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'This Is The Opportunity Our Ancestors Dreamed Of'

Black Girls Code prepares a generation to balance an uneven playing field.

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Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant (top row, center) with (top row) Charmienne, Cadence, Leah, Kai; (middle row) Nia, Neha, Veronica, Kimora; (bottom row) Belle, Gabriella, and Samayyah—just 11 of the 9,000 aspiring techies her organization has reached so far.

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Bryant and her first pupil, daughter Kai Morton, 18.

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Coders launching their app for judging.

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Bryant (right) presenting the $4,000 scholarship grand prize.

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A team getting guidance from volunteer mentor Cristian Cavalli of Google (right). September’s Code a Brighter Future Hackathon featured 89 girls from grades 6 through 12.

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Girls who can code: Nia Titus, 10, Samayyah Green, 11, and Kimora Oliver, 14.

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A teenager cried into her father’s shoulder. Another sobbed into her hands, her friends encircling her with hugs. They all stood to the side of the stage, barely able to lift their eyes to watch as Leah Riggins, 13, and her two teammates clutched a huge foam-core check for $4,000 and claimed the first-place prize for best app. The audience of about 200 standing inside the lobby of a SoMa tech incubator called Galvanize exploded into applause. Kimberly Bryant, looking the part of the casual tech CEO in pink Vans and a black leather jacket, stood next to the winners. “It’s not about if you win this check,” she said into the mic, turning to give a wink to the winning team. “It’s about the checks you can get in the future.”

As parents and daughters filed out into the late-September night, Leah’s teammates continued beaming into camera flashes. After shaking hands with the hackathon’s judges, Leah stepped out from under an arch of pink and black balloons and off the stage. Blushing, she said, “I just can’t believe it.”

Leah and her teammates were 3 of 89 girls from grades 6 to 12 who had spent the weekend competing at a free hackathon organized by Bryant’s nonprofit, Black Girls Code. Starting on Friday night, the girls had been assigned teammates and mentors—adult volunteers from companies like Google, Dropbox, and EA Sports—and then got to work, creating apps from scratch over the next two days. Leah’s team had won the $4,000 scholarship prize (plus a $500 credit for each teammate to be used for future Black Girls Code events) with an app called takeAminute, designed to help young people manage anxiety by matching their symptoms to funny or relaxing YouTube videos.

I’d met Leah at a Black Girls Code summer camp the previous month, where the shy, smart eighth grader was so quiet as to go almost unnoticed. In a classroom of about 25 girls, she was one of the youngest and least experienced. The simple website she built by herself over the course of the two-week camp represented the most intensive computer training she’d ever received. Thanks to her experiences at camp and later at the hackathon, Leah, who lives in Emeryville and goes to North Oakland Community Charter School, started voicing plans for her future out loud. “I’d like to intern at EA Sports or Dropbox,” she said, smiling with her whole face. She had visited both companies on camp field trips. “I never knew what I wanted to do before coding.” Within the supportive environment of the hackathon—inside a room filled with black girls honing STEM skills, overseen mostly by black women assisting them in that pursuit—it seemed impossible to dampen her enthusiasm. But right outside those doors, there were plenty of reasons for doubt.

A report published in June by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that, starting as young as age five, black girls are viewed by adults as needing less nurturing, protection, and support than their white peers, and that these views may lead to fewer mentorship opportunities in school. This lack of mentors is one of the prime factors that persistently hold black women back from entering and rising up through the professional ranks, particularly in high-paying industries like tech, where they are chronically underrepresented.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women held 26 percent of all tech jobs in the United States in 2016, but black women held only 3 percent. (Latinas were even more underrepresented, at 2 percent.) A 2016 NCWIT report observed that 48 percent of black women felt stalled in their careers, compared with 34 percent of white women and 32 percent of Asian women and Latinas. Key factors for all women feeling stuck were a lack of mentors, role models, and higher-up colleagues advocating for their advancement. “People presume black women will be more outspoken, too independent, or overly aggressive,” says Maya Beasley, a sociology professor and the codirector of the Center for Diversity and Innovation at the University of Maryland. “If that’s the perception, then people are less likely to take on that person as a mentee, regardless of what her personality and demeanor actually is.”

From 2007 to 2015, the number of black women in professional, nonmanagerial jobs in the Bay Area increased by 13 percent, according to a study released in October by the Ascend Foundation. Yet the number of black women working in tech dropped by 13 percent over the same period. This despite the fact that white women’s representation in the industry increased by 10 percent, Latinas’ by 13 percent, and Asian women’s by 34 percent. And black women who have landed a job in the field face multiple layers of discrimination once there. A 2015 UC Hastings law school study observed that 77 percent of black women working in STEM jobs reported having to provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves, compared with 65 percent of Latinas, 64 percent of Asian women, and 63 percent of white women. The report also showed that 48 percent of black women in STEM jobs had been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff. “We are up against deeply rooted systemic issues of bias—racial and gendered stereotypes—for myself as a woman of color and for the girls, too,” says Bryant, who is 50. “We are held to higher standards. We are expected to overperform, to not make mistakes. We have higher scrutiny for everything we do.”

As discouraging as these realities are, Bryant wants Leah and the more than 9,000 other girls who’ve enrolled in Black Girls Code programs to believe that they can make it in what is 21st-century America’s most crucial sector. She also wants tech companies to know that her program wants their support, but not at any cost. Some have balked at the organization’s name for not being inclusive of all girls. Others have questioned Bryant’s decisions—for instance, her controversial call this August to turn down a $125,000 grant from Uber, a move that Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s chief brand officer and one of the most prominent African Americans working in tech, vocally criticized. But Bryant says that she’s too busy to pay her critics any mind. In fact, she says, that’s exactly the kind of flak that her girls will have to face down if they want to advance in the tech world. “We’re trying to prepare them,” she says, “to fight this fight.”

 

Kimberly Bryant left her job as a technical project manager at Genentech in September 2010 and began mulling over a vague idea about starting a for-profit organization for black girls. In February 2011, she attended an entrepreneurial conference and told a speaker named Analisa Balares, the CEO of Womensphere, about names she’d been tossing around: Kaleidoscope Girls, Color-Coded Girls, Black Girls Code. Balares told her that, hands down, the last one was the winner—and insisted she register the domain name on the spot. “People in my circle obviously got it,” Bryant says of the name choice. “They understood the impact, both positive and negative, of making such a bold statement.”

Some funders would later encourage her to change the name to be more welcoming of all girls, but Bryant didn’t waver, and in April 2011 she asked two female former colleagues from Genentech—one black, one white—and a black male coder she’d met at a Code for America event to help her create a pilot program. “We literally talked to any and everybody we could who was doing anything even remotely similar,” Bryant says.

That summer, Bryant’s 12-year-old daughter, Kai Morton—now 18 and taking a gap year after graduating from Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School—attended a weeklong overnight coding camp at Stanford in which she was the only black participant and one of only a few girls. At the end of the week, Kai told her mother about the disparities in attention given to boys compared with girls in the camp. “It wasn’t that she wasn’t happy,” Bryant says. “She was really enthusiastic about what she was learning. But I was afraid she’d lose her enthusiasm because she was not part of the clique. It was an isolating experience for her.”

Watching Kai’s experience reminded Bryant of her own difficult college years. Growing up with a single mom in Memphis, Bryant was exceptionally bright from the start, placed in accelerated classes from third grade through high school. Following her older brother’s lead, she majored in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt and minored in computer science and math. But she increasingly felt isolated as a black woman, and her GPA dipped so low she worried she’d lose her scholarship. “I wasn’t at the top of my class anymore. And I didn’t have that many students who looked like me,” she says. She recalls only five black students in the school of engineering and only one female instructor her entire college career. “I didn’t have a support system, and I didn’t know how to create one,” she says.

It was memories of those four years—the hardest of her life, she says—combined with watching her daughter struggle in the same way that made her redouble her efforts to launch Black Girls Code. “That’s what spurred me into action,” she says. Over the summer of 2011, Bryant and her team of three adapted an MIT curriculum to create lesson plans for a six-week course. A Bayview– Hunters Point college prep center gave Bryant its basement computer lab to use, and on a Saturday in October, she taught basic coding to eight girls on six computers.

ThoughtWorks, a software design company with an interest in social justice, reached out after hearing about what Bryant had done in the Bayview, offering her space in its SoMa office to run a second six-week program. Twenty girls came. Around that time, Google gave the group its first grant—$20,000. With that money and an increase in girls participating in the programs each month thereafter, Bryant decided to take Black Girls Code on the road. That June, she set out to reach 200 girls in six cities.

The first stop was a DeVry campus in Oakland. Bryant and her team had reached out to all the local youth organizations and schools and had gotten a small amount of press. “I walked in and almost passed out,” Bryant says. “There were over 100 girls in there.” She posted a photo of the crowd on Facebook. “That’s when people were like, ‘OK, this isn’t some little thing she’s doing with her baby—her daughter—and a few other girls.’” The next stop was Atlanta and a wraparound line of over 100 girls. “That’s when I knew we had something,” she says. “It wasn’t a local organization; it was something needed nationwide.” By August 2012, about 1,200 girls had attended Black Girls Code workshops.

Five years later, in September of this year, Bryant launched the organization’s 13th U.S. chapter, in Detroit, which was kicked off with a $225,000 donation from General Motors. Her operating budget for 2017 is about $2.3 million, and she plans to nearly double it in 2018. By 2040, Bryant believes, her organization will have reached one million black girls, ages 7 to 17, both in the United States and around the world.

 

Wearing a maroon leather jacket and a fitted skirt, Bryant wiggles out of her high heels and into leopard-print flats after stepping into her small upstairs office at Impact Hub, a large coworking space in Oakland. Her desk faces her framed 1989 Vanderbilt diploma, which rests on a short filing cabinet behind stacks of paper. On the opposite wall is a blown-up photo of Kai with two other Black Girls Code participants in the background. “I would love to be at the office more, but I’m rarely in here,” she says as she lowers her standing desk to sitting height and opens a small bag of nuts. Popping one into her mouth, she sighs, “I stay on the go.” In a few days, she’ll fly to Johannesburg to speak alongside Russell Simmons at a Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit and check in with the group’s 14th and only international chapter.

While Black Girls Code runs hackathons in the Bay Area and New York, summer camps in eight cities, and one-day workshops across the country, the program that Bryant believes has the potential to reach the most girls is the Code Club—after-school classes at local schools lasting from 3 to 12 weeks and funded by the schools, not the girls. The clubs are currently established only in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., but “if we could figure out how to scale that program, we could take that places we don’t even have chapters,” she says.

In order to grow Black Girls Code, the organization has been largely dependent on corporate grants. This year, its biggest funder was AT&T, which donated $475,000. The group’s New York programs are run out of a 6,000-square-foot space inside Google’s headquarters in Chelsea, which the company donated in June 2016. But accepting grants and gifts from large corporations has presented some of the same challenges that rejecting a donation from Uber did. “They have issues, they definitely have issues,” Bryant says of Google in particular. “The Damore issue, and continual issues like struggling with their numbers.”

She is referring, of course, to former Google engineer James Damore, who was fired this summer after posting a memo on an internal message board implying that there were biological reasons for the gender gap in his field. And indeed Google has struggled with its “numbers.” In 2017, black employees accounted for only 2 percent of technical roles at the company, according to publicly released diversity data. “There is no company that is the panacea—that doesn’t exist,” Bryant says. “I know Google has funded and sponsored so many organizations similar to BGC. I think that shows an honest effort on their part.”

Google announced in March that its efforts at recruiting junior and senior computer science majors at Howard University, a historically black college (HBCU), had developed into a 12-week residency on its Mountain View campus. The pilot program took place this summer. This is but one attempt to address “the pipeline problem” Google cited in its first-ever diversity report, released in 2014. But many advocates for minorities in tech reject the premise that a small “pipeline” of qualified and talented blacks is to blame for disparities in the industry.

“It’s not real, it’s an excuse,” says Erica Joy Baker of the pipeline diagnosis. Baker, a senior engineering manager at the crowdfunding company Patreon, has been a tech mentor at Black Girls Code hackathons in the Bay Area. She is also a prominent diversity advocate in the industry: She cofounded Project Include along with Ellen Pao and a dream team of other female leaders, and she frequently takes to social media or engages former coworkers at companies like Slack and Google to create and sustain awareness. It’s a role that she says has contributed to her being known as the “angry black lady” at work. “People are still scared of me,” she says. “And I’m exactly the opposite of scary.”

Baker’s skepticism of the pipeline theory is supported by a couple of stats: The National Science Foundation reported that 21 percent of science and engineering degree recipients in 2013 were black, Latino, or Native American. Yet a report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for 2014 showed that the top 75 Silicon Valley tech firms’ workforces were only 3 percent black and 6 percent Latino. “These companies don’t want to say they suck at this. They want to make it, like, this easy answer that absolves them,” Baker says. “I think there’s a desire to say, ‘It’s a pipeline issue, so we have to fix the pipeline’—which means you don’t have to expect to see numbers change for years.”

Bryant disagrees that the pipeline theory is just a canard. “It’s not true. There is a pipeline problem if you look at the data,” she says. But she concurs with Baker that tech companies also need to look within, reforming hiring practices and rethinking workplace environments. Tech companies, Baker says, simply haven’t done enough to recruit and retain employees of color and aren’t building spaces that allow those employees to feel included in the work culture. Even the “perks” of Silicon Valley offices may signal that they were built for one kind of person more than others. “Ping-pong tables aren’t that appealing to everyone,” she says.

 

Tiareah Jakes, 22, calls me from a Chick-fil-A drive-through in Alabama, where it’s raining—hard. Hurricane Irma is moving through the South, and I can barely hear her over her car’s windshield wipers. Jakes is a senior at Tuskegee University, an HBCU, where she’s majoring in electrical engineering. After grad school she wants to start a STEM academy for inner-city youth. “I want them to be more comfortable with education. They’re underexposed,” she says. “We’d have a fair playing ground if we were all equally exposed.”

I’d met Jakes a few months earlier at a Black Girls Code summer camp, where she was a guest speaker for a day. She was spending the summer in Silicon Valley as an Apple Scholar, a program run by Apple and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund that provides students from HBCUs with advocacy, scholarships, and postgraduate support. The two-year-old partnership is meant to increase the flow of black graduates into the tech industry. “Basically, it’s to help us get adjusted,” Jakes says. “Most of us at HBCUs are from the South. We’ve never been in the Silicon Valley culture before.”

Wearing hot-pink pants and with her hair pulled into one long braid, she urged the older girls’ class at the Black Girls Code camp to apply for as many scholarships as they could, like she did. “This is the opportunity our ancestors dreamed of,” she told them. She recounts to me how much the visit with the girls meant to her. “That day gave me so much life! They were so themselves. They were so free.”

One day at the camp, I watched as an older group of girls, ages 13 to 17, learned step one of building a smartphone app before breaking for lunch. Lead instructor Kay Hudson, a software engineer, convened with his assistant instructors to discuss the older campers’ experience levels. “Some know nothing,” he said, “but they have great ideas—about games, about animation and world-building. They’re all curious, that’s important.”

As the camp (which cost $299, with some scholarships available) progressed into its second and final week, most of the younger girls were barefoot in the classroom, a sign of both how comfortable they had gotten and how warm the first week of August had been in Oakland. After everyone presented what they’d created in their snap-circuit workshop, a girl whose name counselors had to call a lot, who often roamed by herself at lunch, was taking a while at the classroom sink. She’d put glue all over her palms. A 10-year-old girl named Nia Titus walked up to her. “I don’t need to get any glue off of me,” she calmly told the girl, “because I used the nozzle.”

Olivia Ross, 16, a junior counselor, had been watching the interaction from a few feet away. “We are trying hard to work with the other girls to not isolate her,” Ross whispered to me. “Because they may end up in a workplace where people isolate them for reasons they can’t control.”

La’Nayah Miller, 14, wore a NASA T-shirt under overalls and had long white nails with diamond decals. She was visiting from North Carolina, staying with her dad, who works in cybersecurity. La’Nayah is gentle and serious; she shushed the class regularly. Paired up with another girl to create a text-adventure game (like a video game version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book) on a white Macbook, she sensed her partner was getting frustrated. La’Nayah rubbed the girl’s back as she struggled through a sequence of commands. “I’m irritated. I want to go home,” the girl said. She stared at rows and rows of code on her screen; they stared back, coldly. Hudson and his assistants paced the room, helping, prodding, encouraging. “Finish, just finish,” he said to the girls. “Remember that as you move forward in tech.”

 

“Did anyone say anything today?” Realite Reliford-Titus asks Nia, her daughter, when she picks her up from elementary school in San Francisco’s West Portal neighborhood. Nia’s face stiffens for a moment, then she murmurs the name of a classmate. Sometimes when she wears Black Girls Code T-shirts, her classmates make comments. “If they say it’s racist, I just say they’re racist back,” Nia says. “I try to wear only my other Black Girls Code shirt because it doesn’t say ‘black girls’ on it, it just says ‘Robot Expo.’” Reliford-Titus first heard about Black Girls Code from a friend when Nia was five—the age when she began requesting that every birthday party be at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. Knowing that Nia would eventually have a place to grow her natural interest in tech (the starting age for classes is seven) alongside other black girls made Reliford-Titus feel “elation.” “I was so excited,” she says. “So excited for Nia.”

In addition to attending every Black Girls Code event, Nia, who lives with her mother around the corner from the Twitter building in SoMa, goes to almost any STEM-focused program, camp, event, and afterschool club she hears about. In August, Nia stopped by the Empowerment 2020 conference at Civic Center and was fascinated by the NASA and Space Cookies booths there, but the women at those booths didn’t seem as interested in her. “The first lady we talked to wasn’t giving us that much information,” Reliford-Titus says. “We had to ask, ‘Oh, what is that flyer for? Can we have some stickers, too?’ I always tell Nia you’re here to get what you need to get, and you can’t let anyone keep you from that.”

Hanging out after school at a pizza shop on Haight Street, Nia places her Sphero, a birdlike robotic toy, on the table. With a receptor on her wrist, she makes the robot’s head move as if it is following the adult conversation going on, and giggles as it distracts us. Much of Nia’s after-school phone-access privilege is taken up by one thing: Minecraft. She taught herself how to use code to navigate the game’s obscure worlds and is now fluent in its language, talking fast about “frontiers” and “overlaying different mods.” As she describes her strategies to me, she takes deep breaths and exhales bursts of detailed information. “The goal is to explore everything around you!” Nia exclaims. “It gets deep,” her mom says, shaking her head. Every night, Reliford-Titus sees a screen glowing through the sheets pulled over Nia’s head.

 

In the wave of coverage this summer that followed Bryant’s turning down the $125,000 grant from Uber, she told reporters that the offer was a “PR stunt” and “insincere.” She and Uber had been in talks since late 2016, but Bryant was increasingly hesitant about working with the company, which was anxiously trying to rebrand itself after a series of humiliating internal scandals. When news broke in August that Uber had offered $1.2 million to the New York–based nonprofit Girls Who Code, Bryant officially declined the grant. “Why is it that an organization that serves primarily black women and girls gets 10 percent of what goes to an organization that serves a broader pool of girls?” Bryant asks. “Why, if we’re doing similar work, are we so under-resourced?”

On Twitter, Bryant denounced the claim that her donation rejection was all a publicity scheme to raise the profile of Black Girls Code, saying over several tweets that she was too busy to come up with a ploy like that. She thinks some of the “noise,” as she calls it, was simply the standard reaction to a woman speaking her mind and standing her ground. She also thinks some people thought she just didn’t know what she was doing in turning the grant down. “All money isn’t good money,” she says.

What she didn’t anticipate was the grassroots crowdfunding campaign that erupted on Twitter to supplant the Uber donation. “I didn’t initiate that. We didn’t ask anybody for it. I woke up that Saturday and happened to look at Twitter,” she says. “I cried a lot that morning because it was overwhelming.” Through that effort, Black Girls Code ended up raising $175,000: $50,000 more than Uber had offered.

In September, Bryant was part of a conversation with Girls Who Code’s founder, Reshma Saujani, at the New York Times offices as part of an internal diversity series for employees there. Saujani said that the Girls Who Code atmosphere is more reflective of what girls actually encounter in schools, because her organization doesn’t target just one race. On the plane back home, Bryant debated that sentiment with herself. No, we are unapologetically black, she concluded. I don’t want this to be like school. She says black girls aren’t given permission to be their full selves in traditional school settings. “I think it is OK,” she says slowly, tapping her fingertips on her desk with each syllable, “to create this alternate reality even if it’s just for a Saturday. Piece by piece, that gives them more confidence to take back into the world, which is not going to give them that same benefit. I want this to be a safe place where they can flourish.”

“The girls remind me of myself a lot, in many ways,” she continues. “I always smile because they have this moxie. I got in trouble in school for that spirit. I want to make sure they’re always encouraged to speak up. I want them to see that moxie as a benefit, not as a negative.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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