As a black, female electrical engineering student at the beginning of the dotcom boom, Kimberly Bryant says she was part of a unique period of outreach to women. Still, she was only one of the handful of women around her to graduate with a degree in computer science, and remembers feeling isolated. "There were more women attending college and getting degrees in engineering, but there still wasn’t a lot," she says. "It was very lonely—and especially for me, coming from the inner city of Memphis."
In the decades after Bryant graduated, the ratio of women graduating with computer science degrees plummeted from 36% to 13%. But it was only when Bryant decided to launch her own health-related tech startup after building a successful career in the biotech industry that she started looking deeply into ethnic and gender disparities in her field. "I started doing a lot of networking. I’d go to events and there would be no women, or maybe a handful of women and no folks of color," she says. Then, at one leadership conference at the University of California, Berkeley, a question was posed for the breakout session: Why don’t tech companies hire more women?
"We got into a discussion about how these companies would like to hire more women, but they just don’t exist," Bryant says. "And then the light bulb for me just went off because I realized that shouldn’t be the case."
Bryant dropped the health startup idea and launched Black Girls Code, an educational outreach program that began with a little less than 100 students at the end of its first year, and two years later has grown to well over a thousand. In 2012, Bryant took Black Girls Code on the road as a summer program, hitting seven American cities and teaching girls to build a web page in a day. This past week, BCG just hit another funding goal of $100,000 to provide for the summer of 2013, but the organization is still looking to raise an additional $25,000 to cover the cost of equipment and full-time staff—which right now, only consists of Bryant and one other employee.
"For 2012, we wanted to do one thing, really focus on web page development. We came up with the concept of building a web page in a day, and that’s the class we did throughout the summer," Bryant explains. "This summer we’re actually doing three different classes: build a web page in a day, but we’re also doing a week-long summer program here in Oakland on mobile app design, and the third class is game design." In the summer of 2013, BCG aims to hit 10 cities and teach 2,000 girls, and by the end of 2040 teach 1 million.
In the two years that Bryant’s been organizing and teaching classes for Black Girls Code, she’s seen her own students turn into teachers. One, a 13-year-old named Ida, is now teaching web page development classes at her middle school after a teacher caught her showing another student how to code. She’s also seen similar efforts to develop female tech talent emerge—Girls Who Code, for example, and CodeNow. Still, Bryant points out that Black Girls Code is specifically dedicated to women of color, which remains one of the tiniest, most underdeveloped aspects of the tech industry.
"In the next couple decades women alone will make up over half our population, nationwide and worldwide," Bryant says. "As the innovation economy continues to grow, it’s critically important for companies to develop this talent. It’s imperative that we give women and underrepresented groups the opportunity to participate. It’s an opportunity for technology companies to develop their own future workforce as early as possible."
Right now, the number of women of color in tech is woefully small—less than 3% of people in technology careers.
"Our whole focus is changing that ratio, really moving that needle way, way higher than 3%," Bryant says.