The Equity Factor

Want More Women in Tech? Show a Teen Girl How to Build a Light-Up Dress

Q&A with Shawn Stavseth, who runs the Twin Cities-based Technovation Minnesota.

A scene from Technovation Minnesota’s Appapalooza 2014 (Credit: Technovation Minnesota)

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Young women only represented 20 percent of test-takers of the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam in 2014. In Minnesota, 74 women took the test, representing 14 percent of those tested in that state. Shawn Stavseth is working against this disparity, making inroads in the Twin Cities toward diversity in the tech workforce of the future.

The organization she co-founded two years ago, Technovation Minnesota, is a chapter of the teen girl-focused global entrepreneurship program Technovation. Each year, local teams go through a 12-week entrepreneurship curriculum that culminates in an event, Appapalooza, where teams present app ideas for a chance to fly to San Francisco and compete with other Technovation teams from around the globe for seed funding. Instruction includes lessons on ideation, competitive analysis, business modeling and coding — all with the goal of convincing teen girls to believe in themselves as computer scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.

I spoke with Stavseth — who, in a past life, helped to design and launch one of Thomson Reuters’ first iPhone apps — about overcoming confidence issues, equity and the power of just showing up.

Why did you decide that you wanted to do this work?
All the apps the girls create [at Technovation Minnesota] have to solve a local community problem. It’s leveraging technology to do good in the world. That’s actually one of the reasons why I personally got involved with it. You see all of this emerging technology surfacing and if you start to think about how this might help somebody, it becomes very impactful.

A middle-school team made an app called Mayo Free Time. What it’s about is leveraging your free time in between appointments at the Mayo Clinic Hospital — how to connect with the community, where to go to eat and some really cool things like that. They’re headed to San Francisco to pitch in front of real [venture capitalists] in the hopes of winning $10,000 in seed funding to help commercialize their app in the Google Play store.

Shawn Stavseth

Why is it so important to get girls excited about working in the tech sector at a young age?
A couple of reasons. There are astounding statistics out there. Girls are just not getting computer science degrees and it’s dropping. It used to be better in the 1980s. We have to figure out how to get girls involved, because what’s going to happen is that ultimately they are going to be users of that technology and if they are not incorporated in building it, it’s not going to serve their needs.

Technovation Minnesota serves girls from ages 10 to 19. It seems that in middle school, girls are a “yes/and” community. They are willing to explore and try new things without being nervous about the repercussions of expressing their ideas. By the time they get to high school, there’s quite a bit of hesitation already. We’re trying to reach those middle-schoolers, so they feel comfortable expressing their ideas, they have the confidence to try new approaches, and it’s not a foreign language to them. To be quite honest with you, they’re leveraging technology now. It’s saying to them, “You’ve got an Android phone on you. Did you know you can make things on this? You can be a maker.”

Why and how do you perform outreach in lower-income communities?
We want to make sure that there’s a diverse community of computer scientists. Period. It doesn’t matter your ethnicity. That’s our ultimate goal. We welcome any girl, but our recruiting resources go towards those low-income, diverse communities.

We sometimes end up finding a passionate teacher or a parent. In order to reach low-income communities, you have to consider the environment. You have to consider how they’re getting home. In suburban communities, their parents may be able to pick them up. In urban communities that may not be the case.

Is there anything you do specifically to address confidence issues?
I talk to them in ways they can relate to. For instance, we were talking about wearables. The example I used was the Whistle [GPS pet tracker device]. Every girl loves animals. You put it in that perspective. Or I’ll tie it to fashion and ask them, “Did you know that you can 3D print a dress? Did you know you can put LED lights in a dress that get brighter depending on how loud the music is?”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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