Tech has a diversity problem. Hackathons like this are part of the solution - Technical.ly Brooklyn

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Aug. 12, 2015 7:11 am

Tech has a diversity problem. Hackathons like this are part of the solution

A recent Black Girls Code hackathon got young women of color building apps and pitching their importance.

Black Girls Code hackathon participants and mentors getting ready to pitch their apps.

(Photo by Gregoire Molle)

Dozens of teenage girls were getting ready late last month, minutes before they would pitch the smartphone apps they had been working on for the past two days.

“OK, guys, let’s try one more time,” one coach said to the “Hack Squad” team members rehearsing their presentation.

“I tend to stutter when I speak in front of a crowd,” said Josette Rivera, a member of the Hack Squad.

Soon, her teammates and she would have to speak in front of an audience composed of judges, mentors, parents and fellow teen girls, concluding this weekend of work. “It’s been great, I’m just really nervous,” Rivera, who wore a blue top and shorts, said.

Rivera belonged to one of 16 teams that competed in Brooklyn during a hackathon organized by Black Girls Code, an organization that works to give young women of color skills in technology and computer programming. From July 24-26, participants worked on app projects meant to solve environmental and social justice issues. The event was opened to female participants only.

“We’re giving them an environment where they can feel at ease and comfortable,” said Black Girls Code New York Chapter Community Outreach Lead Calena Jamieson.

Black Girls Code

The Hack Squad team presenting their anti-bullying app. (Photo by Gregoire Molle)

Participants worked on their projects in a room filled with tables, a few arcade games and whiteboards where developer apprentices had inscribed their thoughts.

Vakassia “VJ” Niles was one of the three Hack Squad’s coaches. She is COO and cofounder of Career Incubator, a career management site.

“Tech lacks of women and non-Asian minorities,” Niles, who had been a Black Girls Code volunteer once before this weekend, said.

Niles’ background is in computer information systems, and when she finished school, she said she couldn’t find a black female mentor with whom she could identify. Finding any female working in engineering, Niles said, “was hard enough.”

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Pitch time revealed that teams had worked on a diverse range of projects over the weekend, from an application that would list lonely animals for people to adopt, to a platform designed to share real-life stories, to an app that would list ways to find cheap clothes while supporting the LGBTQ community. A few teams decided to tackle bullying. Hack Squad was one of them.

“We are the Hack Squad and we gotcha back,” the five girls started, speaking to the audience in unison, in front of a screen where their slideshow was projected.

They presented their app, which would enable people who have been bullied to share their stories and get support from the app’s community.

Hack Squad didn’t win the competition. The jury awarded top prize to the team that designed “Mana.” Onstage, the team had described Mana as an app designed to make studying easier. It would offer users the opportunity to organize online study groups. For winning the competition, the four Mana team members each got $500.

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Gregoire Molle

Gregoire Molle is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who has covered Brooklyn for The Brooklyn Ink. The native of France is a former radio intern for Parisian radio station Vivre FM, where he reported and produced daily stories for its news show.

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