Empowering Black Girls to Be Tech Leaders

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Much has been said about the lack of diversity in tech, particularly when it comes to Blacks and women. Black Girls Code launched in April 2011 with a mission to change that narrative through workshops and after school programs across the country for girls. Now active in 13 cities across the United States and even in Johannesburg, South Africa, they hope to encourage, inspire, and empower the next generation of girls. We sat down with three of the Chicago chapter leaders to talk about being a Black woman in tech, what they are doing here in Chicago, and how they hope to groom future leaders.


Shari Noland: Hi. My name is Shari Noland. I am the executive editor of the Chicago Defender and I’m here with Dyani Cox. I’m here with Gloria Mullons and Monique Wingard from Black Girls Code. Please let’s begin our discussion and let’s talk about girls in Chicago and getting them more interested in coding and the types of obstacles that they face. I’d like to start with just having you all introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your background.
Dyani Cox: Sure. I’ll start. I am Dyani Cox. I am the technical lead for the Chicago core team for Black Girls Code. I have an engineering background. I have my bachelors and masters in electrical engineering and I am currently a senior account executive for the Mom Project.
Shari Noland: What is the Mom Project?
Dyani Cox: The Mom Project is a company. It’s a startup that is focused on finding opportunities for mothers who are seeking flexible work arrangements. We’re matching companies with mothers.
Shari Noland: Okay. Just thought I’d ask since you mentioned it. Gloria?
Gloria Mullons: Hi. I’m Gloria Mullons and born and raised here in Chicago and I currently am a manager and trainer at a federally qualified health center. I recently obtained my PhD in community psychology so I’m really excited about closing the gap in the digital divide. Glad to be here today.
Shari Noland: Thank you. Monique?
Monique Wingard: My background is actually government, marketing, communications and I would say I’m what you would call an advocate of what we’re doing here at Black Girls Code. I am the community outreach lead. I’m assisting in gaining new partnerships. We all sort of do that but just to find new opportunities for us here in Chicago and make that connection.
Shari Noland: Okay. Glad you all are here today. Let’s just treat it like a conversation, like we’re just amongst ourselves and we’re talking about the issues that face black girls and coding. A new report came out. It’s interesting because it’s by Black Tech Mecca which seems to be this wonderful organization built around promoting blacks in tech and there’s this burgeoning black tech community in Chicago but one of the things they had in a new report that they released just this February is that black women in tech have to prove themselves more than others. That causes a lot of women to leave the field before they even get into it. How do you respond to that?
Dyani Cox: I can take that one. So before I became a senior account executive, I worked as an engineer, both as a software engineer and then I went through the Edison Engineering Development Program at General Electric. That is absolutely the case. I think that it is … So first of all you have to prove yourself as a woman, but second of all you have to prove yourself as a woman of color.
I’m not sure why that exists but I found myself often times in meetings saying “Is this man speaking to me like this because I am black, because I’m young or because I’m a woman?” I think it creates an issue because … Fortunate for me I wasn’t uncomfortable. I at a very young age with a very strong father learned how to communicate with men. He oftentimes, even when I was in trouble, made me look him in his eye and tell him exactly what I thought, right? I didn’t have that issue in corporate America but I think oftentimes with women and especially with women of color as well.
I’ll deal with both of them separately. With women, I think oftentimes we are not taught to engage with men in that way. We are not taught to speak our minds and really to go toe to toe for lack of a better word with a man. That’s the woman issue I think that exists. The second issue that I think exists is as a woman of color, culturally we are oftentimes taught that you should be grateful for this opportunity, right? Not that you worked hard, not that you are … You should be there just like everyone else should be there because you earned it, and as a matter of fact, sometimes you went over and beyond your counterparts. We aren’t taught that. We are taught you should be grateful.
That presents an issue with us being afraid to speak up. You have the intersection of being a woman, right where we aren’t taught to speak to men in that way and then being a black woman where you should be grateful.
Shari Noland: Now did you ever run into people just, you felt like they didn’t think you had the same level of intelligence when it came to the tech world or did you not see that as an issue?
Dyani Cox: Absolutely. Every company has a diversity and inclusion initiative right now.
Shari Noland: Yeah.
Dyani Cox: So a lot of times it was like, you’re the token black girl who got in because you are black …
Monique Wingard: And you start to maybe even play it small to survive, to not …
Dyani Cox: Absolutely.
Monique Wingard: To not be called out, to not be singled out or to get that feeling of you should be grateful every time you come in the door. Just you want to come in and do your job and do it well but to not constantly be reminded that you should be grateful to be here.
Shari Noland: Wow. With that kind of feeling, I wonder if that contributes because there’s another piece that came out of that saying that there’s actually a lot of black girls that are interested in it but maybe even as they become women they might not even pursue it as a career because they are fearful of the type of treatment they might get or how hard it might be to get into the field. Do you face that with girls you work with? Do they all automatically have this feeling like, “I don’t want to get into that. There’s nobody like me. It’s going to be too hard. No one’s going to take me seriously, blah, blah, blah?”
Gloria Mullons: I think by and large we get a lot of girls who have been, if we’re talking about coding, who have been coding since they were very young.
Shari Noland: Okay.
Gloria Mullons: What I personally look out for are the ones who were there, and this is a new discovery for them and they may find out that maybe I don’t want to code but maybe I want to design this game that we’re working with. So they figure out that there are jobs out there that involve design, that involve managing a project or maybe they do want to code but they want to learn Python and we’re still at ItScratch, the one we start with. It’s always great to see the discovery, the self-discovery that happens there, whether it be about coding or it’s still tech related and they realize that it’s not just about one thing. If I don’t know or understand this one area of tech, there’s still other opportunities out there for me.
Shari Noland: So they don’t come with that same maybe internal fear of thought that this might be too challenging. What do you find in attitudes of the young girls as they’re looking to learn more about coding or tech or any of that. Do they … Have they been influenced by women who’ve come before them who’ve maybe had a hard time?
Monique Wingard: I’ve seen where there’s been some parents who are actually in the field, but in other instances, I’ve seen girls who’ve come in and they may be a little intimidated about what we’re going to learn today, but the sense of community that happens immediately after the parents leave and it’s just the girls, we see them bond or make friends and they help each other out. So the girl who started out being really intimidated about not knowing the coding language may partner with the girl who knows a little bit more than her or a lot more and she’s teaching her how to do that. By the time they leave they’ve all made a webpage or made a mobile app or whatever our project is that day. It just creates a sense of empowerment for someone that young. In less than a day … I mean it’s a workday for us but …
Dyani Cox: Yes, and just to add onto that, I think that’s why an organization like Black Girls Code is important. Kimberly Bryant was here speaking at Motorola on Wednesday and a Caucasian young female stood up and said there are all these coding organizations. Why is this one specific to black girls?
It’s so important. I don’t think that the rest of the world gets that when you are a person of color sitting in a room you are painfully aware of it, right? That’s what, that’s the beauty in Black Girls Code and what Monique was talking about in the community in that these girls come in and they are comfortable because they see other girls that look like them. In other organizations, you are a black girl. Like I said, you walk in the room and you know I’m the only black girl here. She might Asian. There are hundreds of white girls, but I am the only black girl. That can be intimidating all in itself. That is something I particularly love about Black Girls Code.
To add to that and I want Gloria to jump in after this, I would say that there are two very different types of girls that comes to us. You have one group that is, like Monique was saying their parents do this or their parents are aware of coding. Their parents are college graduates and these girls are confident. These girls are seeking out opportunities to code. They understand the opportunities that are available to them if they learn to code. Then you have the other set of girls who are the polar opposite, right? Who may not have internet in their home. Their parents may not have graduated from high school, let alone college. We are trying to bridge that gap between the two, right? And say that we have a common interest. You have common experiences based on your color and really really bridge that gap and pull the girls along who don’t necessarily have the same support.
Shari Noland: Did you want Gloria to say?
Dyani Cox: Yes.
Gloria Mullons: There are many studies out there about the digital divide and so when the question was asked at Motorola about why can’t these two organizations merge, I was just sitting in my chair. Just my heart was pounding because the digital divide still exists, so there are people, that it’s a difference between the haves and the have nots. If I have technology, I know how to use it, I’m exposed to it, great.
Then there are others that don’t have access to technology. It’s not in their homes. Their parents may be low literacy. The neighborhood may be low resource. There are no businesses. There are no places where these girls can go and so if you don’t, if you’re not exposed to it at home and your community, then you go to school. If your school is not funded, if the teachers are not trained or you don’t have the resources that’s the digital divide. These girls don’t have exposure. They don’t know when to use technology. For those that do they go to the library. They connect with teachers, but there are girls who don’t have exposure to organizations like Black Girls that Code. We have to work on that.
Shari Noland: Well take me into how you provide that through your organization. Take me into your workshops or your groups. How do you do it? Take me into a day?
Monique Wingard: Wow … Umm…
Dyani Cox: So let’s back up first. I say that it comes even before the workshop.
Shari Noland: Okay.
Dyani Cox: One of the things, we are a young chapter so this is our first year really. We made a year this March. One of the things that we really set down during our strategic planning meeting and said that we were going to do this year is have a grassroots campaign and actively go after the girls that Gloria described, who do not have these opportunities readily available in their community. We have … Our team secured 38 sponsorships for girls from the west side of Chicago to attend for free, to attend our workshop on at the end of the month on Saturday, March 25th at Google, to attend for free.
I think that’s where it starts. I think it’s us understanding the problem and actively going after these girls who are in these types of communities because otherwise they don’t know. Otherwise they don’t see it. Otherwise they don’t have access.
Then I think once you get in the workshop and I will let one of, either Monique or Gloria jump in and really explain how we, what our workshops look like and how we help to expose them. It’s actually quite fascinating and they learn a lot in a short period of time.
Gloria Mullons: I would say that was, she gave you pretty much all of step one, is us finding the girls and after we find the girls, it’s about make sure that we’re notifying the parents, the educators, the community at large about the fact that we’re not only here, but this is why we’re here. This is the date and the time. We need the students. That goes into doing things like this, what we’re doing here today, social media. Even going old school, printing out flyers. Passing those out, hanging those up. One young lady that’s not with us today, Renee went, I’ll call it canvasing with me one day and we went to coffee shops and we were putting up the flyers and the Higher Park area to make sure that people know about it. That’s that piece.
The day of, there’s registration and we have with the help of volunteers, we’ve been really lucky that people have been so receptive and so willing to help that we show up and we have the help there, the hands are on deck to do …
Shari Noland: That’s wonderful.
Gloria Mullons: … Registration. To hang up balloons. Even down to what things look like, to be welcoming and inviting when the parents and students get there. Whether it’s just opening the door, passing out the brochures, getting lunch ready for the girls. We have, we do provide lunch at each workshop. We provide snack, water. Teachers, everything that is done throughout this entire process during the day are all volunteers. The instructors, and we do have a parent I believe … What do we call that? The parent workshop. I’ll call it a workshop but I think it’s a …
Dyani Cox: It’s a parent workshop.
Gloria Mullons: It’s a parent workshop so it’s optional for parents to leave and come back midway through the workshop to learn more about Black Girls Code and what their daughter is learning that day so that they can apply that knowledge when they get back home and have the resources to continue the learning and that doesn’t stop at four o’clock.
Shari Noland: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s great.
Monique Wingard: The girls do present on what they learned and created that day. It’s just so fascinating to see them get up in front of us and just talk about a game that they’ve created or designed a page. It’s just the most amazing thing to see them stand up in front of the room and share.
Gloria Mullons: Be proud of the work they put in that day.
Shari Noland: Now who are the teachers? Are you the teachers too or do you bring them in?
Gloria Mullons: We do have a curriculum lead. Her name is Renee Neal but we do have instructors, people who, online if anyone’s listening right now and you want to volunteer, that’s one of the options is to be an instructor that day or to be a teaching assistant, like if you’re good at being in the background and being the helper. We need those too.
Dyani Cox: Most of the time we get them from, we reach out to corporations and say can you send some software engineers for the day who want to volunteer this Saturday or someone who has a technical background, who can understand and walk around and help the girls. We’ll have a technical instructor teaching and then we have two to three people, sometimes even four or five in the room walking around, helping the girls making sure that they’re on task and helping them when they get stuck.
Monique Wingard: Which I think we call non-tech.
Dyani Cox: No we call them tech assistants. The non-tech assistants help with the registration and the lunches. We have something for everybody. If you’re not technical and you’re an advocate then please come out and help because you can help as well. The other thing that I think is great is you will oftentimes see a tech instructor who does this everyday in their life speaking to a parent, passing out an email address to answer questions after. It’s just an amazing experience to see first of all how many people of all backgrounds care about black girls coding.
Monique Wingard: Sometimes how far they come.
Dyani Cox: Yes. To help.
Monique Wingard: To help or to be there and sometimes the parents, like how far away they’ve come to be at our workshop. I remember at our first Women of Color and STEM panel there were two mothers who had never seen each other but were both from the same suburb I think.
Dyani Cox: From Champagne.
Monique Wingard: From Champagne Illinois. How did I forget that? Champagne Illinois was here at the Garfield Park Conservatory for a panel. It wasn’t even a workshop. She just wanted her daughter to have that exposure, to see other women, professional women who were working in the field, to see like this is why I’m making you do this.
Shari Noland: That tells me it’s like we’ve all felt it. Someone has just tapped into that passion. That’s great. Now I’ve seen that the goal is to teach one million girls of color to code by 2040. How does the Chicago chapter plan to be a part of that?
Dyani Cox: Just what we’re doing. We are turning … What I’ll say is that, so for instance our goal for this workshop was 75. We’re currently at 88.
Shari Noland: Okay.
Dyani Cox: That is … I think for us it is to get as many girls as the facility can hold in the room. The thing is that, guess what, maybe all of these girls won’t code and that’s fine. Maybe some of them will get in the room and say, “I absolutely hate this and I don’t want to code. I don’t want anything to do with tech.” That’s okay, but what is not okay is for them not to have access, for them never to see it, for them never to know that it’s available to them and for them never to be exposed.
Monique Wingard: Or to feel like it’s not for them.
Dyani Cox: Or to feel like it’s not for them.
Shari Noland: Well it’s interesting because what I’m hearing from you is that it’s more than just coding that you’re teaching the girls. You’re talking about all these different career options that you can have in the tech field. See I didn’t know that. I thought it was just a straight coding thing, but it’s good that you’re giving them a well rounded view of what the options are.
Gloria Mullons: Absolutely.
Dyani Cox: Kimberly said something wonderful on Wednesday and it just, I wanted to jump out of my seat and run around when she said it. She said, “We’re not teaching these girls to code. We’re teaching them to lead.” That was powerful. That was powerful because I think that hit it dead on the head. It’s not that … Yes I would love to see, as a woman of tech I would love to see girls in tech, but I care much more about these girls having confidence. I care much more about them saying I can influence change, right? In this day where we are experiencing so much as a race and so much as women, I think it’s important for them to know I can influence my destiny, right? I can influence what that looks like. So that’s what I care about more, them having the confidence to speak up and go after what it is that they believe in.
Monique Wingard: Absolutely. I was just going to say with that, to build their confidence, to build their own opportunities. The reason I’m in Chicago right now, actually my undergrad, I went to school for journalism with every intention of being at NPR one day, because I was still working in government at the time I thought, you know what? I need to be about law and get my masters in social work. I went and got my MS in social work, got another masters in media management. Now I’m working in marketing and communications here at a publishing company.
Shari Noland: It comes around.
Monique Wingard: Right, and it’s called Urban Ministries Incorporated but I say that to say that my goal at that time was really one sided, was to be on the Hill one day, but I ended up in tech. I found my opportunity in tech. The opportunity didn’t exist for me in Ohio to do what I thought I was going to be doing, but that didn’t mean that that was the end of the road. I found out about the tech boom happening here in Chicago Illinois and found ways to apply all I’ve ever learned, ever wanted to do I’ve been able to do here in Chicago with Black Girls Code, with my current employer, to still be using my writing. But it’s very much tech involved.
I’m in it right now, my current company in terms of anything digital. My boss asked me yesterday, “Do you feel needed?” And it was six-thirty and it was Tuesday and I was on the backend of their Eventbrite page to make sure that we’re getting people to a vacation bible school workshops because no one else there you know, either wants to really honestly, and it’s not a bad thing, knows how to do this and to do the outreach digitally, to do a digital marketing campaign because that’s still something that’s new. That’s also an opportunity in tech for girls that have Twitter pages and Facebook pages to learn social media marketing.
There are boot camps here in Chicago that teach that, but who’s to say that one of our students that come to a Black Girls Code workshop, again like I said, maybe finds out, maybe I don’t want to be a coder but I want to let people know about this coding workshop on my page or maybe I want to build a website that has information about opportunities for girls in tech here in Chicago. Maybe that’s the webpage one of them comes and builds, is that I want to be someone that is an information seeker or one that is sharing information, useful information and turn off the negative stigma that’s attached to social media, turn it into a positive.
Shari Noland: Very, very good points. Excellent points. I think we can wrap up soon. The last thing I guess I would say is when it comes to girls, why girls and not boys? What do you think are the special unique issues that girls would have to face? Instead of why not black kids code?
Dyani Cox: I think that we are looking into doing a black boys code. Kimberly is, she’s looking into that. For me, it’s not girls or boys. It is black children, but I will say I do think that girls face a very different dilemma. So as we look at even leadership pipe lining in Fortune 500 companies, men are better represented than women. There’s something about being a man in our society that people respect more than being a woman. I just don’t know another way to put it.
I think women already face a challenge with being women, right? With being viewed as, and I think it’s because we live in a patriarchal society, right, but with being viewed as helpers or being viewed as facilitators versus leaders. We already have that unique challenge and then when you add being a black woman on top of that, it’s just extremely challenging. I, as black women, I think we probably all identify with those unique challenges. Even the stereotype of when you are an ambitious black woman, the things that are thought or that are said about you, the angry black woman.
We walk a fine line in being ambitious and being women of color. We oftentimes are taught in our homes to be more serious. If you’re not the woman who’s smiling all the time and super chipper, then we just have unique experiences. That’s why … I do care about black children. I care about black boys coding as much as black girls, but for black girls, our experience is just really, really unique.
Gloria Mullons: When you think about, let’s just say high school girls or elementary school girls, they face challenges around utilizing the technologies that are created because they tend to be created by males. The learning is different and that will impact how comfortable I am utilizing a specific piece of software. It’s something as simple as that can have an impact on how successful I can be using, you know technology. Then when you think about going to college, a lot of the resources that are available for first generation students, students that are coming from maybe the west side, the reality is these students have to work. So they can’t utilize the resources that are available during traditional school hours because they have to work.
Then, some of them really have to navigate through their community because of gangs and crime, right, to even get to school. Women, girls face these same challenges with getting to the resources and then utilizing them because again if it’s not in my home, I haven’t had exposure to it. I’m least likely to know why it’s important to me. There are many studies out there that suggest why people don’t use technology. Well, why do I need it? We know why we need it. Because it’s infused in every aspect of our lives.
Banking, checking your children’s grades, going to the grocery store, your medical information, what aspect of your life is not on your phone? If you can’t take advantage of that data because everyone else is already, right? You get left behind. You get left behind. Something as simple as renewing your parking ticket sticker, your sticker for your care. You get an email now. You used to get a letter in the mail. All these services are automated and guess what? You need to be a digital citizen. You need to just know how to use the technology whether you like it or not. That’s what we have to focus on, making sure that everyone is aware of how to use these digital services.
Monique Wingard: I would say for me why Black Girls Code, and I won’t even say and not black boys code but why Black Girls Code is to me it’s about changing the narrative. I don’t have statistics in front of me but if any one of us where to look up who dominates tech industry right now …
Gloria Mullons: Males.
Monique Wingard: You know it’s white males. There are already so many barriers in the way that Dyani has already spoken about at length. We’re still tearing down walls and that’s just maybe our ministry right now is black girls, to change the story. That there is more to what we are capable of than what we’re told. You know what we’re told we can do. It’s to change that story and to help young black girls see themselves in these career fields and not to feel left out and to feel that they have to choose from what is in their four corners of their neighborhood, that there is something else out there, for them.
Dyani Cox: I mean I think that’s another important point, is just that if you think about the way we interact with, even in my home, you know the way you interact with girls versus boys, oftentimes girls are not taught to be brave. They’re taught to be perfect. I know that was the way I was taught in my home, right? It was okay for my brother to bring home Cs and I had to get straight As. So we’re just taught completely different, and girls aren’t taught to just go for it. Right? They’re taught to be safe. They’re taught to be afraid. They’re taught that this could happen to you or if this happens to you that will mess up your entire life. They’re taught to be very fearful.
Monique Wingard: You know, but not what would happen if you succeed.
Dyani Cox: What will happen if you … Right, we are not …
Monique Wingard: What if you make it?
Dyani Cox: Exactly. We aren’t taught go for it because you will succeed, and right that’s one thing I will say again. It all starts with your parents. I had a parent that said, you know, I never worry about you because I know you’ll make it, right? Just that socialization in itself you know made me go for it but I don’t think girls are told that. I think boys are told that. I think boys are told risk it, try it, jump off of that. You might break your head but you’ll live and girls are not taught that way, right?
I see with my own children how I have this rambunctious son and everybody is completely okay with him being rambunctious but if my daughter, who’s three is on the floor rolling around in her dress, everybody tells her how that’s not ladylike. I think it, we as women who understand that in the tech space when you’re working with men, it just doesn’t help to socialize our girls like that. I think that black culture more than any culture is very big on formality for their women, right, on what it is to be a lady. We really are and it’s a beautiful thing but it also sometimes is inhibiting.
Shari Noland: Okay. Did anyone else have any last thoughts? Thank you for that. That was very insightful and true.
Gloria Mullons: I would just say if one sees a need for men or black men, that’s an opportunity to see that as an opportunity and not exclusion. Like we’re not excluding them but maybe that’s an opportunity for you or someone you know, organization to get that started. What’s stopping you?
Shari Noland: That’s right. Well thank you. The ladies from the Chicago chapter of Black Girls Code.
Dyani Cox: Can we have a few last call to action?
Shari Noland: Sure. Go for it.
Monique Wingard: Follow us on Twitter. @volunteerbgcchi and we’re also on Instagram now as of about three or four days ago. It’s just BlackGirlsCodeChicago, all one word. Facebook is just Black Girls Code Headquarters. Like them too. They have the same great information if you want more. Our workshop, I’m going to let Dyani jump in about that but March 25th.
Dyani Cox: We will be teaching the girls to build a virtual reality experience with Unity 3D.
Monique Wingard: It’s at Google, which is very cool.
Dyani Cox: Google, yes. Very, very cool. It’s a beautiful space. One of the things that’s also important is not only showing these girls the jobs that are available to them but it’s fascinating to see the places that you will work at if you are in tech. You know, we really want these girls to be in this space, to see this and to say, “You know I was at Google today and this is available to me.”
Gloria Mullons: Or I can create a Google.
Dyani Cox: But you know our other call to action is we are currently trying to find a way to the 38 girls that we talked about sponsorships for, we’d also like to provide transportation to Google and from Google.
Monique Wingard: So Uber if you are listening, this is the person that sent you that form. But we really do, we don’t want transportation to be the reason why a girl cannot come to a workshop. So there are so many ride share, well not so many … There are two very big ones, very major ones in Chicago, Lyft and Uber okay.
Shari Noland: That’s true.
Monique Wingard: So there is a community outreach, some corporate social responsibility there. If you’re listening, that we would like to partner somehow.
Dyani Cox: Or if you own some other transportation service, please reach out to us.
Gloria Mullons: Yes. Or CTA or any bus company.
Monique Wingard: That’s willing to provide transportation. We want to incorporate that this year.
Shari Noland: Now how do they reach out to you? Just go to your website?
Dyani Cox: You know what, reach out to my email directly at dyani.cox@gmail.com.
Shari Noland: Okay. Thank you.
Gloria Mullons: Thank you.
Dyani Cox: Thank you.

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