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Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
21 minutes

Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, joined Commissioner Rosenworcel for a conversation about how we can encourage more girls, especially girls of color, to be interested in technology and how through that work we can help close the digital divide.


MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to another episode of Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to some amazing women from across the technology, innovation and media industries. We get to talk about what we're working on, what's on our minds, and what we think is the next big thing.

I'm Jessica Rosenworcel and I'm a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, and I am so excited today to be joined by Kimberly Bryant. She is the founder of Black Girls Code. She's also a White House Champion of Change from back in 2013.

Now, I've traveled all around the country and I know, because I've seen so many company boardrooms, engineering labs, and computer science classes that have almost no women or girls. So, I am so grateful for the work that Kimberly has done to empower girls and to create a more diverse future for technology and, really, for all of us.

So, Kimberly, thank you for joining me today. It is so great to have you.

MS. BRYANT: Thank you for having me on the call today, Commissioner. I'm really honored to be able to have this conversation with you. So, thank you for including me.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Let's start with the early days. I want you to go back. I want you to tell me how you got to where you are today.

MS. BRYANT: Well, that's interesting, interesting question, especially given the fact that I've spent the last week at my college, university's homecoming weekend. And so, it's been a while since I've been on campus. I graduated back in the end of the eighties, in 1989, with a degree in engineering from Vanderbilt University.

And it was almost surreal to be back on campus after so long and be able to have a conversation with some current engineering students that are kind of where I was way back when, in my very first year of majoring in engineering and being a college student in the mid-eighties.

It started there, I would say for me, in really deciding that I wanted to go into engineering, deciding to major in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science, and that's sort of where I would say I became an engineer. That's truly where I paid my dues, so to speak, in terms of going through all the rigor of learning what that meant.

It's only through my engineering course work and my computer science course work. But even before that, I would say before I got to Vanderbilt in the mid-eighties I had a love for math and science which sort of led me to where I would finally end up. But I didn't really know that that was called engineer.

That wasn't something, a career field that was familiar to me, so that discovery really happened when I got to college.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you were a tinkerer from an early age? Maybe that's how you thought about it?

MS. BRYANT: Well, I don't even know if I would classify myself as a traditional tinkerer because I was really more into more traditional things that girls would do, like being on the cheer squad or being all into my Barbies.

I wasn't really a tinkerer by nature or by nurture because those were not the things that I was sort of led to do when growing up. Those were the things that my older brother did, but those were not things that were encouraged for me as, at that time, the only girl in the family.

But academically, that's where I was lucky to find myself surrounded by teachers that saw that I had some real aptitude in math and science, and they were the ones that guided me along this career path that would eventually end up in engineering.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, I'm curious. When you look to the left and the right of you in class, did you see a lot of people who looked like you or had the life experience you felt that you had had growing up?

MS. BRYANT: Not at all. Definitely not by the time I got to Vandy. There were not any other students, especially in my higher level engineering classes that looked like me. There were very few women, if any, by the time I was a junior in electrical engineering.

And there were no students of color in the field, in that field of study with me. Maybe a handful, but that didn't mean I always was in a classroom with them. And it was interesting when I was speaking to students last week, it's changed a bit but not a lot.

I think one of the things that we kind of shared was a disappointment that we didn't have more female professors. We maybe had a few. They maybe had a few. I had none in my four years of college, and certainly those number of professors of color were even less in the School of Engineering.

So, we maybe would get that professor that was from our same background and ethnicity in other non-engineering or non-technical classes outside of the School of Engineering but not the case inside of it, which made it difficult, I think, in terms of really being able to have a strong connection in a specific community with some of our professors.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, totally. I mean, I think if you can see it, you can be it, and when you don't, you start to question yourself. You know?

MS. BRYANT: Without a doubt. I shared with them, and I shared quite a bit, that it was the mentorship that I found with near, peer mentors, so upper-class women that were also in the field of electrical engineering, that that's what got me through. That's what became a lifeline for me, so to speak, as I was going through this very rigorous study.

And I felt so invigorated and really had my cup filled, if you will, when I spoke to these current students because I could see that that was something that they were getting from me, you know, when I was chatting with them about my experiences and really relating to their journeys in a very real way because you have to live it at times to understand what the journey entails.

And I think mentorship is so important for that very reason because you want to know that it's possible to push through and navigate through the rough waters,and having someone that's gotten to the other side of the shore is often the motivation and the hopefulness you need to kind of persevere.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, you bet. So, I think we're kind of heading there, but I will just ask you formally. So, what inspired you to create Black Girls Code?

MS. BRYANT: Well, what inspired me to create Black Girls Code is me. There's a personal motivation and there was also one that was more business-driven. So, from the business side, I'll start there, back at the beginning of 2011, end of 2010, I found myself leaving my career in biotech, had an opportunity to take a step out on my own.

My company was going through a merger, and I decided this was the time for me to take a leap. I always wanted to be self-employed, to be an entrepreneur, and this was my chance. I took it. I did not really know what I wanted to create. I just know I wanted to create something that was utilizing tech as a tool, or tech to really empower the movement around healthcare and help delivery of healthcare.

I'm not really sure what health-tech would require, but I kind of wanted to do that and try my skills at that; and finding that there were not a lot of women in the tech industry, coming out of biotech industry, that had women that were in leadership roles all around.

Like every day I saw directors and VPs that were in the biotech industry, leading businesses, curing things like cancer, and found myself in the tech industry, so it comes down in not seeing any women at all. And asking a question that no one can really answer about their actions, like why are there no more women here?

And why are there also no people of color at these networking events and career functions, and no one had a clear answer for that. And it became very frustrating for me because I knew that that shouldn't be the norm in 2000, when I graduated back in the late eighties.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: What did they say to you when you did ask that question? They had no answer?

MS. BRYANT: They would say things like, well, yes, we realize that's a problem, but they just don't seem to be interested in these things, or, we can't find them. It was odd. I mean, the answers weren't good, to be quite honest, and they seemed to be all the same.

The answers were all similar, that we realize that there's probably a problem here, but we don't really know how to solve it, and, maybe women are really not interested in this field, which I felt was ludicrous when I worked with brilliant women scientists and engineers throughout my career in the pharmaceutical industry and the biotech industry.

And these women were brilliant and doing technical things, and skilled at it. So, I could not make that make sense in my mind.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. It didn't compute. So, you decided to do something about it.

MS. BRYANT: Yes, it didn't compute.


MS. BRYANT: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, tell me a little bit more about Black Girls Code and the programs and the curriculums that you offer today.

MS. BRYANT: So, when I decided to found Black Girls Code in 2011, it was a personal motivation for my daughter, Kai, who was growing up at that time right before my eyes, and becoming a true techie or digital native that was active in computer science, and finding that it was a love for her.

And so, I wanted to create a community of other girls that were geeky and into gaming and into robotics that could nurture this love for technology and science that she was starting to discover.

And so, we started Black Girls Code in 2011, and the pilot program launched officially in 2012, around this concept of bringing girls, ages seven to seventeen, together for a variety of workshops, after-school experiences where they could learn anything from how to build a game, how to build a website, how to build a mobile app, robotics.

Now we're moving into artificial intelligence, virtual reality, watching anything that really uses tech as a lever or it elevates tech in a way that they can utilize it as a skill to build or create. We try to get them introduced to that and give them the skills to be innovative in the field.

So, we're chapters all over the U.S. So, we have 14 chapters now throughout the U.S. We have reached thousands of girls and really seen our program grow and thrive.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that your motivation was also in your own household, coming from your own daughter. As the parent of a girl who likes math and science, that one speaks to me. But I'm curious how old she was when you made that realization and decided that was going to be one of the motivating forces for your development of Black Girls Code.

MS. BRYANT: Well, she was 10 years old when we started in 2011, and really about to go into middle school, or right at the beginning of middle school. She was always involved in using tech. Like she's been using computer games since she probably could, so 7 or 8.

She was into the digital games, different versions, all different versions of gaming. But it was right about middle school where she really saw it as a way to become more than just something that she did in her pastime, where it could actually become a potential career for her.

And so that's kind of when it came together and it took shape that she may become an engineer in the future and may follow along in my footsteps with it.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Aw. I also like that you're talking about not just digital consumption for kids but digital creation. That's so important.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. I think this is one of the things that, as I look back at it now, it's been seven years with Black Girls Code, where I want parents to know that there's a difference and I want to make sure that they're clear about the difference.

I've seen so much with our young people these days consuming lots of technology, and that's not always a good thing. And in many ways I don't want them to over-consume technology. I want them to understand, though, how to utilize those skills as a source of creation in something else.

It may not be that they go and become a computer scientist. It may become that they're a filmmaker and they want to use this digital technology to help drive their film creation process. They may be a doctor and they are going to use it, this technology, in some way for imaging.

Whatever career field that they go in, they will probably utilize technology. And there may be those that are on the side of the table that are creating it. But there's a difference in creation and consumption, and I want parents to be sure that we over-index when teaching them how to create technology, and that we under-index on making sure our kids don't over-consume.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I love what you just said, and I agree with it, both professionally and personally, as a parent. There's so much to be learned if you develop digital skills. It's not just about consuming.

MS. BRYANT: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, tell me a little bit, how you think the work you're doing helps close the digital divide, something we talk a lot about here in Washington, and, yet, I feel like we don't spend enough time talking to people who are doing great work out across the country to help fix that gap.

MS. BRYANT: Well, for Black Girls Code, I feel that the work that we're doing is driving us -- is driving more girls, and more girls of color, in particular, to take a bit more of a leadership role in the industry. When we look at the numbers, number of girls and women that have been graduating with these degrees in computer science since I left college in the mid-eighties, it has dropped dramatically.


MS. BRYANT: So that was, unfortunately, a high point in the number of women graduating from college with a Bachelor's in computer science. In the mid-eighties, it was at 30 percent-plus. Today it's about 12 percent.

So, it's dropped by more than half over the last couple of decades, and women of color is even less, like three percent African American women are receiving a Bachelor's degree in computer science.

I'm hopeful that the work that we're doing with Black Girls Code is helping to feed that pipeline, to get girls really engaged and excited about technology at a young age before they get to middle school, and certainly before they get to high school, so that by the time they're in college and they're making a choice to pursue these degrees, hopefully, in a technology field or in a STEM field, they have a bit of self-confidence because they've already done these things.

They're already familiar with the tools and the industry, and I think that will help and develop that resiliency because it is a difficult and vigorous field, and if you don't have that resiliency, you may not make it. So I'm hoping the work that we're doing now helps them to stay in the game a little bit longer and increase the number of the girls that are walking across the stage for graduation.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that sounds good. And it's like you're giving them what pop culture does not, you know --

MS. BRYANT: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- what we're all taught, you know, that some guys in a hoodie and nobody else who can succeed. And so, I think it's so important what you're doing.

Now, if you had one piece of advice, what would it be?

MS. BRYANT: For girls or for parents or just people, anyone in general?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like the idea that you mentioned both girls and parents. So how about one for each?

MS. BRYANT: So, for parents, I would say be aware. Be aware of what's going on with your student, either a girl or a boy. We have to be present. And I go right back to digital tools. I use my digital tools, my phone, my computer, all the time, and I have to catch myself because, especially if I'm with my daughter, I want to be present.

I want to be there in the moment. I want to understand what it is she needs from me as a parent so that I can just be an advocate for her in however way I can. And I think that we as parent have to do that, especially for our girls. They need us to be advocates for them.

They need us to be the ones that move obstacles from their path so that they can pursue their dreams, be that in technology or whatever it is. So being able to advocate as presently as we can, I think is a key for parents.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And what about for girls?

MS. BRYANT: For girls, I think my advice would be not to be afraid to ask for help. And I think that's about self-confidence and being sure that they already have everything that they need to be successful, especially in the field of technology. They already have that.

They're shown analytical skills, they're shown problem-solving skills; their collaboration and communication skills, their creativity are all things that are going to allow them to be very successful in the field of technology. And it's not a problem to ask for help for the things that you need a push on.

If I can say anything to them, it would be that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So true. All right. So, I usually round this out with the same series of questions, and I'm going to start by asking you, this might have been when you were in college, but what was the first thing that you recall doing on the Internet?

MS. BRYANT: Oh. Learning how to log onto the Internet. It's interesting, when I started, and when I graduated from college the World Wide Web was just becoming a thing. So learning how to search a topic on the Internet, it wasn't as easy as going to your browser back in the mid-eighties.

It was more rigorous than that. So just being able to log onto the Internet and search out a topic that I was interested in was the very first thing I remember doing.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. A lot more recently, what was the last thing you did involving the Internet?

MS. BRYANT: Oh, my gosh. Unfortunately, I was probably on social media.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Don't worry. There are a lot of people who could probably say just the same thing, myself included.

All right. Final question, and this is the big one: What do you think the future of the Internet and digital life should look like?

MS. BRYANT: I feel like the future should look -- I feel the Web community should be connected. I think the benefit of the Internet has been that it has made our world so much smaller, but there's still so many of us that don't have access to it so that we can reap the benefits that it has to offer.

So being able to fully utilize technology as a tool could solve some of the most endemic problems across the world, where everyone has the same equitable access to these tools, is what I hope for in the future.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That sounds good. I think digital equity is going to be important for all of us going forward.

MS. BRYANT: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Now, before we go, you have to tell me where can folks follow you, I don't know, maybe on social media, or anywhere else?

MS. BRYANT: I would say they can definitely reach us vis our website at BlackGirlsCode.com. On social media they can reach me directly at six, the number 6Gems, G-E-M-S; or @BlackGirlsCode social media.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Awesome. Well, the wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Kim, and thanks to everyone for listening.