An Open Letter to 2017 Technovation Mentors

Dear Technovation Mentors,

I am excited and honored to see the start of the eighth season of Technovation! I wanted to share some of the history and evolution in philosophy and model so you have a sense of where we are coming from and where we are headed.

We started Technovation in 2010 as a small cohort of 45 girls, hosted by Google in Mountain View. The program ran once a week for 9 weeks, after work hours. Each team of girls had mentors who came from local universities and corporations; and the entire group was led through the curriculum by an instructor.  The goal of the program was to provide a first hand experience in entrepreneurship using technology, and thereby help build a strong sense of self-efficacy in the girls.

Over the next three years we scaled the model to 6 sites in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. As we scaled, we ran into two interesting issues: 1) We had a hard time finding instructors who were comfortable both with the entrepreneurship content as well as the technology component (this was 8 years ago, before entrepreneurship became so hip!),  2) The unforeseen issue we ran into with this model was that we were serving girls who already had access to a lot of resources. The model was constrained by the girls’ ability to access the corporation that was hosting the program.

Technovation’s parent organization is Iridescent and Iridescent’s mission is to help underserved youth, especially girls to become innovators and leaders using engineering and technology.

So keeping this mission in mind, we put the Technovation curriculum online in 2013, using Mozilla’s P2PU platform. We were one of the first online courses (this was before MOOC was even a word :).  We had no idea what would happen, but it seemed that we needed to do something dramatically different to increase access to technology education.  We leveraged Iridescent’s global networks and were able to get girls from 19 countries to participate in the program. The girls from Nigeria had a chance to present their app to the First Lady of Nigeria and the UN’s ITU Secretary General congratulated them on their work.

We were heartened by the uptake and proceeded to devote the next 3 years to expanding the program internationally, as well as evaluating the long-term impact of the model on the girls.

The successes have been that we are now operating in 87 countries, having engaged 10,000 girls and 2000 educators and mentors. 70% of girls take further computer science courses when given the opportunity. And approximately 50% intend to major in computer science in college compared to the US national average of 0.4%.  These are not just pre and post results, but survey results from surveys conducted 3-5 years after the program has ended.  

We know now that the key reason why the impact of this program is long lasting is because there is a real change in the girls’ sense of self-efficacy (a belief in her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments), brought about by a few factors:

  • The length of the program –  it goes beyond just an hour of code to almost a 100 hours of building. Thats enough time to see real gains in their ability to solve problems, create something meaningful, grow as individuals and become better collaborators. Thus even if the girls do not win, they see the real, positive changes they have gone through and the overall impact is lasting.
  • The social element of learning – Girls learn to work in teams on a common goal and this is both frustrating and empowering, resulting in lasting changes in attitudes!
  • Community validation – Girls are empowered by the fact that someone even bothered to ask them what their opinion is on a problem they see in their community. And the fact that they solve the problem through technology results in some powerful attitude shifts. Thus the entrepreneurial piece of the program is the key reason why this program is successful, unlike a pure coding program with a capstone project. Flipping the model is powerful.

We have also identified key areas of improvement and are beginning to make some progress on these fronts.

  • Alumni Engagement – Over the past years we have struggled to develop an online community of Technovation alumnae and have unsuccessfully tried all the new social media tools that come out each year. We are finally beginning to crack this nut with a dedicated alumnae support person on our team, carefully vetted engagement opportunities (internships, boot strap investment, accelerator connections etc) and live events. We launched the Technovation Student Ambassador program this year and are excited about launching a Technovation Alumni Reunion event in Silicon Valley next year. Ask us for more details if you are interested 🙂
  • Increase the quality of the program – This year as some of you may have noticed, we have released some significant changes in the curriculum. And have also instituted a mentor training. These changes are aimed at better preparing mentors so you can be more effective in supporting the girls. In addition we scaffolded the curriculum a bit better so girls are not overwhelmed by all the new content.  There is now more rigor, better connection with computer science and more tools to help girls to build their business plans and apps.
  • Virtual mentoring – We now have a large base of countries we operate in, and would like to deepen our support for girls in underserved communities. This means that we will need to rely more and more on virtual mentoring as these regions do not have access to technology experts. Iridescent has been exploring various strategies for virtual mentoring through its other program, Curiosity Machine. We have a long list of things that we know don’t work, but need to keep working on making the interactions safe and meaningful. This is an important area for us to continue working on.
  • Improve safety for the girls – As we expand to more vulnerable communities, we need to make sure we are educating girls and mentors on the importance of staying safe while using the internet, and being active in various online forums.  We have collaborated with Common Sense Media, which has provided their training on our website.   We are also excited to partner with the Center for Social Research in India on providing guidance for our teams in India and hope to have similar regional partnerships so we can provide targeted, effective online safety programs for our Technovation communities.
  • Emphasize process not product – We know the competition aspect of Technovation is very exciting to girls and mentors, but we also feel the disappointment of the girls when they do not progress through the various rounds. One way to address this is to clearly signal what the girls and mentors are learning at each stage, so that they are more aware of how they learn and where they are headed. This will help develop their self-awareness, learning process and resilience as well as help them value the process and not focus so much on the end product.
  • Build sustainable communities of learning – Our last and most important area for improvement is to have a 2-3 year view of working in communities and building local capacity so that they are fully trained to support Technovation teams on their own. We are continuing to add more resources and training for Master Educators and Regional Ambassadors.  This means that the local partner needs to be able to raise funds to support this program. This is easier to do in areas that already have technology corporations, and harder to do in developing countries. Hence it remains an area of growth and improvement.

As you can see, we have learned a lot, but there is a lot more to do! And we need you at every step. So thank you for your dedication and commitment!

Here’s wishing you all a wonderful eighth Technovation season!  Please consider donating to Technovation as a Holiday gift this season and enable more girls to become technology leaders and innovators in their communities!

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president

Gratefully Yours,

Tara Chklovski,
Founder and CEO, Iridescent 

P.S I will leave you with a very heartwarming film recommendation. If you have the chance, please go watch Queen of Katwe with your friends and family. It is a true story and epitomizes the power of Iridescent’s approach. Children are vulnerable, but at the same time, they are also very powerful if they are supported. They need a parent, they need a mentor to support them. The film shows how a little girl from a slum in Uganda becomes a national chess champion with the support of her mother and her mentor.