The future can’t be built by the same old elite. Kimberly Bryant as founder of Black Girls Code work aims to ensure the creators are more inclusive, and to show that girls and girls of color are as talented as anyone.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
Dan Costa: So good to have you.
Kimberly Bryant: Thank you.
Costa: A substitute pitcher coming in, so early in the game. So, Kimberly, we spoke not too long ago at South x Southwest and I think maybe the place to start is really the sort of origin story behind Black Girls CODE because I think it contains all the explanations for sort of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Bryant: Sure. So, Black Girls CODE was founded in 2011. My interest in this field of ed tech really began because my daughter was going into middle school and really starting to find her groove, so to speak, as a gamer, a heavy and avid video gamer. And around that time, as I was really exploring ways to kind of take this hobby into something that could actually be perhaps profitable for her, at least, in her future, I did not find that many programs that really catered to young girls that were interested in technology and coding. I did find one program at Stanford University in the summer and it was a great opportunity for her but there was certainly a lack of diversity and a lack of inclusion even in that classroom with early learners. And that was something that really concerned me, I’m coming out of the biotech industry and being in the Silicon Valley area and seeing the diversity and inclusion was such an issue in the tech industry as a whole and even seeing on the educational side that our kids were still experiencing a similar dynamic.
So, this passion to create an organization to kind of create this community for her was really driven by that and me wanting to make the pathway for my daughter a bit easier as she started to really explore and perhaps create a career in the industry in the future.
Costa: So how do you go about doing that? You see the problem, you say, “I think I can do something about this,” what steps do you take?
Bryant: Well, interestingly enough, originally, I did not plan to start an organization. I was lucky to be in the biotech industry and I had a very, I don’t want to say large, but I had a substantial 401(k) that I’d had for my company and originally, I was just going to use that. I was just going to take money out of my 401(k), get maybe three or four additional girls, pay for them myself, to go to this same summer camp the following summer with my daughter, just so she would not be alone in this classroom. And as I started to talk to sort of friends and colleagues, they were the ones that really suggested, “Well, why do that? Why don’t you just create this yourself,” and I didn’t even think about that before because I certainly didn’t want to start a nonprofit. Now, seven years later, sometimes I still think, “I certainly don’t want to start a nonprofit.” But it was not something that I originally set out to do.
So, taking that seed of interest and starting this program kind of led me to speak to as many people as I could that were doing anything remotely similar and putting together this concept which became our pilot in 2011.
Costa: So, is your daughter still coding today or she moved on and now she’s into dance?
Bryant: No. Well, she started out in dance and so unfortunately she didn’t become Misty Copeland. But, she is now, she’s still in coding. She’s decided to major in computer science in college, she’s right up the road at University of Maryland and is just finishing up, well, this is finals week, her first year, freshman year, majoring in CS.
Costa: So, I don’t want to get too far before we sort of address the question head-on, why do you think it’s important for there to be a greater level of diversity among our technology leaders?
Bryant: Well, interestingly enough, I actually have conversations with my daughter and other girls in Black Girls CODE about this quite a bit. And, fundamentally, I think having a diversity of perspectives at the table when applications or solutions are being created leads to different solutions. So it’s been interesting across the last seven and eight years to see the type of things that our students will create. They tend to be very different than the things that we see in the marketplace now. They’re things that address issues that they face as young women of color in their communities or students of color in their communities. And that’s really fundamentally the driver for more diversity is that it will lead to, perhaps, better solutions and certainly a diversity of solutions in terms of the problems that we’re using technology to solve.
Costa: Are there any specific examples that sort of ring out to you?
Bryant: Yes. It’s interesting, this weekend I was actually helping my daughter start to move out of her freshman dorm and we were talking about this speech that she is giving next week at this Women in Tech festival in San Francisco. And as she was giving examples of some of the applications that other young women have created, I was like, “Why don’t you just talk about the things you created yourself, you don’t have to talk about someone else.” And she was like, “Yes, I guess I could do that.” But one of the things that really stood out is they created this application back when she was probably 13 during this hackathon that they participated in and it was called Ohana and even at that early age, I was really surprised by the sophistication of it and the social impact. It was a wearable device that would look sort of like this, a piece of jewelry or maybe a barrette or clip-on but it was really a wearable that would activate an alarm if the student was walking somewhere or walking home from school and they were in a neighborhood where they felt unsafe and that alarm, by activating it, would call their key contacts and it would call, like, emergency services to say, “Hey, I’m in this area and I don’t feel safe,” because it would be attached to an app, send a signal to an app.
And I was really, I think, awakened by their intuition and how they were navigating as young women in the world and saw tech as a way to create a solution to address that issue. That’s just one of the things that they created during all of these times in their interaction with Black Girls CODE but I think it speaks to the level of impact that these young women can have once they come into the tech space.
Costa: I think that’s a great example because I don’t think there’s a lot of 13-year-old boys or even 35-year-old boys who would think that—men, that would think that that was an application that was necessary.
Bryant: Right, right. And I was—I often talk about this application because it hit so close to home. Because at that time, my daughter was, you know, just starting to be on the BART, the transit system in the Bay Area going to school in the mornings or coming home by herself. And it was also the time that there was this whole discourse around young girls that were stolen across the sea and, “Bring back our girls.” For them to put those two together in their presentation and in their examination of this issue, it really struck me as a parent, like, “Whoa,” not only is my daughter facing similar issues as girls across the world from her but she sees tech as an application and a tool to create an answer for that problem, yes.
Costa: And know you’re a reluctant nonprofit starter but now that you’re eight years into this, it must be amazing to see the girls that started off in those first couple of years, are they still involved in the organization? Are they mentoring the next generation of girls?
Bryant: Absolutely. One of the things that when we spoke last time at SxSW, we were right in the midst of this initiative that we started this year called Future Tech Boss and for SxSW we took a group of 15 BGC alumni and ambassadors from all over the country and different universities with us to SxSW. They were speaking on the panels, they did a workshop on blockchain. We have really seen our girls start to come into their own and become leaders of the younger students, as well as just leaders and influencers in the tech space and that’s been fantastic to see.
I think one of the things that’s unique about Black Girls CODE is that we run workshops across the year from January to December, it’s not just in the summer and girls that come within the organization, they tend to stay. So, they tend to stay with us for, you know, five, six, seven years, seven, eight years, etcetera, and they continue to not only participate in STEM in some way, but to become the leaders in it. Now, they may not all, like my daughter, go into CS but we have girls that were going into aerospace engineering, we have a student that just got a full-ride to UC-Berkeley, but she’s not going into CS, she’s going to be a doctor. It really varies.
Costa: Her parents must be so disappointed.
Bryant: I know.
I know, I know, I hear you. Yeah, but it’s been—that has been, for me, hands down, the most rewarding part of this experience, is really seeing the girls come into their own and I’m really in awe of how much that they have kind of taken the little bit that we’ve sowed into them and really seen blossomed, well beyond my expectations.
Costa: So just in practical terms, you’re doing workshops, are they afterschool programs, are they offsite programs, are you getting cooperation with big tech companies?
Bryant: Absolutely. So we are primarily an afterschool program but we have different program verticals. So there’s a weekend workshop format that we do that happens on Saturday, we do more traditional summer camps that would be two to four weeks within the summer months when school was out, but we also do programs that work in the schools. So we do code clubs that is like a four to eight week program that is an afterschool program but it’s in a school and happens during the school week. And we also do other things, you know, we do hackathons, we do career panels, we do trips like we did to SxSW, we really try to give the girls an opportunity to be exposed as much as possible to the industry and so that they can see all of the opportunities that are within it.
And we’ve always had some of the major tech companies as sponsors. Here in New York, we actually have an office here but it’s a tech innovation lab that sits in the Google building, right downtown in Chelsea. So that space was created and given to us by Google to create a lab within their office in close proximity to Google employees. So we do a lot of work with them to bring their employees in for our girls to see tech from the inside out, so to speak. And then in other places like Seattle, we were sponsored by Microsoft and they helped us launch our Seattle chapter just a couple weeks ago. So in those locations and in other cities across the U.S., those classes and workshops that we do happen either in a facility, a Microsoft facility, it could be in a community center, it could be in the school, etcetera.
Costa: Well, we are going to get a couple of audience questions in, but I want to ask you a couple more questions first.
Costa: The tech industry, it seems like a lot of these big tech firms understand that they have a problem, they want to be more diverse, are there any tech firms that are getting it right, that are taking the right steps and what advice do you have for the rest?
Bryant: Yeah, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. I think one of the things that was kind of shocking but not surprising was back in 2017, there was a report that came out that showed over the four years preceding that, the number of black women in the tech industry actually declined. And so in reading that, I felt a little bit—I don’t know if I would say down, I wasn’t surprised because I think—and when we started BGC there was a lot of focus on tech inclusion as a pipeline issue, however, that’s not the full story. So, if you look at the number of STEM-related jobs, tech-related jobs, that number continues to grow and we don’t graduate enough learners of any demographic to fill those roles. Which is why there’s such a need to bring talent in from the outside of the U.S., that’s a fact.
And so from that perspective, it is pipeline. But if you look at look at black and brown, black and Hispanic students that are graduating with a CS degree, that’s about 19–15% for the past five, six, seven, eight years, but we’re only about 3% black and Latinx in the industry. So, that tells me there’s something else going on there and a lot of attrition and there’s a lot of barriers to these learners even getting a seat, a foot in the door.
And so there’s some companies that have done a great job. I think one that comes to mind, readily, is Pinterest. I think what gives Pinterest that competitive edge is that they build diversity and inclusion from the ground up as a startup. Which is the way to do it a bit easier, I don’t want to say the easy way, a bit easier if you start from the ground up. So putting in hiring policies, mentoring policies, that really bring in diversity and inclusion from day one. I think it’s a little bit harder to move a big boat that’s been around for a while. So, when you look at companies like Google, Intel, they have lots of programs that are doing work in this but still just moving the needle a little bit. One company that I think has done well is Intel. I think what I like that they have done is that they set a target and they weren’t afraid to name a number. And so that held them accountable to doing all the things, not just recruiting, but retention and promoting from within, that could really help them meet those targets. I think sometimes companies are afraid to name a number, but they did it and that’s one thing that I respect. Although, there’s still lots of work to be done.
Costa: After we published our story a couple months ago, if you read into the comments—and you should never read comments on the web, but you know, I felt obligated to do so—and you get this response, which I think you’ve heard a lot, which is that the name of the organization is Black Girls CODE and instantly the commenters say, “Well, what about White Girls CODE? What about Hispanic Girls CODE? Is this inherently discriminatory?” And it’s an argument that I’m sure you’ve heard before but how do you respond to those types of people?
Bryant: Well, I think one of the things that’s fundamental about our name Black Girls CODE and the genesis story of it, you know, I remember coming to a conference like this, I think at that time—I don’t remember what it was, I think it was a women’s conference and talking to one of the speakers about my idea. And I was like, “You know, I’m thinking about creating this organization,” and by that time, I had been talking to lots of folks, thinking about different names, and I literally had the quintessential napkin with all these names written on it and scratched through. And then at the end, it was Black Girls CODE, and I hesitantly approached this speaker and I was like, “I think I want to start this organization to teach girls of color about coding and I think I want to call it Black Girls CODE but I’m not positive this is going to fly.” And she was like, “Are you kidding me? Absolutely.” Now, this is still a mentor and an icon for me, so to speak, and she’s the founder of Womensphere and she’s from the Philippines and she was like, “No, I am a black girl, I get this. You go make—,” she literally made me go and get the name on the web to see if it was used yet and did it like right on spot. She’s like, “And do the rest when you get home.”
And I think from that, that was my first affirmation that it was okay to be unapologetic about this community that we wanted to serve. Because, really, Black Girls CODE is a term of affirmation as opposed to segregation. It’s not saying that other girls and women can’t come into our space because they do, even in Johannesburg, those classes are diverse, they’re not just black South Africans. It’s about making sure that these girls know it’s okay to be their full selves. Because that was my reality, I was not just an engineer, I was not just a woman engineer throughout the 20+ years of my life, I was a black woman in a male dominated technical field. And I could not take that identity off, but I needed this next generation to know it was okay to bring their full self to the table.
So, the work that we do is with black and brown, black, Hispanic, sometimes that means girls that are from the Philippines or sometimes that means girls in the Bay Area that are Pacific Islander are in those classrooms. Sometimes that means Caucasian girls are in that classroom. Anyone is welcome, but this term in this organizational—the face of the organization is meant to say, “It’s okay to be who you are and we’re going to focus on this demographic because we’re the least represented in this industry.”
Costa: All right. I think we’ve got time for a couple of questions. Right here.
Audience 1: Thank you. Amazing organization, can you tell everybody here how the different groups here can help you, from corporate to government to individuals.
Costa: That was going to be my last question.
Bryant: That’s a great question, thank you. So, one of the things that, as Dan and I were talking, we have lots of corporate partners that work with us. We just—I’m back and forth, I live in the Bay Area. But when I was talking to a partner yesterday, they asked me, “What does success look like?” And I was like, “That’s a great question,” it’s about thought partnership. So we’re looking to partner with corporate partners that not only want to just write a check—although checks, I’m a nonprofit, they’re always great.
They’re always great. But I want someone to build with. I want someone to say, “Hey, this is what we do within Black Girls CODE, come work with us and let’s figure out how we can make a change, a ripple in the industry,” because we can’t change it all. But we know if we work with your company, we can make a ripple and I think that ripple creates other ripples. So, we’re always looking for corporate partners, for folks that are in government, as we expand past the 15 cities that we’re in, we’re looking to partner with school districts, we’re looking to partner with cities and governments on policies that make CS available for student learners. For folks that are building companies, we certainly are looking to partner with you all in terms of feeding that pipeline as you build and giving internship and mentorship opportunities to students.
So, working in, I would say, collaboration with anyone in the room that is doing work to really change this industry is what we want to do.
Costa: We have one more quick one.
Salvato: Hi, I’m MaryJane Salvato, I’m the founder of webFlutter, about to launch and I’m an engineer as well and I’ve been involved with nonprofits. I wanted to know if you could the audience, in your experience, is there any skillsets or personality traits that you’ve discovered in girls that make them a success in what you’re doing?
Bryant: Absolutely. Collaboration. Collaboration is something that I have found with our girls and not wanting to work in isolation, that makes them very successful in the projects that they create. So, being able to come to the table, not with just the idea as well as the solution, but looking to build upon those skillsets of their other teammates is something that we built in Black Girls CODE from the beginning. It’s very rare that they’re doing a project alone. It’s very rare. I can only think of maybe, maybe on web, when they’re doing web design, maybe they’re working alone but most of the time, it’s all team-based and those are the skills that we see them thrive in by pulling in the different skillsets of those around them. And I think that is what’s going to be a gamechanger as they come into the industry, that having those heavy collaboration skills and being able to lift all those boats as they rise.
Costa: All right, ladies and gentlemen, Kimberly Bryant.
Bryant: All right, thanks, Dan!