How mentoring a team of underserved high school girls affected a Silicon Valley techie. By Harini Sridharan (Senior Strategist, Rosetta)
Let me start with a statistic that some of you might already know: While women make 47% of the U.S. workforce, only 5% of startups are owned by women. And here’s another: In 2010, only 2.4% of the U.S. Fortune 500 chief executives were female.
I am a techie. We, in the field, love numbers. We ooh and aah at statistics. Our presentations are decorated with them.
But there are stories and experiences behind these numbers that are the real deal. Numbers are just a way of summarizing these experiences to a 140-character paced audience. And all of us know the difference between reading a heart-wrenching classic novel to reading a 2-line summary of what the novel is about. So what is the tug-at-your-heartstrings story behind those statistics I called out earlier?
Mentoring a group of high school girls gave me that story – it made me read the novel behind the number. The mentoring experience came through the Technovation Challenge program. The program is part of a non-profit organization called Iridescent that aims to increase the participation of women in STEM.
The Technovation Challenge
High school girls, in small teams, create mobile app prototypes, guided by a teacher from their school and a mentor from the high tech industry. Creating the app involves everything from coming up with and defining the problem they want to tackle, to doing the market research, to writing a business plan to putting together a pitch to be presented to VC judges at the end of the program.
I volunteered to be a mentor for one of the groups. Frankly, the main reason I signed up was because I love entrepreneurship, and thought it would be very fun to mentor and lead a team to build something from scratch that solves a problem, fulfils a current market need and will ultimately be evaluated by real VCs. And it did have that very effect – it was super fun. But what I am here to write about is the larger, unanticipated impact that it had on me.
The team of girls that I happened to mentor were from schools that are considered very average. They came from familial and cultural backgrounds that did not encourage women to dream big.
Why Mentoring Matters
In one of the initial sessions that I spent bonding with the girls, one of the girls said she usually felt a little more anxiety when she was competing against boys or if any of the judges were male. I presumed it was just the shyness that comes with that age, but proceeded to ask her why. She said it was because she felt they are likely much smarter when it came to science and technical stuff. The other girls around nodded in agreement. I was in shock for a few seconds before I gathered myself enough to tell her that that was so not true based upon all the people I had worked with so far. I remained mostly silent for the rest of that session. My eyes were wetter that evening as I drove back home. I think it was because I realized there was a much larger reason to why it was important for me to be there.
I came to realize that this wasn’t a singular case - there are a huge number of girls and women out there who have the ideas and the excitement, but who need the extra push because of their insecurities. They typically do not have a role model around them that they can look up to every single day to be motivated and stay motivated.
For a lot of us who are from far more fortunate backgrounds like mine, it is a little hard to see what it takes for women around the world to be high achievers. But we are exactly the people that they need. We are the only ones who can be their role models, give them the push and rid them off their insecurities.
Does mentoring make a difference in their lives? Very much so, but I’ll let what my team of girls wrote to me on a Thank-You card speak for itself:
How Technology Can Empower High School Girls
As much as I am proud that I am making a difference in the lives of a handful of girls, I attribute a lot of the positive change to technology itself. Once my girls created their app prototype and downloaded it on to their Android phones, they looked at their app on the phone like magic had been created. They couldn’t believe they had actually made screens that transitioned, textboxes that awaited filling in, and buttons that took and executed instructions smoothly. All these actions that they take for granted as they use their smartphones every single day were suddenly magical when it was them who had created it. Where is the question of insecurity when you are busy creating magic!
The app that my group of girls created aims to prevent teenage pregnancies by providing resources and information in a format that is appealing, compelling and easy to use for teen girls. A very important and high-impact problem to solve, indeed. But what is interesting about this app (and a lot of other apps from other teams) in the context of Technovation’s overarching goals is that it is exemplary of the fact that few men would have empathized as much with this problem or use case :).
We Need More Women Entrepreneurs!
And that to me is exactly what is at the core of why we need more women entrepreneurs – it is because many times, it takes a woman to empathize with and change women's world. The exact same reason for why we need more women mentors!
It is easy to see the value in having a mentor. But being one made me see that this side is quite enriching as well. To mention just a few things that I got out of being a mentor: needing to boil down complex business theories to a high school level made me see those concepts in a new light; I gained an exposure to diverse thoughts, personalities, and cultures; it was great fun just to be exposed to an emerging talent pool. Thanks Technovation!
Mentoring is one of those things that you need to get into, to be able to see what impact it has – both to the mentees and the mentor. So give it a try, in whatever small way you can!
Editor's note: For more information on mentoring at the next Technovation Challenge, click here. Application for 2013 coming soon, email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in mentoring. About the guest blogger: Harini Sridharan is a Senior Strategist with Rosetta, a top independent digital agency where she tackles knotty business challenges. Prior to Rosetta, she worked as a Program Manager at Microsoft, shipping MS Office products and as a software engineer in Google's search group. Harini earned her MS in Computer Science from Arizona State University, where she was involved in multiple research projects with the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering. Follow her on Twitter at @harini_sridhar.