by Stephanie Walden
When Adriana Gascoigne started her first tech job in Silicon Valley in the early aughts, she was excited to be on the pulse of the city’s renowned culture of innovation. Her company’s culture, however, left something to be desired. Not only was she the only racial minority working there but she was also the only woman in the room.
“I loved the startup and I loved the product we were building,” Gascoigne says. “But I was the lone woman standing, and I experienced some not-so-positive things throughout that job. I was young and thought, Well, this is just how startup culture is.”
Seeking a support system of like-minded and diverse women was more difficult than Gascoigne expected. Existing networking organizations seemed to have their own accessibility hurdles.
“There were wine-and-cheese awards nights and similar sorts of networking groups, but they were hard to access. And you really didn’t learn anything just from sitting there and listening to a short speech,” she recalls.
When Gascoigne couldn’t find the community she was searching for, she decided to create it. She started Girls in Tech in 2007, a global nonprofit that advocates for diversity, equality, and inclusion in technology and provides skills-building and job search resources for women working in the tech sector.
“I started Girls in Tech with education at the forefront of everything we do. I wanted to create an organization that provides useful learnings and skills so that women could further their careers, excel in the positions they were in, or start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs,” says Gascoigne.
“I started Girls in Tech with education at the forefront of everything we do. I wanted to create an organization that provides useful learnings and skills so that women could further their careers, excel in the positions they were in, or start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs.”
–Adriana Gascoigne, Founder, Girls in Tech
Flash forward 14 years, and what started as a passion project has become a blossoming, global organization consisting of 54 chapters across 37 countries. Girls in Tech currently has around 70,000 members, and it’s funded through partnerships with corporate sponsors as well as individual donations.
Here, Gascoigne discusses her journey building Girls in Tech from scratch, how the organization has pivoted in the face of the pandemic, and what’s in store for the nonprofit in the coming weeks and months.
A Comprehensive Support System
Girls in Tech develops programming centered around two core areas: career development/job placement and educational resources that help women level up their skills. Programs range from one-hour webinars to multi-week courses to virtual boot camps, and they include modules for learning about and applying concepts like design thinking. Each program pilots in San Francisco at the organization’s headquarters. Once perfected, curricula are deployed around the world to all Girls in Tech chapters.
In addition to local, chapter-specific events, members have access to large-scale networking opportunities. There’s the Girls in Tech conference, an annual gathering that typically attracts about 10,000 women from around the world. The organization also hosts hackathons that bring together developers and designers to create technology solutions for social good.
For women seeking one-on-one guidance, the nonprofit facilitates a mentorship program that is itself underpinned by technology: An algorithm matches mentors and mentees based on their career goals, backgrounds, and expertise.
“We have other programs that are more technical, too,” explains Gascoigne. These include skills-centric learning environments in which instructors with backgrounds in software development, firmware, and cybersecurity teach their trade to young women over the course of four to six weeks.
“It’s a really robust way to engage the community and support them in achieving their career goals,” she adds.
For women who can’t find a chapter in their city, Girls in Tech will happily provide the resources to build one from the ground up; the organization launches an average of about 10-15 chapters each year.
COVID-19 Response and Member Support
As with just about every company, Girls in Tech has had to make adjustments in face of the pandemic. All programming, which is typically offered in-person with some digital components, has had to go virtual.
“Due to COVID-19, we transformed the business overnight,” says Gascoigne. “We ended up changing all of our programming to a fully digital format. We made everything free to make sure that there was no barrier to entry. There were a lot of people who were unemployed or down and out, and we wanted to provide the education and support that they needed.”
“Due to COVID-19…We ended up changing all of our programming to a fully digital format. We made everything free to make sure that there was no barrier to entry. There were a lot of people who were unemployed or down and out, and we wanted to provide the education and support that they needed.”
The organization also put its collective brainpower to use for the greater good. Last year, Girls in Tech hosted a series of virtual hackathons themed around creating apps for pandemic response and relief. The first one called for tools to help frontline workers and vulnerable populations. Some of the solutions the more than 700 participants devised included communication and data management apps for medical professionals, platforms mapping hot spots, and digital resources meant to cut through misinformation. In total, 72 apps came out of the event.
Gascoigne says partnerships have been another critical component of the organization’s shift to all-online. Girls in Tech has teamed up with other tech companies like Asana, HubSpot, Zoom, and Eventbrite to provide pro bono resources to their chapters around the world.
“This makes it a lot easier to launch or produce digital events for members,” explains Gascoigne.
What’s Next for Girls in Tech?
Remembering the discomfort at that first tech job, Gascoigne says she’s amazed at the progress she’s witnessed over the past decade and a half.
“I still get sort of down when I see certain headlines, but I think overall, there’s been so many dramatic changes that are very positive,” she says.
But that doesn’t mean she’s getting complacent. There’s plenty on the docket for Girls in Tech in 2021. For one, the organization is in the midst of launching a digital learning platform scheduled to debut in September of 2021.
“It’ll be a way for our members—and essentially the world—to access all of Girls in Tech’s content on-demand,” she says. The platform will be free at first, though it will likely sit behind a paywall eventually. Additionally, the organization plans to continue tweaking its job board in order to provide best-fit opportunities for both members and corporate partners.
As the tech sector inches its way toward a more equitable environment, Gascoigne says that corporate social responsibility is critical. “I think [the path to equality] revolves around accountability,” she says. “Companies used to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re making things happen. The recruiters are recruiting more diverse people.’ But really, at the end of the day, they weren’t able to retain a diverse workforce. The accountability piece is something that has really evolved.”
For its corporate partners, Girls in Tech is an active advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equality. “Corporate sectors have been really impacted by organizations like ours, because we help them access diverse talent,” explains Gascoigne. Sixty-six percent of Girls in Tech members are BIPOC, and 64 percent are international. “People really care about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) these days, not only because it impacts the bottom line but because it’s the right thing to do. And it really creates a culture that fosters growth, productivity, and creativity,” Gascoigne says.
“People really care about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) these days, not only because it impacts the bottom line but because it’s the right thing to do. And it really creates a culture that fosters growth, productivity, and creativity.”
In addition to finding talent via Girls in Tech, Gascoigne points to a few other resources corporations can pursue to improve their DEI efforts: She mentions platforms like AllVoices, an anonymous reporting app that sends comments directly to company leadership, and Culture Amp, a platform for gathering and acting upon employee feedback.
“There’s now a massive emphasis on culture,” she says. “It takes a lot of resources, time, and money for companies to invest in doing this type of audit. But a company that is more diverse is going to create happier employees overall. And it’s going to lead to increased revenue.”
Girls in Tech also plans to continue its global expansion efforts, despite the curveball of the pandemic. Gascoigne says there’s a “lot of positivity” that comes from bridging the technological divide between Silicon Valley and the world. Even though navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracies of foreign governments can be challenging, seeing the organization thriving across six continents has been worth it.
“Overall, I’ve been 100 percent satisfied with the whole experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says Gascoigne. “It’s all part of creating something that’s powerful and making a big impact for women in tech around the world.”