Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Girls Who Code graduates from its first Austin Summer Immersion Program, photos by Susan Lahey.

Girls Who Code graduates from its first Austin Summer Immersion Program, photos by Susan Lahey.

Apoorva Bapat had a whole academic year to learn the concepts that she and other teachers imparted to 17 girls in Austin during the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program this summer.

“They would learn the concepts in the morning and by afternoon they were using them to make really amazing projects,” said Bapat, who spoke at a graduation ceremony for the girls at St. Edward’s University Thursday evening. The participants, mostly high-school aged girls from Texas, were hand-picked from 7,000 applicants to be among the 1,600 to do the seven-week program this summer, according to Girls Who Code founder, Reshma Saujani.

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code

Saujani, who lives in New York but attends all Girls Who Code graduations, told the story of the organization’s founding in 2010. An attorney and politician, Saujani became aware of the gender gap in tech when she ran for U.S. Congress and, as part of her campaign, visited schools.

Computer classes at the schools, she noticed, were full of boys wanting “to be the next Steve Jobs.” Recognizing that technology infiltrated every aspect of society, and that girls were missing the boat for future economic opportunity, she started a pilot class of 20 girls in New York City, buying the url: for $1.99

Since then, 40,000 girls have gone through the program. They weren’t chosen Saujani said, because they were coding superstars—some of them had never coded anything. But because they have the potential to be leaders.

“What is the problem you want to solve?” Saujani asked the girls. “We don’t want you to walk out of this room and be ordinary. We want you to solve problems…. I bet when people asked ‘What are you doing this summer?’ they might have thought this was not a great choice, to hang out with a bunch of dorky girls….” Here she paused and smiled, nodding at the participants “Made the best friends of your life, right?”

The girls had broken into several teams based on their interests and created programs from a robot dance party in which they programmed 500 robots in C++, to a fantasy video game, to an app that tells you everything you need to know to recycle your waste and where to take it.

College Safe Search Team mates Amanda Chandler, Mali Nichols, Aja Boateng, and Karla Coronado.

College Safe Search Team mates Amanda Chandler, Mali Nichols, Aja Boateng, and Karla Coronado.

One team created a website, College Safe Search, that collects the sexual safety and assault policies of colleges all over the U.S., pairs them with campus crime statistics and makes the information available to prospective students. Putting all the information in one, user-friendly place, the girls decided, would help high school juniors and seniors choose a safer college. Team mates Amanda Chandler, Mali Nichols, Aja Boateng, and Karla Coronado were teamed up because of their mutual interest in learning to code to address social issues.

With a leaderboard, something like College Safe Search could make it very clear which colleges are taking effective measures to stop sexual assault and the best ones could have a distinct competitive advantage. This might raise the bar for all universities.

“I see technology on the internet a lot and all the cool stuff you can do on there and I thought ‘I want to do some of that cool stuff too,’” said Boateng, who grew up in Chicago and moved to Austin in 2008. “In my art program there was this little fire here for Girls Who Code and I thought ‘I want to go.’”

The hardest part was learning persistence, they said: “Learning that we’re going to fail a lot and how much is trial and error, because it’s not one time and done; it’s a million times and done,” said Nichols.

And that, Saujani said in her address, is one of the most important lessons of Girls Who Code. Having graduated with honors from both Harvard and Yale and started a successful career she said, she “Woke up one morning at 33 in the fetal position…. I hated my job. I hated my life. I wasn’t doing what I had been put on this earth to do.” So many girls, she said, are protected from failing and from messes. Learning to code is about learning “to practice sucking at things, failing and pursing the things you’re not already good at.”

After the ceremony, Saujani said many of the girls who join the program are those who have an idea and want to learn to build it. But there’s no one type of girl. The 17 in the Austin class represented different races and backgrounds with different levels of exposure to tech and myriad reasons for joining.

The event was also sponsored by AT&T Aspire which has provided $3 million in funding to Girls Who Code since 2014.