Thirteen-year-old Olivia Ross says she isn't used to being surrounded by other girls of color who have a passion for coding and computer science. The New York-based student says that while she "likes coding a lot," her coder friends are "usually not female and they're usually not black."
That changes when she participates in events with Black Girls Code, an organization that seeks to bring technology education to young women of color. The nonprofit's New York City chapter gathered about 80 young women and over 50 mentors and volunteers for its second hackathon of the year, which took place over the weekend in Brooklyn. Over the course of three days, girls in grades six through 12 teamed up with mentors to develop prototypes of apps, attend workshops on app design and coding, and listen to guest speakers.
This was Ross' second hackathon with Black Girls Code. She said returned this year because she wanted to be in a space where "everyone around me is also interested in the same things I am, and they all look like me."
The theme of the event was "project humanity," meaning girls were tasked with creating apps focused on social justice. A panel of judges examined the apps and handed out prizes to the top three teams on the final day of the event. The first-place team won a $2,000 check for creating an app called Mana, a forum that allows students to collaborate with each other and study together virtually, event organizer Calena Jamieson said. The app that won second place, BeeU App, aims to help and inspire kids who have been bullied.
Black Girls Code, founded in 2011 by electrical engineer Kimberly Bryant, seeks to correct the severe shortage of black women in tech. In 2013, just 3 percent of the computing workforce was made up of African-American women.
Many of the mentors and volunteers involved with the hackathon said they wish they had been exposed to a similar organization when they were younger.
"I've been looking for this opportunity for quite a while," said Crystal Harris, a programmer and hackathon volunteer. "It's just a great way for me to give access to these guys, something I didn't have access to when I was growing up."
In two years, the New York chapter has gone from serving about 300 girls to about 500, Jamieson said.
"You see girls leave and they're super excited," she said, "and their parents are able to see what they've done in the space of a day or weekend."