How Kimberly Bryant Started Black Girls CODE With Her 401(k)—And Taught 14,000 Girls

Black Girls CODE's journey from a basement to an office at Google.

1,000,000.

That’s how many young women Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls CODE, wants to train in computer science by 2040. For context, WIRED found that there were under 5,000 black women enrolled in U.S. computer science programs in 2015-2016.

If you haven’t heard of it, Black Girls CODE is an organization founded in 2011 that provides computer science workshops, after-school programs, and classes to girls in underprivileged communities around the world. Over the last eight years, they’ve taught over 14,000 girls across America and in their international base in Johannesburg.

While Black Girls CODE is a brand well-recognized for its impact, the story of how it got where it is today is less well-known. I chatted with Kimberly Bryant, its founder and CEO, about the ways the organization has grown, how it’s impacted thousands of girls, and what she’d like to see companies do better in recruiting.

Tell me about Black Girls CODE’s founding story

"I started the organization back in 2011 as a pilot program. I really was drawn to this issue around the lack of programs, specifically in coding and technology, that were focused on girls because my daughter, Kai, had developed an interest in video gaming, and I was looking for an opportunity to get her more engaged in learning how to code.

"I found this fantastic iD Tech camp for her at Stanford over the summer, and she attended it...It was really a transformative experience for her. She really found her goal of becoming a computer developer from attending this camp.

"But one of the things in that classroom at iD Tech, at that time, was that they were not very gender balanced. There were probably 35, 40 kids or so, and there were just a couple of girls, maybe three or four girls. My daughter Kai was the only student of color in the class, as well. That created an interesting dynamic, especially since her TAs and the instructors in the class were all white male college students.

"So there were all the typical elements of bias and stereotype that were sort of baked into their model, unfortunately. Certainly not intentionally, but unfortunately, they were... As a mom, I wanted to find a way to create an opportunity for her to have other girls that she could really relate to in the programs in the following summer. (That meant) taking money from my own 401K plan and paying for a few other girls to attend the summer program with her.

"And so I floated this idea to a few friends of mine, and they planted the seed of me creating my own organization, rather than piggybacking on someone else's, and really encouraged me to start a company of my own, even as a pilot project.

"And that's exactly what happened in 2011 with that very first class. It was a six week class that we were holding in Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco, for a handful of girls. We found a computer lab in the basement of a non-profit, in Bayview-Hunters Point. And we started with this six week scratch curriculum, really trying to just figure out what to do. We didn't know what to do. We had one Code for America fellow who was an actual computer software engineer, who was part of that core team and there was myself, who my background is in electrical engineering. And two colleagues who were from the biotech industry and they were scientists.

"And so we just lucked out on finding this open source Scratch curriculum from MIT on the web as we were doing our research, and that's what we used for that six week pilot program to really introduce this group that ended up being between eight and 10 girls at any given class. That's what we used to start to teach them what computer science and computer coding was all about."

Eight years later, have you refilled your 401k?

"Yes, and it’s funny because my daughter, at that time was 10 and she's 20 now... she just finished her freshman year. She's majoring in CS. In... Over this past weekend and we were having a conversation, I think it was about financial planning or something. I was talking to her about 401K plans. I said, 'Yeah, my 401K is doing pretty good.' And she's like, 'Do you still have it? Do you still put all your 401K into BGC?'

"It's just interesting, it's like a full circle moment that I'm sitting here like talking to her about creating a 401K plan or investing in one with her first summer internship and literally, her dream of being where she is now was sort of seeded by my personal 401K, and building this organization to support her and other girls."

Was there any critical partnership or moment in the early days that catalyzed the program?

"Our very first partner, corporate partner, was an organization called ThoughtWorks Inc. It's a software consultancy company. I got a call out of the blue from this gentleman that said he was the director at the San Francisco office. They found out about our organization and they wanted to know how they could help. They just called out of the blue. That partnership created the foundation for the current structure that we have now. Because like I said, all we had at that point was a loose curriculum structure based on what we found on the web, we were using my 401K, we were in a basement, and ThoughtWorks opened up their whole toolkit of resources to us, and said 'Let us know how we can help.'

"So as we went into 2012, and I decided that, okay, this could become a formal organization. We had our very next workshops in the Bay area right in (ThoughtWork’s) offices. They paid for the food. They gave us the equipment and laptops to use. They even had their engineers become the instructors and teacher's assistants, because we didn't have those things. They gave those things to us. It really became a tremendous partnership, transformational partnership for us, because they allowed us to take Black Girl Code that summer to all their different offices in various cities."

How did that partnership with ThoughtWorks change the trajectory of BGC?

"That was that summer of 2012. We took BGC on the road. We had six cities in mind, we were gonna take BGC on the road to these six cities just to see if there was as much interest in other places as we were starting to see in the Bay area. We're like “We're going to reach 200 girls.“ That was big for us, since we only had about 30 in the largest class. We called it BGC Summer of Code. And ThoughtWorks gave us their offices in Dallas, in Atlanta. They didn't have an actual office in Detroit but they had consultants in Detroit, that they connected us with them. We took BGC to be these 6 cities, where we not only saw 30 girls showing up, but in some cases like in Atlanta, Detroit, you could have over 100.

"That summer, we found that we not only reached 200, we had reached about 1000, a little bit over that.

"That's when we really knew that we had something. I think that was really also the catalyst for us understanding that as we created this chapter based model—which is what we have now—we could expand our impact, as opposed to just being a local Bay area organization. We could utilize the volunteers that were showing up to help us in these new cities, and we could really create chapters in the U.S. and beyond. Our very first international chapter was set in South Africa the year after also, because ThoughtWorks had an office in Johannesburg and their associates there wanted to do what they were seeing their associates do in the States. And that's how our first international chapter started.

"(ThoughtWorks) became one of those partners that really played such a key part of our story, and what we eventually became as an organization. And they did not write one check. They never wrote us a physical check, but they gave us everything else that they could offer."

Where there any other partners or strategic relationships that helped give BGC some lift?

"Absolutely. Another partnership that I also talk about often within that timeframe is Google. Like our very first check, a real check, came from Google.

"As I've mentioned, in 2012 it was a pilot. I still wasn't really sure if this was gonna be a non-profit, or if it was gonna be a for-profit, or if it was even gonna be anything formal. I didn't really know. And so, I was talking to a colleague that I had met before that runs an organization in Los Angeles called Do It Yourself Girl, DIY Girl. They're a non-profit organization that really focuses on STEM—they include coding but primarily STEM—and they're in LA. I was talking to one of my colleagues there, and she was like, "Well, there's an opportunity for a grant program at Google that you might want to explore. We've done it before so let me share the application with you, and coach you through it. You might be able to get this grant to feed this program. You might want to consider formally incorporating yourself as a non-profit because there's a lots of opportunity.

"So she helped me with the initial application, and we turned it in without any expectations that we would get that money. We literally had just started. I think I even just had something written on a napkin in terms of our goals...and I was surprised that, before the end of the year, we got (the grant). And that was our very first check. I'll never forget it, it was like $20,000. We felt like we had hit the lotto, because remember we were using my 401K. But hey, we hit the lotto, we got $20,000, and that got us through that first half of the year. We were able to really kind of grow and feed the program, with that little bit of funding that we got from Google, who really just took a bet on (Black Girls CODE).

"Google really bet on our potential, and they continued to invest in our organization and see our growth trajectory. Our office now, it's in the Google building. We actually built an office and our innovation warehouse right in the Google building in Chelsea Market.

"Those types of partners are rare. They really invested in me as we were just starting out and trying to figure it all out. They still see your potential enough to work with you and stay with you through those growth pains, the ups and downs, and hope you'll really flourish. And I think that's the best kind of partnership."

Now that Black Girls Code has been around for eight years, are you seeing a new generation of impacted young women every year?

"Absolutely. Today in the office, we actually just had a celebration for two of our students that are doing a special project in the office with BGC. One of them has been an intern with BGC for over five years. She got a full ride scholarship at UC Berkeley and the other student is a CS major who's going off to Spelman.

"But we see these waves of students continually starting to go off to college. Some of them, majoring in Computer Science like my daughter, and some of the other students we have, like our intern, may not be majoring in Computer Science but they're majoring in STEM fields. She got the full ride scholarship to UC Berkeley as her pre-med major, going into medicine.

"We're really starting to see the results of the program in terms of the success of the kids and how confident they are, what leadership skills that they develop. They're now starting their own careers in the field of STEM or Computer Science based on the seed that we've been able to plant."

What advice would you give companies trying to promote diversity in their teams?

"I've been talking to a lot of different founders about this recently. So there are a few things. I think casting a wide net, and throwing away the sketch of what an ideal candidate should look like is important. So not only going into the places, beyond the normal places of recruiting, but also looking at different candidates that could possibly be successful at your company.

"That could mean looking at a pool of veterans. That could be looking at employees that are coming back into the work force and have been retrained in computer science. That could be looking at not just formal 4-year degree students, that could be looking at folks who have done apprenticeship programs where they've learned the skills in coding. Don't give them the Google coding exercise and test.

"Is there a way to bring folks in at a level where they can grow? How can you bring folks in where they are, who have the potential to be really strong contributors to your organization?"