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Black Girls Code Event Highlights Possibilities in STEM

Lisa Melsted

For the past few decades, there has been a misperception that STEM disciplines, such as engineering and computer science, are a more natural fit for men than for women. This perception, along with a lack of exposure to STEM, has resulted in the current deficit of women—and particularly women of color—that exists in STEM fields today.  As a result, we face a gross imbalance between the number of technical women and men at tech companies today, despite the fact that women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce overall.

Non-profit Black Girls Code was founded to not only change these perceptions but to provide greater exposure to STEM for young African-American girls. The organization’s aim is to provide girls of color the chance to learn tech skills and get exposure to programming early enough so that they might consider careers in computer science, growing a new generation of coders and innovators.

NetApp’s RTP Women in Technology (WIT) in partnership with NetApp Network of Blacks in Tech (NNBT) recently co-hosted an event with Black Girls Code for approximately 25 girls and their parents on a rainy Friday night in April. Featuring a meet-and-greet, panel discussion and Q&A, NetApp employees and representatives from the RTP chapter of NetApp Network of Blacks in Tech (NNBT) had the chance to discuss the advantages of STEM careers and what girls of color can gain from taking an interest in STEM disciplines.

BlackGirlsCode5-1024x576A chance to share life lessons

Working with Black Girls Code was the brainchild of AERO - Senior Engineer Mekka Williams. After hearing about Black Girls Code events from friends whose daughters had attended them, Mekka decided to reach out to the local chapter last summer to inquire about corporate partnerships.

“I asked if they’d be interested in partnering up with NetApp for an event,” Mekka says. “They had a bunch of ideas that we could try and the very first one she suggested was a STEM panel.”

Working together, Mekka began to plan an event with the organization and colleagues in RTP. Because NNBT, the new Global Business Impact Group and Allies chapter, was also forming at the same time, Mekka brought in help from several RTP members—including Regina Evans, Charles Hicks and Tymeka Whiteside—for support in planning the event. Mekka also approached WIT RTP Site Leader Fran Melia to see if WIT would support a partnership with Black Girls Code and potentially host a few events per year. “She told me ‘Absolutely’ and to go for it. The only caveat was that I would be responsible for the planning and organizing,” Mekka says.

According to Mekka, Black Girls Code offers a template for planning events that makes them relatively easy to organize. “They asked if we could provide the panelists and venue, and they would provide the event registration piece. They also published the literature and took care of the Powerpoint slides. We took care of the physical and logistical planning and the content for the discussion.”

Regina Evans, Engineering Program Manager, says the event began with a social hour, followed by dinner and the panel discussion. The panel consisted of men and women of color who work in STEM fields in the RTP area, comprising both NetApp employees and others from the community, including NetApp employees Rhonda Hicks, Support Account Manager, and Joseph Brown, Principal Engineer, Performance.  Participants from the local STEM community included Dr. Berdenia Stanley, a retired computer engineer and advocate for education, youth advancement and STEM (who also happens to be the wife of SVP Americas Thomas Stanley); Dr. Katherine Jordan, Assistant Director of Human Resources Analytics and Human Capital Project Management for Duke University Hospital; and Charmaine Boyd, Senior Manager for Government Systems Engineering, Cisco and MBA candidate NCSU Spring 2019. Mekka served as the panel moderator.

Each of the panelists had a chance to talk about their own career journeys in STEM. Rhonda, for example, talked about her job as someone who has a “tech adjacent” role, illustrating that you don’t necessarily have to be an engineer or have majored in a STEM field to work in technology.

“I did not go into a field directly related to STEM,” Rhonda says. “My educational background was Business Administration with a concentration in management. However, I had transferrable skills that I was able to utilize in the capacity I’m current in. The majority of my career does happen to be in IT, with a previous career in telecom.”

As a Support Account Manager for Federal accounts, Rhonda says the business and management skills she’s learned along the way, including project management, personnel management and account management, help her in her current role. “I was able to give the girls an idea of the kinds of things I’ve done over the years and then how they were applicable to my job today,” she says.

Joseph shared with the audience the love of math and science he had from a young age. After being exposed to summer youth engineering programs sponsored by his local university, Virginia State University, Joseph went on to major in Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech University. He also told the girls about how he had come from a family that, while not engineers in title or degree, were very technically inclined. “They were always rebuilding engines, working on lawn equipment, vacuum cleaners, you name it. My family was always interested in that type of work,” he says.

According to Joseph, one of the things he stressed to the girls in the audience is that the stereotype that you have to be the valedictorian of your class to be an engineer isn’t true.

“We tried to convey that they were looking at a panel of real individuals. We’ve all struggled, whether in high school or college—it just doesn’t come easy. But anyone in that room—if they set their mind to it, from our perspective, would be capable of achieving a degree in STEM,” he says.

Another topic of interest to the girls was the experience of attending a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) versus a mainstream school. Mekka says Thomas Stanley piped in on that topic to dispel a myth that an engineering degree from an HBCU might not be as rigorous as from a program at a majority school. An HBCU graduate himself, “he really stressed and emphasized to the students that the education you receive from an HBCU is right on par with a majority school so they should make sure not to leave those schools out of their short lists,” she says. Mekka added that Dr. Stanley talked about having attended an HBCU and then Georgia Tech for her PhD. “She said there’s a quality education that you can get from both,” Mekka noted.

The panel also stressed the importance of networking and building a group of allies at work to help them advance in their careers. “Even when you’re students you need your support system,” Mekka says the panel emphasized. “That’s really important.”

Rhonda was impressed with the level of engagement the panel received from the students, particularly during the Q&A session. “The meeting went over by a few minutes because of the level of interaction and wanting to ask more questions. They seemed very engaged, so I was happy to see that it was a very active and engaged bunch of young ladies. They definitely asked some very pointed questions,” she says.

According to the panelists, the girls also asked for advice regarding some sensitive topics, including encountering sexism and racism in the workplace, in addition to what employers look for in younger candidates. Addressing some of the girls’ more sensitive questions, Rhonda says the panelists emphasized that everyone must use their voice and speak out if necessary.

“Our voice is here to be heard, to be confident,” Rhonda says. “In the midst of all the things going on in society, we want to be cognizant of that in our job environments.”

Regina says the panel also emphasized that it’s important to find a workplace where they feel they fit in and work with a team that they’re comfortable working with. “One thing that was emphasized was about being your true self—that was emphasized by some of the panelists, that it’s OK to be you. You have to understand that not only are you trying to fit into a team but you have to know whether that team is a good fit for you—it’s a combination of the two, not just one.”

According to Rhonda, the NetApp panelists also highlighted what it’s like to work at NetApp. “We talked about the culture here at NetApp and the type of culture that we really enjoy being a part of. We talked about the team aspect here and that we’re all looking for each other to succeed, that we help one another and we work hard and play hard,” she says. “We also talked about how our company prides itself on our culture and that it’s something we enjoy and that attracted us to the company. It’s something we pride ourselves on as part of the company.”

The panelists were also asked some lighthearted questions such as what type of affirmations they live by and what they would be doing if they didn’t have their current jobs. Answers varied from teaching to event management to Joseph’s answer of working with kids with families and kids with autism (he has an autistic daughter).

“There were a lot opportunities to share life lessons with them,” Rhonda says.

IMG_7558-1024x769A family affair

Not only was the event a chance to interact and share insights with local girls from RTP, but it was also a chance for employees to share the possibilities of STEM with their own families. Both Rhonda’s husband, Charles, who co-chairs NNBT in RTP and her 12-year old daughter attended. Although her daughter currently says she wants to be a veterinarian, Rhonda says the exposure to people who look like them in STEM careers is important for the girls.

“I think that’s what it was all about, regardless of the direction these young people take. This is another life lesson – it was about showing them people who look like them and who are doing good things and are successful in their respective fields,” she says.

Windows System Administrator Brian Massie agrees. He brought his children to the event because he not only wanted them to be exposed to real life technological situations and solutions but also see ways to solve problems they may face, as well as “see what Daddy works on.”

Although Brian says his daughter is a bit young to fully understand some of the panel content, she attends Code Ninjas, a center for kids, weekly to learn to code and play with STEM technologies and toys. As a parent, Brian says the event was beneficial.

“The event for me was a reassurance that coding and technology don’t have any prejudices when it comes to getting the work done. The panel and the ideas within the room showed that. It was very helpful for my daughter to see what others like her can do, what her father does and that no limits should/can be placed on her,” he says.

All involved agreed that NetApp’s participation in events such as these is a critical part of bringing more diversity to STEM fields.

“We need the future problem solvers to be more diverse as the world gets more diverse,” Mekka says. “We need to have people thinking from different perspectives, thinking differently and trying to solve problems for the diverse population, not just for the majority population. This is really important, and there are a lot of numbers out there that prove that the more diverse a company’s thinking body is, the more profitable they are. We have tons of evidence that diversity is good for business.”

Rhonda agreed. “It’s necessary for us to get the word out. I think it’s good for NetApp and those with whom we partner and collaborate. So whether it be Black Girls Code or through NNBT or other organizations out there, such as WIT, we all know that learning from one another is often the best way to learn, so what better way to do that than with these forums? I was definitely happy to be a part of it and will continue to look for other opportunities to do the same.”

Brian Massie says it’s particularly important for young girls to see women succeed in the fields that might interest them. “For the young women who are thinking about getting into the computer fields, it is beneficial and reassuring that there are women that have done what they are trying to do, and they are willing to help them out along the way,” he says.

Joseph noted that Mekka’s organization of the event was truly a grassroots effort that included the support of NNBT and WIT. “Kudos to Mekka—this wasn’t a top down initiative. Mekka took the initiative to reach out and get this planned and booked and bring in panelists from other corporations. They took their own personal time and contributed to this—it was really nice,” he said.

“Everyone was really hands-on with this and helped with the planning,” Mekka says. “It was a great turnout, and I truly appreciate everyone’s help.”

View a short video on the event below:

BlackGirlsCode + NetApp from Ground2Sky Media on Vimeo.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Johnson and Mekka Williams. 

Lisa Melsted

Lisa Melsted develops culture strategies and content for NetApp’s Employee Engagement team. A tech industry veteran with more than 15 years’ experience in various communications and marketing roles, she holds Master’s degrees in Creative Non-Fiction from Emerson College and English from the University of Iowa. She has also written articles about technology for publications such as Forbes BrandVoice and TechPageOne.

View all Posts by Lisa Melsted

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