Kimberly Bryant: Agent for Change Bringing Diversity to the Tech Industry!
“I definitely experienced bias throughout my college career. I was just determined that I would make it through there, no matter what.”
Kimberly Bryant is an electrical engineer and founder of Black Girls Code, an organization that serves thousands of girls from underrepresented communities. As a woman and African American, she faced difficult odds while completing her degree at Vanderbilt university in the 1980s. But despite the challenges she faced as an engineering student and during her career, Bryant has triumphed to become not only a leader in the biotechnology industry but also an inspiring company founder and mentor.
Born in 1967 in Memphis, Tennessee, Bryant developed the skills that would eventually help her earn a place at Vanderbilt university. Of her experience going to college, she says: “I was always the only black woman in most of my classes. As I got older as a student in electrical engineering, I was the only woman in some of those classes.” And it wasn’t just among the student body that Bryant noticed the disparity: “I didn’t have any female professors for the whole four years.”
After graduation, Bryant was at times discriminated against in the workplace. Early in her career, one experience with being what Bryant terms a “double-minority” (someone who is underrepresented due to two factors; in Bryant’s case, race and gender) stands out. Companies are required by law to not discriminate against people of different backgrounds during the hiring process. One manager seemed to suggest that Kimberly was hired to fulfill these requirements, rather than because of her talent, when he introduced her to the rest of the staff on her team: “Well, for Kimberly coming on, we got a twofer. She’s a woman and she’s a person of color.”
In spite of experiences like these, Bryant persisted in climbing the corporate ladder, taking on leadership roles at companies like Merck, Pfizer, Genentech, and Novartis. When she left Genentech in 2010 as it was undergoing a merger, she decided to explore the startup scene in the Bay Area, with the eventual goal of starting her own company.
Bryant’s inspiration for starting Black Girls Code was her daughter, Kai. Kai developed an interest in gaming at a young age, and Bryant wanted to fuel that interest. She recalls sending Kai to a game development and design summer camp at Stanford University. Unfortunately, Kai observed that the instructors paid more attention to the boys than to the girls, and Bryant was painfully reminded of the gender and racial disparity she had experienced herself: “I discovered that the classrooms and the world she was entering at that really pivotal point in her development as a kid looked just like my college classroom 20+ years ago.”
In 2011, Black Girls Code was born. Currently, the organization hosts workshops around the United States and in Johannesburg, South Africa, so girls ages 7-17 can learn about programming and robotics. Bryant explains the mission of the organization: “Our focus is really to introduce girls from underrepresented communities to the computer programming and technology industry…It’s not just about creating the next pipeline of employees for a tech company. It’s really about creating the next generation of technology leaders that will create companies of their own.” Her ultimate vision? Bryant dreams of building a world “where it’s not an anomaly for a woman to be a computer scientist. It’s not an anomaly for a woman or a girl to be a robotics engineer. I don’t want those gender barriers to hinder the next generation from being whoever they are.” And one piece of building this vision is the sense of community and support that girls get through Black Girls Code: “I wanted [girls] to have a community, and I didn’t have that when I was majoring in engineering.”
To help foster this sense of community, Bryant is teaming up with companies that share her vision of the future. As part of its commitment to encourage diversity in tech, in 2018 Mattel partnered with Black Girls Code around the launch of the Robotics Engineer Barbie doll, giving Black Girls Code a grant so more girls can attend the workshops. The company also gifted Robotics Engineer Barbie dolls–toys with a mission to inspire girls to achieve their dreams–to girls participating in Black Girls Code. And because Mattel wanted to inspire kids both offline and online, the company joined forces with Tynker to create the Barbie You Can Be Anything programming experience, featuring six different career choices–including robotics engineer–so kids can imagine their futures in a whole new way! Check out the Robotics Engineer Barbie doll below:
Research shows that diversity in the workplace isn’t only a matter of equity, but of outcome quality: “[N]onhomogenous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.” A team consisting of people from a variety of backgrounds–whether those factors involve race, gender, or belief system–can tap into the collective power of that diversity to envision new possibilities and, in turn, create innovations that reach broader audiences in more engaging ways. The reverse is also true: Without diversity, companies can risk creating outcomes that harm, rather than help, society as a whole. Bryant points out: “I think really having a diversity of participants in the technology industry is important because of all the new ideas that can come to fruition. If one one person is building all the things that we use in the future, we’re going to leave a lot of people out of the conversation.”