“I don’t want another young girl thinking that math and science is not for her,” Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson said at last month’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Two years ago, another young black woman from D.C. had the very same idea.
When Sasha Ariel was a senior at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast, she began writing Sasha Tech Savvy Loves to Code, a semi-autobiographical children’s book that she’s funding with a thriving Kickstarter campaign.
“It’s interested in exposing children, specifically girls and minorities, to their possibilities in STEM,” Ariel, 19, explained. She’s now a sophomore studying information systems at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York City.
With her main characters being young Black, white and Latina girls, the story aims “to get more girls in STEM, as opposed to getting more kids into STEM overall.”
Her book focuses on the story of 10-year-old Sasha Tech Savvy, an African-American girl who lives in D.C. with her chef dad, software developer mom and brother. Sasha Tech Savvy goes to attend an all-girls coding camp with her friends Gabby and Ashley, where she learns critical problem-solving skills and some simple programming lingo.
The story is lifted almost entirely from her own life, with a few exceptions: she attends coding camp at a much younger age than Ariel did, for example.
“If I had read a book like this as child, then I would’ve had the opportunity to become interested in this field so much sooner,” Ariel told Technical.ly. “I honestly didn’t know anything about coding until high school, and that’s only because I was at a technology school. Even then, it took me until 11th grade to actually begin to understand what you could do with a computer science or technical major.”
As a junior, Ariel scored an internship at Microsoft, where she was the marketing manager for a team of four students creating gaming apps. A few months later, she attended a two-week coding camp, hosted by the Digital Media Academy at UCLA. That’s where she made her first app with Swift, Apple’s language for programming iOS and Mac apps.
Her own entry as a young Black woman into the coding community shapes how she wants other minorities to be welcomed into the tech world. Throughout her six internships, she’s been struck by the general lack of diversity among employees. During her Microsoft internship, too, only about four of 20 interns were girls. And there were about three girls at her UCLA coding camp.
“That made me want to make sure my story was really geared toward girls so they know they can code as well,” she said. “Your race and gender don’t have to affect you wanting to pursue your passion. That’s why the characters go to a girls coding camp, and Sasha Tech Savvy’s brother and father aren’t the focus of the story.”
As it stands now, the book has 32 pages and three illustrations, created by North Carolina-based illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton. She’s going to use part of the money from her Kickstarter campaign to fund more illustrations.
“Me and my mom had been calculating what we’d end up if we got $100 or $150 each day,” Ariel said. They decided to hold a 45-day campaign, rather than the standard 30-day one. So when, four days in, her project was fully funded, she immediately called her mom (that’s award-winning novelist Tracy Chiles McGhee, by the way) and flipped out.
With 15 days to go, Ariel has reached over $15,000 in donations and pre-orders. Sasha Tech Savvy Loves to Code was also featured as one of Kickstarter’s “Project We Love.”
“I honestly did not expect to reach the goal this quickly,” Ariel said. “A lot of people I don’t know have donated, and I didn’t expect this to go beyond family and friends.”
But advocates of diversity in tech pulled through. And having volunteered with Black Girls Code in D.C., she’s looking to partner with D.C.- and New York-based tech organizations, particularly for women and women of color in STEM.
Once the Kickstarter is over, books will go out to everyone who pre-ordered. Afterwards, it will be available for purchase on Amazon.-30-