CoolTechGirls and other local groups are spurring interest and support for girls and women in tech.

Editor's Note: This is an extended version of the story that ran in the September 2019 issue of Columbus CEO.

In 2012, Purba Majumder was a successful technology executive who, just a few years earlier, had left Corporate America to focus full-time on a software development business she had launched in Dublin. A confluence of events in her personal and professional life would lead her to an “ah-ha” moment that there was an opportunity for her to make a difference in the world.

The personal side involved her daughter who was in seventh grade at the time. She told her she wasn’t interested in attending programming camps because it could lead her to be seen as nerdy and thereby become unpopular in school.

The professional side involved the job applications that would flow into her business, Cybervation. One out of 10 was from a woman.

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The following year, with help from the Dublin Entrepreneurial Center, she launched CoolTechGirls as a place for girls between ages eight and 18 to explore their interest in STEM fields through workshops, events and camps and introductions to role models.

Six years later, hundreds of girls have been impacted, the success stories are many and Majumder is looking at ways to build more corporate and educational partnerships. The city of Dublin, Cardinal Health, IGS Energy, Root Insurance and Ohio State University are some who have partnered with the nonprofit.

“Our goal is to distribute valuable career-related information and interactive educational programming,” Majumder says. “The idea addresses the disparity between boys and girls and their interest in STEM coursework. We’re exposing them to a variety of STEM disciplines through hands-on activities and adult mentors and role models.”

Not a hard sell

In Central Ohio, Majumder isn’t alone in her goal to encourage more women to pursue technology careers. Her work and the ongoing work and support of others, including the Columbus Women’s Commission and its “Columbus Commitment: Achieving Pay Equity” voluntary pledge—couldn’t come at a better time given the wide gender and racial wealth gap between men and women.

According to a study published this year by the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, white women earn 82 cents to every dollar a white man earns and Latina, black and Asian Pacific Islander women earn even less than that. “Many girls and young women face barriers to participation in STEM programs, which can divert them from high-paying STEM jobs later in life,” the report says, citing the National Women’s Law Center.

Majumder has been relying on the Central Ohio business community to help show young girls how cool technology jobs can be. It’s not just about software coding these days. Technology, she said, is changing people’s lives.

“We did a session with Root Insurance and the girls got to learn about their mobile app that collects statistics from customers to determine their rates and type of insurance,” she says. “They did a demo and it was just amazing. It shows it can be cool and there’s a real-world applicability to it. You don’t get that in the school environment.”

In addition to CoolTechGirls, several other groups are supporting girls and women in tech.

Ohio Cyber Women is working to reach young women before the age of 13 and foster an ecosystem of positive messaging for the field of cyber security. It hosted an event in August at Huntington National Bank at Easton for sixth to 12th-grade girls to get them excited about cybersecurity through puzzle solving, skill learning and the awarding of prizes.

GetWitIT is a nonprofit with a mission to address the declining pipeline of women in technology. It recently debuted a GirlCON event to introduce girls to less-discussed technology fields and in September will host its fourth annual conference called “The New Blueprint for Leadership” at the Ohio Union.

Formerly known as Women in Digital, TogetherDigital is a professional development and networking group where members convene for monthly meetups and lean on each other to build confidence and accelerate their careers at a faster pace.

Danielle Dake, a digital marketing professional in Central Ohio who is TogetherDigital’s city champion, says technology isn’t a hard sell these days because of how interesting and creative some applications can be.

“Women are incredibly energized in technology now and are drawn in by a lot of the visuals of digital, whether that’s social media or graphic design,” she says. “There are so many more avenues that appeal to women, there’s more personality to it and you’re not just sitting and punching in codes. There’s a forward-facing aspect to it that uses a woman’s touch well.”

So many opportunities

Michelle Kerr, president of IT consulting firm Lightwell in Dublin and a member of the CoolTechGirls advisory board, says it’s important to encourage other women and younger generations to pursue careers in technology because modern life is rooted in STEM.

“A large percentage of traditional jobs are being and will continue to be replaced by technology or some form of it fueled by STEM,” Kerr says. “We continue to have a huge shortage of skilled workers in this field today and the gap will continue to widen if we don’t get the next generation, girls and boys, focused in these areas. We can’t continue to rely on outsourcing these skills. We need the mindshare here in the U.S.”

In Central Ohio, according to 2017 data from the American Community Survey, just 25.6 percent of all computer, engineering and science occupations are held by women.

According to McKinsey & Co., women, particularly women of color “are chronically underrepresented in the U.S. tech sector.”

“A lack of gender diversity carries with it a major opportunity cost, both for individual tech companies and the entire sector,” the management consulting firm reports. “Diverse teams, including those with greater gender diversity, are on average more creative, innovative, and, ultimately, are associated with greater profitability.”

Some seasoned technology executives who have seen the value women bring to a business are taking matters into their own hands to improve the gender ratio.

At information technology consulting firm Leading Edje in Dublin, three of its four executives are women. CEO Joelle Brock says that’s a good thing because they’re adept at problem solving, which is the firm’s focus.

As part of her passion for supporting women and girls in technology, Brock provides internships and scholarships tied to Olentangy Local School District’s STEM program. She also is a mentor through the Women’s Small Business Accelerator program, has spoken for the National Association of Women Business Owners and has been active for many years with the New Directions Career Center, which helps women with career counseling and employment-related services.

Next year will mark three decades in IT in Central Ohio for Brock. She thinks she can serve as an example that a woman doesn’t have to necessarily come from a technical background to excel in the field. She graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications.

“I’ve had an unbelievable career and there are so many options other than sitting down and writing code,” she says. “You can be in technology and be in human resources, recruiting, sales, operations, management and still be in a tech field. We’re trying to educate young women, ‘Look, if you want to be in tech you don’t have to be heads down coding.’ There are so many other opportunities.”

Speaking of opportunities, another of Majumder’s daughters, Ishika, who is a senior in high school, has latched on to the idea that a technology career is the right fit. She’s been taking computer science classes since her sophomore year, participates in hackathons, volunteers at CoolTechGirls and was recognized as one of the Ohio winners by the National Center for Women in Technology Aspirations in Computing this year.

“In an effort to give back to the community, Ishika is hosting a camp for middle school girls (in early August),” Majumder says. “She will be teaching Python programming language and introducing the young girls to Raspberry Pi.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.