Computing Profession

Grassroots Groups Work to Inspire Women To Code

She++ founders Ellora Israni (left) and Ayna Agarwal.
She++ founders Ellora Israni (left) and Ayna Agarwal at the first She++ conference on Women in Technology, held at Stanford University in April 2012.

There is no shortage of large government- and corporate-sponsored organizations whose goal it is to convince women that IT is a fine path to consider.

Lately, however, a smattering of grassroots groups have been popping up and enthusiastically joining the effort on a more local level. Their existence seems to reflect a "democratizing" of technology, a confirmation that the generation hooked on communicating by smartphone and downloading apps to power their mobile devices is also becoming more accepting of pursuing coding as a career.

At least that’s what Ellora Israni believes. She is currently a senior in the Computer Science Dept. at Stanford University, a software engineering intern at Facebook, and a co-founder and co-director of SHE++, the three-year-old organization on the Stanford campus whose purpose is to inspire women to embrace computer science.

"Technology now touches a lot more people than it did, say, five years ago," she says. "Back then, for instance, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, both platforms that everyone uses today regardless of their background or where they live. So, in a sense, technology has been democratized; it’s no longer something people choose to avoid."

Israni also cites high-profile women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose best-selling book Lean In, she says, has "made the women-in-tech movement a trending thing. I actually think that the idea of promoting women and minorities in CS has suddenly become cool these past two years," she adds.

In early 2012, Israni – then a psychology major – stumbled upon an introductory CS class along with her dorm mate, Ayna Agarwal, a human biology major. The two sophomores became fascinated by the technology, as well as by some female CS role models in nearby Silicon Valley: people like Yahoo! president and CEO Marissa Mayer, and Stanford grad Tracy Chou, one of the first software engineers at Pinterest.

Determined to share their enthusiasm, Israni and Agarwal formed SHE++ with funding from Stanford and companies like Facebook, Oracle, Intel, and others. Their first effort was a conference they organized in April 2012 that allowed high school and Stanford students to connect with some of their role models who spoke over lunch.

"Over time, we realized we could accomplish more on a broader scale outside the Bay Area by not only hosting events, but also generating content," recalls Israni. That "is what lead to our producing our video documentary," which spotlights Mayer and Chou, as well as Stanford alum Kimber Lockhart, co-founder of Increo Solutions, Inc. and now director of engineering at Box (which acquired Increo in 2009); Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook; Sandy Jen, co-founder and CTO of Meebo (acquired by Google in 2012), and Shubha Nabar, senior data scientist at LinkedIn.

"What they’ve accomplished — the annual conference, the documentary — is truly quite remarkable, especially when you consider they are both only undergrads," says Stephen Cooper, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford who taught Israni in several classes.

Cooper observes that, while there are a multitude of similar efforts sponsored by both the government (particularly by the National Science Foundation) and by corporations, some of which are long-term, many of them exist for just a few years and then disappear or are merged into other programs.

"It’s hard to scale over a long period of time when you depend on government money that typically funds grants that last just a couple of years," he says. "While top-down efforts are sometimes successful, it also helps to do things bottom-up, which is why grassroots efforts like SHE++ and another Bay Area group, Black Girls Code, are important. We need to sustain a lot of these efforts – and then sit back and watch which ones percolate to the top."

Black Girls Code sponsors workshops and field trips to provide girls with programming skills and to introduce them to role models in the technology space. (A spokesperson could not be reached despite repeated requests for an interview.)

A sampling of other "grassroots groups" with similar goals include:

"Bringing girls into computing is partly a social issue – breaking down stereotypes, changing images – and so it’s not surprising to me to see such a multiplicity of efforts and approaches, some formal, some informal, some mainstream, some coming from the edges," says Valerie Barr, a professor of computer science at Union College and chair of the ACM Committee on Women. "The more organizations, the more people doing this, the more demographics you’re going to hit."

Indeed, Israni believes the reason SHE++ will have more impact than some larger efforts is that it is run locally by female college students who other female students will tend to relate to and trust. Students, she says, best understand what other students need to become involved.

That is why the two co-directors are focusing on the organization’s continuance after their graduation from Stanford next year. They are training a group of directors who will take the lead, while Israni and Agarwal assist wherever they can.

How does the entrepreneurial team intend to measure whether all their efforts have been successful?

Israni admits that isn’t easy. While she’s seen an uptick in the number of girls who contact SHE++ via e-mail and Facebook — one or two a week a year ago, and now several every day — as well as an increase in the number of attendees at their conferences, there’s also been a sizeable increase in the percentage of women in the Stanford CS department – 8% in 2010, versus almost 20% today.

"I know we can’t claim responsibility for all of that," she says, "but I’d like to think that the efforts of SHE++ have been a part of it."

What she can measure is the success of their documentary, which has been online just about a month and has been viewed over 55,000 times.

"Some of the people who have seen it have told us the film has inspired them, to either teach themselves to code or to organize screenings to inspire others," says Israni. "That’s the kind of thing that inspires us to keep doing what we’re doing."

Paul Hyman is a science and technology writer based in Great Neck, NY.

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