Jul. 15, 2014 12:30 pm

What founders can learn from middle school girls: TechGirlz summer camp

The 20 young women spoke about revenue models and process during the closing demos for the week-long tech entrepreneurship camp. One attendee said of technology: "It seems accessible to me now. Now it's like, 'I can do that.'"

Middle school girls pitched their startups to a "Dolphin Tank" of investors at the end of the 2014 TechGirlz entrepreneurship camp.

(Photo courtesy of Drexel University)

On Friday, the last day of the TechGirlz Summer Entrepreneur Camp, five groups of middle school girls presented their startups to the “Dolphin Tank,” a panel of judges who would choose which startup to “invest in.”

Despite the lighthearted setup, their presentations hardly needed judge sympathy. The 20 girls, decked out in gray T-shirts that read “The next Steve Jobs will be a girl,” spoke about revenue models, their process throughout the week-long camp (“First we thought that we should launch worldwide, but we decided to focus locally,” said one) and their competitors.

Some girls talked about their startups with a kind of unselfconscious enthusiasm that’s hard to find — and that was infectious. Entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from them, said Marc Siry, Comcast‘s VP of Strategic Development, who was one of the “dolphins.”

“I think you could probably teach some people in the working world,” he said.

Now in its third year, it’s the kind of program parents have come to expect. This year’s summer camp, a bootcamp to get middle school girls excited about tech entrepreneurship, was hosted at Drexel’s newly-launched Close School of Entrepreneurship. Run by founder Tracey Welson-Rossman and a team of volunteers, it’s the complement to nonprofit TechGirlz’s workshops during the year that focus on developer skills like HTML/CSS and Java.

The camp cost $175 but about half the participants were awarded scholarships, which discounted the price of the camp, said a spokeswoman for TechGirlz. We noticed that many of the girls lived in the suburbs and had parents who also worked in tech. TechGirlz hasn’t done any targeted outreach, said Welson-Rossman, “but would always love to have Philadelphia schools help promote our programs.”

techgirlz summer camp

(Photo courtesy of Drexel University)

Eden Fesseha, 13, of Lower Gwynned, said TechGirlz helped her realize that technology wasn’t just for boys.

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“I thought, ‘It’s for boys who live in their basement! It’s weird,'” she said. “It seems accessible to me now. Now it’s like, ‘I can do that.'”

Fesseha, who’s taken TechGirlz workshops throughout the year, worked on a mobile app called Fealth that acts as the angel on your shoulder, telling you not to eat at unhealthy restaurants. It was judge Elliot Menschik, DreamIt Health chief, who chose to “invest” in Fealth, saying that the app aligned with his health tech experience.

Menschik and Siry were just two of Philadelphia’s tech leaders who donated their time to the camp last week.

“It takes a village to fulfill our mission,” said Karen Stellabotte, who helps run the camp, to the crowd as she kicked off the event.

techgirlz angel bird

Angel Bird (center), 15, has been to all three TechGirlz summer camps. This year, she was a counselor.

The outpouring of support was striking. The city Commerce Department’s Rebecca Lopez-Kriss and the Close School’s dean Donna DeCarolis gave opening remarks. Other judges included:

Mentors during the week included Philly women tech leaders:

Angel Bird, 15, of Cherry Hill, N.J., has been a camp participant since the program started three years ago. This year, she was a counselor.

When asked if there were any other camps like this, she nodded. “But this one is really special because it’s specifically for girls.”

Here’s a look at the other startups that came out of the camp:

  • Charot, a tool to make video game avatars
  • Agora, a “kid-friendly Craigslist”
  • ComiCreator, an app that makes it easy to make your own comics, with a social mission: to close the gender gap in comics
  • FotoFriendzy, a photo scavenger hunt social mobile game
Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.


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