Why We Must Change Our View of Who Belongs in Tech

I probably need to get a few things out of the way first:

I am creative – not artistic by a long shot, but most certainly far more creative than tech.
I love words – the nuance of emotion, the ability to convince, rally or even stir up simply by the choice of words.
I like to think big picture, to visualize the intricate web of interactions, choices, and steps required to get there.
I like people, and I like learning who they really are and what makes them tick.
I like to understand the motives behind a problem, because that’s where the interesting challenge lies.
I am passionate about leaving a positive mark in the world, about using talent to do good, to help others.
I have never seen myself as good at math.
Ask me to add two numbers in my head, and I freeze, my mind goes blank.
Ask me to estimate the bill of all the items in my shopping cart, including tax, and I can give you a fairly close ballpark without blinking.

photo-4This, if you got to know me, is just a tiny part of the fabric that makes up who I am, and it is precisely because I came into the world of tech through the back door, without the usual traits or talents that are suitable for technology-driven careers, that I am so passionate about helping to change who we, as a society, see as belonging to the tech world.

It matters who we, as a society, see as a good match for tech, because it affects not only how we see ourselves and how we talk to our children, but it brings diversity of backgrounds, talents and thinking styles to the problems we are solving via tech. When we make tech accessible – remove the steep learning curve and long list of prerequisites –  through tools that empower those on the edge of tech to dive in and get their hands dirty, to build stuff that matters, we change who is allowed to participate in the dialogue driving the entire industry.

Girls are often like me. They don’t see themselves as good at math, whether it’s true or not. For the women who do enter the world of tech, few reach the top levels of leadership. Far too often, instead of pushing against the system, women exit and find different ways to contribute that aren’t so emotionally draining and where the possibility of moving up the ladder is more attainable.

But it isn’t just girls. Many races and groups are under-represented as well. Because of limited access to tech and tech-oriented classes, children growing up in poverty-stricken areas enter the tech world at a far lower ratio than their peers.

This weekend, I, along with my amazing team at APPCityLife, are spending our weekend trying to change the perception of who is qualified to use tech and who is capable of helping solve problems through tech. It’s one small step, but it’s a powerful step in the right direction. We met several weeks ago with the team at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) tasked organizing this weekend’s Hack My Ride: VTA’s Transportation Idea Jam, a two-day event to generate ideas and solutions that can best improve the South Bay’s transit experience. I am proud that our company is a sponsor of the event, and that our participation will be in helping individuals who want to get hands-on with their solutions and who want to do so through our mobile platform. Up until now, we’ve used our platform only in-house. But if it is non-developer friendly enough for me, a non-techie, to build apps, then it just seemed like the right thing to do, the best next step for our company, to open our platform to others who might want to see their own ideas come to life, whether they had the right technical training or not.

imageNow I am certainly not proposing that this one platform is the be-all, end-all solution for making tech more accessible to under-represented groups. But I do believe that if each of us who believe that what we’ve created can solve a piece of the puzzle, then by working together, we can create stepping stones for more and more individuals to participate hands-on in the world of tech and help change the solutions that are possible simply through the wider diversity of experience and talent of those sitting at the table.

As I said, I like to think big picture, but I also know it takes one tiny brush stroke at a time to get there. We start painting a new canvas this weekend, and I cannot wait to see the outcome.

 

 

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Why We Must Help Bridge the Gap For Women In Tech

I remember you; you’re the one we used to bet when you’d fail.

The comment came from a former writer who, like me, had been a contributor for one of New Mexico’s most prestigious publications, The Albuquerque Tribune, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper which closed its doors in 2008 – only a year before I made the shift from well-known local writer to founder of a tech corporation. And not founder of just any tech company – I launched APPCityLife as a company tasked with forging a path in the brand new industry of mobile.

March, 2010 - in San Francisco to attend MobileBeat 2010, where APPCityLife was named one of the 20 Hottest Startups. I was the only woman in the pitch contest - the first time I realized the immense gender gap I was facing.

March, 2010 – in San Francisco to attend MobileBeat 2010, where APPCityLife was named one of the 20 Hottest Startups. I was the only woman in the pitch contest – the first time I realized the immense gender gap I was facing.

While I may understand why he, like many other former colleagues, believed a quick demise was eminent for a woman taking the leap from writer to tech startup founder, the discovery that they actually took bets on how long it would take me to fail was a bit of a shock. For me, the decision wasn’t any bigger leap than the one I’d already taken from stay at home mom to writer. I haven’t ever waited to be qualified to do something that I wanted or needed to do – not ever. I applied for my first real job the same day the state of Ohio deemed me legally old enough to earn a paycheck – and I got hired from the first store I walked into despite having no previous experience in retail. At sixteen years old, I’d already been babysitting for six years and selling and delivering newspapers (sometimes two routes) for eight years. Yes, eight years. I started selling Grit Magazine door to door to earn extra money when most kids my age were busy playing kick ball or riding bikes. I wasn’t afraid of stretching skills or work, and that was the only qualification necessary to learn the rest that was needed.

Over the past five years as we’ve grown APPCityLife into the civic tech platform it is today, I’ve wondered how many other women would embrace tech if they believed it possible to do so. Tech is so much more than being a full-fledged developer, scientist or engineer, and one of our goals has been to empower individuals on the fringe of tech to not just join the community but change the conversation by being part of it.

The Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp with 40% Women Participants

The Civic Entrepreneur Bootcamp with 40% Women Participants

We recently hosted our first Mobile App Bootcamp, opening up our platform to the public for the first time. I was overcome with emotion as I looked out across the room of participants and realized that almost half of the room were women. Many, like me, possessed passion, vision, and innovative ideas but hadn’t taken the path of formal education in a STEM degree. And in that moment I realized the true, equalizing power of what we’d spent five years building at APPCityLife – our blend of civic tech and user-friendly access is a gateway for women as well as other under-represented groups to not only embrace but become active, contributing participants in tech.

Our bootcamp is the beginning of a new initiative we are spearheading at APPCityLife – a push to bring access to our platform to individuals and groups all around the world who already have the creativity, ideas and passion to envision valuable solutions to civic challenges within their own community. In fact, our second event is already lined up, and we’ll be opening our platform to participants at a hackathon in Silicon Valley aimed at solving transportation challenges for the region. If all that is needed to is access to a user-friendly platform which bridges the current gap between the non-tech and highly skilled developers, we can make that happen, and that is so exciting to me.

Screenshot 2014-10-09 07.53.48News broke yesterday of Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen and Marc Andreessen donating $500,000 to Girls Who Code, Code2040 and Hack the Hood, all nonprofits focused on bringing new opportunities in tech to women and black and Latino people. And while I admit to being sensitive to the subject after being on the front lines for the past five years, I found it ironic that the top search results for articles about the Andreessen’s donation all focused on Marc, many failing to even mention his wife’s involvement. In fact, the first result to include her name was penned by a woman journalist.

APPCityLife Founder / CEO pitching at the Deal Stream Summit, one of three women to pitch among ten high potential tech startups in New Mexico.

APPCityLife Founder / CEO pitching at the Deal Stream Summit, one of three women to pitch among ten high potential tech startups in New Mexico.

Our team was one of ten companies invited to pitch on October 7, 2014, at the Deal Stream Summit which brought together investors from New Mexico and the region. When I pitched with the group last year, I was the only woman. This year, there were three women presenters – a significant increase. In fact, one woman pitched on stage after having less than 24 hours to polish her presentation after her business partner landed in the hospital with a heart attack. She represented well, especially given the limited time to prepare. But since the event, not one news story published to date has covered or even named a single woman who participated in the event, although one online piece did at least post a photo. And of the women investors present at the event – not a single one was mentioned or included either. Please know that this is not about women wanting special treatment or not celebrating the successes of male colleagues, I do. This is about voicing concern over the insidious gender bias that is still happening today, where the men are taken more seriously, given more credence by the press.

Some days it gets wearying to face the additional challenges it takes for a woman to make it in the world of tech, but on days when it feels like that to me, I pull out the photo of all of the women that attended our first bootcamp. I remind myself how lucky I am to have not only a supportive, proactive spouse and cofounder but two other male cofounders who have all put their faith in a woman CEO and are giving everything they have to help change the possibilities for other women and under-represented groups by building a platform which will deliver access to tech and help bridge the gap. It’s impossible to stay discouraged for long with that much support and when that kind of promise lies ahead. If all it takes is stretching skills, hard work, and the courage to not play by the rules of the boys’ club, whether we’re men or women – we can all do that.

Originally published in Huffington Post.