Kimberly Bryant grew up in a single-parent family in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee. Her career choice – electrical engineering – was an unconventional one in her community, but she found a role model in her older brother, a video game enthusiast whom she followed into an engineering major in college. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Bryant spent more than a decade in the biotechnology industry before founding “Black Girls CODE,” a nonprofit that introduces programming and technology to girls ages 7 to 14. The program is one of several new efforts to close the gender gap in computer science. In less than two years, "Black Girls CODE" has reached 2,000 students through chapters in half a dozen cities, including New York, Memphis, Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta and Johannesburg, South Africa. This summer, the group hopes to reach an additional 2,000 girls through a series of one-day workshops across the country known as the Summer of CODE 2013. I spoke with Bryant recently from her office in San Francisco.
What inspired you to create “Black Girls CODE”?
I had the idea after moving to the Bay area about 5 years ago. I wanted to start my own company focused on mobile health technology, and I started to do a lot of networking. I found that there were not many females in the startup culture and also not many people of color.
Meanwhile, my daughter was entering middle school, and she was very interested in technology. She was a computer geek, and I was trying to find some programs for her that would teach her how to build things like computer Web sites, and I had been looking for something since she was 8 or 9. I couldn’t find [ a suitable one]. Sometimes, she was one of only 3 girls in a class of 40 boys, and it just didn’t seem like she was as encouraged as some of the boys. I thought if she was in a more nurturing environment, in a community of girls, she would be more encouraged to excel and grow.
Tell me about the classes "Black Girls CODE" offers.
We have programs in three different models. There’s a one-week summer camp program that’s currently available only in the Bay area; one-day workshops, where girls come in from 10 to 4 and work on one topic, such as building a Web page using HTML or the Mozilla Webmaker Open Source Tool Kit. And 6 to 7 weeks classes that meet on consecutive Saturdays. The subjects in all these classes rage from web design to app game design, to robotics, and we’re also moving into some of the more traditional computing fields, using languages such as Java, Python and Ruby.
What kinds of Web pages have your students designed?
They do a lot of music Web pages. Everywhere from Oakland to South Africa, girls are extremely interested in music, the group “One Direction seems to be extremely popular with them They also do a lot of web pages on social issues such as, recycling, bullying, and such. They’ve also done some that may be expected: such as fashion, and things that tap into other things they are really interested in.
What do you think holds some girls back from pursuing computer science?
I think one of the things is just the culture of the computer science and technology industry. The stereotypical image is of a white male computer geek or nerd who sits at a computer and does it alone in a lonely space, and that does not look appealing. And that’s not an accurate representation of the industry. A lot of what we do in the class is to bring in female role models that girls can relate to and who can tell them what they do in their careers. So girls can see it’s focused on things that change the world and improve the community and not something you do in isolation. We take a lot of field trips. We’ve been to Twitter, Google, they’ve been to Facebook, and we’re really engaging them in the tech startup environment. It’s helping to shift their perception of what it’s like to work in these areas.
Why is it important for girls, and especially minority girls, to be exposed to coding?
I think it’s vitally important, because we see that the predominance of STEM jobs is going to continue for the foreseeable future. It’s imperative that we give girls the skills and the ability to participate in that area so they can become decision makers at technology companies. Women and girls also tend to be heavy consumers of technology, and we need to have their voices in the design process. It’s important to bring diversity to the table from a design and a business perspective, not just for the girls but also as an economic decision that will add to businesses’ bottom lines in the future.
What tips do you have for parents who want to expose their kids to coding?
I would say to really push to introduce kids to tools that allow them to be creative and not just use the technology as consumers. Introduce them to learning tools such as Mozilla right on the computer [at webmaker.org].
MIT has SCRATCH, which allows kids to design games and animations.
Khan Academy has great explanatory videos. There are so many. Young people are capable, they are digital natives. If we introduce them to the tools, they’ll do the rest.
What is the right age at which to start experimenting with these tools?
You can start as early as age 7 or 8, or even earlier.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Because we’re moving into 10 cities with our Summer of CODE 2013, we’re always looking for volunteers and supporters and places to host us. Check out the site, become a volunteer, become a donor and help the program move as far as it can.