Vanessa Slavich of Square talked to TechRepublic about leading the company's computer science camp for girls, teaching herself how to code, and pushing her own limits.
In the last three years, Vanessa Slavich has met more than 100 young women interested in pursuing a career in computer science. And she's seen parts of herself in many of them. They come from diverse backgrounds, families, lifestyles — and they all unite through a passion for coding and technology.
Slavich also realized she shared something else in common with these women: that she faced the same stereotypes they did growing up. She was always vaguely interested in technology, but was afraid computer science wasn't for her. There weren't many mentors. She didn't know exactly how to pursue it.
And she wanted to help give these women the tools and the confidence to do so.
One of the main ways Slavish is tackling this is through a computer science immersion program at Square called Code Camp. Along the way, she's gained confidence in herself as an engineer.
"This affects me too, so I'm going to learn how to code," she said to herself two years ago. And, with a little bit of work each day, she can now update the Code Camp website on her own.
"It legitimizes my work as an engineer...it's really empowering," she said. "If I can learn it, anyone can learn it."
Slavich is a California native and grew up in Sacramento. Her father is from Croatia and her mother is from Canada. She has a brother who was a techie growing up — he held parties in their basement where his friends would bring over giant computers and order pizza and play video games.
She never associated with that type of technology, but always had teachers pushing her to work in IT. Considering herself a creative type, she wanted to pursue marketing and design, and went to California Polytechnic State University to study business and graphic communication.
During undergrad, she went to Copenhagen to study abroad, and fell in love with biking and traveling. She visited her father's birthplace in Croatia, as well as London and other big cities, and when she graduated college, Slavich knew she wanted to work abroad.
She went to Chile first, living with family and working for their company, and learned Spanish. A week after that ended, she moved to London to work as an Imagery and Design Project Associate for Deutsche Bank. When she came back to the US in 2009, through some networking, she landed a job at Apple as a staff recruiter for the iOS team.
"Recruiting is a good entry point into tech, to get a sense for it," she said.
She worked at Apple for two years there before her boss left to work at Square and offered her a position. She liked the idea of a smaller company, with more transparency and collaboration between teams — two things that she said Apple really didn't offer its employees.
After some time working in staffing and employee orientation and event planning, Slavich moved to lead the diversity and talent programs. That's where she started getting really interested in the lack of women in tech.
"There weren't enough women entering CS as a major, and even if they were studying it, they wanted to move into product or non-technical roles," she said. "So we started Code Camp...with a goal of building community with women around the country from all different programs and backgrounds, to have them support each other throughout their career."
For many young women, it's the first time they see a tech company and what it would be like to work in the industry, so Code Camp provides exposure to engineering, security, machine learning, and other leadership roles. The mission is to empower them and have them build a portfolio of projects they can use on their GitHub pages and resumes when they apply for jobs.
Square offers two types of Code Camps every year: a five-day immersion program for college students with coding workshops and leadership sessions, and a seven-day high school program where girls build a project, meet role models and peers, and team up with engineers. At the end of the week, they bring in alumni, who work at tech companies in the area, to build a bridge between students and professionals.
Slavich said they are also working on a pilot program for an internship-type experience where young women can spend a summer working at Square and find a mentor to work with in engineering. She's also leading a program to help Square work with nonprofits to see how they're utilizing technology.
"It's exciting to me how much it affected me personally, too. I learned it's all about giving that week. I give up sleep, workouts, for a greater cause," she said. "And, just in conversations with women who are awesome technically, teaching high school kids and inspiring their peers, doing things in their communities, I've learned a lot from them. Compounding all of that energy and enthusiasm into one week with one group of people is inspiring."
A particular story that stuck out was about a young girl named Michelle, who grew up in foster care in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. She was easily the shyest of the group when she started Code Camp last year, and had never done anything in technology before. By the end of the week, Slavich said, Michelle spoke at their graduation.
"It was amazing to see her confidence grow and [see her] become really competent in her subject matter," she said. "Now she's a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, and she just came back to Square a couple weeks ago. We're trying to build that broader ecosystem."
In her own words...
What makes up part of your work philosophy?
"I've learned so much through triathlons. It's taught me so much about goal setting and schedules and rigidness and allocating time and priorities and basically a whole job outside of my job that keeps me really focused. [I wake up] around 5, swam for an hour and a half this morning and go for a run after, and by the time I get to work I've done so many things for myself — meditating and listening to the news — I feel so awesome. I'm here by 9 and I'm like okay, now I can work. Really setting aside the time for myself in pursuit of dreams outside of work, that correlates to work. All of that structure outside of work helps me focus."
What have triathlons taught you?
"Can't make withdrawals where you haven't made deposits, and I've been pondering that a few days. I started triathlons when I was at Apple. I just did my first Ironman last year. Five of my coworkers flew out there with me to cheer me on and support. It was in Brazil. [A co-worker] and I are doing a half Ironman in Hawaii at the end of May. I'm just more focusing on speed and execution than distance right now. That's the threshold and I can pull back because I know what my body is capable of and what's possible.
"I danced growing up and never did team sports, so it's weird I fell into this and now I'm more experienced than a lot of other people. I try to encourage people around me. Just being a resource to other people around here, being able to talk to our IT guy about swim workouts, people are willing to help me out because I invest in my co-workers."
What is some advice you would give people just getting started in tech?
"A lot of it is getting over the fear and getting over any sort of confidence gap, especially starting out in engineering. I mentioned that I realized I faced a lot of the same stereotypes which I've now started to overcome. This affects me too, so I'm going to learn how to code. So I've been doing Codecademy for the past couple years, do a little bit every day to learn... I am at a point where I can update the code camp website on my own, which is great... it is really exciting, it legitimizes my work as an engineer...it's really empowering. If I can learn it, anyone can learn it.