Tarika Barrett is the Vice President of Programs at Girls Who Code, an organization committed to building a pipeline of future women technologists. (She also happens to be a former colleague and friend of mine from iMentor, a youth mentoring organization I served for over 12 years.) Founded by an attorney and activist Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code offers free computer science programs to girls in grades 6 through 12 across all 50 states in the US, which helps these girls learn coding, gives them exposure to jobs in technology and allows them to be mentored by supportive peers and role models. In this column, Barrett and I discuss her career in education, technology and supporting young women, as well as how she chose to show up as a mother and leader with the election of our 45th President.
Caroline Kim Oh: How do you describe Girls Who Code to people who don’t work there?
Girls learn coding, plus sisterhood, bravery and resilience.
Tarika Barrett: I say that we are an organization that is deeply passionate about closing the gender gap in technology. For me, our work represents a piece of an important movement to bring more women into the field of technology. We are not just teaching tech skills to girls. We work on their hearts and minds, too. So many girls out there feel connected to the story that they have a passion for technology and building things, but that passion may never get fully explored because of the way we currently teach computer science, or because we don’t give them access to it, or because we don’t expect them to like it.
Only 18% of computer science graduates are women, even though that number was 37% in 1984. The numbers are getting worse, not better! Frankly, it’s just a matter of giving the girls exposure and keeping them engaged. It’s not much else. When we talk about technology in our culture, we still think about that nerdy computer guy in the basement server room. It’s not my daughter Nia, who’s almost 8 and loves Minecraft. Girls Who Code wants to change the perception of what a computer scientist does and looks like. I’m watching my daughter like a hawk these days and always wondering if her interest and passion for technology will still be there as she grows up.
CKO: What do you do at Girls Who Code?
TB: I’m the VP of Programs. I manage all aspects of our two main programs. There’s the Summer Immersion Program (SIP), a free 7-week summer program for current 10th and 11th grade girls to learn coding and get exposure to tech jobs; and the Clubs Program, which came later and is a free afterschool program for girls in 6th through 12th grades to learn computer science as well as core concepts like sisterhood, bravery and resilience.
Summer Immersion Program students spend 9am to 4pm every day at our partner technology companies in the summer. These are places like Facebook, Salesforce, and AppNexus. There’s a lot of learning, including guest speakers, projects and field trips. It’s also a super diverse classroom. Fifty percent of students are black or Latina and 50% get free or reduced lunch. Our evaluation shows that 90% of SIP participants say they want to major or minor in computer science after the program. In fact, our first group of girls have all gone on to major in computer science. Given the bleak statistics that say only 18% of computer science graduates are women, even though that number was 37% in 1984, these are wonderful outcomes. I’m really looking forward to seeing the numbers of the subsequent, obviously bigger cohorts each year. Something we are now trying to focus on is targeting girls who would have no access to computer science (at school or otherwise) unless it was through Girls Who Code. We had 78 SIP sites with 20 kids each this past summer. As for the Clubs Program, we have 1300 clubs nationwide with an average of 12 girls in each club.
As a senior leadership team member, I also think a lot about creating a positive, safe and caring work environment for our staff. I find that it’s not an easy thing, especially given the current culture in modern, high-achieving nonprofits, which value huge numbers and dizzying speed in order to have as large an impact as possible. There’s always so much to prove all the time for everyone.
CKO: That’s something I think about a lot from my time at iMentor, a youth mentoring organization that works to give every student a fair chance at graduating college, where we got to work together. Can you tell us a bit about your career path before you got there?
TB: Well, going way back, I always thought I wanted to become a veterinarian when I was a kid. But as much as I wanted to be around animals all the time, I really didn’t want to see them suffer and be in pain. So that was out.
I had the exact NYPIRG job that Obama once had.
I was born in NYC, but went to high school in Jamaica, then came over to the US and attended Brooklyn College, a City University of New York (CUNY) school. I arrived on campus totally naïve, but I quickly got acclimated and ended up becoming very active in college. I majored in political science and was in the student government. It’s kind of funny and crazy to think that some of my classmates from that time are the ones currently running New York City in the City Council and so forth! I then interned at the New York Public Interest Research Group, which then led to a full-time job, which paid almost nothing. To be exact, it was $18,000. I remember my mother asking me sincerely if it was a real job (laughs). I have to say, though, that I’m proud that I had the exact same job that our now former president Barack Obama had. All my close friends started their careers there. We all went our separate ways professionally, but we received a wealth of education there, including political advocacy, grassroots organizing, public speaking. We honed so many skills while we were there.
CKO: I never knew that was the job President Obama had when he says he was a community organizer!
TB: Yes, it was! Well, then I became a teacher to deaf children for five years. I had always loved sign language since high school, and had taken some courses while working as a political organizer. I resisted teaching initially because I didn’t think I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps, but ultimately, I ended up loving it so much. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had. Deaf children truly struggle academically and it’s very hard to figure out how to teach. I noticed that all the teachers would discuss behavioral issues rather than instruction when it came to working with these kids. That’s what led me to get my Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning on the topic of the teacher professional community.
After that, I went to work at New Visions for Public Schools as a Leadership Development Facilitator for principals across New York City. I was part thought-parnter, part cheerleader — essentially their coach. It was an amazing experience to work with transfer schools. I got to work with brilliant teacher teams, and got to zone in on individual student’s test scores, thinking about how to design interventions to move the needle. They were actionable, tangible interventions. In some cases, student scores went up, and it was an immensely rewarding experience.
That then led me to the Department of Education central where I ran programs for over-aged and under-credited youths, and I led a lot of new model development, including the opening of NYC’s first school focused on software engineering, The Academy of Software Engineering. It was a real partnership with the Mayor’s Office, a venture capitalist named Fred Wilson and many others. It’s open to any students who want to learn to code.
CKO: Then you joined iMentor as its Chief Program Officer, where we met when I was the president. I love how all your experiences, looking back, seem to be leading up to your current role at Girls Who Code.
TB: Yes! I was interested in iMentor because when a student is struggling as much as the ones I was working with, you need serious intervention and the key to that is personalization. At the transfer schools where all students are at high risk of dropping out, we had advocate counselors, each dedicated to 20 kids, and they were truly accountable to these kids. They had to text them every morning, and have regular meetings during the week where they would sit down with the students to work on scheduling and project management. They also helped with direct barriers to successful school life such as problems in the students’ home lives. I wanted to see that a mentor could replicate any part of this personalized support.
It is truly that my career to date has been at the intersection of education and technology. I am so interested in leveraging how girls learn as well as learning how to devise programs that support them.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that I went to an all-girls high school in Jamaica, and I got to work with Young Women’s Leadership School in Brooklyn, and these were both transformational experiences for me.
CKO: So the day we’re having this conversation is the inauguration day for our 45th President. I am grateful that I get to have this conversation today with you, a smart, wonderful woman leader of an organization for girls, and a mother. I know we’ve talked about this in the past, but I would love for you to share how you felt and what you did to support your family and staff the day after Election Day.
TB: Sure. I now realize I did a horrible job of preparing my kids, ages 8 and 10, for what I thought was unthinkable. I, like so many people, was in a cautious-yet-optimistic bubble, thinking Hillary Clinton will ultimately win. When she lost, my husband and I huddled for a panicked early morning meeting to plan what to say, and how to say it. We woke them up one by one to share the news. From not having been prepared for the alternative outcome, the kids were reacting from a place of fear. They asked to move to California, thinking that was outside of America. My kids truly thought that they needed to move out of the country in order to live the kind of life we want to live. We reassured them they were safe, that things were going to work out, but that we also need to stand up for what is right and be kind to others.
CKO: As you know, I had a very similar experience of waking up the kids in the morning. So then what happened at work?
TB: Given our work with young women especially, many Girls Who Code staffers were, I think, really excited to welcome what we thought would be the first female president.
That morning, we brought together the senior leaders for a call, and discussed how we would respond within the organization, if at all. We ultimately decided to send an email to the staff acknowledging the outcome of the election, letting folks know that it is a regular business day as usual, but that they would get to choose where they worked that day. It was our way of continuing and honoring our work, which felt even more important than ever, but also taking care of our people. That day, so many chose to come into the office to work, I think because so many of us wanted to be with others and be part of a supportive community.
CKO: That is beautiful. If you were required to take a year long, paid sabbatical from Girls Who Code, what would you do?
TB: Wow (pause). That really sounds…amazing. I would travel the world. And I would visit people who are moving the needle in education, especially for those who are really struggling to learn, to learn about what they do. I know that so much of this important work is coming out of New York City, but I would really love to visit unexpected places and see lots of examples of how people are doing this. I would really love to do that someday!