When you imagine an app designer, a software developer, or a hacker, do you picture a girl? How about a girl of color? A Google image search for “software developer” suggests that the answer is probably no.
Girls ages 12 through seventeen met in New York City on July 24 to compete in one of several Black Girls Code Hackathons across the country designed to help change that. MTV News spoke with 11-year-old Autumn Noel and 14-year-old N’Dea Jackson, two of the girls from the hackathon’s winning team, about how they came up with their brilliant app idea, what they love about coding, and what they plan to do with all that prize money.
Sixteen teams of girls spent three days racing against the clock to create apps related to the theme of “project humanity” and focused on social justice. The second-place winners developed an app that aims to inspire and support students who have been bullied. N’Dea and the other three girls on the winning team — Adia-Simone Rhoden, Marissa Rivera and Autumn Noel — designed an app called “Mana” that lets students study together remotely, get notes and homework after being absent and work with study tools like flashcards and built-in break-time reminders.
“We went through lots of ideas and everyone suggested some,” 14-year-old N’Dea Jackson told MTV News. “I suggested education because my dad works in that field so I knew more about that topic than the other ones. We thought some of the other topics available, like bullying and the environment, would be popular, and we wanted to stand out.”
As of now, Mana only exists in a “demo” version, but the girls said they’re on the lookout for a company that might want to help them turn it into a fully functional app.
N’Dea lives in Philadelphia and traveled with her mom to New York for the hackathon. She said she has participated in a few other workshops designed help get girls into coding, and that now she tries to participate in events like the hackathon whenever she can find them.
“I love how [with coding] you can build whatever you want, and there are no limitations because you have all the controls,” N’Dea said. “I’m fascinated by how apps work and by learning how to make them function properly.”
This was N’Dea’s first experience with the Black Girls Code organization, which started out in San Francisco in 2011 and has since expanded to a chapter-based program that includes summer camps, after-school programs, and community-based workshops across the country designed to introduce basic computer programming and coding skills to girls of color in grades 6-12.
N’Dea told us that she’s also passionate about theater and musicals, but as far as a career is concerned, she said, “I think I’ll stick with coding and become a computer engineer or an app developer.”
If she does, she’ll be joining a disproportionately small number of black women in the field — as of 2013, African-American women make up just 3% of the computing workforce. That’s a gap Black Girls Code’s Founder and Executive Director, Kimberly Bryant, is hoping to help close.
“We want to reach a million girls by the year 2040 and introduce them to coding,” Bryant told MTV News. “We have a long way to go, but we’re starting to expand internationally.” There’s already a chapter of Black Girls Code in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bryant said they hope to expand to more places in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Canada.
Bryant also emphasized that all girls are welcome at Black Girls Code. “Any girl who really wants to participate is welcome,” she said. “Especially under-served girls. We’re really trying to serve girls in general, with a special focus on girls of color.”
Eleven-year-old Autumn Noel lives in Brooklyn, and said her favorite part of the hackathon was making new friends. “We all exchanged numbers, and we’re planning to keep in touch,” she said. She really liked the part where they won, too.
“The judges were just shocked,” she said proudly. “Their mouths were all open and there were like five people telling us how we did so well, and how our app could help change the world.”
Autumn isn’t sure she wants to go into programming when she grows up — she also loves drawing, photography, and fashion design — but she said she’d absolutely love to do another hackathon and stay involved with Black Girls Code. “I love that I get to learn new things and figure out new tools to develop apps,” she said.
When asked what they planned to do with the $500 each they got in prize money, the girls, unsurprisingly, played it smart. Autumn said she plans to save hers, and N’Dea said she’s going to split hers into three categories — some to save, some to invest, and some to put toward school.
“Learning to code [with other girls] teaches you about being able to stand up for yourself,” N’Dea said, “and helps teach you that you’re just as good as everyone else. … Right now, [this field] is mostly monopolized by boys, and we really need to get our foot in the door. Because we all have really good ideas.”