Lots of people talk about how to solve the tech industry’s diversity problem, and a few people are actually solving it. Black Girls CODE is one of my favorite not-for-profit organizations that’s tackling the pipeline problem head-on. Founded in 2011, BGC hosts a series of tech-focused events like hackathons, seminars, and code camps for girls and young women of color ages 7 to 17 in cities across the U.S.
I had the opportunity to volunteer at a BGC hackathon in Brooklyn last year, and from the minute volunteer training started, it was clear that BGC has perfected the formula. That weekend, the girls designed new apps that addressed problems they care about, like combatting bullying and redefining beauty. At the end of the day I walked out feeling inspired, hopeful, in awe of our young people, and determined to do more.
This past weekend here at Postlight, we had the chance to host an event for Black Girls CODE’s NYC chapter. The Black Futures STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Panel featured six young women of color sharing their work and experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math with an audience of middle- to high- school girls and their parents. Panelists included an eighth grader who loves hackathons and Pokémon, a high school freshman who worked on space apps at a NASA challenge, computer science and engineering majors at Spelman and City College of New York, and a biomed student at Howard University. The panel was moderated by a high school sophomore game designer. (One of her games is available in the App Store.)
Olivia Ross (moderator) high school sophomore w/ her own Apple iOS game! #BGCWoCinSTEM #BGCNYC #BlackGirlsCode
Afterward, I had the chance to sit down with Onyi Nwosu, BGC’s NYC Chapter Lead, to talk about the panel, volunteering, building community, and what makes BGC tick. (A few replies have been very lightly condensed from a transcript.)
Gina Trapani: How did you get involved with Black Girls CODE?
Onyi Nwosu: I majored in computer engineering and now I’m a Director of QA Engineering at Sesame Workshop here in New York City. About two years ago, I felt like I was so fortunate to be in a career that I love—and to have progressed so far in that career. I felt like I needed to give back somehow. Working in technology, I could just give money, but I wanted to give time. So I decided to look at volunteer opportunities. I just did a simple Google search and found Black Girls CODE, and I signed up and applied to be a volunteer. I’ve been on the core team for a little over a year and a half. Now I’m the Chapter Lead for Black Girls CODE New York.
GT: So you have a full-time job, and BGC is a thing you do in your free time. How many hours a week do you give to BGC?
ON: It depends. If we have an event coming up, it could be up to 20 hours in a week, but if we don’t have that much going on, it can be an hour or two a week. So it varies.
GT: BGC is a not-for-profit that started in the Bay Area, and expanded to several cities after that — New York, Boston, Chicago, LA, Memphis, DC, Miami. At the Bay Area headquarters, there aren’t many employees, right? This is primarily a volunteer-driven org?
ON: Black Girls CODE is run almost entirely by volunteers, yes. Right now I believe BGC has less than 10 employees, maybe three at the Bay Area office and two at the new Google office.
GT: A few times I’ve tried to sign up to volunteer for a BGC NY event, and all the slots were already filled. How does that happen?
ON: You would think that getting people to volunteer would be hard, that no one would want to do it, but people are clamoring. Literally clamoring to be a part of it. Because it’s a good cause, a great organization and it just feels good to come to these events and see the girls and their smiling faces. The other thing is the parents — they just want their girls to be involved and to be around people who look like them. A lot of girls have issues if they’re in a tech school or at an event and they’re around all boys, and they feel that unspoken — most of the time it’s unspoken — lack of belonging. They need to see people who look like them encouraging them. It’s so important to build that community. That’s why every time we have an event I tell everyone, “Build community! Make friends!”
GT: At today’s STEM panel you had six young women who are in middle school, high school, and college talking about their work in STEM. Afterward, so many people were waiting in line to talk to them, and to get their daughter to talk to them. They were celebrities!
ON: Every year we try to do about two STEM panels. The STEM panel started out as a way for us to get the girls to see people who look like them, who are in fields that they are interested in. Usually we get programmers, or anybody who has already established a long career in tech, to be on the panel. When we were planning this year’s panel, we were brainstorming and thinking, hey, why don’t we put younger people who are closer to the age of the audience up on that panel? So the girls can see that there isn’t this long path of things they’ll be doing in 20 years—that there are things that they can do right now. There are people who look just like them doing awesome things right now.
Mother & daughter together at the Black Futures STEM panel #BGCWoCinSTEM #BGCNYC #BlackGirlsCode #Postlight
GT: I saw really young girls listening intently to the panelists, and then when it was time for audience Q&A, taking the mic and asking lots of questions.
ON: There’s always that fear where you ask for audience questions that you’re going to get crickets. I was really happy to see that especially the young girls were asking questions.
Young audience member ready with mic to ask panel a question #BGCWoCinSTEM #BGCNYC #BlackGirlsCode #Postlight
GT: How do folks find out about BGC events?
ON: It’s a hybrid of mailing list and word of mouth. Of course, every time we have an event we send out an email. But word gets out in all sorts of ways. Today, a woman said that she had never heard of BGC before but her friend had signed up and then couldn’t make it, so she said to her “you should go to this.”
GT: I was talking to one of my coworkers here at Postlight who has volunteered for BGC, and he said “BGC has their social right.” And it’s true — between the various city-specific Twitter accounts and Instagram and probably other social channels I’m not aware of, every event is covered live as it happens. How do you train and trust volunteers to take photos and say the right things on social media?
ON: We’ve been very lucky to have volunteers who just know social. Today, the volunteer who was doing social for us usually does social for science conferences, so she knew exactly what to say, what to tweet, what to take pictures of, things that people would want to see.
Father & daughters ask questions of panel #BGCWoCinSTEM #BGCNYC #BGCSummerofCode #BlackGirlsCode #Postlight
GT: What’s on the horizon for BGC NY?
ON: In mid-August, we’re hosting Black Girls CODE Summer Camp at the new Google office, our first event there. Every seat is filled with a ridiculous waiting list already. We’re hoping to do other events on August 20th and September 24th, then we’re going to do a hackathon in October, and then one last event in December. It’s a very full schedule. Our challenge is always finding space—that’s why when you reached out to me about this space we were like, “Yes! We’ll take it!”
GT: We loved hosting today, and we’d love to have you back. Speaking of space, just this month BGC moved into a new office at Google NY. I know Google has also provided Chromebooks for events. What’s Black Girls CODE’s relationship with Google? How did it come about?
ON: The beginning of the relationship with Google predates my involvement with BGC, but I know it’s been in the works for a while. I’ve watched it grow from Google hosting us a few times a year to a point where Google asked us to incubate with them. Building relationships like that is just reaching out and letting people know what we’re doing. Once people know what we’re doing, they’re really excited to help.
GT: If I’m reading this and just hearing about BGC, how can I get involved and help?
ON: The best way to contact us to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our team will see that message and we’ll take anything anyone is offering, especially space and laptops. We’re always looking for space and laptops, because some people will have the space but not the computers, or they won’t have as many computers as we need. Otherwise, you can sign up to volunteer, or you can donate or sign up for our newsletter at http://blackgirlscode.com.