of the conference, I was fortunate to meet amazing women from various parts of the world all doing amazing things. One woman I met just randomly after the keynote was an engineer from IBM working on artifical intelligence and machine learning to help with their robotics project. Another was a working mother doing PhD research at Rutgers University and did a poster presentation on her work deep learning and multi-view clustering.

The experience of netwroking and attending talks and presentations was simply inspiring. The well known idea of the conference is to celebrate Women in Technology but being there is so much more than that. I felt that everyone I’d met was trying to help the next women try to achieve greatness and advising her of the tools to do so, technical tools or simply examples of motivation or support to keep pushing forward.

On the last day of the conference was the Systers reception. The reception was the perfect culmination to the conference because it gave you a way to take this amazing community of women home with you. It provides a global network of women posting job positions, discussing current topics, peer review and getting advice on any challenges they might face and different perspectives from women in different sectors of the industry.

Since joining this community, I have seen and read a lot about the tech industry in specifically the United States and parts of Europe which provides a full picture of what to look forward to if I were lucky enough to get to explore it. I have also seen overwhelming support for concerns raised by women which have been mistreated, disrespected and objectified in their place of work and practical solutions of how to help them get out of the hard place they currently are in.

Wrapping it up

Africa has a lot to offer and tech for social good is becoming more prominent in various places in attempt to irradicate poverty and aid in eduction, infrastructure and general living conditions.

Anyone interested to learn more can contact me at merish.lalla@gmail.com.