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Sejal Hathi Headshot

Talent, Discovered: Tapping the Potential of Black Girls Code

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As Silicon Valley struggles to wrangle more H-1B visas from the Congressional immigration debate, one woman is working passionately to cultivate more budding technologists at home. Kimberly Bryant, bioengineer-turned-tech-evangelist, is the founder and CEO of Black Girls Code (BGC), a blossoming movement to empower young women -- more specifically, young women of color -- to embrace careers across the digital divide. BGC is just one of a bevy of new programs laboring to close the technology gender gap, but it distinguishes itself by focusing on Native American, Latino, and African American youth, the latter of whom receive but 4.2 percent of computer science degrees even as they comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population. These numbers are stark in the absolute sense. But their irony is even further sharpened if one considers the industry's consumer profile: Compared to the average American, African Americans are more than 13 percent more likely to own a tablet device, more than 29 percent more likely to own a smartphone, more likely across all indexes to consume entertainment online. Yet individuals of color, and particularly women and girls, remain virtually invisible from the Valley's positions of power. What this means is that the ideas and innovations of a vast swathe of the population remain untapped, unheard and unrealized-- robbing the entire country of their potential. If America desires to maintain its competitiveness, if Silicon Valley aspires to continue helming global innovation, then it must work to reimagine girls as critical partners in the creative process. It must stop conceiving of women as mere consumers and start fostering them as vibrant creators of technology.

This is precisely the transformation Kimberly Bryant hopes to achieve. Her vision for Black Girls Code is nothing less than to produce the next Markia Zuckerberg-- and she well may, if propelled by its present momentum. Already, more than 1,200 girls have trained with Bryant, taking intensive classes in digital technology from web and mobile app development to robotics and game design. These girls range in age from 7 to 17 and hail all from underrepresented communities. They envision themselves as the new "Girl Scouts of technology," and plan to grow to 1 million girls by 2040.

Silicon Valley cannot afford to ignore them. The number of female computer science graduates has plummeted since the mid-1980s: from 36 percent in 1984 to only 12 percent in 2011 -- 3 percent, for women of color. And at current rates, the United States will be able to fill only one-third of its 1.4 million technology jobs in 2020. The industry is thirsting for talent, and if BGC should be supported for any reason, it is the creation of untapped talent pools for U.S. employers. In but two years, with a scant two-person staff, BGC has demonstrated tremendous potential: Girls who had never before evinced interest in computer science now are eagerly re-enrolling and peer-tutoring new students, while families who hear about the programs from former participants clamor to peg their names to the BGC waiting list -- a voluminous spreadsheet that stretches already 80 cities long. This summer, BGC is running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $125,000 in 45 days, in order to bring its program to 10 new cities by September's end. Donors can contribute as little as $10 and as much as $5000, for the gift of introducing 2,000 more girls to technology.

But of course, the promise of BGC extends far beyond human capital, traversing the digital divide to encompass basic issues of equity as well. Bryant believes that if effectively leveraged, access to technology can become the single greatest economic equalizer of the next decade. And students who previously lacked access to computers can acquire the tools and the know-how to code, and thereby create, the zeitgeist of the future. This is important because, borrowing from a now common Valley refrain, engineers have become the modern-day wizards, for it is they who craft and disseminate the defining tools of our human experience. And since technology is inherently biased, if all the wizards are men -- and men, too, from largely a single demographic -- the world this technology shapes would systematically eschew the minority perspective. Teaching girls, and particularly girls of color, to code, thus represents one of the most valuable social enterprises the Valley can undertake.

It's an opportunity that few would be foolish not to invest in. As for me, I am looking forward to soon using an app by the next Markia Zuckerberg. Will you join me?

Sejal is the ambassador for L'Oréal USA's new initiative -- For Girls in Science -- which aims to inspire and empower more girls to pursue careers in S.T.E.M. The platform gathers all the S.T.E.M. resources, support, role models for girls in one central location and offers several contests to encourage girls interested in these fields to share their own experiences.

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