Back in 2013, Nisha Dua was scrambling to reinvent a celebrity gossip site called Cambio. With little money and tasked with reimagining a brand whose client base was 75 percent 13- to 24-year-old girls, Dua called upon five teenage girls to help her rework the entire site. The girls were immersed in a six-week internship, where they would spend time with engineers; UI/UX experts; and sales and marketing personnel. These five girls would end up driving the development of the new Cambio, creating a site for girls and by girls.
“Many of the girls came in thinking, I want to do this because I want to blog about the Kardashians,” Dua told me, speaking from her co-working space in New York’s Meatpacking District. “But they left saying, ‘actually I want to be in data analytics, so I can understand how data drives audience insights.’” That experience, which began as a brand experiment, evolved into her founding in 2014 of Built By Girls—an organization that prepares female and non-binary high school and college students for careers powered by technology. Its mission is to give hundreds of thousands of girls what those five interns at Cambio had.
“I think there’s no question that you can only be what you see,” said Dua, who was raised by Indian parents in Australia. “When I see Mindy Kaling on TV, that changes my perspective of what a young Indian woman can be—when she speaks confidently and unapologetically about her body, her business, her accomplishments, that is what I ingest as a viewer. Despite coming from an Indian family, there was never a gendered difference applied to us in terms of success. I was frankly never part of the women’s groups at work, because I grew up expected to be as successful as my two big brothers. It wasn’t until I started investing in women that my perspective completely changed.”
“The first time I ever went to The Wing,” she continued, referring to a social club and co-working space for women, “I must say I was a little bit nervous.” Dua continued, “because I was like, I’m not sure I’m a cool girl, and I think this might be a place for cool girls.” Dua’s company BBG Ventures (separate from Built By Girls) is an early- stage venture fund that invests in consumer start-ups founded by at least one woman; it was an early investor in The Wing. “I had never in my life felt this experience of being in a room full of women where there’s no element of competition, every woman in the room is there to be who she is, to work hard, to play hard, and to build together—it’s magical.” “You feel like there is space for you [that] is when you personally can shift, and when a group can shift.”
The Built By Girls platform, Wave, works by algorithmically pairing female advisors with advisees. “We want to set it up so that people can have an organic and authentic connection once they meet in person, but they can be guided by our tools to have a valuable conversation,” explained product manager Corie Miller. The algorithm takes 13 different data points into account—including location, previous matches, whether the advisee has been at a company before, interests, obsessions, industry, and tech medium (such as software or hardware).
Using a corpus of keywords to determine overlap between possible matches, the algorithm uses a Monte Carlo tree search to produce 200 simulations. The optimal match in the entire universe of matches, or the match that has the most overlap, is selected. The algorithm can match approximately 2,000 users in under five hours, according to Miller. “We’re using tech in order to ... forge this new type of community, and this new type of network that’s super meaningful, not just ... click a button, and we’re friends,” Miller added.
I myself joined Built By Girls in 2016, after I was recommended by a female founder. One of my advisees, Neha Somineni, was introduced to the program by the president of her coding club. Somineni and I spent three months together, to brainstorm about a virtual reality app she was building, which would allow people to remotely experience famous destinations throughout the world. Our meetings were always spirited, and we’d go beyond the allotted time.
During our time together, I introduced Neha to the founder of an image recognition start-up, a systems engineer, a VR game designer and my business partner—all of them men. Neha would meet with three other advisors throughout the program, and go on to study biochemistry at Stony Brook University, with a possible minor in nanotechnology. She would also join WISE, the Women in Science and Engineering club at the university. Like Dua, Neha said, “I never really associated myself personally with a woman’s group.” “After a while, I started to realize it’s good to have someone who is going through the same things as you.”
“It’s not just who you know, it’s knowing what they know,” explained Dua, about the platform’s goals. “I think women really enjoy context and being able to relate skills to real-world problems.” “And you need a way to break into the network—if you’re a young girl in Compton, who is maybe a single mother, you might never have the opportunity to crack into the club of a New York start-up, or Uber or Amazon,” some of the Built By Girls partners. “We are the older sister for these girls,” Dua added, and Built By Girls is arming them with practical skills that no one teaches you in the classroom.
All of the advisees are generation Z. Many are first-generation immigrants who are striving to be activists in their communities. These girls know technology is a big part of moving ahead, but being a coder is not the end goal, explained Dua. “There is this amorphous thing called STEM, but what are the skills, the traits, the passions that align with those different careers in STEM?” asked Dua. These girls are asking, “How do I harness the power of tech to change the world?”
“Exposure is so important,” said Charlize Yiwen Wang, an advisee I mentored in 2018. Built By Girls is “a better way of obtaining information.” When I met Wang, she was on the cusp of graduating college from a double major in computer science and applied mathematics. She now works at an enterprise software company in San Francisco called Workday, where she develops features for the application team. “Startup culture doesn’t sound as unreachable as before.” She confided that without the BBG experience, she could have easily have turned into a “coding monkey.”
The appetite is just as real on the other side, for advisors. Dua was quick to correct me on my use of the words mentors and mentees. “It is very intentionally not a mentorship program,” she clarified. Built By Girls is promoting something more organic; not every professional is ready to be a mentor, but they do have advice and expertise to share, Dua explained. “A trend we see is toward individual citizenship.” There is a desire in advisors to provide help that they didn’t have as young people.
In the last two years, Built By Girls has matched over 7,000 pairs, and it plans to match 15,000 by the end of the year. “Girls are demanding this like crazy,” shared Dua, and the team is struggling to keep up with a wait-list of hundreds of girls looking to be matched with an advisor. The organization is available in 47 states and plans to go global.
At least 20 percent of advisors on the platform are male, something that’s critical to the platform’s success, according to Dua. “Our general approach is to define people as individuals, with different interests and different traits. It helps us see past gender,” Dua proclaimed, perhaps similar to the way she did when she entered The Wing for the first time or the way Somineni did in joining WISE. By connecting women in different phases of their education and careers, Built By Girls is helping to mold a new generation of people powered by technology, gender aside.