Of Coding and Cupcakes

Kansas City Women in Technology gets girls and their mothers interested in coding — with a little help from cupcakes.



     When I was a kid, my parents put me in everything: dance classes, T-ball, softball, Girl Scouts, Odyssey of the Mind; if I showed the slightest bit of interest in it, they were ready to find a local program to accommodate. They wanted me to know from an early age that the world was my oyster.

     So, naturally, when my cousin gave birth to her daughter, we continued the tradition, always looking for opportunities to expose her to different interests.

     Upon learning about Coding & Cupcakes, a bimonthly introduction to coding series put on by Kansas City Women in Technology, and geared towards younger girls, I thought about my interests in computers and creating and decided to recruit my little cousin, who, at 4 years old taught me how to play Temple Run on my phone. Now in kindergarten, this was an opportunity to introduce her to something new. She was lured in by her love for cupcakes and the chance to spend time with me, but stayed for the girl bonding and website coding challenges.

     Upon entering the Sprint Accelerator building, the location of the coding sessions, inspiring anthems of prowess, triumph and celebration by the likes of Alicia Keys, Lorde and Carly Rae Jepsen pumped through the speakers, creating a supportive space and sense of community — even an aura of girl power! We joined 20 other girls (ranging in age from 5 to about 15 years old) and their mothers — some first-timers to the world of coding, others who were already familiar with the subject.

     Coding & Cupcakes kicked off with a panel of KCWiT (Kansas City Women in Technology) board members, all of whom hold positions in technology at noted companies such as The Nerdery, Perceptive Software and VML. Girls were able to ask questions, and the panel shared how they got into technology, what they wanted to be when they grew up, their favorite things to create and do on a computer, what they loved about their jobs, and, as my little cousin inquired in the middle of someone’s answer, where they grew up.

jennifer wadella, founder of kansas city women in technology

 

     Kansas City native and KCWiT founder Jennifer Wadella said that she became interested in computers at 9 years old when her father purchased one for the family. She toyed with code to customize her Xanga and MySpace pages “because that’s what you did as a child in the ‘90s.” As a teen, she played video games and even made a website for her Halo team. “My mother saw that I had aptitude, but nobody knew what a computer engineer was or that it was a job,” Wadella, 27, says. “So it never came up for discussion. My teachers pushed me to be an author. You know, girly things.”

     The Girl Scouts of the USA released a study in 2012 reporting that while 74 percent of high school girls are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), about half of them feel it’s not a typical career path for women. Part of that is because they don’t know or see other women in STEM positions. In fact, only about 46 percent do. That’s what makes the KCWiT panel so relevant. It gives insight into the minds of fellow women and demonstrates that women do, indeed, hold important positions in technology.

     Once we logged on to Cloud 9 and created personal emails for the girls, the coding session began. Mothers were required to remain hands-off throughout, only allowed to supervise, guide and cheer their daughters on as they followed instructions to customize websites for their imaginary cupcake shops. There was a pause for a cupcake break, giving girls and their mothers the chance to load up on adorably dubbed “coding fuel.”

     The idea for Coding & Cupcakes was born out of necessity after Wadella began pitching CoderDojo KC, a Google Fiber-sponsored, mentor-run program for coders of all levels, at local schools. Fathers, some of whom were coders, were often excited. Mothers, on the other hand, weren’t as gung-ho about it. Some of the responses Wadella received were claims that their daughters wouldn’t be interested in CoderDojo, that it would be too hard, or that it would be something better suited for their sons. So to combat the misconceptions, the organization created a “crazy girly” coding event inspired by a Mother’s Day event of the same name put on by code.org and a New York chapter of Girls Who Code.

     So far, the series and those like it have been a hit, with this month’s Coding & Cupcakes session filling up fast. Most importantly, it’s getting mothers and their daughters in the door. “I think it’s interesting that mothers are showing up to this when our programs have been in their peripheral and they’ve never shown up to CoderDojo, but they’ve shown up to this,” says Wadella.

     A web developer for a medication adherence startup as her day job, Wadella launched KCWiT in 2013 after noticing a sizable lack of women at the marketing agency where she worked. She began researching women in tech chapters and decided that instead of chartering a chapter in KC, she would do something more vital. She wanted to make sure that whatever she was going to create was going to benefit the KC community and help build its technology scene.

     With a mission of inspiring young women to get involved with technology as a profession and connect those already in the field, KCWiT offers programs like TechTalk, a networking series for women in or joining the tech field; Tech sHeroes, a mentoring program designed to educate, encourage and empower young women to explore careers in tech; and more. New to the roster is an adult companion to Coding & Cupcakes, Coding & Cocktails, which tackles some of the intimidating aspects of coding. The main goal of the programs is to simply expose young girls and women to what’s available, what’s attainable and at the same time encourage self-growth and self-worth, things that might help girls stay steadfast in their interests as they get older.

     As girls age, the number of them who see STEM-related fields as a career choice significantly decreases. It’s been found that this usually occurs somewhere between middle school and high school, beginning as a trickle, and by the time they reach college only 20 percent of women pursue STEM-related degrees. Some of the reasons stated are the various messages girls receive at such an impressionable age, along with the stigma that pursuing a career in STEM isn’t sexy, attractive or interesting. One of the solutions is to get girls interested in STEM as early as possible.

     “I think social pressure is huge,” Wadella confides. “I grew up always an outcast and a nerd for my tech interests. Even though I had girlfriends, I still was the odd one out for having more interest in playing video games than finding a boyfriend.”

     Along with Kansas City Women in Technology, there are multiple other metro-area organizations aimed at eradicating the women in technology gap. Organizations like Girl Develop It Kansas City, Athena League, KC STEM Alliance,  KC Digital Drive and the rest of the “village,” as Wadella calls them, are all working toward the same goal: better technology literacy and providing the resources necessary to help young girls and women further their interest in tech.

     It’s crucial to have women in technology. Holding 85 percent of purchasing power and influence, women are also the primary consumers of technology, a number that’s highly underrepresented in the tech industry. That kind of power plays a key role in creating the kind of products people want to buy and use. It’s even been proven that companies with a more diverse staff are more successful.

wadella speaking to the coding & cupcakes group

 

     “Men and women are biologically different, so they’re going to have different perspectives,” Wadella says. “People of different races and ethnic backgrounds are going to have different experiences in the ways they interact with things. Every piece of input is valuable.”

     When it comes to Kansas City and women in technology, a recent survey done by financial tech company SmartAsset ranked KC as the No. 2 best city for women in technology, citing that women fill nearly 33 percent of the tech jobs available and ranking higher than the national average of 25.5 percent. Wadella believes that that statistic has nothing to do with technology at all, but more so the community. “I think that Kansas City/Midwest mentality makes people look out for each other more and support each other more,” she says.

     As we put the finishing touches on our websites, I noted the triumphant faces of the girls and realized that though it might be too early to say whether or not my cousin (who lost interest after the cupcake break and began belting her own rendition of Lorde’s “Royals”) or any of the girls at Coding & Cupcakes will end up in STEM fields, it’s safe to say it’s certainly on their radars now.

To check out Kansas City Women in Technology, Coding & Cupcakes or any of its other programs, visit kcwomenintech.org.