08.27.145:22 PM ET

AT&T Gives $1 Million to Girls Who Code

At a small graduation ceremony last week, AT&T made a million-dollar contribution to the nonprofit Girls Who Code. Here's why more tech companies should do the same.

On a Thursday in late August, inside a windowless, concrete edifice in downtown Manhattan, twenty high-school girls and their families were gathered at the graduation ceremony for AT&T’s Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program, in which they tackled a college-semester’s worth of computer science in seven weeks.

“Eighty percent of teen girls list shopping as one of their hobbies,” announced a girl at the front of the room, as she and her friends pitched Fit Me, an app that can be used as a clothing-size calculator. (It also doubles as a closet organizer straight out of Clueless.) The audience cheered her on as other girls ran up to the front to pitch their creations, offering information about their demographics, profitability, and user experience.

During the ceremony, AT&T announced a $1 million contribution to Girls Who Code, which will help the nonprofit expand its clubs and Summer Immersion Program.

But the giant million-dollar check was clearly not the most impressive thing in the room.

“Before joining this program, I basically knew nothing about computer science,” said 16-year-old Anah Lewi, student and one of the creators of Fit Me.

“Now I know Python, Javascript, some CSS, and HTML,” said Jocelyn Oquendo, the 16-year-old creator of Selfiesteem, an app that uses photography to help users improve their confidence. “I feel like I have that in the bag.” During the first week of the Summer Immersion Program, conducted inside AT&T’s New York City executive office in Rockefeller Center, the girls learned the basics of computer science with the programming language Python. The second week, they moved onto another programming language, JavaScript. Next, they worked on programming robots, mastering the JavaScript library jQuery (which was used to make their apps), and dabbling with HTML and CSS. Their summer was studded with field trips to hot tech spots around the city, including the AT&T AdWorks Lab, Google, and Foursquare. Women who work in the technology and engineering sectors met with them, too, like robotics engineer Sabrina Varanelli, who shared a story about working with a team of men and coming up with an ingenious use for nail polish in their project. “[The program] gave us enough basics so we can easily take what we learned and make something out of it,” said 16-year-old student Trinity Lawrence, one of the creators of Lit. “We have everyone’s contact info, and on the Facebook page they always post about hackathons and other events, so we can continue learning.”

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Although Girls Who Code currently has outposts in New York, Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle, and Miami, it is now looking to set up additional programs in Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. “We got over 300 applications in 36 different states,” said Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO. “Many girls are raising their hands saying ‘Teach me, I want to learn.’ AT&T’s contribution is going to hugely help us do that.”

Saujani’s favorite part of the program is seeing what the girls create. “There are girls who are facing bullying or obesity, or depression, and they’re building apps to conquer that social ill that they’re seeing in society. That’s so powerful to see.”

“I’m extremely confident, and I believe everyone should be confident,” said Oquendo. “One of the girls here told me that I was her hero.” The girl told Oquendo that she admired her confidence and wished she could be like her. “That meant a lot to me. I had the idea for [Selfiesteem] when I arrived, but after I heard that, this app wasn’t an idea anymore. It became something that had to be done.”

During the Summer Immersive Program, the girls learned that women think differently than men, and that’s precisely why it’s important for tech and engineering companies to employ more women. “There are more women using mobile apps than men,” explained 16-year-old Adina Walzer, one of the creators of Fit Me. “We heard a story about an all-male team that designed an app, but the voice recognition just didn’t work because they didn’t program it to work for female voices. So now, more than half their market can’t use the app. Women can offer a new perspective [and] really help add more diversity to the field.”

During the ceremony, Marissa Shorenstein, New York State President, AT&T, said, “AT&T employs 250,000 people around the world, but we have a hard time finding talent that looks as diverse as you… It’s important to us as a company, and it’s important to me, personally.” Shorenstein is on the board of Girls Who Code, and AT&T has been with Girls Who Code since the beginning.

Since Girls Who Code started in 2012, it has gone from 20 girls in one classroom to graduating 3,000 girls from clubs and camps across the country. Ninety-five percent of graduates want to major in computer science in college. The nonprofit now has about 19 different programs, and it works with titans like Facebook, Square, Intel, Ebay, Microsoft, Verizon, and Amazon. AOL recently announced a partnership with Girls Who Code and “We can’t do this on our own unless we have tech companies say, ‘Come, yes,'” said Saujani.

“I definitely want to go into computer science now,” said Lawrence. “After this, I’m going to try to get into iOS programming and learn how to make apps mostly for Apple and Android. But not to make money or to create the next Flappybird; I just want to learn more.”

“Now I have the confidence I’m going to need for those college courses with boys who maybe aren’t so used to working with girls,” said Walzer.

“It has made becoming a computer scientist seem possible,” said Lewi.

For those who are interested in this program, Girls Who Code’s clubs and the Summer Immersive Program welcome new applicants at “Ignore all the noise around you and just pursue what it is you want to pursue,” advises Shorenstein. “As these girls found, being a girl is not a reason why they couldn’t learn all these skills, like how to code, how to do robotics, all these other things. There’s no barrier to entry because they’re girls, and this helped them see that.”