Guest post by Veena Basavaraj, Cultural Mentor
Living amongst high achieving, creative, successful people in Silicon Valley for the past five years, inspiration is always around the corner. It is not hard for me to muster up the courage and perseverance to dream big and follow through. Growing up in India in the 90s, it was not the case, as I had limited exposure to technology. Hence traveling, learning and been part of diverse cultures and experiences became my humble aspiration. Like most girls at that age I did not know the means to achieve it though. Until I was 17, I did not know much about computers, let alone know how to code, build products and solve interesting problems using them. I did not realize how gaining this skill could one day become the means to fulfill my aspirations of a global traveler. Learning to code taught me discipline, it taught me to learn to experiment, it helped me decompose a big challenge to smaller achievable goals. It also gave me the opportunity to come to the silicon valley and work with the talented tech community in creating global impact through our work. Call it working under the influence of such people, in the past few years, I wanted to be more than just an engineer or coder in the silicon valley. I wanted to integrate back into the community, share my experiences of learning to code and encourage the younger generation to not only discover their passions but also figure out the means to follow them. Around this time I came across the TechWomen mentorship program via LinkedIn and it has provided me the platform to do exactly what I was looking to do. Recently I went on a delegation trip to South Africa via TechWomen, one of the participating countries in this program, to visit local schools and organizations and learn what it is to be a girl/woman in technology in this developing country.
Here is my honest interpretation of one such experience visiting the Phateng Secondary School in Pretoria. It was the second day of the delegation trip, I had got a glimpse of the complex and yet fascinating history attached to this city. We drove past townships before arriving at the Phateng school. One of our former TechWomen Emerging Leaders Chioniso Dube had organized the events at the school. A few of my colleagues traveling with me volunteered to talk about their experiences on what they did back in the silicon valley, how they got there and what motivates them everyday. Listening to them talk and seeing how engaged the girls were, on the spur I decided to share my story too. I jumped on the stage and spoke about my real passion for traveling and teaching and how learning to code has helped me realize it, I told them how technology became the means to follow my dream. They were surprised to hear that I was not always the brilliant genius coder, but I learnt it late in my career. Some girls wanted to immediately know how they could start? They asked us what are the set of skills to learn to code, and have a successful career in this field. One of them said her true passion was helping people and she aspires to be a psychologist, she asked how learning to code would help her? I could relate to her very well, since my real passion is traveling and teaching, but learning to code and working in Silicon Valley has opened up opportunities for me realize it easily. We talked about how the field of technology is not just about coding, but also involves the ability to work in groups, communicate and collaborate and mentor and this is one way she could realize her aspiration than merely coding. Others wanted to do much more than learning to code and program, their passions were much bigger — they want to help solve real problems in their community. They were not shy to express that they wanted to be an engineer to help fix their poorly built homes, they wanted to part of creating and building renewable energy solutions to meet their day to day needs, some wanted to build apps using real data to help their people have better access to the basic needs in life. They wanted to tackle tough problems and were keen to learn from us how learning to code and working towards a STEM career will help them achieve their goals.
Following the q&a session, I volunteered to drive a few of the hands-on sessions set up by Chioniso Dube to help girls learn science and use it to build fun and useful things. Their drive, hunger and dedication to learn and excel became more evident to me in these sessions. One of the sessions involved using the building blocks of the LittleBits kit to generate and measure energy. Some girls had heard of the LEGO blocks and quickly realized that LittleBits are quite similar and they could assemble these blocks to build useful things. They got creative when they got stuck, they questioned when they did not understand, they never gave up and wanted to learn more. Another team worked on building an electric car learning the concepts of gears and force using the Edutrade Technology kit. I could see them helping each other out, they wanted their peers to succeed as much as they did. The jumped with sense of pride when they saw their actual electric car racing against their peers. It is probably the most fun experience I have been part of via the TechWomen program. Their enthusiasm to learn and take on a challenge and complete it inspired everyone of us in that room. I wished I could stay there longer, but even the few hours we spent together will continue to have a profound impact on the power of building and creating something together using technology. This is the magic of programs such as TechWomen that connect and inspire us to discover what we truly love doing in life.
Girls today are more confident and willing to be part of the tech revolution, they are less intimidated by the technology. Rather, what’s more intimidating is the lack of the support system encouraging them to create an identity for themselves in these fields. This is more often the “elephant in the room” than any other perceived barriers. Knowing this is half the battle won in fostering more girls to enter the fields of STEM. I would like to end with a thoughtful quote from R. Elliott. He once said “If you only visit two continents in your lifetime – visit Africa twice.”I would say, “If you only get to mentor two people in your lifetime – choose two girls.”
Veena is passionate about building software products. Leading and innovating solutions along the way, she loves experimenting, measuring, and learning in fast-paced and collaborative teams, where she can contribute to fostering a strong culture of mentorship. She takes pride in just getting things done at the end of the day in the most optimal way. @vybs