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Interview: Teaching girls computer science, entrepreneurship and to see themselves as leaders

I had the pleasure of meeting Tara Chklovski, founder of Iridescent & Technovation. These programs use tech education and mobile app development challenges to help girls address problems in their communities and develop skills for their future. Our conversation was electrified by Tara's knowledge, passion and enthusiasm. Her programs have grown incredibly quickly and are making a difference. Yet, by Tara's abundance of new ideas and energy it was clear: this is just the start.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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Seven years ago Tara Chklovski founded Iridescent, a non-profit that works to empower underserved communities with a focus on technology and education. Since then it has reached 22,000 children across the country, and globally, by offering a 3 month training to engineers and scientists at corporations and universities, enabling them to teach projects to local communities.

Under the Iridescent umbrella, Technovation is a project that focuses on training women and girls to develop mobile applications to solve problems in their community. The program includes a 10 week challenge during which participants complete a 60 hour curriculum of computer science and entrepreneurship training with an emphasis on the lean start up methodology. They work as all-girl teams and develop prototype mobile apps to address problems in their community. At the end of the challenge, they present to venture capital investors for a chance to win $20,000 in funding. Technovation started 5 years ago when 45 girls attended a training at Google. This year, over 2,000 girls signed up from 38 countries.

Key lessons learned:

  • Technovation combines hands on training with an effort to change girls’ mindset about their potential. “Its very powerful for girls to think of themselves as inventors.”
  • Including girls’ perspective in developing technology to solve problems in their community has brought an exciting range of new ideas.
  • By opening up its curriculum for free online access, the program has grown very quickly.
  • There’s often interest in participation from areas with very limited Internet access. Internet cafes have at times helped girls participate. Technovation has also sent laptops to support new groups. More funding is needed to support groups in Africa, India, rural Brazil and the Middle East that want to participate.
  • Technovation participants often stay involved in computer science by getting an internship at a tech company (18%), enrolled in further university computer science courses (30%), or by starting a club or business (28%).

Hands-on training is empowering and changes girls’ mindsets.
Girls and women have such deep seated attributes about their own abilities. Girls look at technology and think this is not something they can do.

They need to go through a program like Technovation to see themselves as inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders.

So far, 387 prototype apps have been created.
There is plenty of research that shows the increased efficiency and innovation in diverse teams. This is especially apparent in Technovation that brings a girls' perspective to technology development. For instance, a team of girls in Yemen focused on early marriage. Girls in India built an app focused on wheelchair accessibility. This year, girls are developing an Uber-style app to track the routes of women-only buses.

Patience is needed.
Many people have an impatient outlook, especially when they compare efforts like this to silicon valley startups. For complicated problems, you can’t think things will happen on the same time scale as startups. It takes a long time to even develop a clear understanding of the problem.

You need to spend a lot of time figuring out what is working and what’s not working. Iridescent is in this for the long haul and wants to do this the right way.

Technology access is real challenge
In some places, groups have gone to Internet cafes to access the Internet. This was true for a group in Brazil, at the edge of the Amazon. Internet cafes do not work in some regions such as India, not for women and girls as safety is a huge concern.

Language is also a challenge for scale
Currently the curriculum is just in English, but Brazilian volunteers are working to translate it to Portuguese.

Grass roots reach and partners are helping drive growth
Iridescent just has a four person team working on Technovation so it’s really been grassroots interest that has fueled the program’s growth. The program is free. All you need is a safe space with Internet access, a laptop and an anchoring teacher or parent. Sometimes if a group doesn’t have a laptop, Iridescent ships one to them. Iridescent connects teams with mentoring women in tech. Many times these mentoring relationships are virtual, since there are no tech companies within miles of where the teams are.

The importance of all-girl teams
The most critical component of the program is that the girls should work in all-girls teams. Evaluation data shows this is the most important and empowering aspect of the program. The second critical component is combining the entrepreneurship with the software development so that girls see the real-world relevance of what they are developing.

Aim to shift focus from recruiting participants to long term support
Currently Iridescent spends a lot of time recruiting the girls. Iridescent would like to find a partner that can help drive awareness so they can shift their emphasis to retaining girls, going deeper, connecting them to opportunities, internships, and jobs. One dream would be to fly finalists to silicon valley to meet each other. It’d cost $1.8m, but would build visibility and shape how girls around the world see technology as a real opportunity for them.

The next chapter for the program is to retain the girls over many years, so that they can deepen their computing skills. It takes typically 15,000 hours to become a master programmer. Technovation's goal is to provide a multi-year experience engaging girls and giving them opportunities to deepen their computing skills over 300-500 hours. Technovation is looking for partners to provide full sets of curriculum that would be accessible to the girls and would help them develop apps using more sophisticated languages over time.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Jason, I love the idea supporting the girls to build the skills/capacity to create their own solutions.

Related to empowerment through tech education, have you seen this story about teaching girls in Dharavi learning to code?

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