There are precious few tech events for which Betabeat would agree to wear high heels. But if there was ever a worthy cause, it’s Girls Who Code. Thus between subway transfers, we swapped out our beat-up boots for patent leather and teetered our way around the cobblestone patches outside the New York Stock Exchange for the organization’s startup-studded gala.
The cause for celebration was two-fold. The first was showing off demos from its inaugural class of 20 girls, who represented all five boroughs and some disarmingly ambitious ideas. (We’re still scratching our head at Cora Frederick‘s plan to use data mining and machine learning to classify tumors.) The second was to announce an audacious new goal: to train one million girls in computer science by 2020, starting with a national expansion outside New York City next year.
The nonprofit organization, founded by former deputy public advocate Reshma Saujani and run by former Jumo managing director Kristen Titus, offers teenage girls an eight-week, full-time education in robotics, web design, and mobile development, with mentorship from engineers and executives at Twitter, Google, ZocDoc, Gilt Groupe, and more. In fact, Ms. Saujani noted last night, CEO Dick Costolo volunteered Twitter’s first philanthropic donation to Girls Who Code, although she politely declined to specify the dollar amount.
On stage, Ms. Saujani pointed out that of the 8 million girls in high school right now, only 3,769 took the AP Computer Science exam. What’s more, only 0.3 percent of female high school students decide to major or minor in computer science. But after this summer’s session concluded, all 20 girls committed to studying computer science–a small, but integral step toward filling the 1.4 million tech jobs that expected to open up by the year 2020. “That pipeline begins in high school,” she told the crowd gathered between the blank screens and buzzing monitors that make-up the floor of the stock exchange after hours.
Girls Who Code sponsors Jack Dorsey and Chris Hughes, who also supported Ms. Saujani’s 2010 bid for a Congressional seat, weren’t able to make it to the party. But plenty of founders and technologists flocked to the feel-good event, including WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and General Assembly cofounder Matthew Brimer, just in from a conference in Dublin (one of the few cities without its own GA, judging by the startup’s rapid expansion). Also in attendance were Foursquare’s lead iPhone engineer Anoop Ranganath, Raptor Ventures VC William Peng, former ICM prodigy Kate Lee, New York City’s chief digital officer Rachel Haot, Ms. Saujani’s husband and LocalResponse founder Nihal Mehta, and Alex Taub, head of biz dev at Dwolla.
On stage, Twitter engineer Sara Haider and Twitter program manager Olivia Watkins, who closely mentored the girls, praised the program’s many virtues. But nowhere was the upside more evident than in a speech from 15-year-old Julia Geist from Brooklyn, who recounted her transformation from the shy kid who liked physics into what Ms. Saujani called a “change agent” for her family of five siblings.
For anyone inspired to donate after hearing Ms. Geist, or other equally as moving teenage technologists, there were Square devices on hand to swipe donations right from the NYSE.
Even without a horde of face-palming stock traders, the floor of the exchange is still an intoxicating milieu. Proximity to all those literal levers to the public markets were irresistible–and stern instructions from the guard not to push any elevator buttons didn’t help. Mr. Newmark himself seemed tempted toward a little mischief, although he cautioned that anything untoward should only be performed with the benefit of a mask. “Did you see the Batman movie?” he explained, covering his mouth like the villainous Bain. Mr. Newmark was in the midst of this twice or thrice annual trips to New York. “I tend to stay near the K-Mart downtown and that’s where I shop,” he said, admitting to a little anxiety about leaving his customer service post. “I’ve been offline for, what, two hours now? People will be nervous.”
Luckily, we faired better than TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis, who got kicked out the NYSE for an offhand joke involving spilled liquids and Facebook stock manipulation.
The juxtaposition of tech and Wall Street was as symbiotic as we’ve ever seen it. A Credit Suisse exec eagerly passed Ms. Saujani his congratulations and business card. While waiting in the lobby, we chatted up a Goldman analyst (who has her own startup, natch). Surely, the release of Greg Smith‘s tell-all must be a startup recruiter’s dream? Not so much, she said with a shrug, describing life inside the House of Lloyd yesterday as “pretty normal.”
Towards the end of the presentations, Ms. Saujani pulled an Oprah, distributing presents from President Barack Obama to all the girls who joined her on stage. “We have signed letters for each of you! It’s better than One Direction and Justin Bieber, right? I think so too!” she said with pride. ”I dunno, Bieber would’ve been good?” a fellow audience member quipped next to us. “Pandemonium in the stock exchange!”
Thanks to the startup scene’s growth spurt, New York City has not been short on well-intentioned initiatives to right the ratio and close the gap for tech talent. Girls Who Code seems to get many of the basics right: The organization reaches out underserved students, who defy the pattern-recognition that plagues the tech industry and its financiers. It also addresses the problem early, and offers sustained training with a practical bent toward employment.
“I wish I had majored in computer science,” Ms. Saujani told Betabeat in a trading booth after the speeches. “I wish I could go home and build a mobile app on immigration and undocumented students–build an app on ‘Stop and Frisk.’ But I’m also taking lessons from the girls and I don’t think it’s too late for me to learn how to code either.” Girls Who Code, she said, is an example of the type of initiatives she wants to spearhead in her campaign to become Public Advocate in 2013. “I was talking at some of the community colleges, like if you can teach 15-year-old girls how to code, you can teach adults how to code. And there are so many jobs that are open,” she said, noting the 50,000 new jobs added in mobile development.
During the program, Ms. Saujani added, visits to Gilt Groupe and ZocDoc piqued the girls’ interest. “I think a lot of them thought initally, I want to be a doctor and didn’t realize the connection between healthcare and technology, and medicine and technology.”
On our way out, we asked Ms. Guest, who received her first job offer after the Girls Who Code graduation at Google’s Chelsea outpost, where she’d like to work. While Google, Gilt Groupe, and Twitter feel “like a second home,” she said, “My dream is to start my own company.” Oh man, just wait ’til Peter Thiel hears about her!