Intrepid Woman: Kimberly Bryant, Founder, Black Girls CODE

Welcome to The Glass Hammer’s “Women in Tech” month! We will be celebrating successful women in technology all month long!

By Cathie Ericson

Professional Headshot_CompressedKimberly Bryant, tech founder of Black Girls CODE, wasn’t looking to start a non-profit, but realized the need was too great not to. After a series of engineering management roles at various companies early in her career, she left for the opportunity to do something on her own outside of Fortune 500.

Ideally, she had hoped to combine her focus on the health industry with her interest in the start-up field. As she networked with that goal in mind, she became more aware of the lack of women in the science, technology, engineering and math professions – and more than that, the even greater dearth of people of color in the startup space.

“I saw a need to fill the gap because of all the opportunities that are available that lots of people don’t even know exist. It’s not a lack of interest, but a lack of exposure to STEM topics that is causing this mismatch. Starting to code early can open those doors.”

Her Daughter as Inspiration
Bryant also saw the need close to home. Her daughter Kai had an early interest in game development, but they were challenged to find a program for the middle schooler that would nurture her raw talent and interest. “She was the catalyst for Black Girls CODE, because we wanted to find something that would tap her skills but also allow her to be with other people like her.”

Bryant said that was hard to find – she had a great experience at a summer camp but there were very few girls. “Finding other girls with an interest was rare. One of the beauties of what we’re doing is to show girls that they’re not alone, that there are other girls interested in tech things.”

Bryant says that the low number of women graduating with degrees in computer science underscores the importance of what Black Girls CODE is doing. She says the numbers of women graduates are about 14 to 18 percent for all women, but then drop to 3 percent for the African-American community and less than 1 percent for Hispanics and Native Americans.

Bryant finds her passion in wanting to improve those numbers.

“I spent 20-plus years as a woman in a male-dominated field and underwent struggles throughout my career as part of it. I was able to forge my path, but there were not many role models and I had to constantly prove my ability to thrive and compete in male-centric environments. That’s one of the key drivers for me – I want to to create a different environment for the girls coming behind me.”

The stated goal of Black Girls CODE is to increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology. Through that, she hopes Black Girls CODE will build the pipeline to increase the number of women who will be in the workforce in coming years.

Demand Greater Than Capacity
And she clearly has tapped into an interested market. In fact, the biggest change facing Black Girls CODE is to be able to grow and increase capacity fast enough. The camps that run on the weekend tend to sell out, filling up with 80 girls in a one-day workshop. She also manages a running list of requests from 35 or 40 cities that would love a chapter in their area.

“Keeping up with demand is a great problem to have, but it’s still a problem,” she says. “We are not sure how to grow fast enough to meet the demand though we know we want to reach more students, including those in places that are not in large cities.”

Black Girls CODE has even expanded overseas – a chapter will open in Uganda this year and there is one in Johannesburg.

And, for Bryant, a notable recent success has been launching a program with the Latino Startup Alliance called La TechLa, which is specifically focused on reaching the Hispanic communities and teaching mobile entrepreneurship She is very appreciative to have received a Google R.I.S.E. Partnership grant to expand the pilot project launched with LSA in 2013 to 10 additional cities in 2014 and 2015. She says they kicked off their first workshop in New York recently with a goal to tap into the Hispanic community.

Sponsors and Team Members Help You Succeed
Bryant says that it’s critical for women to build a community support group with both mentors and sponsors. She especially mentions the crucial role that sponsors play, since they are the ones who are your cheerleader behind closed doors, championing your work.

Working in a field dominated by men makes it more likely your sponsor will be a man, which Bryant says can even be advantageous. “They are speaking for you in a circle that is their own and can advocate for you from their perspective.”

Bryant also believes in the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will take your career or business to the next level.

“You have to hire those who are better than you,” she says. “As a founder, that’s a difficult pill to swallow – since you have the vision and idea, it can be hard to let it go, but it’s critically important to find people who fill in the weak spots and can help drive your business to the next level.”

She says that she wishes she had been more proactive in this regard in the beginning stages of her business. “You need advocates who believe in you, but also you need to find the strongest team you can possibly afford to bring on. That’s where you need to focus your energy and resources.”

Her Daughter as Traveling Companion
Not only was her daughter the inspiration for Black Girls CODE, but Bryant says she is one of her best traveling companions. “I have been so fortunate to have seen so much of the world with my daughter and experience cultures together and see new things through her eyes. We get to have time together from a personal standpoint, while still accomplishing the work I need to.” Bryant says their travels have taken them all over the United States, as well as to Paris, London, Malaysia, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, among other places.

Her career doesn’t leave much time for outside activities but that is fine with her.

She says that her best advice for women is to focus on finding a cause you’re passionate about and build your career around that. “The startup path is not easy, and my days are extremely long. But it doesn’t feel like work because it’s something I do because it gives me so much satisfaction. It doesn’t seem like a job when you’re doing it for intrinsic benefits.”