Meet Stanford University students Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni. They are the self-proclaimed “good girls gone geek” behind she++, a movement designed to inspire women and girls to explore and pursue computer science as a career. Launched in January 2012 as a one-off conference on women in technology, Ayna and Ellora quickly expanded their idea into a full-fledged community committed to changing the way women view technology and how technology views women.
Neither Ayna nor Ellora aspired to be “geeks”. Ellora entered Stanford as a psychology major, and Ayna entered as pre-veterinary medicine. “We were both uniquely encouraged to take the introductory computer science class by friends and read stories about role models being creative and channeling their passions through technology,” Ayna told WYSK. After just one class, they were convinced. They loved the methodological thinking and ability to build programs from scratch.
Based in the heart of Silicon Valley, they had a geographical advantage in seeking female role models who were already trailblazing on the tech superhighway. But it was not easy to find those mentors; they had to dig.
In April 2012, they hosted Stanford’s first conference on women in technology with a lineup of inspirational women from companies such as Google, Facebook, Dropbox, and Pinterest, among others, attracting more than 250+ attendees.
After positive feedback from attendees, mentors, and the press, Ayna and Ellora expanded she++ and today, through a number of initiatives, they have created a community for female technologists.
“So much of the publicity surrounding technology is, understandably, technical, but the stories of women in technology are as inspirational as their accomplishments.” And we think what Ayna and Ellora are doing to encourage women is one of these stories, and what makes them Women You Should Know.
10 Questions With Ayna and Ellora
What made you decide to start she++?
AA: What started as a conversation about the number of females in our computer science classes, blossomed into the desire to do something about it at Stanford University. In April 2012, we launched our first conference, hosting leaders from Google, VMWare, Eventbrite, Facebook, and many other companies. After critical reception and girls responding with newfound excitement to take the intro CS class, we decided to launch she++ into a full-forced campaign.
How did you come up with the initial idea?
AA: We knew there needed to be a space for open dialogue… a conversation that deeply investigated the barriers to entry, and resolved to overcome them. WE, ourselves, wanted to know this and we wanted to identify the trailblazers in the Valley who could impart their experiences and learnings. So we decided to create a day-long forum that would address these issues and help us, and the community resolve to overcome them through our own agency.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in the computer science?
AA: We are dealing with an economic issue, a creativity issue, and an innovation issue. Of course, there should be equal accessibility for women and men in any profession. But, if we look at the numbers, by 2020, 1.4 million jobs will be created for technologists. If we are not capitalizing on a very crucial demographic – women – we will not be able to satiate this need, and our country’s economy depends on the future of tech innovation.
EI: From a purely numbers standpoint, computer science is a field desperately in need of more talent. Only about one third of computing jobs can be filled by our current graduation rates, and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not pressing for more. Women and racial minorities are the greatest untapped bench – that is, there are a lot of minorities and women out there who could want to be computer scientists but aren’t aware of the option.
Do women bring unique skills to the field?
AA: Women bring their unique leadership styles, problem solving attitudes, work-life balance beliefs, and their perception of the world’s greatest problems to solve with tech. Most of all, women bring a community that defines the values in the products that we build for people all over the world.
EI: Every individual brings unique skills to the field. The unique skills that an individual brings are probably more a function of that individual’s personality than his or her gender—or any other demographic characteristic, for that matter, but women are the greatest untapped bench of talent and personality out there.
What do you hope to achieve with your program?
AA: We hope she++ will get more good girls going geek, we want more girls to not be afraid of taking a look, and continuing if they like it!
EI: We hope to showcase a clear picture of what it is to be a computer scientist. There are a lot of common misgivings about what computer scientists do – we spend a lot more time interacting with our colleagues and a lot less time starting along at a screen than people tend to think – and who we are. We aren’t all antisocial or impersonal, and like any other group of individuals we have a diversity of interests and accomplishments. We hope to expose this diversity of character in the field to give girls a fair shot, because we don’t want them feeling like they can’t do computer science because they don’t fit some stereotype. That’s completely untrue.
How does she++ inspire and empower women and girls?
AA: We encourage young girls to break the stereotype and to go geek. By presenting them with role models who have faced similar struggles and decisions in their career choices, we want girls to recognize their crucial role in the field of technology. We create the content and facilitate community building so more girls, even if faced with stereotype threat, can break out of the boundaries and find support.
Tell us about the organization’s initiatives.
AA: We have just released our 12 minute documentary featuring high school girls, college girls, and industry professionals to be screened across the nation. We are also facilitating an e-mentorship program to allow high school girls to have a conversation with college girls and ask questions about being a CS major. And lastly, we are hosting our annual conference on April 20th, 2013.
What’s surprised you most about starting she++?
AA: This is a well discussed conversation in the Valley, however, nationally, the rates and perceptions struggle to change. With our documentary, we want to bring this conversation to organizations, schools, and companies across the nation. This is a national issue.
Where do you see she++ in 5 years?
AA: We see she++ as a vibrant community of high school and college girls becoming leading computer scientists, supporting and learning from each other.
Who’s a woman in computer science we should know?
AA: Take a look at our cast in the film! You’ll see inspirations from founders, college students, and high school students – all incredible women in CS you should know!