Deirdre Clarke TechGirlz 2014

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Ninth grade. That's the year most girls decide technology careers are not for them.

That alarming stat comes from the founder of TechGirlz, a Philadelphia nonprofit working with a team of Triangle tech executives to begin offering workshops for middle school aged girls here early next year. The organization found that most technology education happens too late—once women are in college. And the perception of the field by age 13 is a bunch of headphone-wearing white guys sitting in front of their computers writing code all day.

"The way computers and technology are shown in the media is outdated," says Tracey Welson-Rossman, a chief marketing officer at a Philly computer consulting firm who founded TechGirlz just over four years ago. She struggled for years to hire female technologists and wanted to get girls excited about technology at a younger age. 

Through 'TechShopz' led by tech executives (most of whom are women), TechGirlz helps 10-13 year-olds see technology as a means for creativity and problem-solving.

"We believe this is a marketing and messaging issue," Welson-Rossman says. "Girls connect to technology in a different way than boys do." 

Credit: TechGirlz

Why the Triangle?

The lack of women in today's technology world became evident to software developer Deirdre Clarke after an engineering orientation with her daughter at NC State University last year. She learned that about a quarter of that year's graduating engineers and just 11 percent of its computer scientists were female. When she returned back to her home and job at Motorola in Philadelphia, she began volunteering with TechGirlz. And when the opportunity to take a product management position at Bandwidth in Raleigh came along earlier this year, she transpired to bring TechGirlz with her.

Her colleagues at Bandwidth were enthusiastic about the opportunity. Chief People Officer Rebecca Bottorff and Chief Marketing Officer Noreen Allen agreed to help, and introduced her to female executives and developers at other tech companies in the region. Tomorrow night, they'll host a meetup for people interested in volunteering with the group.

And next Thursday night, November 20th, they'll host an inaugural workshop to get girls excited about 2015. A panel of speakers talking about technical career paths includes the Bandwidth executives, Clarke's daughter Kylie Geller, and female executives from SAS, Citrix and Red Hat. 

Clarke expects to host short interactive workshops every two months in 2015, with the goal of expanding in the years to follow. In Philadelphia, 200 girls participated attended five workshops in 2011. The organization has since worked with 450 girls. It's goal for 2015, with Raleigh-Durham and other communities on board, is to grow to 1,500.

Welson-Rossman is proud that 70 percent of 350 girls who've attended at least one program said in a survey that it'd changed their mind about pursuing a career in tech.

Parents give her hugs and kisses and write thank you notes, she says. "The work you're going to put in is going to be rewarded tenfold," she advises the local group.

TechGirlz Growth Plans

Though TechGirlz has a full-time staff person running the Philadelphia organization, and many volunteers creating its curricula, its mission to offer up its TechShopz free-of-charge and open-source to anyone, anywhere. Today, there are 17 workshops ready to download from its website.

They include Designing a Website, Creating mobile apps, Beginner and Intermediate Javascript, HTML, Game Development, User interface design and PhotoShop, as well as hardware and Internet of Things workshops like Robotics and Python, Makey Makey and littlebits.

Welson-Rossman's goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to volunteer, not necessarily to start TechGirlz chapters. So far, users include a community college in Pennsylvania, a teacher in Boston and a mom in Central New Jersey. Chicago and Austin are also targets for expansion, but Raleigh-Durham will be its first large deployment.

Clarke's mission is to put the curricula in the hands of local volunteers from a variety of STEM backgrounds. She also hopes to line up companies as sponsors—SAP and Comcast have been big supporters in Philly.

Welson-Rossman encourages volunteers and corporations not just get involved to make the tech world more diverse, but to help our nation compete economically.

"If we don't have enough people who are ready and wanting to be involved in these career paths, and who understand how to use technology to do innovation, nationally, we will have an issue," she says.