The moment Ruthe Farmer picked up the phone, I knew she was a force of nature.
Before I could even ask about her career history, she was telling me about her plans for the future. Each time I asked a question about her life, she brought it back to her larger mission — getting girls to choose careers in technology and engineering, and making sure the system makes it easier for them to do so.
It's a mission that she may never see the end of, a problem for which she may never see the full solution. But Farmer, the chief strategy officer for National Center for Women in Information and Technology (NCWIT), is proof that if you talk about something enough, try hard enough, push hard enough — good things start to happen.
The core of NCWIT's mission is to not only increase the number of women in computer science and technology, but to also provide better products and services that can serve a more diverse population — namely, minority populations and low-income schools that may not be able to afford the latest technology — and scale those programs.
"I have been working on this since 2001. All of this stuff is not new, this conversation is not new, but new people are coming to the table, which is great," Farmer said. "The more attention the better. But my push and the entire reason I got an MBA after working at Girl Scouts is — if you build programs that are expensive, whether they're sponsored or not, you're going to perpetuate the class system, and you're not going to be able to scale."
The crux of Farmer's plan has always been to keep those girls interested throughout their education. It's tackling what she thinks is the main issue with peer pressure: Girls are drawn more toward activities common amongst other girls, and less toward subjects like tech where they'll be isolated.
"I would have been an engineer if I had the right education," she said. So instead, she's creating opportunities for girls to do what she didn't know was possible.
Farmer is the driving force behind NCWIT's Aspirations in Computing program, which started six years ago with just 32 girls. It has since grown to include thousands of young women around the country. It is a unique community that uses the web and social media to spread support for young women in computer science, technology, and engineering, and helps them stay in touch. A large part of the battle for women in technology, Farmer said, is feeling completely isolated. With this community, they don't have to.
"I'm able to be part of their lives virtually, but also a sounding board for other things," she said. And she really is — Farmer knows the personal story of almost every girl she's met. She follows their careers and makes sure she meets with them when she sees them, whether that's when she is passing through town or speaking at a conference.
The success of Aspirations in Computing led NCWIT to develop an outreach program, which is for middle school-aged girls and younger. The program has allowed young women to turn around and pay it forward to younger generations, thereby creating a natural talent pipeline. Farmer helped roll out 70 programs nationally in two years, which have since served more than 2,000 girls.
"They call me their career fairy godmother. [They're] the feminist tech army and Dumbledore's Army," she laughed. "They said 'we refer to you as the Dumbledore of NCWIT."
It's quite the compliment, Farmer said. She has always been interested in women's issues. When she was in college at Lewis and Clark, she took a "rhetoric of women" class and had an epiphany: She couldn't understand why she had never really learned about the stories of heroic, strong women, which were often left out of history lessons, and she wanted to change the conversation.
Prior to NCWIT, Farmer was manager of technology and engineering education for Girl Scouts of the USA. That path started in Oregon where Farmer worked at the local chapter of Girl Scouts after she left her career in marketing and advertising. The first office she worked in had one computer — and that's when Farmer realized there was a problem. She convinced tech friends to donate their old computers for the employees to use, started bringing computer science into troop activities, and eventually helped launch a national program with Intel to get more girls submitting engineering projects to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
After her time at Girl Scouts, Farmer went back to school at the University of Oxford and got an MBA in social entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford, with the idea of figuring out how to better use business principles to scale the women in tech movement. She has been with NCWIT ever since.
Farmer recently won the Grace Hopper Celebration Social Impact ABIE Award. In 2013, she was honored as one of the White House's "Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion." She was the 2012 chair for National Computer Science Education Week. Her message has always been, and will continue to be, that careers in technology are not inaccessible to young women of any background. They just need the support system to help them stick with it, she said.
"I want girls to have the high paying innovative jobs in tech," she said. "For the country, I to have the innovation that reflects the great minds of girls and women. Their tech minds are being left out of our innovation, and that is a cost that we really can't afford."
In her own words...
What are your hobbies?
"[I enjoy] gardening and making meals from the fruits of my labor, filling my home with midcentury modern treasures (too many of them) and original artwork, traveling to exotic locations to enjoy the ocean and SCUBA dive. In the winter I knit (just doesn't seem like a summer activity) but can't seem to move beyond scarves, hats and mittens. I have two kitties, Donnie and Priscilla Queen of the Rockies."
What keeps you going every day?
"The young women that I have the privilege of working with give me energy all the time. Hopefully one of them one day will put me in a home. I don't have kids and no time to do that now, [so hopefully] one of these many young women will still be around!"
What characteristic do you credit to your success?
"The reason I'm good at this is because I did move a lot and learned to adapt to different situations. I'm pretty resourceful and really good at getting people to realize they want to help me. I'm good at enlisting other people in the work and finding ways that will satisfy all mutual goals."
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.