This Woman Could Change Everything You Believe About Tech

SuperWoman_LandingPage_KimberyBryant_FINALPhotographed by Amy Harrity; Designed by Gabriela Alford.
In innovation-driven fields where entrepreneurial spirit reigns supreme, you tend to find two kinds of people: the ones who dream of changing the landscape, and the ones who actually do it. Kimberly Bryant, well, she’s a doer. The founder of Black Girls Code, an ambitious nonprofit that aims to tackle the racial and gender disparities in tech fields, she’s unwilling to accept the status quo. Unacceptable to Bryant: the fact that women still comprise only 26% of the workforce in STEM fields, and that Google and Yahoo’s female representation clock in well below 35%, and worse still, that Black women and men make up only 2% of each of those companies’ workforces. To combat that, she’s looking to arm young minorities — 20,000 in the next year — with the skills and knowledge they need to consider tech careers as an option. She’s quite literally teaching Black girls to write code — and challenging many of the notions of what success in Silicon Valley should look like in the process. And, she’s only just getting started.
In just a few short years since founding BGC in 2011, Bryant has launched seven U.S. chapters and one South Africa outpost and reached upwards of 3,000 girls. She’s banking on the power of early education, and hoping to change the future of tech by making it accessible and appealing to children at an early age. And, while we still may be lightyears from where we need to get, in terms of equal representation in STEM fields, she strongly believes that this investment in education and development can get us there over the course of the next generation.
In conversation, Bryant makes her passion and ambition clear; her eyes light up as she details her lofty expansion plans and the power of the confidence she sees her students gain as they complete the program. Ahead, she talks openly and honestly about the current state of tech, the difference between consuming and creating, Black Girls Code’s ambitions for the upcoming years, and what she does when she needs to step away from glowing screens.
Her Superwoman cape firmly affixed to her shoulders, this woman is blazing a path for the next generation that could completely change the landscape of tech — for the better, smarter, and much more inclusive.
_MG_4423_R_SIZEDPhotographed by Amy Harrity.You’ve said that you started BGC to encourage your daughter to become a creator rather than a consumer. How does that work?
"I think there are two things that at play here, at the intersection of race and gender, which BGC does a really good job of addressing. When you do a survey of girls in middle school, more than half express an interest in STEM careers in the future, but by the time they get to high school, that number has plummeted down to single digits. Now, when we look at girls of color and communities of color, there is an additional challenge that we’re facing with students from underrepresented communities not even getting early access to STEM careers and opportunities. The role models and the potential career paths they see don’t typically include jobs in tech or going to work for Google or Facebook.

"So, the earlier we can start in communities of color to expose them to this, the better. We’re setting the stage for [girls] to know that this exists as a career early as middle school. Our hope and goal is that we are providing skills and programs for them to exercise those muscles and learn what it means to be a coder, what it means to be a technologist, so that we don’t see that drop off that occurs after middle school."
_MG_4427_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.What’s the biggest misunderstanding around women of color in tech that you want to set straight?
"That women of color are not interested in technology and not interested in becoming technology founders or leaders. That is not true. We are very interested — I’ve taught my girls to be just as interested in coding and gaming as their male counterparts. So, that myth is one that we are adamantly attempting to dispel with this program."

How do we, as women, continue to foster more progressive workspaces, in STEM fields specifically?
"By really stepping up. I think women should step up by taking that leap to start companies and take our ideas forward, and doing things on our own. There is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit among women. But, really being able to find those resources and networks that encourage women to go down that startup path is important. We need to have women as role models, both inside and outside corporate America’s leading tech companies, leading the path for other women.

"And then, [we also need] to hold the industry accountable. That means holding the VC community accountable, holding the corporate community accountable, holding all these different elements accountable to really create an inclusive environment [for women]. Our voices need to be heard about the type of work environment we want to see, not just for ourselves, but for our daughters."
_MG_4448_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.Speaking of role models, who are some of the key people who have influenced you?
"Sheryl Sandberg is a big role model for me. I am in awe of the things she has been able to accomplish. And then, Ursula Burns [CEO of Xerox]. She is not necessarily as well known in the media, but as a woman of color in the engineering field, she is a tremendous role model for me. I would also say Mae Jemison [a physician and NASA astronaut], in the science field. There are others, but they aren’t all women... Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, has been able to do so much, in terms of being a philanthropist and placing a heavy emphasis on that, in his business. Because of that, he is a guide for what I would like to do with my organization in the future."

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
"Follow your path. That one really rings true for me. Looking back, I didn’t really know, throughout my career, where my passion was — until I found this. This work [with Black Girls Code] is something I really do because I have a passion for it. So, find that thing that motivates you, and find a way to build your career path around that.

"And, find and invest in the very best team you can. It is so critically important to find and hire people who are better than you. It’s probably even harder as a business owner and founder, to let that sink in, because you are the one with the ideas and the vision, but [good people] are really imperative if you want to grow."
_MG_4481_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.What about the worst advice?
"Well, no one ever gave me this advice directly, but it’s something that you hear a lot: that success equals scale. I think in a lot of start-up communities now, people believe that going from one program to hundreds really quickly is successful. That is not true at all, and is a very dangerous path to go down. We did that as an organization and we have some bumps and bruises because of it.

"I think that scale is one measure of success but it is not the only measure. I’ve seen many programs that are doing truly impactful work, either because they can’t scale yet or have a hyper-local focus by choice, and they are creating some true change. I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of your business model and what your value proposition as an organization is — as opposed to [that of] your competitors — and then you scale."

What advice do you give to people who want to shake up the conversation in the same way that you have?
"Do something. There are a lot of conversations going on right now, but not enough doers. So, find a way you can actually DO something. Is it mentoring? Is it speaking? Is it organizing? Everyone can do something."
_MG_4566_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.How have your goals and work changed since you started out in 2011?
"In the beginning, we thought that we would just focus on girls in middle school; we wanted to tap into girls at that critical time when they are making a decision about whether or not they want a career in tech in the future — and when they tend to drop out.

"But, when we did our very first parent information night, many of them brought their younger daughters along with their older daughters. Because we were just doing a pilot and there were no strict rules at that time, we said yes, go ahead and bring them; can’t hurt. But then, we realized during the class that these girls were exceptionally bright and not only could they do some of the same work the older girls were doing, they could do it better, faster, and with more enthusiasm.

"The lightbulb then kind of went off, and we were like 'Aha! We shouldn’t be tapping just middle school girls. We should be starting much younger.' So, we expanded our vision to include girls as young as seven all the way to 17-year-olds."
_MG_4503_r_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.When did you first realize how significant the impact of Black Girls Code could be?
"In 2012, when we launched our Summer of Code project; it was the first time we had done a project of that type. Before that, we had mainly been a local organization based in the Bay Area — very much a grass-roots organization. The original goal of Summer of Code was to be able to reach 200 girls in seven different cities, in three months time. Up to that date, we had a max of 20 to 25 students in one of our classes. So, this was a big goal. And, at the end of the summer, we were reaching almost 80 girls in each of our classes. We went to Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and NYC, and each of these places saw the same type of enthusiasm and response. That’s when we knew we really had something that could make a tremendous impact. That is when our vision really changed from being hyper-local to being more nationally driven with chapters all over the U.S."
_MG_4548_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.You've mentioned that you didn't grow up around computers — what was your earliest memory of interacting with them?
"I didn’t really get introduced [to personal technology] until my freshman year of college, taking a class in computer science and having to spend hours in the computer lab. Because, growing up in Tennessee, there was nothing there — this was still before the Internet was a thing. I just remember so vividly, showing the other engineers and technicians this thing where you could go on and find information, where you could type in all these codes to literally get access to anything."

What's been the most powerful moment in your career so far?
"When we had three students from BGC speak at The Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco last December. It was an incredibly significant moment for me to see students from our class stand up in front of a crowd of hundreds of people to give an enlightening talk about their work.

"It was so validating, and a good reminder that we are creating something that is rare in the industry right now: girls who are empowered to be creators and are socially aware and can actually create change in the world. Plus, they are confident enough to stand up as leaders and talk about their ideas. It has meant so much to see them be able to make that leap."
_MG_4608_R_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about yourself since founding BGC?
"I learned that I really can have the self-confidence to face my fears. Any new business owner who says they aren’t afraid of something is lying. As a start-up founder, all the things that I have learned have been scary. But, over time, I’ve found the confidence to face my fears when I don’t know something."
_MG_4701_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.Since you started the company in 2011, the tech scene has exploded. Have you seen a change in the landscape when it comes to women and minorities in the space?
"Absolutely. When we started, one of the primary drivers (in addition to my daughter) was my [own experience] as a woman wanting to work in the tech field and start-up community, not seeing many people who look like me. There were very, very few people of color in that environment at that time, but it was sort of the unspoken elephant in the room. It was almost like a hush-hush conversation between myself and maybe a few other people that would be in these situations.

"But now, that atmosphere has totally changed, and issues of diversity and inclusion are front and center. With the news and the numbers being released at Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook — everywhere you look there is a conversation about the role of gender and diversity in tech. It’s not something that is done undercover.

"I also think we’re at a tipping point because all of the right people are involved in creating a solution. We have initiatives coming out of the White House for technology such as My Brother’s Keeper, as well as other initiatives to get more diverse talent in tech...

"And then, we have organizations like BGC and #YesWeCode that are really doing our part from more of a grassroots, community level to drive these issues, as well. So, now you have multiple forces all wanting to move in the same direction — all working to create change, and it’s going to happen."
_MG_4730_sizedPhotographed by Amy Harrity.Does living in San Francisco impact your perspective on the tech industry?
"Yes, I think that impacts it a lot. I think about this from time to time: If I hadn’t moved here eight years ago, I don’t think I ever would have started BGC. The whole Bay Area, being this close to Silicon Valley and being right at the hub of innovation, it impacts things all around us.

"It’s one of the main reasons I started BGC. This atmosphere is all around us, but there are some kids who don’t even know it exists. Being so close to these leaders in tech, being where all these new ideas are happening, it definitely influences my perspective — and gives me more ideas and opportunities to expose students to."

BCG is now in seven states across the country, as well as Johannesburg, South Africa — how many students are you reaching? And, what’s next?
"We’ve reached about 3,000 students to date and our plans are to add eight additional chapters by the end of 2015. We’re still not reaching as many students in the Midwest, so a huge push for us over the next couple years will be to reach students in Texas, Minneapolis, Kansas City, that will allow us to tap into the middle of the country. And, we’re also looking at opening more International chapters — in Africa as well as Canada and Europe. In the next three years, we’re hoping be up to 20,000 students. We are also looking into programs that are focused on boys or co-ed opportunities. Our primary goal will always be girls, but there are opportunities for us to include both [boys and girls]. And, our parents have asked for that, so we want to explore it over the next two years."

Your work, of course, is all about being plugged in — but when you need to take a digital detox, what do you do?
"Travel. For me, a digital detox is any place that has a warm, sunny beach — preferably the Caribbean. I literally just had this conversation with my daughter, who has been on the road with me throughout the whole summer. At the end of the year, we’re going to go somewhere with the family and not take our phones or our computers, and digitally detox on a beach somewhere. She was like, ‘I don’t believe you!’ But, I’m going to do it; we’re going to be offline! "

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