Bridging the tech divide: Microsoft hosts 24th annual Blacks at Microsoft Minority Student Day

Feb 13, 2015   |   Vanessa Ho

Kimberly Bryant has long been passionate about technology, but as an African-American woman, it’s been tinged with isolation. She felt culturally alone as an electrical engineering student learning about computer programming. She felt alone as a biotech manager at networking events. She felt it when her middle-school daughter went to a summer tech camp.

Bryant decided to change the system, by creating the non-profit, educational group Black Girls Code in 2011. The San Francisco-based organization empowers African-American girls to become leaders in tech and science.

“Women, and girls of color particularly, are vastly underrepresented in the technology industry. It’s not just girls. Students of color are vastly underrepresented,” Bryant told about 150 students Friday at Microsoft’s annual Minority Student Day in Redmond. Bryant was the keynote speaker.

“The numbers are astronomically low.”

Now in its 24th year, the event aims to bridge the digital divide, by exposing students of color to careers in technology. It encourages them to find mentors, pursue internships and opportunities, and become innovators and entrepreneurs. Students at Friday’s event toured Microsoft’s Visitor Center and learned about networking, resumes and programming courses.

“We want to make sure we expose students to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), potentially to careers at Microsoft and in general, so they know there’s opportunities for them in technology where they’re underrepresented,” said Tina Eskridge, Microsoft’s worldwide director for Internet of Things device experience marketing.

Eskridge co-chairs the Blacks @ Microsoft (BAM) group, which organized Friday’s event. It was one of several outreach days Microsoft is hosting around the country in coming weeks. The goal is to grow the number of diverse employees, a common challenge throughout the technology industry.

“It’s not just Microsoft; it’s every company, particularly in technology careers. You see a gap, a significant gap, particularly with women,” Eskridge said. “That’s why Kimberly Bryant is so important. We need people who are encouraging young girls to go into these fields, even if they don’t see themselves in it.”

For Linda Danh, a 22-year-old student at Bellevue College, the event was a chance to learn more. Danh, who is of Cambodian and Chinese heritage, said she hadn’t had much access to technology or mentors in high school.

After graduation, she had a vague idea of working in communications or dance. It wasn’t until she enrolled in Year Up, a job training program for urban youths, that she discovered her love of technology.

“I didn’t know I wanted to do technology. I never really had the support,” said Danh, who recently started an internship at Microsoft. “At Year Up, we have a very high level of support, and because of that, I really found a passion for technology.” She wants to pursue a career in data analysis and business intelligence.

For high school student Jason Palmer, 18, tinkering with hardware and computers is fun, but he wishes he had more opportunities to learn about tech jobs.

“People get aspirational about their dreams and goals, and what makes them a success,” said Palmer, whose family emigrated from Jamaica 10 years ago. “I don’t think a lot of African Americans and people of color think success comes from technology.”

Many groups are working to change that. The Microsoft Apprentice Program offers a rigorous internship to teens. The Year Up organization trains low-income youths around the country in IT and other in-demand fields.

Bryant’s group, Black Girls Code, envisions training a million girls to code by the year 2040. The group organizes hackathons and workshops for girls ages 7 to 17 in several cities.

But Bryant isn’t just an advocate for girls. On Friday, she encouraged all youths of color to explore science and tech jobs as a means to do great things.

“I want you to be able to be a creator in the technology industry,” she told students. “Learn how to become a business owner, an entrepreneur. These are the people who are going to change the world.”

“This is the next industrial revolution of the next generation. There’s not field that I can think of that does not use technology.”

Vanessa Ho
Microsoft News Center Staff

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