Being on a first name basis with Apple CEO Tim Cook is something every developer, businessperson, and wannabe Silicon Valley entrepreneur aspires to. In reality, only a select few actually get this opportunity. Rebecca Kahn, a South Carolina-based senior in high school, is part of that lucky contingent. And due to a new program, her story is about to become more common.
Last year, Kahn emailed Cook out of the blue with hopes that he would speak with her for a computer class project. Her email led to a phone call, during which Kahn interviewed Cook and got his thoughts on how to increase diversity in tech, as well as the seed of an idea for a larger initiative that would give many more women access to this unique opportunity. Today, Apple and the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) announced a new partnership program, Innovator to Innovator, that will pair young women interested in careers in STEM with Apple executives for a one-on-one conversation.
NCWIT says it is still determining how it will pick among the members of its Aspirations in Computing community, but those who are chosen will have the chance to speak in person or over the phone with male and female Apple executives. After the conversation, they'll publish a blog post on NCWIT's site detailing what they learned, so others in the community will be able to take advantage of the access to senior level executives, too.
The advantage, according to Apple, goes both ways. "It’s good for us to hear from these girls about what is it that [they're] interested in," Kim Vorrath, the VP of OS Programs at Apple and an NCWIT board member, told Refinery29. "That helps us tweak things such that the products we’re working on and the environment we have is more conducive to what they’re looking for."
"You can relate to a person better than you can relate to this fictitious thing that you read about."
Providing a good work environment for young women is something a lot of tech companies are thinking about going into 2018. Time's Up might have started with the entertainment industry, but the movement is incredibly relevant to the tech community as well, where women are still in the minority and often face wage discrimination. Susan Fowler brought renewed vigor to the importance of changing the bro culture that has long persisted at startups and tech companies with her now-famous blog post about Uber. Over the past year, journalists and tech workers have been looking hard at what tech companies are — and, more importantly, aren't — doing to support women.
Although many in the tech industry have referenced pipeline problems as a scapegoat for the lack of diversity in their ranks, statistics show that the talent is there. Often, the missing link is the availability of role models and mentors. In a 2017 study conducted by the nonprofit tech association ISACA, a lack of mentors was cited as the top barrier for women in tech.
"You can relate to a person better than you can relate to this fictitious thing that you read about," Vorrath told Refinery29 of the importance of talking with people who are actually working in tech. "Every exec at apple that I’ve ever talked to has stories of difficult times that they’ve been through. I think it’s good to hear stories about how we’ve all made it through and suggestions on how to deal with difficult situations."
For now, Innovator to Innovator is a small-scale solution: NCWIT and Apple say there is likely to be one conversation per quarter, but the program has larger-scale potential. The conversations between students and execs could also turn into career-long relationships. And if this model is adapted by other companies, it could be a meaningful step towards tackling tech's mentorship problem.