Kimberly Bryant worked in medicine and technology for more than two decades and observed so little advancement in diversity that in 2011, she launched Black Girls Code, a nonprofit organization committed to educating girls of color within STEM fields.
Bryant’s work with BGC has already introduced thousands of nonwhite girls between the ages of 7 and 17 to computer science-based concepts through workshops, mentorship programs, and outreach initiatives—and she's committed to reaching one million kids by the year 2020. This ambitious goal is a crucial response to the lack of racial and gender parity in the tech sector: Fewer than one in 10 people in tech are nonwhite women, and within that grim statistic, black women are the least represented by an enormous margin. Bryant is working hard to change this disparity by pouring tremendous effort into Black Girls Code.
Complex sat down with the tech entrepreneur and diversity activist to discuss how to encourage and support girls of color as they encounter STEM-related interests, companies that claim they can't hire or maintain diverse staff members, and how BGC teaches new generations of girls that they are, as Bryant puts it, "the creators of tomorrow."
Photography by Maria del Rio
How did Black Girls Code get started, and how did you set that idea in motion?
BGC came into being from my seeing a need in the marketplace from two different perspectives. I was looking to leave the corporate job that I held for 20-plus years in the biotech and pharmaceutical fields. My company was going through a buyout, which was an opportunity for me to take advantage of that and a way to leap out there and do something on my own. I was really burned out by the corporate grind, but I still loved what I was doing on the healthcare and biotech side. I wanted to still do the work I loved—helping people—as I started my own company. I was looking to start a startup, but didn’t have a specific idea in mind. I wanted to do something tech-enabled around solving critical healthcare problems. I was doing a lot of networking in the Valley, and I found that it was not a very diverse environment and most of the conferences and meetup events I went to, there weren’t many women or people of color in those rooms.
At the same time, my daughter was really getting into gaming. When I was looking to find opportunities for her to learn about technology and to learn how to build something on her computer, the summer camps, and experiences I found for her, looked very similar to those meetups I was attending—full of white boys, with a few girls here and there, and almost no students of color. I was surprised: When I went off to college and then first started my career, I was seeing almost the exact same thing I had experienced for my daughter. Thirty years later, her class looked almost exactly the same as my freshman class. It was kind of horrifying! Like, oh my god, this can’t be happening. It was very difficult.
For me, as a woman in one of the less diverse fields—electrical engineering, which is what I studied in college—it was hard to persist and really build a career. Some of the things I experienced were really scary, and they weren’t experiences that I wanted for my daughter. BGC was borne of that…well, I can’t describe it as anything but that horror: that my daughter would have to go through some of the things I went through while building my career. I wanted her to have an easier and more enjoyable time doing the thing that she loves. My quest to create it, and to find this community of little black and brown girls that are geeky, very into gaming, like to spend time on the computer, and are doing robotics, so that she can have a tribe to help make her journey more enjoyable than the one I had.
What are some of the most critical differences when it comes to how you hope your daughter’s generation is treated in their professional field, and what are some of the assets and improvements that are most necessary?
I’ll sum it up in a very real way: I want them to be given the benefit of the doubt. What I mean by that is, I feel very strongly that being a woman in technology and engineering, many times in my career and even in my very first week of college, I was not given the benefit of the doubt that I belonged in those rooms, even though I had attended one of the top high schools in my city and been an honor roll student from the time I started school and aced my AP classes. None of that followed me into the classroom when I started at Vanderbilt University.
Some of the perceptions from my professors were that I was less than, or that I wouldn’t be able to compete, or wouldn’t be able to meet the same bar as my peers. I don’t want that for my daughter or for any of the girls who come into our program. I want their merits and their natural abilities to speak for themselves, and for them to be able to succeed—and/or fail, if they do!—on their own merits without any preconceived expectations that girls don’t like technology, or girls can’t do technology or become founders of tech innovation. I want them to have that benefit of the doubt that they have the same skills, access, and opportunities as any other person.
How does BGC support that idea within your events and programs? What are the methods you use to show girls what they can be, and what they can do?
We really pride ourselves on the notion that what makes our program special is that we really do our very best to make sure that everything we do is culturally responsive and relevant. We’re building programs just for these girls that have elements of the culture that they’re bringing into the space—we build those into the program. We do a unity chat and a pledge with the girls before we even start to open up a computer that actually enforces those messages that we’re trying to have the girls absorb: “I am going to be the creator of tomorrow” is part of the BGC pledge.
All of that is based on making these programs relevant to our girls. We’re making sure that we create a program where girls actually feel empowered to create, so we create an environment that includes mentors who look like and have similar backgrounds to the girls teaching these classes. We’re creating opportunities for them to create things they are interested in. One of the key things for girls involved in technology is showing them that they can use [these] tools to solve big problems in a socially impactful way. In a good percentage of our workshops and classes, they’re building a mobile app or a website related to social problems like environmentalism, bullying—we have some girls who built an application on Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name. Here, there are spaces to talk about things that are culturally impactful for these girls and the communities they come from, but also give girls the power to speak to social issues in their communities.
This is the way that BGC is more than just teaching girls how to get a job or build an Android or iOS app—we make the technology relevant to the humans on the other side of it. Right now, we’re focused on ideation and design, and as we plan our programs for 2017, we’re looking to place these girls with the right mentors and release these projects to the market.
You’ve used tech to help other people and create an incredible initiative. What are some of the technological tools you use to stay organized during the day?
My daughter says I have way too many apps on my phone, but I need all this stuff! [Laughs.] I have a lot of efficiency apps—down to the Postmates app, which I consider efficiency! For BGC as an organization, we’re a heavy Slack team. It’s a priceless communication tool for us, especially now that we have offices in both the Bay Area and New York. We have our chapter teams and volunteers on the Slack platform—before we started using it, we didn’t have a solid tool that allows us to be in touch as flexibly and easily. It’s easy to learn and use and has a great customer interface, and we can integrate it into other tools easily. A reason that they’re able to do that is that they have a focus on diversity, which they’re committed to and talk about a lot. They build diversity into their company from the ground up. That’s important for many reasons: Everybody should have a seat at the table. From a business perspective, if you want a product that’s going to succeed across all populations and that’s going to win, you need a diverse team. They’re not doing diversity just because it’s a good thing to do—it’s a business decision that poises them to win both on the app side and the company side. That diversity of thought leads to good design that can reach so many different customers to fill their needs, which gives them an instant advantage.
Otherwise, as a growing organization, we need ways to track data, which we’re always looking at from many different sources. We use Salesforce as a portal to track where our volunteers are coming from, the people that we need to reach, and so much of our other data. This is maybe not a very sexy answer! It’s interesting to us, though, to be able to mine that data to help us to be a more successful and efficient organization.
Are there recreational apps that you like?
On the entertainment side, I use iHeartRadio and Pandora. I love the fitness apps to help me stay healthy. I have a Fitbit, an Apple Watch, a Jawbone—everything! I use apps that are connected to my fitness trackers. There’s not one that does everything that I want, so I use them all, because I’m trying to track my sleep, my steps, and my exercise to keep my health in a good place. Those wearable devices are very important to me.
When you’re first working with the girls who take part in BGC, are there certain applications that they respond really strongly to? What do they look at and think, I’d like to build something in that vein?
From a technology standpoint, what’s been interesting to see is that they’re really into the internet of things, which we’ve just started teaching in our workshops this year. The girls have been creating multi-tiered applications where a mobile app attaches to a wearable device. They’re not just interested in the interface, but in the device side of things. I think that’s because this is the generation of the Apple Watch and the Fitbit, where they’re used to the concept of having something on their wrist that’s also doing something. We’re teaching them the technology to see that there’s a bridge to the physical world through the digital world of code. We see, quite a bit, that they’re coming up with concepts and ideas that connect tech to the way that they interact with life. Right now, we’re thinking about introducing VR, AR, and other emergent technologies to our programs to take it even further than code. It speaks to what it’ll look like for creators in the future.
I’m in the generation where, when the internet was introduced, that was a new world! Now, it’s getting to the point where we’re just scratching the surface as to the power of devices, wearables, and virtual reality—look at how Pokémon Go took off! This is the generation of seeing VR come to life, and our girls feel comfortable with them because they interact with them on a day-to-day basis, so teaching these things allows us to grasp the next technologies in ways we can’t even fully understand yet, because they see, oh, this is what I can do with virtual reality, or a device like the Apple Watch. The girls are excited about merging all those different worlds.
What can the current tech sector do to support these girls as they grow up to transform their fields?
I’m a big fan of open-source technology. I’ve been really excited to see Apple start to move to open-sourcing their Swift platform earlier this year. That’s a very powerful tool for us to teach iOs development in a way that’s accessible to more students. That’s been a long time coming, but that’s huge for us. We need to see more of that—how do we create more open platforms for teaching VR and AR? We’re starting to see more coding come into the classroom, and we have to give the kids something they can actually use.
In a more traditional sense, teaching technology has relied on learning C++ and Java, and most people learn Java and say they never want to code again! [Laughs.] How can we introduce people to computer science in a way that’s not as discouraging, in terms of learning tools that allow them to create with less hurdles and that keeps them engaged when they go through the process? By opening these platforms for kids to be exposed to and play around with is one definite way that companies can feed their own pipelines so kids can see the various tools that are out there for creating the things that they use every day, and that will keep them in the game until they reach college! If they already have experience with these coding and technology tools that interest them, they’ll keep going.
What’s your response to when companies say, “We don’t have diverse applicants, so we can’t hire diversely”?
I would say, “Then I don’t think you want your company to win.” Companies that are really serious about making sure they have a good product have to focus on diversity. It’s not possible that they can build a homogenous company and culture when the world isn’t reflective of that. You have to have women and people of color at the table, or you won’t be able to create products that reach audiences in a way that they’ll want to use them on a daily basis. If that’s what companies are looking to provide—products that are on everyone’s desktop or mobile device—they have to solve the problem of “not having diverse candidates,” or not being able to retain diverse employees.
Is there anything else that educators and parents can do to support young black girls as they’re learning how to code?
Provide the opportunity for girls to learn in environments where they feel safe, confident, and supported. One of the advantages of girls-only spaces is that they allow girls to be in a room that provides an environment where they don’t feel threatened—where they feel like they’re in a safe space to learn and show their vulnerabilities.
And we need to support both boys and girls as they explore their interests! When my daughter was first getting into gaming, I hated it. I had never been into games, so I was like, “This is a waste of time!” By opening up my perception of what games and their design was, I was like, “This is a great path for you,” and I learned not to deter her from what she was curious about. Parents should be open to learning right along with their kids.
What are you particularly excited about, initiative-wise, for BGC that you feel is next up when it comes to invigorating black girls to explore tech?
To look at it a bit more holistically, we’re committed to teaching one million girls from underrepresented communities to code by 2020. That’s our big, hairy, audacious goal. It’s based on reframing this image of who you see—or who you think about—when you think about a technologist or a computer scientist. The conversations we’re able to drive by the work that we’re doing makes people think outside of “Mark Zuckerberg” when they think of a person in tech. Eventually, we hope they think of a black or brown woman—in part because, if you do a little research, you’ll see that women have been here all along! Women were some of the first human calculators. From the very beginning of computer science, Ada Lovelace was the first programmer. It helps society as a whole to bring women, and especially women of color, into the fields of science and technology.