Tech events aim to hack away at the gender gap | June 7, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 7, 2013

Tech events aim to hack away at the gender gap

From Palo Alto seminars to Stanford hackathons, technologists hope to lure women into the startup game

by Gennady Sheyner

Idalin "Abby" Bobe understands better than most the transformative power of technology.

Growing up as one of nine children in a Puerto Rican family, she spent much of her childhood working and taking care of her siblings. Her grades were poor. Sometimes, she showed up to school late because she was taking her siblings to schools. At other times, she didn't show up at all because she had to work. She didn't know back then that she would become the first member of her family to go to college.

But with encouragement from her school counselor, who saw her drive and dedication, she enrolled in a state college in Pennsylvania, where her eligibility hinged on her maintaining a 2.5 grade point average. As a student, she also received her first laptop.

"That laptop changed my life," Bobe told an audience during last Saturday's National Day of Civic Hacking in Palo Alto. "It allowed me to go online."

By browsing the Web in her dorm room, she was able to catch up with her classmates and learn the computer basics. She majored in applied statistics and graduated with honors. Today, Bobe works with Black Girls CODE, an organization that has tutored 1,200 girls in robotics and programming. Communities in 50 different cities signed petitions asking for the group's tutoring services. The group is also looking to bring its services, including bilingual workshops, abroad to Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and South Africa.

"Once you work with girls and see how lives are changing, you don't want to stop," Bobe said.

But even with the recent successes, girl coders don't have to look far to see the barriers separating them from their dreams. Black Girls CODE have been getting plenty of praise for their work, from cities, from communities and from politicians in Sacramento and Washington D.C., Bobe said. But the money that would allow the group to expand just hasn't been there, she said. The group is hoping to raise $100,000 to expand its efforts.

"Everyone loves us, but the money isn't there," Bobe said.

Her frustrations are illustrative of a greater trend in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. Diversity and inclusiveness may be popular concepts in the abstract, but as anyone who has seen "Social Network," attended a typical hackathon or browsed the industry's latest Who's Who list, can testify hacking remains by and large a male-dominated world.

Kelly Hoey, CEO of Women Innovate Mobile, noted that if the hundreds of startups that received funding from Y Combinator, a provider of seed funding, only 4 percent were founded by women. Hoey is hoping to change that through her company, known as an "accelerator." Founded in 2011, Women Innovate Mobile provides what Hoey calls a "greenhouse" environment that allows women developers to obtain leadership positions in the tech world.

Hoey said she has seen plenty of bright women hackers enter into the tech world only to be relegated to "help desk" roles once hired. That's not good enough, she said. What's needed is more female CFOs, CTOs, CIOs, and CEOs. Perhaps a female Zuckerberg or two.

"We need to identify them and mentor them and advise them and provide them with opportunities so that they are successful," Hoey said. "They want to see someone within their grasp that's being successful."

Hoey was one of dozens of technologists — mostly women — who were scattered Saturday afternoon at the AT&T Foundry on Homer Street. Some slumped solo in armchairs and coded away. Others gathered in teams in well-lighted conference rooms, with each team working on a particular project. Alex Donn, senior marketing manager at AT&T and organizer of the event, said most of the hackathons he's been involved in are male-dominated, with women making up about 5 percent. During Saturday's hackathon, which he helped coordinate, males were a minority for a change, making up about a tenth of the roughly 90 participants.

In one conference room, seven programmers (one of them a guy) were playing with worms — the kinds that slither inside a compost box, not the kind that replicate themselves inside a hacked computer. Three subcommittees were toiling away next to whiteboards filled with indecipherable hacker wisdom. One dealt with design; another focused on data; the third worked on interface. Their program allows users to monitor the temperature and condition of their compost boxes through their cell phones.

Brenda Jin, who came up with the concept, said she has just learned about the sensor technology and thought composting would be great way to put this technology to use.

In another room, a group of coders was designing "Shove," a web application that would allow users to become matchmakers for their Facebook friends. The site is a brainchild of Nicole Chiu-Wang, an attorney who recently got married and who is trying to come up with a new way to set up her single friends. Dating websites, she said, aren't very reliable. Facebook, meanwhile, narrows the pool and adds the comfort of familiarity to the daunting dating process.

"I'm always setting up my single friends," Chiu-Wang said. "Some are more willing than others."

For Hoey, the teams gathered at the Foundry aren't the only hopeful signs for women in technology. She pointed to Etsy, a website for buying and selling crafts, which increased the number of its female developers by 500 percent. Other women are launching startups and organizing hackathons with civic overtones — a far cry from the pizza-and-Red Bull all-night affairs made famous by Facebook and its ilk.

One such event is being spearheaded by Danielle Gould, CEO of Food+Tech Connect, a research and networking that brings hackers together to solve food-related problems. The hackathon, titled Hack/Meat Silicon Valley, will bring together "steakholders" — including hackers, butchers, farmers, designers and food executives — to work on problems relating to food sustainability. The hearty to-do list includes helping small farmers operate more profitably, improving supply-chain communications, promoting supply-chain transparency and improving animal health. The event will be held from June 21 to June 23 at the Institute of Design at Stanford University.

Gould said that while most hackathons she's been involved in still have a male majority, the ratio isn't too drastic, somewhere in the 60-40 range. And in the last two years or so, a number of food-related startups have emerged, led by women. Her event, she said, is different from most hackathons because it will involve meetings between food experts, technology mentors and developers before any hacking actually takes place.

"Hackers don't start building anything until 3 or 4 p.m because they spend the morning really interviewing 'steakholders,' trying to get a better understanding," Gould said. "So when they start to ideate and come up with solutions, they have a better understanding of the problems."

In addition to coming up with food solutions, the hackathon will have another benefit, Hoey said. It will offer female developers "an opportunity to work in an environment that is different from the locker room, ego-driven kind of environment" that is familiar to hackathon veterans.

"It will allow them to have access to extraordinary mentors and tech advisors that some of these women might not off-hand have access to," Hoey said. "No one is going to be creating the next LinkedIn or next Cisco out of this. But you can have technologies that immediately go and solve problems."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


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