A lot of high-school students spend their summers lifeguarding, scooping ice cream or mowing lawns.
Twenty young women in the San Francisco Bay Area spent the last eight weeks learning how to write code, design games and build mobile apps. More than 300 hours of training culminated last week in one of our conference rooms on Sand Hill Road where the girls pitched their ideas.
One of the girls was Lexi Grubman, a 16 year old from San Jose, who’s on her school’s robotics team.
But when her vice principal approached her about the summer program, run by the non-profit organization Girls Who Code, she hesitated. “I wasn’t sure about coding,” she says. She didn’t want to be a programmer.
Lexi’s response was typical. Young women tend to like science and math: about 75% of middle-school girls expressed an interest in the subject in one survey. And in 2009, women earned 52% of math and science degrees.
But there’s something about computer science specifically that turns young women away. While girls take 55% of all AP tests, they only take 17% of AP computer-science tests. And women earn just 12% of computer science degrees.
Women cite many reasons: computer-science classes are dominated by men to such a degree that it can make them uncomfortable; computer-science students are stereotypically introverted and young women tend to want more social interactions; some young women think they’re already too far behind male counterparts to start.
Organizations like Girls Who Code, which teaches young women programming skills with the goal of eliminating the gender gap in computer science, try to intercept girls before they write off the field and make sure that they have a good first experience.
We couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this mission. Graduating more female engineers is the single most impactful thing we can do to address the talent shortage in the tech industry.
These are some of the best jobs out there, in one of the few industries in the U.S. that still has massive growth ahead of it. Yet society, for whatever reason, shuts out half the available talent pool before they even turn 18.
That’s why it’s important to us to help Girls Who Code and similar programs like She++ however we can.
Lexi and her classmates spent the summer working out of eBay’s office. Two other Girls Who Code classes worked at Twitter and Intel. Girls in the program toured Google, Airbnb and Square, and met prominent tech-industry leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Jack Dorsey.
Nikita Vemuri, 15, pitches her app
The girls who visited Sequoia spent the last two weeks of the program developing final projects and then ended up here, pitching to us.
Lexi and her team demoed a patient-to-patient social network that allows sick kids to communicate with one another.
It’s a great start, Tim Lee, a partner at Sequoia said. To turn it into a real business the girls should consider doing some field research, spending time in hospitals and talking to sick kids.
Over the course of two hours, the girls demonstrated the technical skills they learned over the summer, demoing a mobile app that let you order ahead at In-N-Out Burger, scan food at supermarkets to find out whether an item is vegan, and record personal thoughts about meals and other things.
The products the girls built were impressive. We were also taken by their confidence, their ability to communicate their ideas and their composure in a pretty tough environment.
The ability to speak to an unfamiliar crowd doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with software development. These girls had both skills.
“It was truly inspiring to see these girls present their ideas so confidently and professionally,” said Tim Lee.
One of the preternaturally-composed young women was Nikita Vemuri, a 15 year old from San Jose. “Searching the Web is an art and those who don’t master this skill waste a lot of time on the Internet searching for things,” she said during her presentation.
Her app, which let’s people take pictures of products with their phones and then search for similar items on eBay and other e-commerce websites, offers an easier way, she said.
Nikita fielded about seven minutes of questions after her demo. She ticked off some competitors but stressed how her app is different, said that poor-quality photos was the biggest technical hurdle and responded to a question about partnerships by saying it’s something she’s considering.
“I wasn’t nervous,” she said afterwards. “It was one of the most helpful things ever. There was a lot of valuable feedback.”
Nikita has been interested in computer science since junior high and said that her experience in the Girls Who Code program was inspirational. So would she pursue a computer-science degree? “Definitely,” she says. But first she wants to keep working on her app, she said. There might be a good business there.