Photo: L. Kasimu Harris
Last month, a room in the South Bronx Business Incubator settled, small talk and ended and one by one the 15 retreat participants introduced themselves and companies, Jerelyn Rodriguez was the lone female. Rodriguez, a co-founder of The Knowledge House, a Bronx-based organization that focuses on educating young people in the tech field had planned their first team retreat for weeks and wasn’t surprised by the demographics.
Rodriguez has been the sole woman in the room so often that she only notices the situation after someone mentions it. However, the New York native only is bothered when she feels her voice isn’t being heard.
“Males can get so passionate about what they’re discussing, it’s hard to speak over them and get your point across,” she said. Rodriguez moved through the agenda, made sure the group remained on task and set a guideline of “one mic” so everyone’s voice can be heard.
Recently Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, launched a campaign to ban “bossy”. She contends that it’s a negative word that stops girls from seeking leadership roles.
Rodriguez embraces the term.
“I have the executive decision and it’s up to me to lead,” she said. “If you’re not bossy men will chew you up.”
But, beyond words there’s a plethora of impediments in the way of women pursuing leadership roles in the workforce. In EdTech and entrepreneurship, some hurdles in those industries include pay gap disparities and a lack of opportunities for promotion. Moreover, the number of women coders remains dismal. Recently the initiatives to get young women interested in the field have gained traction. And beyond coding, what’s more telling is merely five percent of all venture capital goes to women-run startups, according to research from Stanford University. Nearly half (44%) of 4.0 Schools’ portfolio companies have been founded by women.
Several recent studies show that despite equivalent and sometimes superior qualifications, female tech leaders in education in U.S. school districts appear to earn less money than their male counterparts. In tech related jobs in the private sector, the gender pay gap is significant, but narrower than for workers with similarly high-paying jobs in finance, business or health care. But in those fields, women are usually underrepresented.
Rodriguez has not allowed statistics, trends and unequal pay in the workplace impact her ability to succeed and help to empower others in her community. About a year ago, she decided that to rebuild her neighborhood and beyond, it would take more than education reform — people need jobs. So, she co-founded The Knowledge House and it strives to increase the numbers of another marginalized group, Blacks and Latinos. That community represents of 26 percent of the national workforce, but only six percent of the technology workforce. On the two-day retreat, Rodriguez and the mentors planned a curriculum that addressed what employers are seeking in employees: soft skills.
She incorporated experiences gained from the summer 2014 4.0 Schools Essentials workshop in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood into the retreat. Rodriguez’s group did improv and repeatedly stepped back to ensure that they were addressing the pain point of The Knowledge House users. The technology industry has gradually sought to change it’s demographic and Rodriguez said the white female is equivalent to the black man, since organizations want both.
“Because this field is often white, male and Asian—we just need diversity across the board,” Rodriguez contended. She added that it’s very hard to find females who are in technology and entrepreneurship and hopes that the uptick in organizations focusing raising the interest for coding among girls will increase the numbers.
Although Rodriguez no longer notices when she’s the only female in the room, she does notice when she’s the only person of color–and said that makes her more uncomfortable than anything else. Neither issues impact her professionally and said she has accepted the need to try harder and be more visible than men or entrepreneurs from other races.
“At the end of the day, I realize that what makes me different is an advantage and personal asset,” Rodriguez said.
Video by Liz Cole.
VidCode is one of those organizations working to eradicate the lack of females in the coding profession.
“We want to bring hacking to pockets of girls,” Alexandra Diracles, a photographer and co-founder of VidCode said. She added that her team doesn’t think they can do it alone, but still feels that they have an opportunity to make a big impact.
While paving a smoother path for the females coming after them, the VidCode team, along with countless other women continually trod a road filled with potholes that seem harmless. Diracles said it’s the small talk shop conversation, often not work related, that becomes a barrier and added that people work with those who they are most comfortable with. She also said a lot female coders are surrounded by guys and don’t enjoy the environment.
Melissa Halfon, a co-founder of VidCode, studied math and software in the financial industry. And for three years, she was in a male dominated field while working on the trading desk. The ladies met in January at Startup Weekend Education in New York, both made strong pitches on separate teams and were advised to work together. They took the suggestion and won the competition; VidCode was born.
“I believe in the power of innovation,” Halfon said. “And combining the best brains in education and tech, has the potential to influence the world from a humanitarian perspective.” She added that it’s an educational advantage to kids, who are the future.
Diracles said according to research, learning is a very social thing and with STEM and the computer sciences, girls are more likely to get discouraged and begin believing they don’t have the natural ability. Another perception is that it’s boring and devoid of creativity. So VidCode teaches coding to generation of teenaged girls seemingly born to share photos and videos by adding color filters and other special effects that can then be shared on social networking platform like Instagram and Facebook.
While technology is ever changing and increasingly becoming more integrated into classrooms, reading remains fundamental. Monique Wilson founded Parents as Partners to address the needs of parents of low-income students with at-home literacy instructions in book guides that are delivered through schools.
Wilson, along with VidCode, was one of four woman run startups in 4.0 Schools’ ninth launch Cohort.
“You have to rely on your skill set to pay yourself,” she said. Wilson makes notes that aides parents in going beyond reading the text and helps children with critical thinking skills. She said her value is not as an author but reaching as many people as possible. Moreover, she said if she worked solely as an author, it would have a lot less control.
Wilson began her startup alone but found a lot of camaraderie and support working with 4.0. She said in her MBA program, she was in an organization that brought women entrepreneurs together. She characterized 4.0 as an organic place where you reach out and want to bring other women along.
For Rodriguez, it has not been easy to find female coders and even harder to identify those available to mentor. Yet, she said she can do more. “I haven’t done the work of looking for female entrepreneurs. Naturally the males have flocked to us,” Rodriguez said.
She said they are fortunate local businesses have embraced The Knowledge House and it currently has about 10 that assist with advising. Although all of counselors are male, most of the participants are females. Rodriguez said she thinks in due time things will balance out and they’ll have female mentors.
Rodriguez said perhaps women in leadership roles don’t have as much time to help. She added that in those roles, a lot of people are counting on the women because they are one of the few.
As Rodriguez continues strengthening the Bronx the community through leading the future coders—she won’t allow words to be discouraging.
“All of my life people have called me bossy,” she said, “And all of my life people have liked that about me.”
L. Kasimu Harris is a New Orleans correspondent for 4.0 Schools. He is a NOLA native, Ole Miss alum, and also covers style at ParishChic. Read more of his work here.