There’s an enormous push in South Florida right now to grab more of the innovation economy, but we’re not the only region making a play for this sector. The competition nationally is fierce. Cities like St. Louis, Charlotte, and Phoenix have made bigger strides when it comes to growing as tech hubs.
So local business leaders and policy makers are tackling issues to bring and keep startups here. One is growing the local talent pool for the future. Theories about Silicon Valley’s success always include the presence of Stanford University and its ecosystem. An educated workforce matters.
Now, a national nonprofit called Girls Who Code is working to grow the next generation of STEM--science, technology, engineering and math--stars in South Florida. The organization is rolling out its computer science immersion program for the first time in Miami this summer. Seven weeks, seven-hour days in the classroom (that doesn’t include homework).
Outside of its New York City headquarters, Girls Who Code only exists in two other parts of the country: the San Francisco Bay area and Detroit. Managing Director Dana Ledyard said Miami is a prime location for Girls Who Code because the sector is buzzing.
“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the Miami area,” said Ledyard, “We think it’s a critical time in this movement to make sure that young women are a part of that.”
One of the organization’s goals is to get more local residents into STEM. In the last decade, three times as many jobs have been created in STEM fields. STEM employees are less likely to get laid off, they earn higher wages and work more flexible schedules.
But Girls Who Code is clearly focused on building a female talent pool. The lack of women in the technology industry is well documented. The numbers show women working in computer science have actually declined in the last 25 years. Today, women hold one in every four computer science jobs. In the late '80s, women held one in every three.
Part of the challenge is getting female students to realize STEM careers even exist. Here’s the stat that proves it: Less than half of one percent of young women have their sights set on a major in computer science in their freshman year of college.
Helen Denisenko, a 17-year old alum of Girls Who Code who lives in Staten Island, New York, said she applied to the program on a whim. Denisenko had no experience with computer science and in fact, was hoping for a career in public policy. As frustrating as she says it was to learn code, by the end of her Girls Who Code summer, Denisenko and some of her classmates had built a an app called “Let it Flow.” The app lets users find nearby restrooms and water fountains.
Her best piece of advice after going through the program? "Don't give up on your code," said Deniesko, who now plans to study computer science. While she’s not sure if she’ll end up an engineer yet, she sees how technical skills and an understanding of social computing shapes the modern economy.
Students in the Girls Who Code program also get an opportunity to meet mentors and visit workplaces. In one of the San Francisco Bay area programs, students worked with Facebook engineers on projects they eventually presented to Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg grew up in Miami and graduated from North Miami Beach Senior High School.
Ledyard, remembered the moment the girls spotted Sandberg rounding the corner to meet them at Facebook’s offices.
“The girls screamed like she was Beyonce or some rock star,” said Ledyard.
The Girls Who Code program is free, minus transportation expenses. Right now, it’s open to current 10th and 11th graders. The application deadline is midnight February 27th.