You Can Inspire Girls to Be Technology Entrepreneurs

When I volunteered to speak with high school girls about my own experience founding a tech startup, I didn’t know how much that short talk would change my life.

By Samantha Quist (Senior Director, Technovation)

Back in 2012, I took a few minutes out of my schedule as a busy startup founder to speak with a room full of high school girls about my experience. I was hoping to inspire them to become technology entrepreneurs and found startups of their own one day. These girls were participating in Technovation, the largest global technology entrepreneurship program just for girls. What I didn’t know at that time was how much that brief experience would go on to change my own life.

We all know that there’s a shortage of women in technology. But I didn’t really understand the problem until I founded my own technology startup in 2011. I looked for role models who were women tech entrepreneurs. And looked. And looked. I met a few, but mostly I learned how hard they are to find. I discovered that just 4% of Y Combinator founders were female (though the numbers are now said to be up to a whopping 10%). When I joined the Board at AOL’s First Floor Labs startup workspace and helped to screen applicants for that program, I experienced the challenge of finding promising female founders first hand.

After I spoke with those high school girls back in 2012, over 1,000 people went on to watch my talk online, and my own credibility as a founder increased. Prospective clients and mentors started to open meetings by telling me that they had already seen my talk online. My own career path completely changed. I don’t know how much I succeeded in inspiring the girls, but the experience of speaking with them certainly inspired me. Just over a year later, I put my startup on hold and signed on to run Technovation.

Technovation’s intensive technology entrepreneurship curriculum has 1,300 alumnae in 19 countries already, and growing. During the 3-month course, girls work with female mentors from the tech industry to design, develop, and build mobile app prototypes, and then pitch them to prospective investors for $20k in awards. If I had experienced such a program when I was younger, I think that my own winding career path that I described to that classroom full of high school girls would have been a much more direct one.

Technovation is looking for volunteers now, to help grow the program for the February to April 2014 season. Women 2.0 members are especially well qualified to be inspiring coaches and role models for young women worldwide. In particular, the program needs:

  • Female Mentors. Work directly with a team of girls, either in person or through videochat, to guide them through designing, developing, and pitching their mobile app prototypes. Past mentors describe a highly satisfying and transformational experience that helped them develop their own leadership and product management skills. No mobile app development experience is necessary. The commitment is 2 hours per week for each of 12 weeks. (Or, make half of that commitment and be a co-mentor.)

  • Teachers / Group Leaders. We call them “teachers” on our website because many of them are middle school and high school teachers who open up their classrooms for after-school meetings — but anyone with a safe space for girls to meet with reliable wifi can oversee a group of girls and their mentors as they work their way through the curriculum. Teachers can be men or women. The commitment is 4 hours per week for each of 12 weeks.

  • Regional Coordinators and Volunteers. Help recruit girls and mentors to Technovation in your community, speak to groups of girls about your experience as a woman in tech, or help us spread the word about Technovation to local press outlets. The commitment can be anywhere from 5 to 100 hours between now and March 1st.

I remember my own experience as a Technovation speaker, pitch coach, and volunteer back when I was a lonely female startup founder, and how it turned out to be a far more fulfilling experience than I ever could have imagined. Perhaps the same will turn out to be true for you.

You can sign up to be a volunteer mentor, teacher, or coordinator today. Or, reach out to me ([email protected]) or sign up at http://technovationchallenge.org with questions.

ps. Got technical skills? Help Technovation’s parent science education nonprofit, Iridescent, by applying to be the Director of Software Engineering or a Software Engineer and help develop the technology that will deliver science education to more students globally.

This article was also cross-posted at Women 2.0

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Samantha Quist is the Senior Director of Technovation and founder and CEO of Copywriter Central, and internet startup incubated at AOL’s First Floor Labs in Palo Alto. She was previously a Product Marketing Manager at Google, founder of her own editorial business, and Director of Marketing for a high-growth internet startup. She’s a self-taught Ruby on Rails developer who is passionate about using technology to make the world a better place. She graduated from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter @samanthaquist.

Youth Hack Day Challenge in L.A.

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The L.A. Youth Hack Day Challenge kicked off national Computer Science Education Week as part of Hour of Code—a massive movement to introduce 10 million students to computer science. Technovation partnered with the UCLA Community School, Hack for LA, and Girls in Tech LA to bring together over 80 volunteers, students, and mentors for the event. The event used Technovation curriculum to expose students to coding and entrepreneurship for the first time. After kicking off the new MIT App Inventor 2 tutorials with students, teams of 4 students created mobile app ideas and business. At the culmination of the day, teams presented a 2 minute pitch to judges to win prizes in the middle school and high school categories.

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The theme of the challenge was to create an app that solves a problem in the community. There were 17 app ideas that teams pitched to the panel of judges and a room of their peers. Students rose to the occasion of learning to code, write a business plan, and create a fast pitch for their idea. All of the apps were great ideas and showed the potential of students creating solutions to local problems. First, second and third place teams from the middle school category and first and second place teams from the high school category were awarded prizes. The first place winner of the high school category, Girls in Motion, was a 9th grade team from the UCLA Community School. Girls in Motion presented an app idea called Anti-Procrastination App which would help girls complete homework and other assignments on time by setting up phone locks and time out until the tasks are completed. Great job ladies!

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A huge thank you to the volunteers and students who attended! Also a thank you to the judges that volunteered their time: Patricia Dao, Managing Director, Girls in Tech Los Angeles and Tech Entrepreneur; Gohar Gharibyan, Developers, Target Media Partner Interactive; Snehal Vadvalkar, Developers, Target Media Partner Interactive; Charles Hwang, Managing Director, Tango Mobile. Prizes that were donated: mobile phones from Sprint, L.A. Clippers tickets, designer headphones by House of Marley, and a robotics workshop at Rolling Robots. Sponsors of the event included will.i.am’s i.am.angel Foundation, Sprint, Tango Mobile, the Los Angeles Staples Center, House of Marley, Rolling Robots and L.E.A.F. Leaders of Environmental Action Films.

Technovation 2014 is Here! Register Today

By: Samantha Quist, Technovation Senior Director

Registrations for Technovation 2014 are officially open and you can sign up today!

Like last year, we challenge this year’s teams to develop an app that solves a problem in their local community in one of the three following categories:

  • Creating apps for local organizations
  • Teen issues (suicide, peer pressure, teen pregnancy, etc.)
  • Women’s issues (domestic violence, eating disorders, underrepresentation)

The program doesn’t officially start until the week of February 3rd, 2014, but we encourage teams to start forming now so you’ll be all ready to go when the season begins. (You can even start working on app ideas early. We won’t tell.)

We’ve made some improvements to our course this season:

  • Online Recognition for all participants
  • Special Recognition for teams that submit complete app prototypes and pitches
  • Long-Distance Mentorship opportunities for rural and global teams
  • Curriculum Improvements on the way before the program officially begins on February 3rd

As always, it’s free to participate and we can’t wait to see what great app ideas will come out of the program next. Check out what a difference our participants made last year:

Whether you’re a student, a teacher, a mentor, or you’d like to get involved but you’re not sure how — Register for Technovation 2014 and help us show the world what the next generation of women can really accomplish.

How Technovation Inspired Me to Start a Company

By: AnnaLise Hoopes, Technovation Director, SF Bay Area

For the past three years, I’ve been working to inspire girls as technology entrepreneurs through Technovation. I started at Iridescent in 2010 when we had 43 girls in the program, and we now have served nearly 1400 girls in 24 states and 19 countries. It’s been an exciting journey, and it has inspired me to start my own company.

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Green & Go: a for-profit company with a non-profit heart

I always saw myself as a non-profit person. I started my first non-profit in the 3rd grade, in the basement of my house with two friends, making crafts and selling them to raise money for our local animal shelter. This trend continued throughout college and graduate school (I founded VEGITAS), but the idea of starting a for-profit company never appealed to me. I wanted to save the world, not make money.

What changed my mind? Meeting entrepreneurs who were saving the world.

In my Technovation career I met so many women who were starting companies to solve real-world problems. The first seed was planted when I attended a Tedx event organized by a former Technovation instructor, and heard a talk by the co-founder of World of Good.  She too had never seen herself as a for-profit person, until she realized the potential of her company to do good while also making a profit. Later, I met Rose Broome who just launched her latest startup, Hand Up—an app that allows users to donate goods to homeless people they meet on the street. Another friend, Gavin Platt, co-founded a company called Lucid (right out of college) that is now transforming the energy usage of hundreds of university campuses and large-scale companies like Google.

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So, after a few years of meeting inspiring entrepreneurs and watching high school girls start their own companies, I realized I could do it too. I wanted to create an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional grab-and-go meal. As a working professional, I’ve always found it difficult to find healthy food when I’m in a hurry. Even when I do, I feel guilty about the fact that my meal comes in a plastic, disposable container that will remain in a landfill for hundreds of thousands of years after my fifteen minutes of using it. I wanted to develop a product that people could feel good about eating, a product that would educate people about the impact of their food choices. And so I created Green & Go, a line of eco-friendly grab-and-go meals. Each meal is made with organic, plant-based, locally- and sustainably-sourced ingredients. The meals come in a certified compostable PLA package, which you can throw right in the green bin when you’re finished. In essence, they are as eco-friendly as a grab-and-go meal can be.

I started Green & Go a few months ago, and we are now in 16 stores across the Bay Area. Soon you will also be able to have the meals shipped directly to your home through an awesome company called Good Eggs.

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What lessons did Technovation teach me?

Research

One of the biggest lessons I learned from the Technovation program was the value of market research—early and often. I spent several months ideating product concepts, researching the food production industry, developing recipes, and testing them on anyone I could find. I went to the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets every Saturday for months, collecting survey data to find out what people enjoyed eating for lunch, how much they wanted to pay for it, what was important to them about their food, etc. In true Lean fashion, I spent very little money during this testing phase.

Mentorship

Anyone who has been part of the Technovation program realizes the important role that mentorship plays in the life of an entrepreneur. So, early on, I sought out my own mentors from the food industry. It turns out the Bay Area is full of incredible food entrepreneurs! I interviewed Minh Tsai from Hodo Soy, Sarah Gill from The Inspired Cookie, and Shannon Radke from Cinnaholic (essentially, a collection of my favorite vegan food startups). I asked them dozens of questions about their experience building their companies, and tried to glean as much as I could from their collective wisdom. Another mentor to me was Sophia Chang, founder of Kitchener Oakland, where I incubated Green & Go for several months until it outgrew the space.It was invaluable for me to meet other entrepreneurs, hear their stories, learn from their challenges, and get their advice on my company.

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Persistence

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If there’s anything I learned from Technovation, it’s that starting a business is hard work and you may want to give up (sometimes daily). My boyfriend, who has watched my journey from a more objective standpoint, has noticed a pattern in my feelings about Green & Go. He has seen me face setback after setback and feel completely discouraged and disheartened. Sometimes in the very next day, however, he’s seen me elated with joy about a letter from a customer telling me she loves my quinoa salad, or a call from a grocery store that wants to carry my products. He’s noticed that the journey is quite like a roller coaster, and each time I feel discouraged he reminds me that I will soon have an upswing. He’s always right, and that’s how I’ve been able to keep going through the challenges. If you believe in your idea and its potential impact on the world, you know there will be an upswing and you stick with it until you get there.

My advice to young entrepreneurs

I’ve learned many lessons throughout my journey of creating Green & Go. Here are a few important nuggets that I’d like to pass along to young entrepreneurs:

    • Identify problems. Good ideas come from seeing a problem and envisioning a solution. For me, it was a problem in my own life that I wanted to solve in order to make an impact on the world. Look around you and identify problems that you see yourself and others struggling with. What unique perspective do you have that might help you generate an innovative solution?
    • Look for mentors. They are everywhere! You can learn so much in life simply by asking others for advice when you need help. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and demoralizing experience, if you don’t have mentors and role models to guide you through it. Don’t forget that mentorship is a rewarding experience for the mentor, too, and most people will be happy to help you if you ask.
    • Test your ideas. Ideation and market research are critical to the design of a product. Get feedback from everyone who will give it to you—this will help you understand your end user and make your product better.
    • Do the math. In a speech she gave to a group of Technovation students, I heard Angie Chang explain how important it was to pay attention to numbers and “do the math” before starting a company. It’s easy to get caught up in your idea and think it will work out no matter what, but you won’t really know until you write up a business plan and do some number crunching. There are some numbers you won’t know in the beginning, but once you pilot your product you can continuously revise your plan and understand your true cost vs. revenue breakdown.
    • Don’t give up. You will want to throw in the towel on a regular basis. You will hit roadblocks that seem insurmountable, you will have sleepless nights, and you will wonder if it’s even worth it. The answer, in my book, is a resounding “YES.” Even if Green & Go fails, I will never regret a minute of the time I put into it. Starting a company and sticking with it through the challenges has made me a stronger person than I knew I could be.

The road ahead

Tomorrow is my last day at Iridescent. I’m diving in full time to devote myself to Green & Go, which means I’ll be able to focus on some new projects and expand in more directions. My plans for Green & Go include getting into schools, catering for conferences, providing corporate lunches, branching out into farmers’ markets, and starting up a mobile street cart in metro areas. If your school or office is interested in healthy lunches, let me know!

I will dearly miss all of the teachers, mentors, students and volunteers I’ve met through Technovation and I hope that you will stay in touch. Check out my website: www.greenandgomeals.com and my Facebook page to learn what Green & Go is up to and tell me about your own ventures.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Technovation community for all that you’ve taught me over the years. Thank you for inspiring me to take a risk, dive in, and become an entrepreneur—I couldn’t have done it without you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AnnaLise holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Studio Art from the University of Notre Dame, a Master’s in Education from Harvard University, and a California teaching credential. AnnaLise taught elementary school before joining Iridescent in 2010. Over the past three years, she has worked to grow Iridescent’s Technovation program from 43 girls to 1400 worldwide. AnnaLise is passionate about empowering young people with the skills, tools and confidence to make a difference in the world.

 

Ananya Sen Gupta: A Reflection on Mentorship

About the Author:

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Ananya Sen Gupta MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent sometime in the software industry (Microsoft), and recently joined the faculty at University of Iowa, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her active research interests involve signal processing challenges commonly encountered in complex environments, with particular focus on fingerprinting and sparse optimization across a variety of applications. Ananya is a second year mentor for Technovation and shares some thoughts with her mentorship experience with us.

On Technovation Mentorship

I heard about Technovation through my husband from one of his contacts, and that got the ball rolling. When I signed up, I mostly wished to do something for outreach, to help young women reach their full potential in science and engineering. But honestly, I was not sure what role I would really play as a mentor and what it would mean for me. Two years later, after participating in two Technovation Challenges, I am not only deeply involved with the Technovation community, the mentoring experience has helped me to grow as a professional, deepened my commitment to science outreach, and challenged my assumptions on what kids today can achieve with their hard work and creativity.

The biggest takeaway for me as a mentor from Technovation was how vastly creative and driven underrepresented young talents can be when presented with the right opportunity and encouragement. As a mentor, my philosophy is to give guardrails and be a cheerleader, rather than roll out instructions. Therefore, as a Technovation mentor, my goal has always been to lead the team towards a shared vision for the app they wish to build, and enable them with technical guidance and encouragement as appropriate to help them realize their full potential. Both years, the team I worked with went above and beyond my expectations and pursued bold ideas that made me proud.

My first year was a humbling experience when I realized the girls (from a local high school) I was mentoring knew far more about current mobile apps than me. The hard part was to keep their efforts and talent streamlined towards a successful project than let them run wild like kids in a candy shop. I mostly achieved that by letting them splash around the first couple of weeks, and then set deadlines, goals, and individual responsibilities, from technical to project management. It worked. The team, diverse in their abilities and personalities, took on parts of the project and worked together towards a shared vision. They finished third among the ten competing teams, and were delighted that their ideas and hard work had paid off when their app presentation was greeted with ethusiasm.

This year, I was a virtual mentor to a team of four young women at a high school in Brooklyn, NY, all of whom came from different minority backgrounds. I also had a dilemma: I was supposed to mentor this team over Skype while taking care of my infant daughter. So, in absence of precedents, I just decided to skype in with Harriet on our first meeting, and told the girls that I will need to multi-task. They were not only supportive, but enthusiastic to see that it is possible to have a kid and pursue science at the same time. Harriet (my daughter) loved our skype meetings, chirping away at the team during our weekly Google hangout and getting cooed back when the techtalk confounded her. This gave me the courage to start having with-baby meetings with research colleagues in my own professional life, and Harriet is now, quite the Skype-savvy baby. I am currently away at a conference and just got off Skype with her and her daddy, and she really enjoyed babbling to me 🙂

But on a more serious note, what impressed me was the ideas that this team of young women came up with as an app to help their community. They were all from bilingual minority (mostly immigrant) families, and felt that there is a gap in the American public school system to properly educate bilingual minority students. Accordingly, they deisgned a home tutoring app that enables a parent to teach their child science and math bilingually, as well as to supplement their education in other topics such as history, with appropriate wikilinks from their home culture. For example, a lesson on American civil rights history can be supplemented with Wikipedia links to civil disobedience in other parts of the world.

I was moved and amazed. These kids express an issue I had not thought of before, despite being in the education profession and a bilingual minority myself, because I received schooling in India, where I was the majority. They keenly understood how the hurdle is higher for kids who grow up with another language at home to learn math and science in English-only classes. They identified that the root problem might not be talent in science but a language barrier. They also identified that there is a need to bridge the root culture of their immigrant parents to American history and culture they learn in school and live in real life as American kids. I thought the idea of supplementing everyday school education with parent-driven introduction to culturally diverse information from free web-based resources such as Wikipedia was phenomenal. I watched them drive the idea from design to implementation with enthusiasm, and fervently hope they go ahead and try to develop this app for real, as it can truly bridge the education gap for minority immigrant students who attend public schools.

Finally, a personal thought. When I joined Technovation two years ago, I was newly pregnant. I was a little awkward at first of how to sit through mentoring sessions while battling morning sickness, looking tired all the time before energetic teens, etc. But in reality, it was the best prenatal therapy I could receive for free! Everyone was sympathetic, and supportive; I received valuable advice from other mothers, the girls were excited to see that babies and career do not necessarily have to conflict, and finally, I really felt I was making the world a more gender-equal place for my unborn daughter (now 10.5 months) by enabling younger women to pursue science and engineering and lead the technology of tomorrow.

Mentor Spotlight: Ozge Yeloglu

We sat down with amazing mentor Ozge Yeloglu of Halifax, Canada to hear about her mentorship story with her team The APPstronauts. Check out her story here:

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Tell us about Girls Tech League in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. How did you become involved in Girls Tech and who do you serve?

Girls Tech League has started in Halifax as a program under CompCamp. I’ve known Rose Behar, co-founder of CompCamp, from the “Women in Technology” events and discussions. I always believed that we have to introduce girls to technology at an early age, before they decide that technology is not for them. So, the Girls Tech League idea was a perfect one for me to support.

Tell us more about you. What does your daily work life look like and why do you volunteer for programs such as Girls Tech League and Technovation?

I’m a PhD student in Computer Science and a first-time entrepreneur. I’ve been working on a start-up, TopLog, for the last 8 months. So, you can find me writing research papers, working on a pitch deck, emailing and meeting with advisors and investors and coding for our product in the same 24 hours.

I’ve been working with Dalhousie University’s Women in Technology Society (WiTS) for around 6 years now and have been volunteering in Halifax at many events/organizations, i.e. Girls Talk Tech, Techsploration, Ladies Learning Code, Girls Get WISE. Females are definitely in the minority in Computer Science and even a girl with a strong personality can feel lonely, unaccomplished and insecure in an environment like this. My biggest aim is to show girls (either elementary or university or business level) that they are not alone and they can do it when they believe in what they do.

How did you find out about Technovation and why did you decide to take on the Challenge?

I honestly did not know about Technovation until Rose told me about it. She wanted our teams to attend and I thought that was an amazing idea. You cannot believe how excited my team was when they heard that they could be competing with international teams.

We are so proud of your team for being one of the first middle school AND international teams in Technovation. Can you tell me more about the girls on your team APPstronauts? How did you get together to form the team?
We are very proud as well! It was an amazing experience. Rose sent out announcements to a few schools and the girls who were interested signed up. Karen Smyth (other mentor of our team) and I randomly selected one of the schools. Our team had six girls who are very energetic, fun and claiming that they are terrible at Math so Computer Science is possibly not a good choice for them. They were, however, into video games and design so that’s why they were very excited about this challenge.

How did you come up with the idea for your app and get it all done in 12 weeks?

Our team initially had two app ideas: a quiz app and a babysitter app. Basically their own pain points. We all know the best companies are generated while they are actually solving their own pain points. So, this was just an amazing start. The majority decided on the quiz app and then they started building it. They were super fast to grab the concepts of coding with MIT AppInventor. The biggest discussions were more about designing the interface, i.e. where to put which buttons, colour scheme and so on 🙂

Then, the next step was working on the business plan. We didn’t split our team into two, programming and business but they kept switching between programming and business so everybody could get a feeling of what they like more. I was honestly worried whether they could understand the concepts of a business plan and entrepreneurship, but they were definitely fast with that as well. Working on our pitch slides was probably the most fun and exciting part of that 12 weeks because now they were able to see how much they had accomplished in only 12 sessions.

You won a regional competition in Halifax for your app. Could you tell us more about what it felt like to be recognized for all your hard work?

First of all, it was amazing to see them standing in front of judges, presenting very professionally and answering all the questions perfectly. And during the announcement of the winner, I’ll admit I got watery eyes 🙂 They were super happy but more importantly shocked that they could win this competition. I know that was a huge self-confidence pump up for them, showing their parents, teachers, friends and more importantly to themselves that they can do technology if they want to. It just means a lot to me if we could change the futures of six bright girls for better.

Why would you recommend this program to other mentors and girls?

Well, why recommend this program to girls? I think it’s very obvious: I know any girl getting into this program will come out a more secure and confident individual who knows that she can do whatever she wants to do. They might not all turn into Computer Scientists but I’m confident they will definitely consider the option. They can at least tell the boys in their classes that they built an app, a business plan and a pitch when they are told that girls don’t understand computers/technology.

Why recommend this program to mentors?

We all know that we have been through a lot (even though we don’t usually say it out loud) just because we are females in technology. This is one way of changing the future so these girls can stand up to things we have never done because they will be more confident than we were. Because we are telling them they can be the best coder, video game developer, designer or start up their own technology companies and solve the problems they would like to solve. We might not be able to change our current environment easily but we can work on our future.

Anything else you would like to share?

We were told that we needed to create a video talking about our product. We didn’t know it was supposed to be our pitch video so the girls decided to make a cheesy commercial for that. They were all actors in that video (which was a very hard thing to do for some at the first couple of tries) but that was probably the most fun we had in half an hour.

Thank you, Ozge.

Check out the APPstronauts’ pitch here!

Iridescent at Emoti-Con! NYC 2013

This Saturday, June 1st, Explainers and Technovation Challenge were two Iridescent programs among the presenters at the Emoti-Con! NYC Youth Digital Media & Technology Challenge 2013. Over 150 New York City-area youth gathered at the Bartos Forum at the Fifth Avenue Library for the event. Youth participants from MOUSE, Global Kids, the New York Public Library, Parsons Pre-College Programs, Cooper-Hewitt, and other organizations shared their work. The event featured inspiring keynote speeches by Teresa Lynn Rivera, social activist and actor in “The We and the I”, Chloe Varelidi, game designer at Mozilla, and Limor “Ladyada” Fried creator of Adafruit. Team Arrive, the Technovation World Pitch 2013 winners, presented their app, and won the Best Pitch award. Explainers presented their prototype for a solar-powered ice cream truck.

We had a wonderful time at Emoti-Con! and are excited to participate again next year.

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Technovation and Explainers work together to create a game as part of activities at Emoti-Con!. Photo: Alicia Damley

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Krystal and Graciela explain their app to Juan from Global Kids.

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Explainers chat with other youth about their solar-powered ice cream truck.

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Paige (Engineers as Teachers – EasT), Bobby (Explainers), and Angélica (Technovation Challenge) have a rare moment in which they pose for the camera.

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Team Arrive from Technovation Challenge showing off their Best Pitch medals. Photo: Alicia Damley

Alumni Spotlight: Jasmine Gao

 

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We sat down with Technovation 2011 Alumni, Jasmine Gao to catch up and see what she has been up since her with us as a Technovation Droidette. Jasmine is an entrepreneur at heart, a gamer, and a tech-driven insomniac. She is currently a Data Strategist at bitly and an Enstitute fellow.

You were once a Technovation student. Can you tell us what stands out to you most about your experience participating in Technovation?

When I was participating in the 2011 Technovation Challenge, what stood out to me was how much access we were given to accomplished women entrepreneurs and technologists. I noticed right away that not only were our team’s mentors two incredibly intelligent Google engineers, but they were also super supportive of our efforts in the program — I remember multiple times when my mentor, Mary Wong took out time outside of Technovation to help us out with last-minute changes to our prototype. Looking back, I realize I met two key people in my career path on the same night during the NY Regional pitch contest: Deborah Jackson, my past employer at JumpThru, and Hilary Mason, my present employer at bitly. If that doesn’t speak to how powerful the connections one makes through Technovation are, I don’t know what does.

When you were a going through the program as a student, what app did your team create? What was your team name?

My team, The Droidettes, created a prototype for an app called Trending, which was a mobile aggregator that would collect, organize, and categorize trending fashion items. The idea for Trending came out of a problem I had with my email being regularly cluttered with newsletters from various online retailers and fashion outlets that I had purchased from in the past. There was simply no website, mobile app, or convenient medium that allowed avid online shoppers and fashion enthusiasts to digest trend information, find out what the hottest products were as recommended by industry experts, and make purchases all in one place — that’s where Trending came in.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in Technology?

I’ve been playing video games all of my life and, growing up, my computer was like a third parent to me in that I had learned so much just from a simple dial-up connection. However, up until a few years ago, I had always been a passionate consumer of technology but never thought I could be a passionate producer of technology as well. I also had a long standing interest in entrepreneurship at the time but didn’t know what industry to go into. What changed all of this was my discovery of the NY startup scene while working for Deborah, who was one of the judges on Pitch Night. So in that way Technovation was a catalyst for my career in technology.

What is it like to work at bitly? What was the process like getting a position there?

I got my current position at bitly through my fellowship at Enstitute, which is a two-year apprenticeship program for 18-24 year olds based on the philosophy of learning by doing. The current and first class of fellows consists of 11 pre, mid, and post-college students who have been selected out of roughly 500 applicants to spend two years in NYC working under successful entrepreneurs and executives in technology, media, non-profit, etc. We all live together and many of us, including myself, have actually dropped out of college to do this with the belief that we will get more out of two years working than we could ever going to school. Through a series of interviews with Enstitute, I managed to be paired with Hilary Mason, my first choice, who serves as Chief Scientist at bitly and as a result I work on the science team with her.

Since Hilary has the unique leadership role at bitly of making both technical and strategic business decision for the company, my apprenticeship under her has given me access to the same diversity of projects. In any given week, I could be improving my Python skills on a coding project, leading business development calls with potential clients, phone screening job applicants, playing ping pong, or meeting astronauts. And as Hilary’s apprentice, my work outside of bitly includes anything from joining her at speaking engagements and conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt, sitting in on government meetings with Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, building communities around data science such as DataGotham, reviewing business plans and proposals sent to her, and picking up insomnia cookies for an event.

What do you like best about your job?

Definitely the breadth of exposure when it comes to my work, which can range from programming to market research to product to sales. The projects I get to work on are varied enough where I don’t get bored from doing the same thing for too long. I think I have the best of both worlds as a Data Strategist since it allows me to apply business strategy to our technical products, APIs, and data.

Who are your mentors? How do they help you?

People I consider my mentors are really just past employers, colleagues, and friends from whom I have grown a lot, personally and professionally, under their guidance. One “mentor’”of mine is a woman named Stephanie Louie who is a VP of Operational Risk at Goldman Sachs. Stephanie is an alumna of the same high school I went to, Brooklyn Tech, and we met at a Career Fair I had organized there. She has been giving me advice on everything from business to dating since I was 15, and our mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into a close friendship. When Hurricane Sandy displaced me from the Enstitute HQ, where all the fellows live, Stephanie happily opened up her home for me to crash at.

Another person I consider my mentor is of course Hilary since I look up to her as the business-savvy technologist I hope to be someday. Hilary has not only helped me figure out my strengths and position at bitly but she has also given me access to an incredible network both people-wise and internet-wise (when I was sick at home without access to wifi, she didn’t hesitate at all to give me her mobile wireless hotspot for a week).

What advice do you have for Technovation girls who are considering careers in tech?

Become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Whenever you are learning something new (programming, for example) or entering into a field in which you’ve had little to no experience (technology, as another example), you’re likely to feel nervous, lost, and frustrated, but that is normal so don’t let those natural feelings stop you. I talk more about this in a Women2.0 article you can read here.

As a Technovation participant, you have access to great resources and I encourage you to take advantage of everything that is offered. Most importantly, seek opportunities outside of what is directly made available to you. When my team lost the 2011 NY Regional competition, I made an effort to get each one of the judge’s business cards and emailed them afterwards, which ultimately resulted in the internship with Deborah Jackson that led to my application to Enstitute. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for something. You’d be surprised how open people within the technology community are to helping.

Jasmine was recently featured in the NYT: Check out the article here.

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Droidettes NYC, 2011

Conceptualize, Protype, Remix, and Test Small!

It’s a great time to learn coding! Everyone from will.i.am to Chris Bosh to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook are stating the facts: software is now part of all we do, but very few people know how to code. (Check out code.org for more on this).

App Inventor is a great way to start because it lets you program by plugging puzzle pieces together and you get to learn by building cool apps for your phone! Many beginners start by building the apps from the App Inventor book, which are online for free at appinventor.org, along with video of a professor (me!) walking through the creation of the apps. The screencasts are popular with my students at USF and appinventor.org recently reached a million hits.

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Build-Conceputalize-Customize-Create

You’ll probably start by stepping through some tutorials rather mechanically, only partially understanding what you’re doing. It’s very important to slow yourself down as you step through and take the time to really understand the language and logic behind what you’re doing. Talk to your teammates about the apps and walk through the blocks on a whiteboard, tracing the blocks and showing how the app’s internal memory (properties and variables) change. Try some of the conceptual questions at appinventor.org (e.g., these about the MoleMash game), or ask your teacher/advisor to ask you some questions. The key is that with programming (or Math) you can’t just memorize, you have to understand!

Once you’ve done some conceptual work, challenge yourself to build something for which you don’t have detailed instructions. The customization exercises at the end of each chapter are good for this, and the video screencasts are setup to encourage trying each part before watching the lesson. The most successful learning strategy I’ve seen is a build-conceptualize-customize-create process.

“The key is that with programming (or Math) you can’t just memorize, you have to understand!”

 

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Prototype

A prototype is an incomplete, unrefined and perhaps buggy version of the app you’re planning to build. Now your grade school teachers would have never allowed such a thing, but in programming, such an unrefined entity has great value. I’d encourage you to create prototypes of your app as you go, even while you’re still thinking of ideas. It is really hard to describe interactive software with text or words, and even a lousy prototype gives you a tangible (okay, virtual) piece of software, something that can help you formulate your ideas. Perhaps most importantly, the prototype allows you to express your idea to others, whether they be potential clients, users, or angel investors. Software engineers way too commonly build solutions where there are no problems— early prototyping and user/client discussions can make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

“I’d encourage you to create prototypes of your app as you go, even while you’re still thinking of ideas.”

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Remix

Another important engineering skill is to steal, whoops, I mean remix. With App Inventor, you can make use of the App Inventor Gallery. Here you’ll find hundreds of apps built with App Inventor, and all the apps are open source, meaning you can download the source code (blocks) and remix them for you own app. This is not “cheating”, as long as you provide proper attribution (e.g. in the about page for your app, specify the apps from which you borrowed). As they say, there is no reason to recreate the wheel, so search for apps similar to yours and for programming samples that can help in your own project. You’ll learn a lot by reading the code of others, and heavy reuse of code is how things work in the real world. Rarely, if ever, do programmers begin a project from scratch.

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Code a little, test a little

Perhaps the best advice I can give you is this: test as you go, after every few blocks of code. Great software engineers can shift between the big picture design and minute details, a skill that is much harder than it seems. When you are designing, think big and creatively. But when you code the blocks, assign yourself tiny sub-goals, then code and test each part to completion. SaveAs every few minutes, and always have your phone or an emulator running as you code. Failing to do this will ruin your project and/or give you gray hair!

“…when you code the blocks, assign yourself tiny sub-goals, then code and test each part to completion.”

User-Generated and Persistent Data

A major conceptual leap for beginners is when you start to build apps with user-generated data, e.g., apps like Facebook in which the user enters information and expects it to be saved persistently. Suddenly your app becomes more abstract, and you also need to deal with a database. “Persistent” means information that lives on even after an app is closed, and it requires some type of database to save the information. In App Inventor, you can use the TinyDB component to save and retrieve database data. Check out the MakeQuiz/TakeQuiz sample. For an example using Fusion tables, check out the Pizza Party sample.

Have Fun!

Most of all, have fun! Software is changing the world and you can be a leader in this seismic shift! The great thing about App Inventor and programming is that you get to learn by creating, which is the best way. Just follow your instincts, choose a great project that you are passionate about, and always keep in mind that the goal of engineering software is to make someone’s life easier or better. I think you’ll find that you learn a ton and think harder and better than you ever have!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Wolber is a professor of Computer Science at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of App Inventor: Create your own Android Apps and the site appinventor.org.

 

How to Live a Technovation Life

You might be thinking, “What is a Technovation life and why would I want to live one?” For the last 3 months, I have been a mentor in the Technovation Challenge, a program to encourage young women to become high tech entrepreneurs. This is my fourth Technovation Challenge. For the participants and the mentors, going through the challenge can be thrilling, exhausting, inspiring, exasperating, and amazing. Now that it is over, as a participant, you should reflect on what you’ve learned and consider how you can continue these learnings even after the challenge is over. That’s what I mean when I say “live a Technovation life.”

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For all the Technovation participants reading this, think about why you joined the program this year. What did you want to get out of it? And, what did you get out of it? What do you want to learn next? These are important questions because that will frame what you can do to reap continual benefits.

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Do you want to learn more about technology?

  • Take a Computer Science class at your school or go to a camp this summer where you can learn more about computers.
  • Contact startups or small organizations in your community and see if you can help them with different technology needs. Maybe there’s a small business that could use a website; offer to them build one. You can use free tools, such as WebMatrix from Microsoft, to build a simple website.
  • Join DreamSpark, www.dreamspark.com, a program offered by Microsoft that gives free tools to students to encourage them to learn and grow.

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Do you want to finish your Technovation app?

Continue to work on your app. Use App Inventor to develop your app to a point where you can share it with your peers. App Inventor has many resources available to help you add features. Even though App Inventor has limits, you can accomplish many useful things.

Do you want to continue working with your team?

Meet with your team and decide what project you want to take on next. You can participate in the Technovation Challenge again next year! Encourage your team to work together to further your knowledge so you can build a better app next year.

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Do you want to learn more about entrepreneurship?

Finding summer intern opportunities is difficult for young people, but with determination and flexibility, you can find them. Contact a startup and offer your services for the summer. Look for companies that make products for you; contact the company and offer your services to test or give feedback for future products. You will learn more about entrepreneurship by working with entrepreneurs.

Although I have many reasons for getting involved with the Technovation Challenge, a key reason I participate in the Technovation Challenge is because I want to increase the number of women who pursue computer science as a career. I encourage you to continue in technology and to encourage your peers to do the same. Technology has changed the world in many ways. Pursuing a technical career means you help determine the future.

Get involved in something about which you feel passionately. You will benefit and so will others. Go make a difference!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Margaret is the founder and CEO of Innovaspire, a startup revolutionizing how people study. Prior to founding Innovaspire, she accumulated 25 years of experience in the high-tech industry including working at industry leaders such as Apple, Microsoft, and Sun. Margaret has managed small and large engineering organizations as well as led business partnerships. Margaret taught high school for four years and she created the curriculum and taught the first Technovation Challenge. Each summer, Margaret offers internships to Technovation participants, mentoring them and encouraging them to continue their pursuit of technology-related careers.