By Jenn Beecham
Becoming an Engineer
When I became an engineer I faced the most adversity from older women in the community who were engineers as well. They told me the environment was tough, and I would have to work with mostly guys. Nonetheless, I was determined. At the University of Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to find an amazing community that supported women in engineering — the Society of Women Engineers. Later when I entered the working world as a developer my company had an active program that facilitated a community of women in senior roles to develop and shape the careers of fresh college graduates like me. My own enjoyment of engineering has largely been impacted through multi-year relationships and mentorships by men and women who have been in the field.
Women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates, but only 11% of practicing engineers are women, according to a 2011 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. When I look at these numbers, I know that I got lucky. Many women report leaving Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields due to a lack of support, community and encouragement. As a result, I volunteered with organizations to mentor younger children in engineering and often specifically in coding both during college and my first job. I knew the reason I was able to develop all these skills was because someone was there to help grow my spark of a desire to learn into an actual flame. And the best way to keep that fire going was to spread it to those younger than me.
Moving to Texas
My move to Texas over a year ago was sudden. I was pulled out of environment with the friends and community I knew and placed into a new one. It’s always intimidating to go somewhere and build a community from scratch, but I relied on my passion to continue developing skills to find my new tribe. That’s when I first met Robyn Brown at Code Collective. We were a group of men and women who had coding projects and met on Saturday mornings to discuss our project progress and any new technology out there. I came in with a desire to start a Girls Who Code chapter in Dallas, a group my prior company had worked with. When I spoke of that idea, I learned the group was already involved in volunteering through Girl Scouts and a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) Public Charter School to teach coding. It was a natural place to start.
The Primordial Soup of Thoughts
When I first spoke with Robyn about the program I wanted to kick off in Dallas, we realized that not only did we share a similar passion but the goal was much bigger. For one, we did not want to teach only girls to break the gender gap in the field. We wanted to accustom children from a young age to work with not only the opposite gender but those of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. And two, rather than just teach coding, we wanted to change children’s mentality about coding completely. Coding should be like English, a language they all know. It’s not a language for those who are “smart” enough to learn. It’s the language of tomorrow, and it’s a universal language that can be spoken across the world.
We were reaffirmed in our passion at a Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas program fair when a 3rd grader named Lily visited our booth. She told us that of course she wanted to learn how to code. She wanted to be a veterinarian when she grows up. But first, she wanted to make a website to teach others how to take care of animals. And just like that we knew that these young minds had a natural tendency to want to help and were not yet bound by the traditional thoughts of what coding should be and who should learn it.
Becoming Bold Idea
When Robyn approached us about turning our passion project into its own separate non-profit organization, I knew she had the right idea. In order to ensure that the future of the technology industry is well balanced in gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds, we must train the generation of today. While we know we cannot impact the problem on a large global or even national scale, we wanted to start with our own community in Dallas.
To me, Bold Idea is a way of saying ‘thank you’ to my mentors. It’s recognizing that what brought me closer to coding wasn’t single one-off workshops; it was multi-year training and bonding with a community. It is realizing that my skills as a coder has made me feel empowered and confident. While those feelings cannot be directly passed on, learning how to code can be. Why am I a part of Bold Idea? Because I want to love our community in the best way I know how: To prepare a younger generation for the future and make them feel empowered to pursue their own passions.