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Group dedicated to making inroads for girls, women in tech preps launch

The Kansas City Women in Technology board members (left to right): Andrea Moran, Josepha Haden, Jennifer Wadella, Melanie Haas, Erica Birkman and Alyssa Murfey (Tina Peterson not pictured).

Next Thursday, July 25, the movement to get more girls and women interested and hired within the tech industry will experience a major push right here in Kansas City. A group of professional women have joined forces to create Kansas City Women in Technology (KCWiT), which is focused on growing “the number of women in technology careers in the Kansas City area.” Founded by Jennifer Wadella, a web developer at VML, KCWiT will launch with a free party––open to men as well––from 6 to 8 p.m. at VML.

In anticipation, Silicon Prairie News reached out to Wadella and fellow board member Erica Birkman, an app developer at RareWire and co-founder of Hack of Sexes, to learn more about the new group:

 

Silicon Prairie News: How did KCWiT get started? How did the group of board members come together?

Wadella: It was actually an idea I started tossing around early this year. I love everything about the Kansas City tech community except the lack of women in it. I started thinking about how I could change that and make a positive impact in the community. I looked at a lot of national organizations that were making similar efforts, but decided against starting just a chapter, and instead focused on something Kansas City-based with the goal of helping grow our talent and continue to build the Silicon Prairie.

For the board, I began reaching out within my personal network. I wanted to recruit women like myself, who are currently “in the trenches” because I think we have a good perspective on what would provide value to women in similar situations. I’m fortunate to know a lot of incredibly intelligent and talented women who love their city like I do, and who are equally passionate about technology. 

 
SPN: What’s the central mission of KCWiT?
Birkman: The main mission is to inspire young girls to get involved with technology as a profession, connect those already in the field and promote Kansas City as a desirable place to pursue those careers.
 
SPN: You have several sponsors backing the effort and your site mentions working with schools to provide programming through partnership. How will KCWiT work with both of those avenues?
Birkman: It’s important for companies in the area to be aware of the gender issue in technology. Their support advertises their support for women in this industry and makes them a more desirable place to work. KCWiT is going to focus a lot of energy on bringing technology into schools. It’s important to us to bring these possibilities to students and encourage them to possibly pursue these professions by giving them hands-on opportunities to explore what they can do with that kind of education.
Wadella: As I’ve talked to companies they’ve asked me, “How do we hire more women?” and the only way I can respond right now is, “You can’t hire people who aren’t there.” This is why KCWiT has a huge focus on not only providing support for high school and college girls considering STEM career tracks, but implementing programs to get young girls inspired to pursue technology.
There are a lot of national programs doing things right when it comes to getting girls interested in coding, and KCWiT plans to help bring those to schools. We’re huge fans of Code.org, Code Ed, Girls who Code, and will be launching Coder Dojos across Kansas City. We’re also working on creating a week-long code camp for girls in the summer. 
 
SPN: How can everyone in the community get involved?
Birkman: Our member base will be women only, but a lot of our events will be open to everyone. It’s important to get men directly involved in the group. Great things are born out of diversity.
Wadella: They can spread KCWiT’s mission. Men in technology can get involved as well. We have a lot of fun programs rolling out in the fall that will need mentors for teaching kids to code. Parents can sign up on our website to let us know what school they’re in, so we can work on bringing technology efforts to their schools. 
 
SPN: What do you think is the greatest limiting factor or hurdle for girls and women getting involved in tech careers?
Birkman: The tech industry is very much a boys club. It’s intimidating to make the leap into a career/job/profession that is dominated by the opposite sex. Men are the poster children of this industry and it’s time for that to change. Women are just as capable of doing any job in the STEM fields, but it’s hard to make our mark when only 20 percent or so of graduates with those degrees are women. We need to make girls aware of the opportunities at a young age.
Wadella: Unfortunately I think women are their own biggest barrier to entry. We tend to self doubt, think we lack the skills or intelligence to do these jobs, which is all untrue. It can be hard to walk into the room and be the only woman, and when an industry has been male-dominated to such an extreme for such a long time it can be difficult to feel like your voice should be heard, or you have value to add.
For girls, I don’t think technology is very glamorous. The old stereotype of fat men in dark rooms with their faces only lit by a monitor’s glare is a fairly predominant view of those in technology careers, but it’s just not the case. I love building JavaScript applications, and if I get engulfed in a project you may find me coding at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. But the next Friday you’ll find me out enjoying cocktails on the Plaza with my girlfriends. 
 
SPN: Are there other exciting trends or initiatives in Kansas City that promote women in tech? What are you most excited about for KCWiT’s potential impact?
Birkman: I think Kansas City is very much a supporter of the cause: there’s a new women’s entrepreneur group forming, The Nerdery bringing a screening and panel discussion of She++ to KC, Hack of the Sexes getting a 40 percent female participant turnout.
Wadella: Kauffman Foundation is doing great things promoting women entrepreneurs, and I think most companies in KC want to hire more women, but there just aren’t many of us at this time. I’m really excited for our networking events to meet more women like myself to talk shop with, attend hackathons with and speak at developer conferences with.
But I’m equally excited for getting girls excited. A few years ago I spoke to a Girl Scout troop about my job. I was doing a lot of flash development at the time, so I showed them some fun animations and e-cards I had made for clients. They were in awe. They had no idea they could have a job with a computer, and had a million questions for me. That memory has stuck with me since then, and played a big role in my creation of KCWiT. I can’t wait until things really kick off with monthly events, so I can throw myself into planning for our 2014 Code Camp.
 
Credits: Photo by Jacob Greenberg.