Grantee Spotlight: Amy Furman
Each story in our Grantee Spotlight series focuses on a grantee of the Reboot Representation Tech
Coalition. Amy Furman is the Director of Programs at Break Through Tech (BTT). She leads the educational programs working toward closing the gender gap in tech.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I serve as the Director of Programs with Break Through Tech (BTT) New York. Previously, I worked in education, civic engagement, climate change planning, and workforce development. This opened my eyes to how interconnected these issue areas are — and, who in our society is most often negatively impacted by the current systems in place. My most recent personal and professional goals have focused on restoring economic power and opportunity to communities that have historically been disenfranchised, which are largely communities of color. I was drawn to Break Through Tech’s mission because of the explicit focus on shifting gender and racial representation within the tech sector and I see a world of opportunity opened to those who gain computing skills as they become increasingly universally applicable across different sectors and roles.
What differentiates Break Through Tech? How does Break Through Tech make the technology sector more equitable?
Break Through Tech aims to better balance gender representation within the tech sector by focusing simultaneously on both the talent pipeline and the industry itself. This dual focus differentiates us from a lot of other programs, in addition to the fact that we intentionally partner with public universities to augment the important work they’re already doing. In New York, we partner with the City University of New York (CUNY) where more than 40% of students are the first in their family to go to college, about 80% are graduates of the New York City public school system, and almost 80% identify as Black, Latino/a, or Asian, — and where there are thousands of women currently pursuing Computer Science degrees. We work with universities and students to increase interest in and preparation for tech careers while also working with industry leaders to rethink recruiting and hiring.
What is a challenge you’re facing and how are you solving it?
Like almost everyone, this year, Break Through Tech had to quickly pivot from offering in-person programs to offering programs in a virtual environment. A great example of how we quickly adapted to the new normal is our Summer Guild program, which Reboot Representation funds, that runs each summer from about June to August. We knew that one of the biggest barriers we’d face in transitioning this program to a virtual setting was going to be equitable access for our students to things like laptops, Wi-Fi connectivity, and webcams. We also did not have a lot of prior experience building community in an online setting but didn’t want to lose that core component of Summer Guild.
We were thankfully able to secure additional funding to purchase additional laptops and hotspots which we distributed to all students that requested. Even with these things provided, we encountered students that had issues with their personal laptops — their speakers and microphones didn’t work well or their Wi-Fi couldn’t handle video streaming for the entirety of the day’s lesson. Some of these things we hope we’ll be able to solve for future programs, like investing in headphones and microphones to also loan to students. However, things like better Wi-Fi connectivity needs to be solved on a larger scale through improved infrastructure and commitment to expanding public Wi-Fi access. In terms of building community, we learned that there’s a lot you can do in a virtual setting by having students participate with their cameras on as much as possible and using breakout rooms as places for students to collaborate in smaller groups.
What does mentorship mean to you and how can people in positions of power be great mentors?
When I think about mentorship, I think about someone who’s walked the path before you, knows the ins and outs, and can share their knowledge, insight, experience, especially their pitfalls and how to avoid them. What makes a really great mentor, especially if you’re in a position of power, is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re mentoring and demystify the work and the path forward for them. Additionally, a great mentor, especially one in a position of power, can become a sponsor, which is something we need more of to effectively hire, promote, and better compensate women. Sponsorship moves beyond mentorship. A sponsor not only talks with her mentee but also talks about her in spaces where it could be important for her career. It involves speaking up for and with other women, getting more women hired, and putting their names up for promotions and other recognition — all of which is necessary to close the gender, pay, and leadership gaps in male-dominated industries like tech.
How can women be supportive of underrepresented women of color and participate in breaking down the unique barriers that they face?
Follow their lead! At Break Through Tech, this looks like constantly gathering student feedback so that our programs are designed to best meet students’ needs. We try to ask questions about how our programs and our community makes them feel, in addition to asking about tangible support we can provide through program offerings and logistics. We also do a lot of our own research and try to learn from other programs and leaders that are creating systemic change for the benefit of underrepresented groups and especially women of color. However, the most important thing our team does is listen to our students because we use their feedback as our “north star” when designing core elements of our programs.