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Tech Industry

For these girls, tech is a rewarding challenge

An international tech competition targets Silicon Valley's diversity problem, aiming to inspire girls around the world into taking up -- and sticking with -- technology.

Emma Yang, one of this year's youngest finalists, explains her concussion detection app. JJ Casas

It's an unusual scene for Silicon Valley: a conference room packed with programmers, business developers and app makers rubbing elbows and talking code -- and nearly all of them are women.

Thursday night was the final award ceremony of the Technovation World Pitch competition, the largest tech entrepreneurship program in the world for girls. More than 400 teams of middle- and high-school students from 30 different countries around the world competed.

Technovation, the flagship program of Iridescent, a nonprofit focused on STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) education, flew out 43 girls to San Francisco this week to make pitches in front of a panel of judges from the industry, attend conference workshops and network with employers.

The challenge that brought them all here, said Iridescent CEO and founder Tara Chklovski, was to identify a problem in their community, develop a mobile-app prototype to address it, build a business plan to bring their app to market and pitch it to judges -- essentially, found your own startup.

"More than that," Chklovski said, "the program is about building self-efficacy and leadership qualities to help get girls into tech in a scalable way."

Consider "scalable" a shorthand reference to a widespread issue -- the challenge both of enticing school-age girls into tech fields, and of getting the women they grow into to stay in tech professions and companies. It's a daunting one: Although three-quarters of middle-school girls say they're interested in STEM, less than 1 percent of high-school girls choose computer science as a college major, according to the advocacy group Girls Who Code.

That tendency in turn has led to a predominantly male culture in technology, a fact that Silicon Valley has become acutely aware of. According to reports from 11 top companies -- including Technovation sponsors Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Intel -- women, on average, account for just 12 percent of tech jobs, and 23 percent of leadership roles.

And even fewer go into tech entrepreneurship and app development, Technovation organizers said, because college-level programming classrooms are so male-heavy.

At Thursday night's event, the focus was on the potential to make a difference.

Two sixth-graders from New York City, for instance, created an app that helps detect concussions using cloud databases and emergency alert systems. "I did the programming over spring break, and she worked on market research," Emma Yang, 11, said. Natalie Essig, 12, nodded.

Five teenagers from Bangalore, India, pitched a job placement app for disabled persons. Four others, the same age but from a world away at a boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, created a local positivity-only social media feed for campus communities.

Sloane Sambuco, a senior-to-be at the boarding school, said she's one of just four girls in an advanced placement computer science class. "It doesn't bother me at all," she said, already sure of her programming goals in college. "If you're passionate about it - -and I am -- then you don't get discouraged."

Team Pentechan was all smiles after they won first place in the middle-school division. JJ Casas

After walking between corridors of presentation displays, where girls combined cardboard trifolds with smartphone demos and well-polished elevator pitches, Yahoo for Good director Olivia Khalili said it's up to the industry's top employers to "close the opportunity divide" and fill the burgeoning tech job market with diversity.

The challenge has been shifting tech culture away from a homogenous "look-alike, think-alike" paradigm and fostering interest among women, especially while they're still young.

"A lot of girls lose interest because 'it's not cool to be an engineer,'" said Kenya Stegall, an engineer at ViaSat, a satellite telecom company in Carlsbad, California. Stegall was among hundreds of female mentors who helped the teams develop their apps. "We need to show them STEM classes aren't just for boys."

Save for a few proud dads floating around the two-day conference, that idea was on display this week. "I used to feel like I was in a swimming pool," said Savanthi Prattipati, a high-schooler from Fremont, California, about her limited exposure to technology. "Now I'm in an ocean."

If there's to be a rising tide, Technovation will likely have had a role to play. Founded in 2010, it started with just 45 girls in its first cohort. Now the program counts more than 5,000 alums, and almost half of those in college plan to major in computer science.

On Thursday, two winning teams split the $20,000 prize money to help get their startups launched. Inspired by the problem of garbage blight in Bangalore, the middle-schoolers of India's Team Penetechan created an online marketplace where people could buy and sell dry waste, making responsible disposal a profitable enterprise. ("Why trash it when you can cash it?") Similarly, Team Charis from Calabar, Nigeria, made an app that would help business owners and individuals discard waste conveniently and on time.

On stage at the University of California, San Francisco at Mission Bay, with all the finalists beaming proudly behind them, few winners could muster more than a succession of sincere "thank yous" while keeping their excitement in check. They thanked their parents, their mentors, their schools and Technovation. The only ones they forgot to mention were themselves.