Less than 1 per cent of women are majoring in computer science – according to Google. The company has launched an initiative to attract more women into tech. Made with Code, Google said, “Was started because even though increasingly more aspects in our lives are powered by technology, women aren’t represented in the companies, labs, research, creative arts, design, organizations, and boardrooms that make technology happen.” Too true.
But Google is not the only organization trying to change the numbers of women in the tech industry. We recently caught up with three start-ups, started by young women, that are getting youngsters excited about using tech in three very different fields.
Two years ago, the city of Lagos, Nigeria was literally drowning in its own trash. With a population of 8,000,000 people and an infrastructure that couldn’t keep up, streets in the poorest districts were littered with garbage. Nearby creeks were stagnant with debris and entire neighborhoods flooded every time it rained — in some cases with fatal results.
Into this landscape came a software engineer armed with a box load of purple shirts, a small fleet of bright yellow bicycles, and a great big idea.
Adebiyi is one of an elite group of visionary women with deep roots in the technology sector who are revolutionizing social entrepreneurship and tackling the tech community’s racial and gender inequities head-on.
In Adebiyi’s case, the big idea was to clean up Lagos and make it safer — by incentivizing community recyclers with a program of reward points. Wecyclers uses tech to distribute the rewards by SMS and they are redeemable for household goods. “People die from flooding because we are clogging our drainage,” she told interviewer Cecile de Comarmond, “It impacts their health, it impacts their livelihood, productivity.”
Since the venture hit the ground in 2012, Wecyclers has collected nearly 200 tons of recyclables from 5000 households in Lagos’ lowest-income neighborhoods.
While Abiola is counting her successes in tons, Ayah Bdeir counts hers in bits and pieces — littleBits, to be exact. Part art, part toy, and part educational tool, littleBits are innovative snap-together modules that allow users to create their own circuit boards and make anything from a remote-control car to an art installation without soldering or wiring.
Bdeir’s neon-colored creations are a physical representation of her passions. As an interactive artist, one of the founding members of the open-source hardware movement, a Senior TED Fellow and an engineer, she’s devoted her career to sparking the world’s creativity.
LittleBits started out as Bdeir’s project at MIT’s Media Lab in 2008. She founded the company in 2011 — and since then it’s grown to reach schools, companies, and creative individuals in 700 countries.
“I wanted to make it [electronics] accessible to anyone, whether you are eight or 88, whether you are a PhD in engineering or an artist,” she told readwrite in 2014. “And so the challenge there was to make electronics modular in the way that code has become modular.”
Another challenge that Bdeir wants to meet with littleBits is that of bringing more girls into technology and the hard sciences. “This is one of the hidden missions of the company,” she said in her interview. So every aspect of the company — from product packaging, to the colors of the modules, to the projects that are showcased on the site — are intentionally gender neutral.
That same challenge faced biotech engineer Kimberly Bryant, in the very personal form of her own daughter.
“I wanted to find a way to engage and interest my daughter in becoming a digital creative instead of just a consumer,” she told Ebony magazine, “and I did not find other programs that were targeted to girls like her from underrepresented communities.”
Her response: in 2011 Bryant founded Black Girls CODE in her hometown of San Francisco. After starting out with small community workshops and after-school programs in the Bay Area, Black Girls CODE now teaches programming languages like Ruby on Rails and Scratch to young women of color in Johannesburg, South Africa and 7 cities in the U.S.
Instruction at Black Girls CODE now includes web development and design, mobile app development, robotics, and game development in addition to programming and the basic elements of entrepreneurship.
Bryant and Black Girls CODE have received numerous accolades, including recognition by President Barack Obama in 2013 as a Champion of Change for her work to promote inclusion in technology.
“By promoting classes and programs we hope to grow the number of women of color working in technology and give underprivileged girls a chance to become the masters of their technological worlds,” Bryant explains on the Black Girls CODE website.
If it sounds like Bryant dreams big, that’s because she does. She plans to reach a million students by the end of 2040. She told Ebony, “I hope to literally change the world with Black Girls CODE.”
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