THE BLOG
01/15/2013 01:53 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Empowerment? There's an App for That

This past weekend in Philadelphia I had the opportunity to jump into the Equal Futures App Challenge, an event sponsored by the Equal Futures Partnerships and organized by the female-founded startup ElectNext. The challenge was introduced by President Barack Obama in October as a new international effort to politically and economically empower women across the globe. The challenge: to create a mobile app that advocates civic education and/or inspires girls to serve as leaders in our democracy.

More than 130 young women from Philadelphia, Boston and LA gathered together at three central locations across the country on Saturday and connected together via Google Hangout. Sarah Hurwitz, senior adviser to the White House Council on Women and Girls and senior presidential speechwriter, and Brian Forde, senior adviser to the U.S. CTO for Mobile and Data Innovation, kicked off the event speaking virtually to teams in three cities on how the Equal Futures Partnership began as a Declaration on Women's Participation made by President Obama at the UN General Assembly in September of 2011.

Truthfully, I was slightly surprised to hear the statistics they shared such as women hold 101, or 18.8 percent, of the 535 seats in the 113th US Congress, a 1.3 percent gain from the previous Congress. Considering women account for more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, one would think that they would be more equally represented in our legislature. Additionally, it has almost been a century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, thereby allowing women to vote in national elections so why are women so under-represented?

Shortly after opening introductions concluded the event kicked off with the students being broken up into small teams of two or three. Each team was then paired with a technologist, myself being one, from the surrounding area who would proceed to lead their team members to a private room filled with copious amounts of paper, markers, whiteboards, and smart screens.

By that point we had two hours and 15 minutes remaining to design a mobile app concept before reporting back to the auditorium where we would re-group to present our brilliant ideas. Not knowing where to begin the mobile app development life cycle with two pre-teenage girls, I took quick a step back and tried to relate myself to them. Unfortunately that was easier said than done, as I grew up with two brothers and no sisters; even our animals were male. My poor mother!

After getting to know both the young ladies Tessa and Nicole, who are in middle school at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, I found them to be extremely friendly and outgoing. I encouraged the girls to fill me in on their hobbies, interests and influential people in their lives. As we talked more it became clear that the three of us each had many positive and influential women surrounding us -- family, our best friends, teachers and athletes. How, then, could we highlight great achievements, share heartwarming stories about women in public leadership positions, as well as empower girls with experiences that would help to make them better leaders?

After answering our questions we turned the concept into a specific list of features that the initial version of our app would include. Shortly thereafter the whiteboards filled with bubbles of ideas, bullet points, wireframes and squiggles, so we next proceeded to design the visual elements of the app and UI flows. Then, we further boiled them down into six posters for our presentation.

Driven only by the questions and guidance I provided, Tessa and Nicole designed the app concept from start to finish. An app that they believe women would not only greatly benefit from but one that most would use regardless of their age, sexuality, economic status or interests; an app that would empower every daughter, sister and mother in the world. From the general concept to the specific functionality and overall color scheme -- the women drove the entire process from start to finish.

As we sat in the auditorium and watched the other teams present (including my colleague Dan Koch, who built an impressive and near functional app), the women put together the last of their talking points and awaited our turn on stage. About 10 minutes before presenting I reminded them that they needed a name and that we could always change it in the future. Five minutes later they developed their name, then stood up and proceeded to give an outstanding presentation that received a round of applause from the audience in attendance.

It was a great few hours of fun for all involved this weekend and the work is not nearly over. The final app submission is due in a week and will be judged by a panel of entrepreneurs such as Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and founder/CEO of Square and Jocelyn Goldfein, the director of engineering at Facebook. I am confident that if it is not our app that wins the competition, then it will be another from the tech-bursting city of Philadelphia that does! And regardless of the why so few women are serving as leaders in our democracy, I believe it's critical that we continue to inspire young women to become leaders, thereby promoting a more equitable society for everyone. By the way, the women decided to name their app InstaSpire!

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