When #TeamCocoaFab heard about Kat Calvin and Amanda Spann’s organization BlackGirlsHack, which was launched to inspire Black girls and teens to pursue careers in technology, we knew we had to get involved. Recently CocoaFab had the pleasure of being one of the sponsors for their recent hackathon in Atlanta and I spoke with them about why they are so passionate about laying the foundation for a new generation of tech entrepreneurs and digital divas to emerge.
RITA: What is a hackathon?
KAT CALVIN: We will be assigning the hackers into teams so that they get a chance to know each other and listen to the pitches from startup sponsors who choose which project they want them to work on. Then at 7:30 p.m. the bell rings, everybody who does not have a name badge goes out the door and the hack-a-thon begins. So for 24 straight hours teams of coders, designers, the start of founders and business development people all get together and they work on building a project.
RITA: What advice would you give young girls and why they should consider a career in technology?
KAT: If you can code you can find a job, especially like now every single thing is done [online]. Even if you run a brick and morter [store] selling antique buttons you have to have a website! If you code and you can develop a website you will have a job. Coders and graphic designers at the end of the earth will be the only people who still have jobs.
RITA: Why do you think there is such a shortage of young women of color in the technology field?
KAT: There’s such a technology gap. The girls we work with in my non-profit watching them Google something is painful and they are 14 and 15 years old and go to high school in Washington, D.C. but they don’t have access to a computer everyday and so they are so behind. My three year old niece has been on an iPad since she was six months old she is more advance than these 14 and 15 year old girls who want to go to college and want to be successful but have never had the opportunity to have those skills.
AMANDA SPANN: I think one of the biggest things especially in the black communities people can’t imagine something the don’t know exists. They can’t actualize and process it. I had a friend tell a story about how he went to an after school program for young black kids. He told them to close their eyes and envision a doctor? They closed their eyes and then said ‘No how many of you envisioned a black doctor’? And maybe one or two out of like a hundred raised their hand. It’s maybe because they have never met a black doctor before.
RITA: What are some of the digital trends and new products that you are most excided about?
AMANDA: Twitter is a blessing! Twitter, especially from me coming from a marketing background twitter really mobilizes marketing. It makes the world that much smaller. I’m really wondering what’s next. I think the thing that is going to be big in the next few years is user generated content like content creation and how to monetize user generated content. I think that is going to be the big push. Taking the power away from the brands and the companies and really putting it in the hands of the consumer.
RITA: Fast forward 5-10 years from now. What will Black Girls Hack look like?
AMANDA: I want it to go international!
KAT: Amanda is busy planning Black Girls Hack Nairobi! Kenya. Africa.
AMANDA: We’ve been speaking to a couple parties in Nairobi and they are interested in working with us! When we started pushing this we got some coverage and some people in Nairobi saw it and they were like ‘Hey, we want to do that here! Can you guys come here and do it?’ It may not be in the next few months but down the line we’d like to go international. And as far as right now, we’d love to have an event quarterly in a different market each time and we focus on tier-two markets and markets that don’t necessarily have emerging tech streams as opposed to the established like New York and San Francisco. Atlanta was a great place for us to start. You have a lot of budding hubs here and plus it’s a huge black community here.
KAT: I think in March we are going to do New York. But honestly in five years I would love it if Black Girls Hack was redundant. Part of the reason I started it was because every time I go to a startup conference or tech conference there’s like three or five of us in a room and woman and the rest are dudes and so I would love it if in five years tech conferences are really diverse and there are black women who are really represented and that we are really out there together.
AMANDA: One thing that’s beautiful about Black Girls Hack and this event in particular, even though we are targeting African Americans our events are open to everyone. So it’s a great segway and all are sponsors are not totally black-owned companies. It’s a great way to introduce the black community to the larger tech arena. Hopefully our events can get people some jobs and exposure to opportunities and help small businesses and black-owned companies and other startups in general to help take there project to the next level.
RITA: What are your favorite web sites and gadgets?
KAT: You mean besides Cocoa Fab?! My favorite gadgets are basically anything Steve Jobs ever made. I’m really angry at myself because we were at the apple store yesterday and I told myself that I was not going to look at the iPad mini… I did and now I want one! Lenovo just came out with that yoga laptop and it’s the coolest thing ever and I was like ‘why didn’t Apple think of that’? I’ve been saying this for years that Apple should really make a touch screen laptop. That’s what this is except it flips around all over the place and it’s pretty amazing. Basically the combined a laptop and an iPad with a touch screen.
One of my favorite [websites] is Modestneeds.com because people ask for just things that they need because especially in this economy it’s huge. From ‘I can’t pay my rent to my child has medical bills and people can contribute small amounts. Having been raised by a single mother I understand and I love it. And Donorschoose.com. I used to be a teacher in south Louisiana and anything from pencils to art supplies you’d put up a notice on Donors Choose and someone would fund us.
RITA: President Obama has spoken passionately about the need to put technology in the hands of young people. What do you think the administration should be doing now to push young women into fields of technology even further?
AMANDA: I really would love to see a push towards innovation. The White House does have innovation fellows already but I would love for them to expand on that program. I would love for them to reach more into to community and colleges and to pull more people to expand in that circle.
KAT: The federal government needs to improve the economy, make sure people get great education, give us health care. If they just make basic life better, and the way it should be, then people have the room for private companies to come in and innovate. That would allow for people to have an education and go out and get a loan to start a business or whatever. Just make sure American kids can read, can eat and not die when they get sick and not go bankrupt when they get sick then the country can do the rest!