From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, it’s The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs, and their challenges.
Bridge. It’s a great metaphor when you’re talking about the journey between where you are now and where you want to be. While growing teams at a few different companies, entrepreneur and marketing executive, Tracey Welson-Rossman, noticed a big gap in hiring between men and women for technology jobs. As a result, she founded the non-profit dedicated to overcoming that gap by building a bridge in the form of hands on training workshops that help middle school aged girls grow their technology and entrepreneurial skills.
It’s the story of TechGirlz coming up next on The Build.
Joe Taylor Jr.
Welcome to the show Tracey.
Thanks for having me.
I want to talk to you about the imbalance that I know I perceived as someone that works with a lot of technology companies and with folks that promote tech. There’s such a imbalance between the number of men and the number of women that I’m accustomed to seeing when I walk into a client’s organization. I’m pretty lucky because I think that the clients that our team gets to work with are very, very diverse by nature. From your perspective, where’s that imbalance and where’s it coming from?
You mention that I was working off site today. I’m chief marketing officer of Chariot Solutions, which is an IT consulting firm. We develop custom software for all different size companies, and then I’m also founder of TechGirlz, which is a non-profit to empower girls to embrace the power of tech for their future career. TechGirlz started because of what I perceived to be the imbalance that you talk about, and not only am I seeing that imbalance on the technical side, I’m also seeing it as you are, on the entrepreneur side.
The numbers speak loudly for themselves. At Chariot, as much as we’ve tried to hire women, we don’t see them coming through our pipeline. They’re not gravitating to the type of work that we’re doing back in software developers, or they’re just not finding us, but we’re out here and we’ve been here for 14 years.
We have about 60 people on staff at Chariot. I’m the only female member of the management team, and we have four other women. Only one developer and one in training. TechGirlz started because of that. Seeing that imbalance, we couldn’t find the people. Within the tech community, I was one of the early board member and leadership team of Philly’s start up leaders.
Nationally, 3% of entrepreneur establishments are founded by women in the tech world. It’s very, very small. From a software engineering standpoint, it’s about 12% nationally. There’s about 25% women in the tech field, but that’s a little bit more expansive. Much is software engineering.
You can see that there’s an imbalance, especially since women make up more than 50% of the workforce, and that is growing. We are 57% of the bachelor degrees that are handed out. Another stat that we throw out a lot is, the labor department predicts that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million new tech jobs created, but we’re only going to be able to fill 400,000 of them through college graduates and career changers. That means that by 2020, there’s going to be a million job openings. We know that at Chariot, not only cannot we find women, we’re having trouble finding good quality software technologists to help fill our roles because, here’s another stat for you, that the labor department also predicts that 80% of all jobs will be tech enabled by 2018, so the future is not just around the corner, it’s pretty much now.
The reason that we formed TechGirlz was because we felt that the imbalance was probably starting earlier. If young women weren’t matriculating into college programs, something is happening at high school. There were two studies that were done in 2000-2005, so it’s a little old data, but it showed that at ninth grade, girls were self-selecting out to technology careers. There’s multiple reasons. There’s layers and layers that you start to unravel. There’s no one magic piece, that if you change this, the particular piece, it would solve the entire issue, but we decided to take a swing at getting the girls before they change their minds.
Like any good entrepreneur, we decided to start this non-profit as more of a business, so we did some focus group testing. We spent a year putting together what we were going to do. What we came up with was that the girls were … First of all, there wasn’t a lot of curricula that was out there. There wasn’t a lot of curricula that was focused at the middle school level. There wasn’t a lot of curricula that was focused at what girls were looking to do. We’re missing a key piece, which are people who have IT experience and IT knowledge who could actually come out and be instructors. You have to spend a lot of time. Some of theme were six months, full school year and not everybody has time to do that, so we were really missing out on a key piece of people who could volunteer and help out.
We created these short interactive, because that’s one of the things the girls were asking for. They wanted to get their hands dirty, so these workshops that we have created, we have 35 of them now, that are available for anyone to use, to organize as their TechGirlz event in their cities.
We’ve been doing this for five years, and right now, I’m at TechGirlz Entrepreneur Camp, which is teaching them a full week of how to be an entrepreneur in the tech field doing lean start up methodology. It’s pretty awesome. We’re also looking at that piece as well. We’ve worked with 5,000 girls over the last five years, and we’re hoping to, as we go into this next school year, we’re looking to work with 10,000 over the next year.
I find it fascinating, and I brought this up when Vanessa from re.Design was on the show, that because both her kids are enrolled in a day camp that’s also doing lean start up methodology. I think when I was that age, we were maybe lucky if we had exposure to something like junior achievement. What do you feel like the impact is when kids start to internalize the concept that they can be, not just exposed to technology, but entrepreneurial?
I think it’s really interesting one of the things that we see with women, because we’re also involved in the women’s community not just girl’s community, is the idea that you can only be an entrepreneur if you are the idea person. That’s a fallacy because, yeah, someone needs to be the idea person, and that’s the one that we put the press all over, but you work in a business, I work in a business. It’s a team, right? We’re a team sport, especially when you’re starting early on. I think one of the things that we’re trying to help, especially our girls, to understand is that everybody plays a crucial role in team. That the idea person has the vision but sometimes they’re not the person who actually can execute. Just because you don’t have that idea, doesn’t mean that you cannot be part of what we term an innovation economy.
We’re hoping to internalize that idea as well as, how do you look at a problem? How do you solve a problem? How do you talk to a customer? We teach our girls at specifically at this camp, the 30 second elevator pitch really important to be able to communicate what your business does. To really understand benefits. You can have the best idea out in the world, and if you don’t understand who you’re targeting, at who your potential customer is, if you assume that you know everything, that they’re going to want without doing any customer validation, you’re probably not going to be successful. You don’t understand your competition. This isn’t even about the tech piece.
We’re lucky enough not only to have the discussion around the lean start up methodology, but also we bring in developers because from the Chariot side of my life, is we have start ups who come in. They’ve never developed any type of software. They may have expertise within their business or their industry, and they really don’t understand how to talk to a developer. How to get their ideas across.
We teach the girls how to do wire framing, so that there’s what I say, “a common language” that the business owner, the non-technical person can talk to the technical person. Then, the developers put together a prototype, very, very simple prototype for the girl. The girls are going to have an idea of what it’s like to actually develop software. We teach them about minimum viable product. The important MVP and how are you putting out new features. Very important.
Many of the customers, prospects that we see that come to Chariot, they want everything in their first run. That doesn’t happen. No software product started with every feature because some of them don’t exist. Some of them you don’t understand from your client, from your potential client. You teach them about iteration and slow adding new features in and what that looks like. I think that those are important concepts as well. It’s not about starting their own businesses, just really internalizing these concepts, so they can take some of these ideas and think logically about when they’re starting a business, think just passionately about their product, even though they should be excited whether it’s a new product or whether they’re working a business to ask certain question that are important every time.
You know, one of the things I find challenging about the formal education system, and I’ve run into this myself when I tried to hire. I spent a number of years in HR and business development at Apple and we ran into the same thing there were, we would try to recruit really diverse teams. It was challenging to find people that had those skill sets, and one of the things that I observed at the time was that, the formal education that we are accustomed to, puts up very huge barriers to entry for anyone. We tell people, don’t bother applying to a job unless you have five to seven years of experience, but then once you get into the job, you realize it’s constantly about iteration and working on technologies that haven’t even existed for five months, let alone five years. How do you help the students in your program? How do the girls in your program learn about the program or overcome that perceived resistance that this is something that they can just dive into as opposed to needing to be in a eight year degree cycle to get involved in technology and business?
Wow. That’s a good one. A week is not going to be able to give them that much information, and one of the things that we like to say is, this is a long tail solution. It’s a long tail problem. It’s not something that’s going to change overnight. Your point, there’s a lot of cultural and structural changes that need to happen in a much larger area of how we think about education and then goes from high up to lower down, to think locally, act globally, right?
If we have the girls and the parents are pushing the schools. Then, also as we start seeing, as companies start really becoming more dependent on technology and different ways of thinking, they’re going to have to rethink. When we start talking about 80% of all jobs being tech enabled, it’s not just going to be the Apple’s and the ones that you constantly think about as technology companies. There are businesses out there every day that need tech workers. They could be product designers. They could be social media website designers. Some companies may want to figure out how to do gamification, so we’re going to be using some game augmented reality. Fashion is getting into technology, has been for a while. We talked to the girls about textiles.
I know this is going off a little bit of your question, but I think businesses are going to have to think differently. HR is going to have to think differently. There’s a change that will have to happen, otherwise, nationally, we’re going to keep having this problem of jobs that cannot be filled because we’re in this rigid thought process.
Thinking back to something that I heard you say earlier, what are some of the reasons you have observed that girls self-select out of those career paths at very early ages? It sounds like we’re talking about kids who are probably nine, ten, eleven years old, and somehow they’re getting a message that, “This isn’t for me.”
What we’re see is, number one, culturally. Girls are not thought of as being smart. We still have this. So many years later after women have entered the workforce, we’re seeing messages that tell girls they cannot be smart and they cannot be pretty at the same time. We have to change that, and there’s campaigns that are out there that are beginning to culturally change what’s acceptable for women to do and to be, and that’s a wrong. If you’re told you cannot do that, if you’re told you cannot be good at math, and cannot be good at science, you cannot be good using software products, what do you think is going to happen?
The other problem that we see is within the school systems, through no fault of their own. They’ve had budget cuts. They have to deal with common core standards, testing issues, how much time do they have in the day? Computer science and other technology classes are seen as extras. They’re not core part of what we’re doing in the classroom. As extras, what we’re seeing is boys are gravitating to them in high school, and if you’re a girl, you have to have a lot of self-confidence to walk into a room full of boys.
We’ve also heard from our girls, that when they do take the time to go to one of these classes, they’re not interesting. They’re being taught in a very mathematical, like you teach math, and that’s not exciting to them. We’re seeing that girls are interested in … I don’t have any research, it’s just what we see from our girls, that they want to solve problems. A lot of times they’re not learning the technology because they just want to learn how to code or figure out other uses of technology. They’re using it because they want to solve something.
The other thing that we have seen is just the very narrow view of how we depict … There’s two things. It’s how the media is depicting somebody who is in technology. Silicon Valley, the show, if you’ve ever seen it, is the perfect epitome, “I don’t know why the lights just went off.”
If you watch Silicon Valley show on HBO, they’re wearing hoodies. They look like the typical nerd. There’s very few women, so there’s very few representation. If they do have a woman that comes on for the most part in the tech field, they look like they’re goth, so it’s a very narrow view of what a technologist is. We’re missing the broader sense of one, not all technologists look like that.
Yeah. It’s interesting because I’ve heard Silicon Valley brought up. I find that the humor there is so subtle because I’ve observed … First of all, when I first saw that show, I felt like I’ve either been one of those characters or known one of those characters at any point in the show, but the handful of women that do appear in the show, reflect that scarcity of women in the Valley.
I think the other very subtle humor that the team puts in there, is that the women that do show up, tend to be the only competent character … yeah, so I can think of maybe three women that, or four as of season three, that have shown up on the show, two are Venture Capitol people and two are technologists.
Then, the feedback I’ve heard about the show Halt and Catch Fire, which was on AMC, was that it was probably the best depiction of a woman technologist, but the sad part about it was that it was a period piece. It was from the 80s. What do we have to actually reflect to young women that’s an effective role model because we don’t have that image in the media?
Taping this in the same week that the Ghostbusters reboot is out, there’s so many conversations about what is the responsibility of media to reflect opportunities for kids. The photo that’s circulating right now of Kristen Wigg signing autographs at the red carpet, and there’s this amazing photograph, we’ll put it in the show notes, of this little girl looking up at her with this vision of like, that kid is going to make an amazing movie in 20 years.
One of the things we have to realize is that, one, as women who are in the industry, whether you like it or not, you need to be visible because we’re showcasing two things. One, that you can be in the industry. Two, that you can continue to work. I think what I’m representative of, not only that I’ve stayed in the work force with two children who are almost grown out of the house. I think that that’s important to show that you can do this if you choose to. That it is an option.
It’s really important for those of us to be out there and representing. The quote about Ghostbusters, I saw this morning that Leslie Jones, who’s one of the characters who I absolutely love, was on The View, and she said that the first time she saw Whoopi Goldberg, she cried on TV because she saw somebody who looked like her.
One of the things that we started off, somebody told me, “If you cannot see yourself in the job, you cannot see yourself in the job.” Ways that we can get around having somebody in the media being a tech lead for women, for young girls, is we can tell stories of women who were there.
There’s a piece that we don’t talk about a lot that you do not hear in the media. Parents are very influential in what their children wind up doing. If parents don’t know that these are opportunities that are out there, then how can they help their kids figure out that the opportunities are out there, so we’re missing teaching our parents and educating them the available professions that are there.
The other thing that I think we need to talk about as well is that, you and I are in the industry. I like to call it, “We live in the bubble,” not the tech bubble that burst, but just this bubble, that we’re protected and we just assume that everybody knows all this stuff that’s going on. We’re just such a small percentage of people who really are, we’re not normal, but assume everybody knows what’s going on. The truth is that, most of the population doesn’t, so our assumptions are incorrect and by not putting out there all the opportunities, especially to those who are influencing our children, parents, educators, we’re doing our kids a disservice.
The other thing that I also want to say is that, the pace of change, which is why it’s difficult for the schools to keep up, that is happening in the tech industry from software development to hardware to things that we don’t even know are going to be. If you think about the iPhone, it didn’t exist, smartphones didn’t really exist, what was it like 15 years ago? In 15 years, … my dad used to be in the industry, so he’ll hold up his phone and go, “What is in my phone right now, is what was in a server room in 1965,” so we’re not comprehending the speed. We’re not really showing our kids, especially girls, discussion around using technology, so being consumer technology versus being a creator.
If we flip it a little bit, and again, those outside, those who are a little bit older, will say, “Oh. Well, they’re on Facebook. They’re on SnapChat. They’re on their phones. They’re on their computers. They know technology.” No. They know how to use certain pieces of technology, but they don’t understand how those technologies relate to future employment.
Yeah. I remember one of the things that stuck with me about my conversation with Sylvester Mobley, who’s doing Coded by Kids, which is a great initiative, was he expressed a lot of frustration about how a lot of parents will enroll their kids in athletic programs with the concept that their kid might be the one to become star gymnast or star quarterback, and that might be a one in one hundred thousand career move long term, whereas if you taught your kid MySQL, there’s a one in one chance they will have a five figure job the moment they graduate even an associate.
The issue is that most people cannot teach their kids MySQL, and the opportunities that are out there for them to learn how to do this, are very small. In the five years that TechGirlz has been in existence, we continue to be one of the top hits if you look for girls in technology. Now, I know from my marketing background that that’s great for TechGirlz, but it’s actually scary that there hasn’t been a proliferation of programs that address this issue.
Yes. We enroll our kids when we show what they’re interested. Now, I have 5,000 girls that we have worked with. Now, not just in Philadelphia, but around the country and soon we’ve done some things internationally. Other people are using our materials to teach, so by providing them the materials, it allows us to expand the message, and the parents are finding them. Everyone asks us, “How do you fill your classes?,” especially if we’re not controlling it. I’m like, “That’s never been an issue.”
It’s not just about teaching your kid MySQL because guess what? In 15 years when they’re going to be employed, MySQL may not exist. To some extent also we have to take a look at, are we teaching skills? Are we teaching the idea that technology is a lifelong pursuit that we’re going to have to keep learning and not just to be stuck in this thought pattern of, “Yeah. I’m going to teach this one technology and then they’re going to be good for life,” and that’s not the case because I don’t know what’s going to be the most popular coding language in five years.
My team at Chariot does not know either. There’s so much that’s happening and so many changes that are happening, I think we need to think a little bit differently on how we’re inspiring our kids. It’s not just the idea of, “Okay. They’re going to learn how to code.” This is something that bothers me a lot, which is, “Oh. We’re going to focus on the 14 year old coding protege who sold their company,” and that’s the same thing as trying to get your kid to be the professional sports star. The idea is, we need to teach our kids that this is something you’re going to learn and you’re going to keep learning and it’s going to be great and you’re going to be able to change social issues by using technology.
Think about when there’s a tragedy, unfortunately, that happens and Facebook can now alert people, your friends and family, that you’re okay. I forget what they call the feature. That’s something that actually does good. As a country sometimes, we think a little bit too narrowly, and again, I go back to the whole, “This is a long tail problem.”
The other thing is that as a country, we need to make a commitment within the school systems. We haven’t even discussed the whole … I can talk about women and girls till your eyes bleed, but there’s also diversity issue around color. The figures around minorities within tech companies is even more small than women. We have to make the effort to bring everyone into this world.
Yeah. I think … There are two bigger thread that I observe is, as you pointed out, we don’t know how to measure when we’re teaching kids how to learn. Not just learning a specific task or learning a specific skill, but the thing that we as employers find valuable, is when someone knows how to learn something new very quickly and in turn, can teach other people how to do it. I think the other piece that we’re still trying to figure out as employers is, how to properly value the benefits that we get when we have very diverse team, but I found a rarity still. We try to work with clients who share that value. We try to bring that, but it’s still not something that I see communicated very effectively at the early stages.
One thing that I wanted to call out though was, when we think about, going way back to something I heard you say earlier on, thinking about TechGirlz models with best business practices in mind, one of the things that you do is you adopted some of the open source methodology and you make your material and your structure available to individuals, organizations. You’re not trying to own everything inside a silo and that’s very different from the way I observe many non-profit organizations operate. Tell me a little bit about how you maintain the quality control aspect but at the same time you’re able to scale pretty rapidly by bringing all those other resources in.
It’s really interesting. The team that’s been brought together certainly … Being at Chariot and us being involved in the open source community from basically the get go, the founding of our company has really informed how we’ve structured ourselves. The open source community, the way that it’s structured, as you said, it’s about sharing information and having others help you to add on and create better products. It’s infused our culture in a way that we don’t even realize, but it’s also about creating community.
Open source is not just about the idea of having teams of people actually work on solving a software issue and then allowing other people to use it. I think one, in terms of, we’ve spent the last four years really thinking about how we do delivery, how we keep our control over quality of our programs, so we create and test our materials before we allow them to be put into our library. We think about it from our two clients.
We actually have two customers. It’s the girls because if they don’t like what’s being taught then what’s the point, right? So we listen to them. Then, it’s also about our volunteers. If someone’s taking time to prep for a class and teach a class, we want to make sure that the labs work. It’s not just the person who crated it, who can teach it. That’s one of the downfalls that we’ve seen from other materials that are let go in the wild, but that the next person and the next person and the next person. Hopefully, we’re getting the feedback as well, once we’ve put it into our library of things that can change.
We also have to make sure that we’re updating as things change. Things go stale. We have a couple of curricula that are in-house that actually may need to go away because they’re not relevant anymore, so we’re constantly looking and that’s an interesting piece of what we also brings to the table with many of us being in the developer community or the tech community, we’re really able to have our finger on the post of what’s new and exciting.
We have a class on Linux. We have a class on, got a couple on game design. We have stuff on fashion tech and we’re constantly thinking of or hearing what we can add, so, again, technology’s not just about software, but development.
Back to the open source, I think that that we could be charging for this. We didn’t want that to be an obstacle in the way of delivery. It’s enough that somebody is going out, taking the time out of their schedule to teach. That’s the other reason why we were allowing this to be open source. Hopefully, we will see more companies who will support us and foundations who will support what we’re doing, so that we continue to create more curricula that’s relevant to the girls and also expand the reach of what we’re able to do.
I think one of the natural fits, thinking from the point of view of an employee development program, when employees get a chance to teach their skills, that’s one of the best ways to develop, and yet, inside an organization, if you’re on a team with a bunch of peers that are learning at the same pace as you are, maybe you don’t have as many opportunities to do the teach, maybe you don’t have as many at bats, right, to bring another sports analogy into it. This seems like a really good fit where it would be easy for an employer to say, “Let’s engage in this program because you’ve got guaranteed eager audiences and you get to develop your presentation skills as well as to showcase what you know, in front of an audience that’s going to be really, really eager and understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.”
The team building skill, the other thing that you’re going to get besides the whole idea of learning skills and being able to teach skills, which creates confidence because you now know what you’re teaching, what you just learned yourself is, our audience is so eager. Our parents are so excited. It’s really a great feeling when you’re done teaching because you have that immediate feedback, so one of the things that we’re working on is, not only getting more people to come and see this as a team activity once, but to do it year after year or maybe twice a year, so that they’re able to do that.
To your point about teaching, we have started a student school partnership program where high schools and colleges who are teaching technology skills, could then have their students, under the supervision of their teacher, go out into the community and teach. We just beta tested that with the Philadelphia Academy’s at Roxborough High School and their web design class taught the middle school that’s going to come up to Roxborough High. They taught two classes this year.
That was one way to expand out their reach, and we’re hoping to see some of the girls that were in the middle school class, actually matriculate into the high school web design class. There’s a lot of goodness around that and high school girls learned and honed their presentation skills, learned their communication skills, and also honed what they had learned. It’s not even just at the corporate level, we can also do this at the high school and college level as well.
What are the things that TechGirlz needs most right now in the way of volunteers, resources, what can listeners do to help support what you’re doing?
First of all, I should make sure that everyone knows that our URL is techgirlz.org. You can go there. You can sign up to teach a class. We have … Our program is called Tech Shops in a Box. It’s a virtual box. You open it up. There’s a lesson plan and we have an operations playbook. You have all of our lessons in a manual of how to run a class, not just teach it, so we’re trying to make it as easy as possible.
If you have technology skills, and we have, like I said, we have 35 different lesson plans right now. You can actually impact a girl’s life and her future career choice, by teaching, maybe taking 15 hours out of your week or over a two week period to organize and get it ready and really make a difference. That’s definitely one thing we’re looking to expand. The number of classes that are being taught. Ten thousand girls is a lot.
We’re also looking for … I will never shy away for asking for money, so we’re looking for corporate sponsors. We’re looking for grants to help fund our program. We’re a lean, mean machine, so pretty much everything that is donated dollar-wise goes right back into our programs. We have … and please to our … we’re expanding from a team of two and a half to three and a half very soon. We’re working on a regional model. We’re going to be hiring somebody in the Philadelphia area. The account manager, so to speak, to reach out to schools to help, so if you’re in Philadelphia, reach out and we have people who can help you get started.
Let’s say, and we’ve only got a couple more minutes together, but let’s say that it’s 10 years from now. We’re reconnecting. What do you feel like you’re going to have accomplished in 10 years? What’s your dream for the organization?
Potentially, that we were pretty much done. Most non-profits you talk to, you won’t hear them say, “I wan to put myself out of business,” but I’m hoping that when we talk in 10 years, that I’ll be able to say that, “We were part of this cultural phenomenon that allowed girls to understand that they belonged in the innovation economy. That they could take their rightful place. That nobody was going to tell them that they shouldn’t be here, and that we’re seeing our, the girls that have gone through, are starting to be really impactful within industries.
We run an event called The Women in Tech Summit, which is about women in tech, not about girls in tech. It’s a fund raiser for it, as well as, a conference to educate women about technology.
You’re doing that in three cities now, right?
Yes, and next year, it looks like we’re going to do between four and six.
Yeah. I have somebody who’s running that. We’re looking for national sponsors because my boss is so kind, allowing me to spend some of my time to do this, so I think that that’s what I’d like to say.
Fantastic. Tracey, thank you so much for taking time to join us today on The Build, and we’ve got full show notes with links to your site and all those other resources right here, just find them in the show notes.
The Build is a production of 2820 radio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our producer is Lorie Taylor. Our associate producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our talent coordinators are Katrina Smith and Gizem Yali, and our post production team is led by Evan Wilder at Flowly Audio in Detroit. My name is Joe Taylor Jr. Thanks for listening to The Build.
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