When you think of Silicon Valley, "sisterhood" is probably not the first term that springs to mind. But in their new book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech, authors Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens argue that the lack of women in the tech world is making the bonds of sisterhood stronger than ever.
"There are so few women that they want to help each other ... These women exemplify the best in all of us, this idea that a rising tide lifts all boats," Cabot told Refinery29.
Ahead, read an exclusive excerpt from the book.
Seventeen-year-old Aruna Prasad is one of those young change makers who has been influenced by all the empowering discussions around women and technology. She’s an admirer of both Sheryl Sandberg and Grace Hopper, two women who represent the intersection of business and innovation. Aruna, a senior at the Spence School in New York City, is a coder, a grassroots activist, and a budding entrepreneur in her own right. She’s the earnest young woman behind Nerdina, a YouTube channel and an interschool club, and she is the creator of tech experiment kits aimed at girls. One of her primary goals is to connect girls who aspire to work in technology.
On her website she defines Nerdinas as “female nerds that have the potential to be leading technocrats.” She candidly writes that being a Nerdina can be lonely and blending in can be tough. That’s why she started Nerdina when she was twelve. Now it’s in four elite New York City private schools, including three all girls’ schools, plus three New Jersey public schools, and most recently, Nerdina expanded to a school in Kingston, Jamaica.
“In middle school I got really interested in programming, and it became my goal to be somebody who was a leader and an innovator, and I wanted to, when I grew up, be an influential person in the field of technology,” the dark-haired teen told us as we sat in her bedroom amid stuffed animals and photos of a friend’s Sweet Sixteen and family trips to India.
She was craving a way to learn more and wanted to connect with other girls who care about technology. The soft-spoken girl who loves country music and black licorice wanted girls to be able to learn together about the latest innovations and also to discuss people and inventions they admire. As more girls began to join the club, she realized something practical was missing from their discussions.
“I realized that if I wanted to be a creator and innovator, I needed to first look at the technology around me and understand what other people had invented. And that was me exploring the fundamentals of technology: the inner workings of a computer, circuits, or networking concepts. So, yeah, I’m using the internet every day, but how do I connect to the internet?” Aruna said.
This led her to create a series of video tutorials in which she answers such questions as “How are emails sent?” And that led to her idea for the Nerdina educational kits. These are boxes of wires, batteries, LEDs, and other components with directions for electrical engineering experiments. She showed us one activity that could teach girls how a watch keeps time. Aruna assembled the first fifty kits on her own and has already given some of them to teachers at several schools whom she met when she talked up Nerdina at a STEM conference at Columbia University in 2015. Her dream is to partner with Girls Who Code. She met its founder, Reshma Saujani, when Saujani spoke to a group of Nerdinas in the spring of 2016.
Encouraging more girls to enter the pipeline is, of course, not a panacea. It’s one facet of what needs to happen for the entire innovation economy to capitalize on women’s ideas and capabilities.
From the time Aruna was tiny, her parents said, she asked lots of questions. One of their favorite stories is about the time the cable guy came to their apartment to hook up their Internet connection, and five-year-old Aruna kept insisting he was using the wrong cable. Turned out, she was right.
Her father, Jay, works in technology and her mother, Prabha, in finance, and they always encouraged Aruna to pursue her interest in how things work. She especially loves math and music. It was her passion for music, playing and composing on her violin and piano that originally turned her on to coding. She said she wanted to get inside the world of digital music and understand how to build devices like her iPhone, which gave her so much joy when she listened to it.
“Technology is a puzzle, and there’s more than just one piece. It’s not just hardware or coding. There are so many pieces, and the more of those pieces you can understand — hardware, coding, software, networking — really the more prepared we will be when we enter the tech world. And that’s kind of how I’m thinking of developing the pipeline itself,” Aruna said, explaining her grand plan to unite young girls around tech.
Encouraging more girls to enter the pipeline is, of course, not a panacea. It’s one facet of what needs to happen for the entire innovation economy to capitalize on women’s ideas and capabilities. Girls also need to be encouraged to be entrepreneurs and investors. That is why AOL’s innovative #BUILTBYGIRLS summer internship for high school juniors and seniors splits their time between opportunities to apply their coding skills to product development and a crash course in venture capital that gives them an inside look at how BBG Ventures invests in female tech founders.
Girls need more role models on all fronts, which was why we took on this project—to fill what Chelsea Clinton called the “visibility gap” (when she spoke at the Grace Hopper Conference in 2015) with the stories of enterprising, innovating women who are emerging as a new generation of leaders across the tech ecosystem — geek girls rising. It is true that much work remains to change the cultures of tech companies, which have a tendency to regard young single men as the most valuable workers rather than more mature, diverse employees with outside interests and responsibilities. In the summer of 2016 the slow pace of change at the tech giants was still frustrating — the numbers of women and people of color had barely nudged up despite all the fervent discussion during the previous two years.
There still aren’t many female decision makers in venture capital, and the numbers of women-led companies that are getting funded remains small. And yet, as we consider all the geek girls we met during our five years of research, women who are banding together to take on this unwieldy, complicated problem in schools, on college campuses, in boardrooms, in investment groups, and in their own companies, we have hope.
“I think we have made an enormous amount of progress. Women are starting companies left and right,” Debbie Sterling [Founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a toy company that focuses on introducing young girls to tech] said. “We are now starting to see more women pursuing STEM degrees and more people talking about women serving on boards. There is definitely a movement taking place, but I will say there is still a lot of work to do. There is a lot of talk. We need more action.”
From GEEK GIRL RISING by Heather Cabot and Samantha Walravens. Copyright © 2017 by the authors and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.