By Julia Travers – Kim Wilkens’ professional journey in technology has taken her from IBM to independent tech consulting, to teaching technology in school and non-profit settings. She is the co-coordinator of the computer science initiative at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia and founded Tech-Girls in 2012, a nonprofit that brings hands-on tech-related programming to girls, encouraging their interest in STEM fields. Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Kim about her inspiring work and what keeps her motivated.
What in your past led you to start Tech-Girls?
KW: I studied computer science in the late 1980’s and started my career at IBM in Austin. When I moved to Charlottesville, I morphed into an independent technology consultant, helping companies implement testing methodologies and design websites. Eventually, I found myself creating computer labs and teaching technology to K-8 students.
As a woman in computer science for 25 years, it really rocked my world to learn in 2010 at a computing conference how startlingly underrepresented women and minorities were and still are in the field of computer science.
When I graduated in 1987, women made up 37% of the computer science majors, in 2010 it was less than 20%. I found this really devastating because I had always thought I was helping pave the way for more women after me, not less.
I decided I wanted to figure out what in the world was going on. I started working on my Master of Education degree from Mary Baldwin College. Through that experience I was able to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research about the gender gap in tech.
One key finding is that girls’ interest in anything tech-related drops off dramatically during middle school. So that is where I started my efforts when I launched Tech-Girls on the first International Day of the Girl on October 11, 2012.
What is difficult about running Tech-Girls?
KW: When I first started, it was those nagging little doubts about if starting this organization was really something I could pull off. Luckily, the more I was willing to share my story and the need for Tech-Girls, the more support I found in the Charlottesville community. Now the challenge is growing pains – identifying the resources needed to help us manage the growth and making decisions about our priorities.
What accomplishment are you most proud of with Tech-Girls?
KW: The best part of Tech-Girls for me is when we can shine a light on the creations and accomplishments of the girls themselves. I love being part of the process that challenges girls to bring their unique ideas to life with tech.
The Bio-Med Tech-Girls program is probably the best example of providing this real-world, student-centered learning experience. It’s also the program that requires the most community collaboration. Watching the PBS Charlottesville Inside-Out episode that highlighted the 2015 Bio-Med Tech-Girls program had me feeling like a very proud mama (see video here).
What do you want people to know about Tech-Girls?
KW: Tech-Girls offers programming across the K-12 spectrum. Once a month, Girls’ Geek Days spark elementary school-aged girls’ interest in STEM. There are a variety of before and after school programs for middle schoolers. For high school age, we have Bio-Med Tech-Girls plus lots of opportunities for them to mentor and be a role model for younger girls. Our focus through all these programs is to spark interest, build confidence, nurture an inclusive community and help girls’ develop their own tech identity.
Tech-Girl project online at MIT’s Scratch site (click image to see more)
Last year, Tech-Girls and Charlottesville Women in Tech joined forces with the goal of supporting and helping women and girls begin their journey and stay in the technology pipeline. Through these grassroots efforts, we have a real opportunity to make Charlottesville stand out as a tech hub that values diversity.
Eve Ensler once said that “if teenage girls wake up, if teenage girls take it back, this whole world will change overnight because they have more energy, more brilliance, more gut-filled, open-hearted wisdom.”
I’m a believer and being part of Tech-Girls has given me an amazing opportunity to see this energy, brilliance & wisdom first-hand.