Black Girls CODE wasn’t part of Kimberly Bryant’s life plan before she founded the nonprofit in 2011. She was busy with her career as a Bay-Area-based biotech engineer when her daughter Kai, an avid gamer and middle school student, told her she wanted to learn computer science. That simple ask inspired an idea that changed the course of Bryant’s future.

“I wanted Kai to find other folks, and other girls in particular like herself, who liked the same things and liked to game,” Bryant said. “And in trying to find a way to build community for my daughter, I saw that it was really something that the wider community here in San Francisco needed, and many other communities as well.”

Bryant saw her daughter’s passion for coding after she enrolled her in a summer coding school, and it made her start to think about all of the other Black girls who didn’t have that option. “That’s the thing that haunted me,” she said. “What about all those other girls?”

Bryant joined Amazon CTO, Dr. Werner Vogels, as part of the AWS IMAGINE: Nonprofit Conference. During the event, Bryant and Vogels discussed what Bryant has learned building Black Girls CODE over the past decade, and how the global focus on racial justice presents an opportunity for equity in education. Bryant also shared how despite the pandemic—and in some ways because of it—Black Girls CODE is teaching more girls than ever before. Watch the video for the full conversation or read the abbreviated version below.

Dr. Werner Vogels interviews Kimberly Bryant, the Founder of Black Girls CODE

Q&A with Werner Vogels and Kimberly Bryant

WV: I want to talk about the moment we all find ourselves in, within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the educational opportunities that people of color are presented with today. You and Black Girls CODE have made a significant difference in those opportunities for your girls, and I think we can learn a lot from the experiences that you have had. So, how did this all get started?

KB: I started Black Girls CODE (BCG), almost 10 years ago now in the Bay area. My daughter Kai was going into middle school at that time. She had been around me throughout my career. She'd seen me working, and knew I was an engineer. She wasn't really interested in what I did, but she was interested in technology. She was a computer geek, and into gaming. And I saw that she had an interest in learning more about gaming.

And I was like, “Well, you know you can create these things.” And she was like, “Well, I just want to test them, and get all the games for free.” But I kept telling her, “You should learn how to make these things.” So, she went to her first summer (coding) camp, and that experience was really transformative for her because she learned how to make her first game.

We did this fantastic summer program down at Stanford called iD Tech. She stayed on campus for a week. When I went to pick her up is when I realized the lack of diversity in the classroom. They had about 30 students or so. It was just boys primarily, and a handful of girls. But Kai was the only Black student. It was shocking to me. I just thought that more students of color needed to have that opportunity because I saw how much of an impact it had on Kai.

I recognized the privilege that even I had as a woman working here in the Bay Area with an engineering background. I could give Kai access to opportunities that some other young Black kids in Oakland and other places may not have because their parents wouldn't be able to afford it. That's what really drove me to actually create the nonprofit.
Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls CODE

I can keep bringing Kai back to this summer camp. If I really want her to have a friend, I could probably pay for a couple of friends too, but that's just a handful of folks. There are a lot of Black girls who were like me, who wouldn't have been able to go to a camp like that. And that's what really drove me to start BCG.

WV: You have a very broad age range that you're serving from seven to 17-years-old, and even older, when you include your alumni. When a girl comes to you, in that younger age range, what happens? What are the first steps these girls take?

KB: In the earliest days, we really started with the basics. Even what computer science and computer programming was. The reason was, we found that girls were coming into the classroom, or coming into the workshop, not really knowing what they were there to do. This was 2011, and learning to code was just starting to infiltrate school-based learning. So, we did the very basics, and then we taught them how to just build a basic website. And we still do this workshop today—build a web page in a day. And that was, and is, the key. Getting them to see something on the page that they designed.

That was the light bulb moment for most of these girls, and that is the hook, really getting them to create something very quickly that is an expression of themselves. And then they want to go even deeper and start to ask, "Well, how do I make the page a different color? How do I put a video on it? And how do I do these things?" And that's really how we keep the girls coming back for more.

WV: Before Amazon, I was an academic, and one of the things I noticed is that whenever we either had students of other genders (not male) or other races (non-white) in our classes, those people would work five times as hard as everybody else.

In many cases they had to overcome so many barriers. And I would be the first to hire these because they've overcome so much to get where they are. Is that something that you see as well, that there is so much more focus and attention from these girls than what you would normally see?

KB: My personal experience as a woman of color, a Black woman who has a degree in electrical engineering, is that I had to work really, really hard. In college I was in the top percent of my class, but engineering was foreign to me, computer science was foreign to me, and I didn't have a community. I didn't have a mentor. I didn't have any of that. I had to learn it on my own. Everything was new, and I worked so hard to get that degree.

That’s what I see in lots of Black students who end up in university pursuing a STEM degree and career, is that we often times don't have those communities. And we certainly don't often have the foundation or this exposure previously to some of these things we're being asked to learn. And it's difficult to do that, and that's what I think drives many of us to really push so hard.

WV: What is the outcome that you're looking for the girls that graduate from your program when they are 17? Is it just the excitement of what they have learned, and having some skills? Is there is another outcome that you're looking for?

KB: On my team, I'm the diehard STEM nerd in the room. My theory of change is that the girls will be capable of becoming full-stack developers. Now, that being said, we have students that graduate, if you will, from Black Girls CODE after they leave high school, and I would say about half of them go into a computer science field, they either major or minor in computer science.

But then there are other girls that may actually go into another STEM career. So, we have students who are going into aerospace engineer, lots of students who go into medicine, either going into pre-med or looking to become a nurse, or maybe even some who may be more liberal arts, or heading toward the legal profession.

Ideally, I am trying to create computer science graduates, but I want all the girls to be competent in computer science, and to understand how to work with data. In that way, they have that piece of knowledge in their toolkit, if you will, so they can tap into it in whatever career field they choose.

WV: I absolutely agree that other disciplines will become way more digital and way more reliant on data. Take psychology. Psychologists when they're in training, need to learn how to look at data and collect data. I think it's an amazing story to see where the skill to work with data can take you.

KB: We are working to make sure our girls are prepared to take that skill wherever they want.

WV: Things have changed in the past six to eight months. In mentoring, a very important part, for me at least, was always that I could be in the same room with the students looking over a shoulder and getting some indication of where they were. That's no longer happening. So how did you guys adapt to that?

KB: In the middle of March, like many people here in the U.S. and around the world, we changed our plans. We had classes and workshops planned through the rest of the year, and we reluctantly decided to take those classes off the calendar. We took our staff remote. We kind of just tried to figure out how to survive for that first month. We realized by about April that if we wanted to continue to engage, we had to go virtual.

We really dove in headfirst and tried to figure out how to take those workshops or classes we normally would do in person and adapt them to a virtual delivery model. And we started to do our very first workshops. We were somewhat blown away by the response. I think the very first virtual class we did, we probably had about a thousand people on a Zoom call. And these were not just folks from our existing chapters, these were folks from all over the world. There were people from Africa on the call, people from Jamaica on the call, there was even someone from a tiny Island in South Pacific. I mean, it was phenomenal that folks from all over the world, were tapping into this classes. So, it expanded our reach exponentially.

We even took our summer programs virtual in June, and we started to really get good at it. However, one of the things we recognized, especially during the summer when we had longer workshops, which were more intensive, is that we were missing that element, just as you said, of being able to look over the student's shoulder or the students been able to interact with each other.

And we were like, “this isn't working” because a key element of teaching is, we get to talk to the kids and the kids got to talk to each other. And so, it's been challenging. I mean, I have to be honest, it's been challenging for us to figure out how to make what we do in a classroom translate to doing something virtually. And we've been trying many things. But there's an element that's still missing.

And we have to figure it out, how to supply that missing piece, because I still think that virtual learning is part of our future. It's never going back to normal. So, I think the challenge for educators that are trying to teach, not just computer science, but any rigorous type of curriculum, is to figure out how we can either use hybrid models, or how can we really harness other tools and the teaching rubric and processes that we do to be as effective as we can with our students.

WV: I'm with you. I think whenever this is over, we will still rely on virtual education in part, but I do think we need better tools. The interaction style, until now, has just been teleconferencing, but that's not how education works. I think there's tons of opportunities for to rethink education, especially in the context of where we are today. Part of it will be smaller groups that provide great mentoring, and that will play an increasingly important role in all of this. But we need to build better tools to find a way, and that is the opportunity.

KB: I agree with you there. Because there’s no way we can go back to just being an in-person organization. We want to reach a million girls by 2040. So, we've known for a few years that if we were just going to be doing these classes in-person, we could probably make that goal at our rate of about 5,500 girls a year. But it'd be difficult, it's a lot of work. When we looked at the recent data and we really started to crunch the numbers from the standpoint of doing virtual as well as in-person classes we saw we have the capacity now to reach 20,000 girls in a year and the next year, we can hit 30,000, 40,000, 50,000, etc. This is how we reach a million girls, by utilizing this virtual platform.

So, for us, this year has been transformational. Because now, we can actually hit that big, hairy, audacious goal that was just a good talking point before. So, for us, the virtual platform and the virtual delivery is something that helps us reach students all over the world in a way we never would have been before.