By Patricia Caso/August 21, 2013
Photos Courtesy she++
Self-professed “good girls gone geek” Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni are on a mission to inspire young women to join the ranks of technology engineers. In January 2012, then both 19, they founded she++ to do just that!
“By 2020, the United States will only be producing about a third of the computer scientists it needs. Women are our greatest untapped bench of potential.” Ellora Israni
What started out as a Women In Technology Conference at Stanford University has produced a community of proactive women engaged in e-mentoring, discussions, social media initiatives and even a documentary released worldwide.
I was so intrigued after seeing an interview Ayna gave Bloomberg News that I had to find out more from her and Ellora on their goals, motivation and successes. Through e-mail I was able to catch up with these intensely busy femgineers as they begin their senior year at Stanford…
EYE: First, please define “femgineer.”
ELLORA: A femgineer is an individual who combines her own perspective and life experiences with the power of engineering to create something truly great.
AYNA: She is someone who is bold, daring and incorporates her other interests and experiences into the world of technology to make it more relatable, and more human. Femgineers break the stereotype to make a mark on tech with their passions.
EYE: What does a femgineer bring to the conversation and execution in technology?
ELLORA: Compassion, perspective, and innovation.
AYNA: Femgineers are not just computer scientists. We had not been coding all our lives, but we have had experiences. The lack of a Y chromosome makes our visions unique and useful in the world of code.
We love people as much as we love computing. We want to marry life and love and laughter with the most amazing technologies of our time, and all that makes us different.
“Computer science is often referred to as ‘geeky’. If that’s true, we want everyone to become ‘geeks’!”
EYE: Please explain “good girls gone geek,”a phrase you coined.
ELLORA: Good girls gone geek are the groups of women who may have doubted their ability to be engineers but are taking a leap of faith and inspiring other women to empower technology.
AYNA: We want more girls who break the stereotypes — the ones who are following the ‘good’ path –and take the risk to try computer science. Computer science is often referred to as ‘geeky’. If that’s true, we want everyone to become ‘geeks’!
EYE: Why is it important for women to consider computer science?
ELLORA: First of all, it’s a numbers game. By 2020, the United States will only be producing about a third of the computer scientists it needs. Women are our greatest untapped bench of potential. If women were represented in computer science in the same proportional that they are represented in the undergraduate population, we would double the number of computer scientists we are producing.
AYNA: We live in a world run by computers. Think about this morning, how many computers did you likely use – your cell phone, laptop, TV, home security system?
In a time when your life and work are run by technology to a greater extent than we realize, even learning a little bit of programming will not only make you better at what you do (because everything has a technology component now), but it will help you to understand the world.
EYE: What makes a successful femgineer?
AYNA: Someone who successfully fights the status quo, and incorporates her interests into whatever projects she works on.
ELLORA: A successful femgineer is one who speaks out, fails forward, and supports the next generation of good girls gone geek.
EYE: What realities and myths are there in engineering?
ELLORA: CS is hard—we never said it wasn’t—but it’s also rewarding. The products technologists touch improve the lives of billions of people on a daily basis–that’s really not an exaggeration.
I think there are two myths: one, that the work you do doesn’t have any real impact, and two, that you don’t actually get to work with real people, just computers.
“Girls see computer programming as the work of nerds and brogrammers, not realizing it’s a field that could actually empower them to do whatever they want to do better.”
EYE: Did computer programming scare you at first?
ELLORA: It terrified me. I felt completely incompetent—still do a lot of the time. I think talking about the fact that I still feel underqualified on a daily basis is one of the best things I can do to dispel that fear of inadequacy in other women. I actually wrote a whole piece on this.
EYE: What issues were concerning you that you decided that your university had to host the first ever conference for women and engineering?
ELLORA: She++ was founded in 2012 as Stanford’s first conference on Women in Technology. Ayna and I realized that we didn’t see many women in computer science even at a leading school like Stanford, and hypothesized that it was because they didn’t realize its impact.
Girls see computer programming as the work of nerds and brogrammers, not realizing it’s a field that could actually empower them to do whatever they want to do better. In one sentence: she++ is rebranding technology for the next generation of good girls gone geek.
EYE: Who made you passionate about engineering?
AYNA: I grew up with my father as a doctor, and my close relatives mostly in the medical field. I was never exposed to engineering as a viable career path, or even as a discipline.
When I came to Stanford, I was surrounded by all the wonderful applications of engineering through student-led projects and innovative start-ups.
I learned about a couple of female leaders who led projects that I use every single day. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Leila Janah, founder of Samasource, were both inspirations in how they used technology to make peoples’ lives better. I, in particular, feel passionate about social change.
ELLORA: I entered Stanford in 2010 as a psychology major, fully convinced that a degree in understanding how people function would help me in my somewhat naive goal of making the world a better place.
I took a computer science class and I actually ended up really loving it. Computer science teaches you a really unique way of solving problems and designing solutions–and those are problems inside and outside technology–that you can’t get anywhere else. That way of thinking really resonated with me.
“We simply listen to the current women in tech and then design depending on the needs of our community.”
EYE: What do you wish had been available to you before college?
ELLORA:I wish someone had forced me to take a CS class–just like they made me learn math and English and all the other skills I was going to need for my future–because that would have pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me discover something I really love a lot sooner.
AYNA: I wish I had more chances to understand what engineering could be as a career, and then, the opportunity to hear women sharing their stories.
EYE: She++’s e-mentoring is such a great way to pair young women with real industry professionals. Was that part of your original vision?
AYNA: Our original vision did not even include she++ as an organization. We did not envision any of the initiatives we have built. We simply listen to the current women in tech and then design depending on the needs of our community.
EYE: What has gratified you the most?
ELLORA: It’s when girls and their parents and their mentors write to us and tell us that something we’ve done has helped them get over a fear of programming, and they’re ready to take the leap of faith.
AYNA: Simple messages from young girls sharing their stories—becoming excited about programming, finding themselves on code.org all day long, or discovering hope from the role models we present them. At the end of the day, for me, it’s about the girls and the community.
EYE: How do you unwind, reassess and evaluate?
ELLORA: I’m a big runner, so whenever I’m stressed or just need some time to myself to make a decision, I go on a run. It helps me clear my head and put the situation in perspective.
AYNA: Pauses and conversations are necessary. I also devote time to SPOT Globally. It’s an organization I founded when I was fifteen years old, that helps curb the spread of zoonotic diseases through the sterilizations of stray animals. It has mobilized and educated 2000 youths in 12 developing countries to become engaged in their community’s animal welfare programs.
EYE: Do you have an ultimate goal?
ELLORA: If we can get to the point where she++ is irrelevant—where there is no paucity of women in tech–that would be phenomenal.
EYE: What happens to she++ after you graduate?
ELLORA: We think one of the best characteristics of she++ is that it’s student run. To that end we’ve been training a team since day one to take over the operations when we graduate. Because it’s an issue we’re both passionate about, we’ll definitely stick around in an advisory capacity.
AYNA: This is key for us right now. We must continue channeling the voices of young girls.
EYE: On top of all this, you co-directed and released a documentary, SHE++. Why?
AYNA: At the time, there was no place for people to understand why the search for more women in tech was such a crucial topic of conversation. Many people also wanted to come to the conference, but were not able to. So we wanted to create a package that could act as a one-stop source about women in tech.
ELLORA: Over the course of a year, we filmed interviews with high schoolers, college students, and professional technologists–men and women–and asked them to tell us their stories. We hope it sheds light on the impact of the field, on why the stereotypes surrounding it are not true, and why women should be interested in technology (and vice versa).
“Every step of the way – my friend reminds me to check myself, and never follow the common path.”
EYE: Inspiration seems to be at the core of your endeavors. Who has inspired you along the way?
AYNA: One of my closest friends has inspired me to constantly make sure I am doing what I love. Every step of the way – my friend reminds me to check myself, and never follow the common path. She is a reminder to myself that I deserve to always be working on projects that I care about, and not just adapt to the latest Silicon Valley trend.
ELLORA: My parents, for reminding me to “never say never,” and Ayna, for challenging me to be a person I was scared to be.
EYE: What advice do you have for young women?
ELLORA: Fail forward. In engineering and in life, you’ll make mistakes. They’ll hurt, but they won’t kill you. Learn from them, and don’t look back.
EYE: What is the best advice you’ve been given?
ELLORA: Ignore what people say about you on the internet. I’ve learned that if you believe in something, the people who doubt you cease to matter.
AYNA: Be engaged and active in life.
EYE: What kind of personal growth can one expect from being a computer scientist?
ELLORA: I think you learn how to fail. CS is a really iterative process, and you’re not supposed to get it right the first time. That’s a really valuable life lesson as well–to see mistakes as progress.
AYNA: You learn how to think rigorously, challenge your ego (because of all the constant bugs that you create!), stay committed and diligent.
“So, if you want to learn about where we’ll be in the future…ask the girls and women, both in and out of technology.”
EYE: What happens next?
ELLORA: Personally, I have a lot of dreams as a technologist—projects I want to work on, causes I want to explore—and as a person. I’m so grateful for the support she++ has given me thus far, and I look forward to carrying that forward in whatever I do.
AYNA: I would like to see more girls bonded together, less by the fact that they are female, but more by the possibility of having like-minded opportunities to exercise their interests and visions with their knowledge of technology. she++ is an organization dictated by no one but our community.
We will respond to their hopes and desires, and evolve as the times change. So, if you want to learn about where we’ll be in the future…ask the girls and women, both in and out of technology.
EYE: Thank you, Ayna and Ellora. No doubt that the future belongs to women like you who bring concrete change to improve this ever evolving world! Continued success to you in all arenas! Keep going!!!