TechGirlz: Philadelphia entrepreneurship camp targets young women

tech camp techgirlz entrepreneurship
Participants brainstorming during the opening day of Techgirlz’s entrepreneurship day camp. (Credit: Paige Ozaroski / Metro).

In just five years, there will be 1.5 million new computing-related job openings in America, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Labor.

But if current student enrollment trends persist, the industry will only be able to fill half of those jobs with candidates who have computer science bachelor degrees from U.S. universities.

The numbers are even more dismal when it comes to female workers in information technology – though women in 2009 comprised 48 percent of the country’s workforce, they accounted for just 27 percent of those employed in computing or math-related jobs.

That’s why Philly software and marketing guru Tracey Welson-Rossman three years ago founded local nonprofit TechGirlz, which on Monday opened its second annual entrepreneurship day camp targeting technologically-inclined young women between the ages of 11 and 15.

“What research has found, and what we’ve found anecdotally, is that around 9th grade, girls are self-selecting out of choosing technology careers because they think the tech field is for geeks and nerds, that it’s not creative, it’s not collaborative, that it’s not fun,” Welson-Rossman said.

She said the stereotype that “every STEM professional looks like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory” has lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Women are dropping out, so there are not as many role models,” she said.

“If you can’t see yourself in a job, you can’t be in a job.”

Welson-Rossman said there’s also a lack of supportive communities geared toward girls who are interested in technology, which she contrasted with those that cater to other activities like cheerleading and lacrosse.

“We just started thinking, ‘How do we change this?’” Welson-Rossman said.

“So I gathered a group of advisors and we said, ‘Well, if 9th grade is when they’re opting out, we need to get them in middle school.’”

TechGirlz’s weeklong, hands-on workshop not only unites like-minded students at a critical age and provides them with female role models, but also frames technology in a way that may be more appealing to young women.

“The men I work with, they tinker,” Welson-Rossman said.

“They’re much more willing to try things and play with it for the sake of seeing what’s out there.”

She’s found women seem, in general terms, to be more motivated by the end product rather than the process.

“Technology is a way to get them there,” she said.

“And once they can figure out how to use technology to get where they want to go, that’s when the light bulb goes off.”

Nineteen young participants will this year undergo what Welson-Rossman calls “a pretty intense boot camp,” during which they’ll learn to conduct consumer research surveys, assemble marketing plans and communicate with code developers.

“The last piece of it is putting together presentations for what we like to call ‘the dolphin pool,’” Welson-Rossman said.

“We have four entrepreneurs who will be looking to acquire their companies.”

Figuratively, of course.

“This isn’t about winning or losing,” Welson-Rossman said.

“The idea is that they’re coming out of here feeling empowered and confident. What we saw last year was girls growing confident in their ability to speak in public and to communicate ideas. We know girls traditionally collaborate well, so they really need to work on just figuring out how to be confident in learning the tech piece of this and to translate their ideas into working reality. That’s really what we’re trying to show them.”

If you go

TechGirlz’s second annual entrepreneurship camp runs July 8 through July 12 at the University City Science Center, 3711 Market St.

By the numbers

48% of the U.S. workforce was comprised of women as of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

27% of the country’s computing and math-related jobs were held by women during the same year.

79% was the decline between 2000 and 2008 of incoming undergraduate women interested in computer science majors, according to a study by the Women in Technology Education Foundation.

30% of U.S. startups were primarily owned by women as of 2009, according to a study from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

3% of those female-owned startups were characterized as “high tech” businesses.

56% of women employed in the technical field leave their job at the “mid-level” point – just when the loss of their talent costs companies the most, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy.

2X That’s more than double the quit rate for similarly-employed men.


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