For most high schoolers, weekdays are structured around going to classes, completing homework, studying for the SAT, playing competitive sports or acting in local theater production, and dealing with the complicated social politics of locker-lined hallways and teenage hormones.
For the teenage winners of Apple's WWDC Scholarship, an annual award that includes a coveted ticket to the company's worldwide developers conference in June, lodging for the event, and a free year of membership to the Apple Developer Program, high school has not followed any standard routine. Many of the winners have not only used their pre-college years to master coding basics — they've created apps and companies that suggest a promising future in Silicon Valley.
Ahead of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, which kicks off today in San Jose, Refinery29 spoke with three of this year's scholarship winners to find out what got them interested in tech and how they plan to break through the industry's barriers. At a time when the rest of the tech industry is coming to grips with the consequences of emphasizing growth at any cost, these young women are refreshingly focused on tech's powerful applications for social good.
Dinesh was first exposed to computer science during the summer after eighth grade, when she took an online course on the programming language Java. Her initial frustration ("I couldn't figure out the purpose of seemingly arbitrary algorithms") turned to curiosity a few months later, when she came across an article about using code to create mobile apps.
"Seeing my lines of code turn into a real piece of usable software is what inspired me to [want to] continue programming and creating software to impact people's lives," Dinesh says. "After that, I was addicted."
Dinesh watched YouTube videos to master the development fundamentals, and made her first app, a beach-themed tic tac toe game, during her freshman year of high school. Since then, she's created numerous others, five of which are currently live on the Google Play Store (until winning the scholarship, Dinesh did not have an Apple developer membership).
During her sophomore year in high school, she decided to found her nonprofit, Girls Make Apps, out of a desire to bridge tech's gender gap and disrupt the programmer stereotype of the hoodie-wearing young man huddled over a computer in his basement. "[I want to] show underrepresented minorities and girls that technology is not just a nerd's game," Dinesh says. "It's not just something that white boys do in their free time — it's something that is accessible to everyone and that really does impact society today."
Dinesh connected with other women at hackathons ("There weren't a lot of women attending them, but those of us who did are a a pretty tight knit group"), and through the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
When she starts at Stanford University in the fall, she knows she'll end up majoring in something tech-related, though she isn't committing herself to one area yet. Whatever she decides on, she sees entrepreneurship in her future: "There's not enough technology that's solving the world's problems and I want to be the one to start those companies and create those products."
Amanda Southworth: The 16-year-old who created an app to battle anxiety
After her parents divorced during her fifth grade school year, Southworth moved to a new school near Indio, California, with few friends. She enrolled in a robotics class at school on a whim, and became so passionate about working with machines ("I thought they were the coolest thing ever invented") that she found herself skipping other classes to stay in the robotics lab all day. She quickly moved on to teaching herself web development and artificial intelligence fundamentals through a mixture of Googling and reading textbooks she ordered online.
Southworth created her first app, AnxietyHelper, out of a desire to help others who deal with anxiety and depression, both of which she struggled with herself. "A quote of mine that I love is, be the person you needed when you were younger," Southworth says. "AnxietyHelper is that for me. It’s the tool I wish I could’ve had as a kid."
The app includes easy access to mental health resources, as well as a way for users to focus their emotions by "tapping them out through thought bubbles." Her second app, Verena, had a similar focus on providing support, this time for the LGBTQ+ community.
Southworth dropped out of high school this year to focus on Astra Labs, her nonprofit software development company that's funded by a $25,000 grant she won from the TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund. In 10 years, she plans to be living in Seattle and creating apps for social wellbeing: "I see myself working at Astra and, most importantly, I see myself being happy. That's pretty much the ultimate goal — not only help others, but to help myself, too."
Gabrielle Ecanow: The 18-year-old who wants to make it easier to find a mentor
As an eighth grader, Ecanow had no interest in joining her middle school's new Code Club.
"I had no idea what coding was, and it meant I would have to give up a weekend evening," Ecanow says. "But my friend convinced me by saying, 'Gaby, you have to go with me so I’m not the only girl!'"
Ecanow planned to appease her classmate by going to one session. But her thinking quickly changed: The gratification of telling a computer what to do, and seeing it respond to her commands, proved no match for other weekend evening plans. She even found a practical use for her newfound skills: Creating a program that picked out her clothes in the morning, which afforded her an extra 10 minutes of sleep.
Ecanow now has six apps on the App Store. Most of her inspiration is born from a desire to solve problems she comes across on a daily basis. For example, when she started tutoring middle schoolers in Chicago, she found it tough to connect due to spotty WiFi and a disproportionate ratio of computers to students. She started working on her latest app, Study Buddy Connection, to make it easy for anyone, anywhere to pair up with a tutor and chat directly through the app.
Ecanow, who heads to MIT this fall, says the gender gap gives her some reservations about entering the tech world. But she won't let that deter her: "I think one thing that I'm most worried about is being taken seriously, and being able to showcase my work. Hopefully, in four years, I won't have any trouble with going into the workforce with just as much confidence and opportunities as a man would."