“The thing that brings us together is our interest in technology and the need to make our community a better place,” said Nagham Joudeh, a 16-year-old from Nablus, Palestine, participating in the State Department’s TechGirls program.
Joudeh is one of 27 young women selected by U.S. embassies in Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and the Palestinian territories to participate in the 3-week, U.S-based exchange program.
An initiative of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, TechGirls focuses on encouraging innovation and providing the knowledge and access to pursue higher education and careers in technology. The girls will then use the skills they develop to implement community projects back home.
At a luncheon organized by Women Innovate Mobile (WIM) and hosted by Bank of America on July 8th, WIM introduced these girls to over 50 women in tech, including Jenn Shaw, Mary Fernandez and Vivian Maese. WIM wanted to show these girls how they can launch their own mobile companies, and to provide them with the network for doing so.
Administered by Legacy International, the 3-week TechGirls program is based in Washington D.C. and New York City. It includes a 7-day technology camp led by iD Tech Camps at Towson University, job shadowing and site visits at technology companies such as Google, DoSomething and AT&T and peer workshops with Girls Who Code. While at technology camp, the girls learned coding, web development and game design.
Joudeh explained how she learned to create a website in only 1 week at the iD Tech Camp. “I’ve been able to do things and see places in America that I never thought I would have had the chance to do until later in life…I’d like to inspire other girls to believe in themselves and know that they can do this.
One of the women invited to speak at the lunch was Amy Marie Pinto, a 15-year-old from Hunts Point, who shared her story of learning how to code through the Startup Box: South Bronx’s after school program and through designing the mobile app, KnO My BOrO. During her time at Startup Box: South Bronx, Pinto also created a portfolio of 5 other apps, within 6 months.
“I created the app to show that there is more than just garbage and violence in my neighborhood…I wanted to show the beauty and creativity of where I live…how people express themselves to try to show who they really are.”
It was visits to companies such as Google and NYU’s ICP that really convinced Pinto to dive into the program.
“The program has provided me with the opportunity to do things and to see places I’ve never seen before.”
The lunch kicked off with an introduction by Michael Dubno, Chief Information Officer of Global Markets, Risk Technology and Operations at Bank of America. He discussed the importance of investing in women like Amy Pinto in the STEM field and his belief that this investment significantly increases diversity of thought, which leads to success.
“We need to welcome diverse thought because the world has become global, and every business in the world is a technological one. We need to move people away from the ‘learn, practice, teach’ method and towards the mindset of, ‘We have a new problem, so let’s create a solution to solve it,’” said Dubno.
Someone who is doing just what Dubno described is Suzanne Xie, Founder and CEO of Hullabalu, who was also the next speaker. Hullabalu is a family media startup based in New York City that uses creative storytelling and imagery to provide children with an example of the importance of leadership. Its protagonist is a female heroine in the form of a little purple panda. Xie went on to describe her experience as a female entrepreneur and encouraged those in attendance to pursue what they’re passionate about.
“My original company started off as an idea on a spreadsheet. The company grew so much that we sold it and now I’m running Hullabalu, which we’re using to try to equal the playing field by having girls create their own stories and destinies,” said Xie.
Debbie Guild, Enterprise Chief Technology Officer and End User Computing Executive at Bank of America, was the keynote speaker. Guild talked about her career background to highlight the opportunities a career in tech can provide. She also discussed her support of women in technology.
“This is my cause and I’m here to support you…you can do so many things to change the world, especially because you have so much more than I had when I was your age. You have communities that are here to support you and you can take your product and share it with the world,” said Guild.
Kelly Hoey, one of Women Innovate Mobile’s founders, concluded the event.
“We need more people who look and think like the people in this room do. We need more innovations from diverse thinkers and we founded Women Innovate Mobile because we want to see more women in early stage roles,” said Hoey.
Hoey also made sure the girls knew that even though the day was coming to an end, their journeys were not over.
“The people in this room want to see you succeed fabulously—know that you are never alone…and when you have that idea, call me.”
Hoey then announced that it was time for everyone to get to know each other a little better over some ice cream sundaes.
Nadia Ilhai, Program Officer at Legacy International said the girls were blown away when they arrived at the dining room at the Bank of America Tower’s 51st floor.
“When Kelly called me at work one day and told me the event was on, let’s just say it was a really good day at work. It’s just such an incredible opportunity for the TechGirls program to be here,” said Ilhai.
Many of the TechGirls also expressed how grateful they felt to be at the event.
“It was better than we could have ever expected. We’re living our dreams here,” said Safaa Berkani, from Morocco.
Amina Chida, from Tunisia, expressed how wonderful it was to speak with other inspiring women during events such as the luncheon, and how attending iD Tech Camp was her favorite part of the program.
“When we were in camp, it felt like we were in a real university.”
In addition, Razan Marzouqa, from Palestine, expressed how much the girls were enjoying their time in New York City.
“It’s like what you see in the movies…it’s colorful and diverse, and music and fashion are everywhere.”
When the girls return home, they will focus on projects individually or in groups with the other girls who live in the same country. Berkani explained that she and her new friends from Morocco are planning on conducting a series of seminars in order to share what they have learned.
“This is the best opportunity we’ve ever had. We want to share what we have learned with those who didn’t have the opportunity to come here.”
Raine Dalton is WIM’s editorial and community innovation intern. Raine is passionate about finding creative ways to empower women globally through tech. In addition to WIM, Raine has written, tweeted, and posted for the Global Banking Alliance for Women, WITNESS, and 90.7 WFUV News. You can find her work at her website or get in touch with her through Twitter.