How I Launched a Tech Nonprofit As a High School Sophomore

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The young founder of a nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and computer science talks about what inspired her to take action

By Pooja Chandrashekar (Founder & CEO, ProjectCSGIRLS)

women2-sponsored-blog-postFour years ago, on my first day of high school, I looked around my fourth period AP Computer Science class. The familiar mix of nervousness and excitement that comes with all first days was there, but there was something more disconcerting. My class only had three girls — including me. For a school as science and tech-focused as mine, this realization came as a bitter introduction to reality.

I wondered if this was because it was still freshman year. Maybe things would get better in later years. They didn’t. And the same trend continued into my more advanced computer science classes and my technical work experiences. I became accustomed to finding myself either the only or one of a handful of girls in the room. Sitting in meetings where I was the only female engineer became all too natural.

What is ProjectCSGIRLS?

During my sophomore year of high school, after seeing one too many of my friends turn away from pursuing computer science because of the negative stereotypes surrounding the field and the lack of female role models, I decided I needed to do something about it. And so ProjectCSGIRLS was born. ProjectCSGIRLS is a national youth-driven nonprofit working to close the tech gender gap through running a national computer science competition for middle school girls and workshops around the country. The ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls challenges participants in 6th – 8th grade to build something using computer science and technology that can help solve an imminent social problem under one of three themes — global health, a safer world, and intelligent technology.

Through ProjectCSGIRLS, I hope to show younger girls how to break the tech gender stereotypes and step confidently into a field as male-dominated as technology. I want to empower and equip them with the skills necessary to do this and prepare them for their futures as the technological leaders of tomorrow. I focused ProjectCSGIRLS on the critical middle school period since middle school is not only the time during which a large chunk of learning and development occurs, but also when students are most susceptible to peer pressure and stereotypes. ProjectCSGIRLS aims to dispel these negative stereotypes and provide girls with a community that supports their technological endeavors and showcases their work.

The chief goal of ProjectCSGIRLS is to show girls that they can use technology for social impact and to make a difference in their communities because girls tend to gravitate towards careers or projects through which they can bring about a positive change. We want to show them that technology is a fantastic way to accomplish this.

Making Change Happen

From creating the ProjectCSGIRLS website, to emailing companies asking for support, to emailing teachers and principals, I can only say that founding ProjectCSGIRLS was quite the experience. But as challenging as it was, I can definitively say that it was the highlight of my high school career. It was how I figured out that I could really make a difference in an issue I cared deeply about and how much of an impact my ideas could have. Hours upon hours went into making it a reality, but every minute was worth more than its weight in the end.

I am so passionate about increasing female representation in the technical fields because of my own love for computer science and technology, and the number of times I have felt discouraged and out of place about entering such a male-dominated field. Through my work, I hope to better spread awareness for the essential need of more women in technology and computer science as well as inspire more girls to discover a love for computer science and STEM and confidently pursue these fields.

Last year, ProjectCSGIRLS held its inaugural competition for girls in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C., reaching over 100 girls. We received an extremely positive response from middle schools and computer science professionals. The projects we saw were incredible, ranging from machine learning algorithms for lip detection in veterans to cybersecurity genetic algorithms (yes middle schoolers built these!), and showed us how powerful this initiative was in helping the girls involved see the opportunities and potential in technology.

Building a Team and Expanding to a National Scale

After the success of the program last year, I decided to scale up the initiative to a national scale this year. We hope to reach hundreds of girls across the country to show them how powerful their ideas can be. And in the spirit of youth activism and entrepreneurship, I now have over 50 high school and college students from around the country who work with me to make ProjectCSGIRLS a national platform for encouraging girls in technology.

For the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls, we will be selecting finalists, state winners, regional winners and national winners as well as inviting winners to our national gala in Washington DC in June of 2015. The national gala event will be a celebration of girls in computing, a platform to honor the winners, and a forum to discuss the importance of women in technology. In this two-day event, state and regional winners will interact and network with leaders in technology, tour top tech companies and startups in the DC area, and participate in a formal awards ceremony recognizing them and announcing the national winners. The event will feature guest speakers, tours and activities and will open the girls' eyes to technology and computer science, showing them how exciting these fields are. They will also get the opportunity to showcase their projects to the public during the event.

Registration for the 2015 ProjectCSGIRLS competition closes February 15th, 2015, but if participants want to request a mentor they must register by February 1st, 2015. Further details regarding the competition can be found on our website.

What I've Learned

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s nothing called being too young when It comes to driving change. Yes, I am applying to college, studying for midterms and running a social venture all at the same time. Yes, I did spend my summer juggling phone calls with partners and sponsors while interning full-time at a tech company and working on neurotechnology research.

And let me tell you — it has been amazing. I’ve had the chance to present ProjectCSGIRLS to Silicon Valley executives, speak at national and international conferences, and been invited to the White House. I’ve learned to love the eyes-wide mouth-open look people give me when I tell them I’m in high school. But most importantly founding a nonprofit has taught me far more about myself than I could have ever imagined.

If you have any questions regarding the ProjectCSGIRLS Competition for Middle School Girls or would like to help us spread the word, send me a note at pooja@projectcsgirls.com!


About the guest blogger: Pooja Chandrashekar is the founder and CEO of ProjectCSGIRLS as well as a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. ProjectCSGIRLS is a national youth-driven nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology and computer science through running a national computer science competition for middle school girls and workshops around the country.