HELP­ING IN­SPIRE TECH DREAMS

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SHER­RELL DORSEY

Since 2014, INTech has in­tro­duced more than 550 mid­dle-school girls of color to a va­ri­ety of tech­ni­cal skills.

In­side a class­room at John­son C. Smith Univer­sity on a hot July day last sum­mer, 25 mid­dleschool girls gath­ered to launch what would be their first tech­nol­ogy prod­uct: a web­site, built from scratch, that would help vis­i­tors learn more about a so­cial is­sue like home­less­ness or youth un­em­ploy­ment.

Over the course of a five-day camp, the as­pir­ing tech­nol­o­gists had hud­dled around com­puter screens learn­ing HTML pro­gram­ming and mo­bile app devel­op­ment. They had shared lunch with women in tech who told tales of their aca­demic pursuits and how they landed jobs in the field. And they had got­ten a glimpse of a day in the life of a tech­nol­o­gist as they took tours of big-brand tech com­pa­nies like Mi­crosoft and Google Fiber.

By the sec­ond day, sev­eral stu­dents ap­proached Khalia Braswell in earnest, ask­ing: When can we sign up for the next camp?

“That mo­ment is what keeps me go­ing,” said Braswell, 27, a for­mer Ap­ple engi­neer who quit her job at the tech gi­ant in Jan­uary. She came home to Char­lotte to ex­pand the tech­nol­ogy boot camps she or­ga­nizes through her non­profit, INTech, to in­spire young girls of color to get into tech.

The camp plays a small but sig­nif­i­cant role in its at­tempt to bridge a stark di­vide when it comes to ad­vo­cat­ing for the ad­vance­ment of women and women of color in tech­nol­ogy and com­put­ing fields. A 2018 re­port by the Na­tional Cen­ter for Women and In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy showed that just 27 per­cent of com­put­ing jobs were held by women. In North Carolina, the num­bers of women rep­re­sented in tech match the na­tion’s. For women of color in the in­dus­try, the num­bers are even more grim, with black women mak­ing up just 3 per­cent and Lati­nas just 1 per­cent of women in tech jobs.

Since launch­ing INTech in 2014, Braswell has in­tro­duced more than 550 mid­dle-school girls of color to a va­ri­ety of tech­ni­cal skills and has paired them with pro­fes­sional fe­male men­tors who work in the field. INTech got its start of­fer­ing two-hour mini-camps in part­ner­ship with more than 14 schools through­out Char­lotte, Raleigh and Greens­boro. It now op­er­ates week­long sum­mer camps held in com­puter rooms and class­rooms at uni­ver­si­ties and schools across the three cities.

Be­fore INTech Camp, hands-on tech learn­ing pro­grams tar­geted to young girls of color in North Carolina were lim­ited. No­table or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code had yet to be es­tab­lished. So Braswell built up such an ex­pe­ri­ence while work­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, us­ing va­ca­tion days to travel to Char­lotte and Raleigh to host camps.

Amia Rice, 13, was among the stu­dents of last sum­mer’s co­hort. At the be­hest of her mother, Lisa — Braswell’s chem­istry teacher in high school — Amia joined the camp with­out much en­thu­si­asm for spend­ing a week of her sum­mer cooped up in­doors.

Amia, who self-de­scribes as ter­ri­bly shy, formed a cir­cle of friends and took the lead as her group’s front-end de­vel­oper for their web­site on stop­ping bul­ly­ing in schools. “The project hit close to home for me,” she said.

Amia left the camp with a cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion. At the din­ner ta­ble, she talked about other pro­gram­ming lan­guages she might be in­ter­ested in learn­ing.

“Now,” Lisa Rice said, “my daugh­ter says, ‘I want to do what Ms. Khalia does.’”

JORDANS OR A COM­PUTER?

Braswell said she wished a pro­gram like INTech ex­isted when she was grow­ing up.

Her mother, Danielle Braswell, al­ways knew Khalia was smart. They lived in Rocky Mount in east­ern North Carolina back then, a town of fewer than 60,000 where Danielle knew that there were few op­tions for chal­leng­ing cur­ricu­lum or ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties for chil­dren like Khalia.

Be­fore Khalia was to en­ter first grade, Danielle moved in with her un­cle in Char­lotte — a three-and-ahalf hour drive south­west of the only life she knew. Danielle left Khalia be­hind with her mother un­til she could build a new life for her and her daugh­ter in a school district she be­lieved would of­fer more op­por­tu­ni­ties.

By sum­mer of 1998, that new life started in a trailer park tucked in­side a sin­gle-wide trailer off Ho­vis Road in West Char­lotte — a pre­dom­i­nantly black com­mu­nity with one of the high­est con­cen­tra­tions of poverty in the city.

Danielle was work­ing in a call cen­ter when Khalia was headed into sec­ond grade. The year of tran­si­tion into a new life in a new city with few re­sources wasn’t easy. Khalia got in trou­ble of­ten for talk­ing too much in class — a be­hav­ioral is­sue teach­ers at­trib­uted to her be­ing bored after com­plet­ing her work faster than her class­mates. She had tested well for the gifted pro­gram be­fore be­ing

MY DAUGH­TER SAYS, ‘I WANT TO DO WHAT MS. KHALIA DOES.’

Lisa Rice

moved to an ad­vanced read­ing and math cur­ricu­lum, but it still took hop­ping to a few dif­fer­ent schools through­out the du­ra­tion of the school year be­fore Khalia and her mother found the right fit.

Tax re­funds the next year of­fered Danielle a lit­tle ex­tra cash to splurge. Khalia had a choice to make: A pair of Jordans or a com­puter.

With­out hes­i­ta­tion, Khalia asked for a com­puter.

HER OWN DI­REC­TION

Khalia Braswell didn’t know that ask­ing for a com­puter in­stead of sneak­ers, or beg­ging her mom in 2003 to let her at­tend the city’s new mag­net high school, Phillip O. Berry Tech­nol­ogy Acad­emy, were de­ci­sions that would put her on the path­way to be­com­ing part of the quar­ter per­cent of women em­ployed in STEM jobs in Char­lotte.

Nor did she re­al­ize, after com­plet­ing col­lege in­tern­ships at Deloitte and then at Ap­ple while work­ing on her bach­e­lor’s and a master’s in com­puter science at N.C. State and the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Char­lotte re­spec­tively, that she’d join the less than 30 per­cent of women work­ing in tech. Braswell just knew that she re­ally liked to code. So much so that she cov­ered the walls of the trailer she shared with her mom with sticky notes filled with HTML tags she wanted to mem­o­rize.

The only women in tech she knew she’d met in high school. There was Jer­mel Byrd, her Ad­vanced Place­ment com­puter teacher, and Louise Suggs, who man­aged the school’s IT sys­tems. Ms. Suggs, Braswell re­mem­bers, was the one you called when servers in the com­puter lab went awry.

“I wanted to be just like her,” Braswell said. “A black woman work­ing with tech­nol­ogy and get­ting paid for it.”

SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY

Braswell’s early col­lege years as an un­der­grad at N.C. State made room for on­go­ing devel­op­ment and men­tor­ship. She’d latched on to men­tor­ing pro­grams with or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Na­tional Black Data Pro­ces­sors As­so­ci­a­tion and the Na­tional So­ci­ety of Black En­gi­neers, which gave her ac­cess to a wider net­work of men­tors who helped her land in­tern­ships at Deloitte and Fidelity.

She’d dis­cov­ered deeper con­nec­tions with women in tech upon pledg­ing Delta Sigma Theta Soror­ity Inc., de­vel­op­ing a friend­ship with Shek­inah Smith, a soror­ity sis­ter who had re­cently landed a role as a de­vel­oper at Ap­ple fol­low­ing her work as a front-end de­vel­oper for Red Ven­tures. Smith would even­tu­ally be­come a long­time men­tor and in­struc­tor at INTech camps.

INTech Camp was birthed as Braswell wrapped up grad school in 2014. Some­how, she man­aged to sus­tain both, while fig­ur­ing out her next steps, be­yond what she’d ac­com­plished in Char­lotte and Raleigh.

The al­lure of Sil­i­con Val­ley for an early 20some­thing fresh out of grad school did not evade Braswell. De­spite hav­ing a shot at turn­ing an in­tern­ship into a full-time job op­por­tu­nity within Bank of Amer­ica’s IT depart­ment, she knew a fast­paced startup en­vi­ron­ment was more her speed.

She kissed her mother good­bye and headed to Cu­per­tino, Calif. — where she was, as her mother proudly told her friends, “a black girl engi­neer at Ap­ple.”

While she ad­justed to her new job as a UX de­sign engi­neer for the iPhone, Braswell ran INTech re­motely for nearly four years, ex­pand­ing part­ner­ships with non­prof­its and lead­ing tech com­pa­nies, and re­ly­ing on friends and in­struc­tors like Shek­inah to con­tinue the im­ple­men­ta­tion of INTech’s mis­sion to in­spire and ex­pose young girls to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of tech­nol­ogy.

But va­ca­tions and short trips home to man­age the pro­gram weren’t enough for Braswell. While she en­joyed liv­ing in Oak­land, build­ing friend­ships and net­works with other techies sprin­kled across Sil­i­con Val­ley’s hottest tech com­pa­nies, her heart re­mained in Char­lotte. She missed home. She missed her fam­ily. She craved the op­por­tu­nity to be the vis­i­ble pres­ence of a black woman in tech for the young women she was get­ting to know through her camps.

In Jan­uary of this year, Braswell gave Ap­ple two weeks’ no­tice, packed up her apart­ment, and re­turned home to work on INTech full-time. To­day, she is work­ing to­ward mak­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion sus­tain­able through its mix of grants, part­ner­ships with larger com­pa­nies, and in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions. Her goal is to in­crease stu­dent ex­po­sure year-round.

“When girls leave us, they want more,” Braswell said.

RE­SHAP­ING THE NAR­RA­TIVE

Roughly three months after her re­turn to Char­lotte, Braswell ap­plied and was ac­cepted into a coach­ing pro­gram and pitch com­pe­ti­tion called SEED20, which is spon­sored by the lo­cal chap­ter of So­cial Venture Part­ners — an in­ter­na­tional phil­an­thropic net­work pro­vid­ing in­vest­ment fund­ing to so­cial-mis­sion-driven non­prof­its.

The three-minute pitch com­pe­ti­tion was sched­uled for April 16. Of the 20 se­lected fi­nal­ists, only 10 would take the stage to pitch their or­ga­ni­za­tions in hope of win­ning a chance at more than $45,000 in prize money.

Braswell used her three min­utes to tell her own story as a home­grown tal­ent who re­turned to pay it for­ward by en­sur­ing that more of Char­lotte’s young women were rep­re­sented in tech jobs.

“This the­ater is filled with [just over] 1,000 seats,” she be­gan. “Take just the three front rows and that’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the num­ber of women work­ing in tech na­tion­wide. Now take half of the bot­tom left row — that’s how many women of color are in this in­dus­try. Some­thing has to change.”

That evening, Braswell won the peo­ple’s choice vote and an over­sized check made out to INTech for a $1,000 do­na­tion. Her mother stood next to Khalia with pride.

“When I didn’t know the an­swer to some­thing, my mom would say, ‘What would you do if I wasn’t here’?” Khalia Braswell re­called. She hadn’t known that her mom just didn’t know the an­swer back then. But hav­ing to solve her own prob­lems gave Braswell much of the con­fi­dence she has to­day — the same con­fi­dence she hopes to in­still in the young INTech stu­dents.

Stu­dents like 13-year-old Ne­vaeh Macon. Braswell met Ne­vaeh and her mother, Mar­quita, last sum­mer when Ne­vaeh at­tended INTech’s sum- mer camp at N.C. State.

“I fig­ured it would be a good thing be­cause my daugh­ter had never taken any sort of com­puter classes or cod­ing classes be­fore,” Mar­quita said.

Like Braswell and her mother, Ne­vaeh and Mar­quita are from Rocky Mount.

On the first day of camp, Ne­vaeh said she was learn­ing how to code and work­ing with her group of four other girls to cre­ate a web­site about home­less­ness among vet­er­ans.

“I had to get the pic­tures and work with fonts and make sure the lay­out worked and was put to­gether,” Ne­vaeh said. She also learned how to in­spect web­sites to bor­row code as she learned to build her group’s site. “When I came back to school to show my friends, I told them about INTech and showed them the web­site and they said they were go­ing to ask their moms if they could go.”

Ne­vaeh’s suc­cess at the camp, and the lack of sim­i­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties in Rocky Mount, helped her mother make what she called an easy de­ci­sion: She moved to Con­cord, near Char­lotte, in Fe­bru­ary, just as Braswell’s mother had once moved to pro­vide greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for her daugh­ter.

“I feel like,” Mar­quita said, “that I came across [Khalia] for a rea­son.”

Sher­rell Dorsey wrote a ver­sion of this story in April for a nar­ra­tive writ­ing class while get­ting a master’s of science de­gree in data jour­nal­ism at Columbia Univer­sity in New York City. Since then, Dorsey has con­tracted with Khalia Braswell to pro­vide train­ing for a city-funded project for high school stu­dents. Dorsey is pres­i­dent and CEO of BLKTECH In­ter­ac­tive, a statewide hub for en­trepreneurs and tech­nol­o­gists of color to launch and grow in­no­va­tive busi­nesses and ca­reers.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Khalia Braswell with her sum­mer INTech camp in Char­lotte.

Amia Rice, 14, is in her third year at Khalia Braswell’s INTech tech­nol­ogy camp.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS jsim­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Jamie Lewis, tech­nol­ogy men­tor, helps INTech camper Erin Kirk­patrick, 10.

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