4 lessons young female leaders need to know to succeed

Kimberly Bryant, CEO and co-founder of Black Girls Code, served as the 2016 keynote speaker at the Women Who Lead conference.

Kimberly Bryant, CEO and co-founder of Black Girls Code, served as the 2016 keynote speaker at the Women Who Lead conference.

– by Gabriela Polanco 

In 1984, 37.1 percent of computer science degrees were awarded to female students. By 1998, that number dropped to 26.7 percent, according to Colorado School of Mines. Today, only 12-14 percent of women receive bachelor’s degrees in computer science. For women of color, the figures are even lower: African-American women make up approximately 3 percent and Native American and Latinas only an estimated 1 percent.

That startling statistic was shared by Black Girls Code CEO and co-founder Kimberly Bryant at the 10th annual Women Who Lead Conference, which focuses on women leadership and professional development. Bryant served as keynote speaker at the event, which attracted more than 400 students, faculty and staff. Guest speakers of diverse backgrounds – ranging from doctors to physicists to journalists – shared some of the principles they employed on the way to success. Here are four major lessons attendees learned:

1. Find a Mentor

Johana Romero-Marder, who works as a commercial team lead at Caterpillar warned attendees of the difficulty of finding a caring mentor despite the emphasis placed on it by corporate America. Her mentor is a woman she had worked with for several years. “’Til this day,” she said, “when I’m going to take a big step in my career or make a big decision I call her. I don’t do everything she says, but it’s good to hear another point of view.” She added that having a mentor requires building a relationship of trust and open communication. “My biggest advice is listen–even if you don’t agree–listen and internalize, and that’s the way you get the most of that mentor-mentee relationship.”

“My philosophy is [creating] a constellation of mentors. You go to different mentors for different needs,” said Zahra Hazari, affiliate faculty member in FIU’s Department of Physics. Although she is  woman in a male-dominated field, Hazari spoke of the irony of her experience. “All of my mentors have been men–white, older men, actually,” she added. “The opportunities I’ve had to interact with women in physics haven’t been pleasant. Women are not always the allies of other women. A man can be just as much an ally.”

2. Define Your Passion

Born with facial paralysis, Karym Urdaneta, co-founder of Pink Horizons Botanical Skin Care, faced bullying when she was growing up because of her physical appearance. “I majored in engineering because I wanted to have a complete smile, and I knew engineering could help me do that,” she related. “I hope to give people with my same condition the opportunity to smile as well.”

“There are detours on the way to your professional goal, but they all influence your career in the future,” said Nadege Green, reporter for WLRN South Florida. “I was the girl that majored in everything before finding the right fit. I had to major in anthropology to realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do.” She pointed out, however, that she grew up as a classically trained ballerina, and today she is passionate about reporting on the arts.

For Kimberly Bryant, CEO and co-founder of Black Girls Code, her decision to start a coding school was fueled by her daughter’s desire to learn how to code in an environment that was more diverse and inclusive. Today, her mission remains to give more minority girls the chance to be part of the tech industry.

3. Dare to Speak Up as a Professional

With women in the tech field making 77 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts and less than 1 percent of startups founded by women, Stephanie Paul Doscher, associate director of the Office of Global Learning Initiatives, encouraged attendees to be aware of the lack of women in the C-Suite. “It is easy for women to pay more dues in the workplace,” she said, “to stay later than everyone, to close after everyone else has left. It’s okay to stand up for ourselves.”

Doscher said it’s okay if you don’t know all the answers. Just be confident enough to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to build something new. “Even though the pressure seems greater, there is no guideline you need to follow,” she said, “so there is a lot of space for creativity.”

4. Have a Vision

In her keynote speech, Bryant shared the vision of her nonprofit: “The work with Black Girls Code is more than teaching girls to code: it is breaking inequities in the workforce and how we use technology to do that.” The key, she stressed, is creating an early-entry pipeline. “Teach them about coding and technology, and give them a pathway. Empower them to become tech creators,” she said, pointing out that women dominate consumption and purchasing of technology, but have little presence in the industry as a whole. Her goal is to change that, and she plans to do so by training 1 million girls to code by 2020.

“We have built grit within the Black Girls Code program so these girls can stand up for themselves when facing injustices in the workplace. We teach confidence and leadership,” she continued, “to make sure they know tangible skills to address biases and the impostor syndrome going into the workforce.”