"There aren't enough role models."
It is a complaint echoed by young girls around the world who are interested in computer science, and of grown women who have fought their way to become entrepreneurs, leaders, and engineers. With so few women to look up to in the tech industry, they had to figure it out on their own.
Gender imbalance must be tackled from a variety of angles, but improving the course of the future starts with young girls and changing their perceptions about careers in technology. As light is shed on on gender bias in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, many organizations are stepping to fill in the gaps in computer science and entrepreneurship education that traditional education systems have left wide open.
One of those organizations is Technovation, a global technology entrepreneurship program for young women age 10 to 23 that hosts an annual competition to create a mobile app that solves a problem in their community.
On Tuesday, September 16, Technovation launched a gallery of all apps created by this year's teams, including screenshots, demos, and pitch videos. It may look like a small gallery of 362 apps, but the impact on the women in STEM conversation is much greater.
"By releasing a public showcase of the teams' hard work, we hope to honor our 2014 alumni accomplishments while inspiring other young women to see how they, too, can use technology to solve real-world problems.
"With the recent spate of publicity around the lack of diversity at tech companies, I think that those who are truly interested in changing the ratio of women in computer science will take note, as well," said Samantha Quist, executive director of Technovation. "What better evidence of young women's skills than from seeing real mobile apps and pitches they created?"
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.4 million computer programming jobs will go unfilled by 2020. But, only 5% of U.S. high schools offer advanced placement computer science courses, and only 19% of the test takers are girls.
"We've seen that no one encourages most young women to study computer science, and the stereotypical image of a computer programmer in girls' minds is generally a man," Quist said. "When young women see that they are capable of creating a working app from scratch and then they pitch their app publicly, they learn that computer science and entrepreneurship are appropriate fields for young women."
Connecting with female mentors in the computer sciences means that these girls find role models who can help them imagine a career in the field and make it a reality.
Quist was immediately drawn to Technovation's mission. As a tech entrepreneur herself, she knows the road is harder for women. After struggling to find female role models throughout her life, Quist wanted to make sure young women didn't encounter that obstacle.
"I first signed up to help coach the girls with their pitches, and I was so inspired by what high school girls were able to accomplish in just a few short weeks," she said.
Technovation was founded in 2009 by Anuranjita Tewary, who was, at the time, a data scientist at LinkedIn. She attended a startup weekend and wanted to recreate the experience for young girls. That year, Technovation was composed of 45 girls who met at the Google headquarters once a week for three months.
"Technovation students learn to identify a real problem in their community that a mobile app can help solve, then build out the app," Quist said. "We also guide them to think through a business plan and concepts like market sizing, distribution, and monetization."
Over the last five years, the organization has expanded to 3,000 students in 28 countries, and includes online courses and trainings for girls around the world. In 2014, there was a $20,000 awards pool for the top apps. Because of Technovation's smaller scale, the girls present their pitches online via YouTube instead of in person.
The organization has partnered with many after-school networks to bring Technovation to after-school programs around the US. It is a part of Google's Made with Code campaign and works closely with TechWomen to bring computer science and innovation to women across Africa and the Middle East.
"We teach the same principles of starting a business globally, but we've seen that the types of problems the girls choose to address vary widely from one location to the next," Quist said. "We see vastly different ideas depending on what's going on in the girls' community."
For instance, the 2014 high school winner was a team of girls from Moldova. In their country, 80% of the population lacks access to clean drinking water, which led to dozens of students from their school contracting Hepatitis A. To help solve this problem, the team built an app to help people identify wells with clean drinking water.
Other teams have created apps for issues specific to their communities, including:
- A team from Yemen who noticed that many teenage girls in their community were getting married, so they created an app to educate against early marriage.
- A team from the Amazon rainforest region in Brazil created an app to combat deforestation.
- A team in the UK created an app that increased the speed of access to emergency response, and the app was purchased by their local municipality.
- A group in Nigeria created an app to enable everyday citizens to report traffic offenses on their phone, and the app was adopted locally.
Changing the course
Isabelle Wood and Jackie Luke are middle schoolers at Nightingale-Bamford School in New York. Every day for months, the girls worked before and after school with their Technovation team for three months to create FieldTripper, an app that simplifies the logistics of planning a school field trip — from permission forms to attendance sheets — and won the global challenge for the middle school division.
"I developed a sense of leadership. I always liked leading, I ran for office in middle school...I was not successful, but that's not the point. We all contributed different things to make [the app]. We all worked together, we were all equals, led different parts. That was really important," Wood said.
Of course, the process wasn't without its challenges — and the most difficult ones weren't technical. The girls had to figure out how to incorporate various visions, market to different demographics, and create business models for their projects.
"You really have to think bigger picture...at the World Pitch at Intel, we met a lot of different teams from different places, it wasn't just people exactly like us," Luke said. "We needed to adapt to different scenarios and have confidence to express what the app is, how to persuade people, but keeping an open mind about everything."
Women make up the majority of college graduates, but only 18% of computer science degrees in the US, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. According to the Kauffman Foundation, about one third of entrepreneurs are women. But a very small percentage of tech company startup founders are women.
"We hear a lot about the lack of women in computer science fields, but that's only a part of the problem — even those who do go into computer science tend to choose careers in entrepreneurship at a much lower rate than men," Quist added.
Understanding risk-taking, resiliency, and failure when starting a company begins with programs like Technovation. The organization is creating a global community, and now showcasing solid evidence of the capability of young women when they are given the tools.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.