Abril Vela: From DigiGirlz Student to Senior Innovations Analyst

 |   Abril Vela, Senior Innovations Analyst, AnitaB.org

We’re excited to “check in” on Abril Vela, a former DigiGirlz student who joined us for WE Day Illinois in 2015. Read on below to see where Abril’s career in technology has taken her.

I enrolled in an introductory computer science course my freshman year of high school and was lucky enough to have a teacher, Don Yanek, who to this day has remained one my most active supporters. He is the person who signed me up to attend my first Microsoft DigiGirlz event. Don wanted me to understand that I had the ability and potential to succeed at computer science if I so desired. He believed in me when I didn’t yet believe in myself. Through hands-on exercises, career planning assistance, and face-to-face contact with women in technology, Microsoft DigiGirlz offered me an opportunity to explore my growing interest for technology outside of the classroom and helped me to better understand how I could use computers to create solutions to the problems I saw around me.

Abril Vela, pictured at the Avalon Housing offices in Ann Arbor.

DigiGirlz showed me that technology wasn’t just about working on a computer, but was about working with and for people to create technological solutions. This opened up a new world, one that I was immensely interested in. I continued to pursue computer science to learn more about how it could be used to help people, but as I did this I became more aware of the inequities that faced the technology industry. I grew frustrated by the biases that women and people of color faced as they worked to gain headway in an industry that promised success. I was infuriated that an education in computer science that I was grateful to have been given early on would never be granted to most of my peers.

I was craving a sense of community and a way to help offer opportunities to other young women in Chicago, so I created Chicago Girls in Computing to do just that. With support from organizations like Microsoft, we grew to 100+ members strong. Three years after our inception, I was proud to talk about our work at WE Day Illinois representing a joint mission of my organization and Microsoft to encourage more young students to learn how to code.

During college at the University of Michigan, I continued to pursue my passion for education and technology. I became active in the CS for All movement, particularly in Chicago, and spent two summers working with the Computer Science Department at Chicago Public Schools. The two summers that I spent with CPS were two of the most meaningful and transformative of my life. They helped me to realize what I was truly passionate about, and allowed me to feel confident in my decision to change my career path. I graduated from U of M with a degree in Information Science (SI) after almost dropping out of Engineering school. I failed out of my computer science program and felt completely lost at school, but SI taught me how to use design thinking to help others.

Learning how to fail is the most valuable lesson I will leave school with. Being a failed engineer is how I labeled myself for a long time, but now it’s just a part of my story that I feel I need to tell, to help others understand how important is to make sure we’re setting students up for success when we encourage these technical pathways.

Everything came full circle when I decided to join AnitaB.org as a Senior Innovations Analyst post-grad. It felt like AnitaB.org offered an environment where I’d be able to focus my attention on the type of work that is core to who I am — creating access, opportunity, and equity in tech. It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity to be offered a position where I can create effective change in our community and industry and help to move the organization forward.