Business in Tech
7 min read • Feb 10, 2021
Nadja Sayej is a culture journalist who has written 5 books, and covers culture for The Guardian, Forbes and Vanity Fair London. View her work at nadjasayej.com
Technology should tell the story of the world it deems to serve. These bright and ambitious students bring their unique perspectives to computer and data science.
We know that “Steminism” is the movement advocating for more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). And going forward in 2021, it’s precisely what we need more of. As part of Virtasant’s recently-announced winners for the Future Leaders in Technology Scholarship for 2021, a group of computer science students—two at the high school level, one at the college level—are a testament to why we need more women in tech.
The scholarship is granted to high school and college students pursuing a degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or data science. The goal is to offer more opportunity and access for innovative minds, who offer their fresh perspectives and deserve to be at the forefront of technology.
This scholarship is among the most-needed ones to help uplift, encourage, and champion diversity in tech. The stats speak for themselves: Black and Latinx people only make up between 5% and 8% of the tech workforce. Beyond entry-level positions, it’s an uphill battle for women. According to one recent report, about 19% of women in tech are in entry-level and mid-level roles. At the senior level, there is even less. The higher the position, the fewer women hold executive-level positions (roughly 10%).
Meanwhile, women account for only one in every four jobs in technology. In one poll, 50% of women experienced gender discrimination at work, while only one in four startups have a female founder. We need more female-driven tech leaders, point-blank.
Virtasant’s three scholarship winners for January 2021 are all women. There are two high school recipients: Anika Kathuria from New Jersey and Kynnedy Smith from Ohio; and one college recipient, Kaylin Moss, who is studying at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
These brilliant women are young (all under the age of 21) but are already breaking the glass ceiling in tech. They speak about their research, future plans, and most importantly, why discrimination won’t stop their vision. Lastly, they talk about bringing a feminist perspective where it’s needed most—in computer science. Here’s what they had to say.
The 17-year-old debater won first place at the 2019 New Jersey Speech and Debate State Championships, with only one judge against her. Kathuria started to wonder about the challenges of creating a persuasive argument. What if a point of view is perceived subjectively? “I’ve had contrasting feedback from different judges,” she said. “Every time you speak [it's] not always how you mean it. It made me question how we use language as a society. Everything is so subjective.”
To find out more, she sought out a research position with the Spoken Language Processing Group (SLPG) at Columbia University to find out more.
“How can a computer classify misinformation from real news and help us know the difference in our daily life?”
It led her to analyze how news is consumed on social media and the rise of misinformation. “How can a computer classify misinformation from real news and help us know the difference in our daily life?” she asks. Kathuria, who will be attending Columbia University’s computer science program this fall, plans on looking into how algorithms can identify and classify misinformation on Twitter. “I witnessed both the influence of word choice on internet activity and the prevalence of differences in user comprehension based on background,” she said.
The problem is that big tech giants need to know how to tell their users about lies on the internet—for example, more than just warning stickers about Covid-19 misinformation on Instagram.
“There has to be a way to inform the public when something is false,” said Kathuria. “How do you get the public to try that tool? If you’re saying it’s false, they need to trust what they’re reading, too. More responsibility is needed with news on the internet. We need to ensure what is true actually has backing and accountability.”
She’s the founder of Chat(Her) Talks, an online speaker series for young women to connect, inspire and empower. Smith also co-founded I Art Cleveland, a youth-serving organization promoting access to arts education, programming, and funding. At 18, she is heading to Columbia University this fall enrolled in the computer science program. Smith was deeply influenced by the uproar of Black Lives Matter protests this summer following the killing of George Floyd.
“I stopped waiting for people to accept me, I started making my own spaces. A lack of diversity in tech is actually a life-threatening issue.”
She saw an opportunity: Use AI-powered AR glasses as a solution. Smith wants to explore how AR/AI glasses could read out a person’s constitutional rights when they’re stopped by the police and offer the officer’s badge number and title. It could work the other way, too. AR/AI glasses for police would allow them to identify the person’s face, criminal record, and occupation to prevent targeting the wrong person.
“I’m inspired by the way AI and AR can be meshed together for augmented intelligence,” said Smith. “It could make healthcare safer, make things better for minority communities, [and] educate people on social justice issues. This summer was big with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, people being frisked and threatened by police. I thought AI and AR could be a solution to that issue.”
Kynnedy wants to create a software company that improves the minority experience. “I know these glasses were a thing for doctors and contractors, I thought why not use them for police? Why not use it to solve the issue that many people and me face daily? These glasses could save lives.”
She’s already aware of how male-dominated the computer science field is but won’t let it stop her. “I remember being told ‘oh, you’re really articulate, it's great you can be in those classes,’ and I thought, ‘you’re just telling me that because I’m Black,’” recalls Smith. “I stopped waiting for people to accept me, I started making my own spaces. A lack of diversity in tech is actually a life-threatening issue.”
Moss, who is turning 21 this month, studies computer science at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. But her inspiration draws from her hometown. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she would walk along the marsh in her spare time, noticing pollution was a huge problem in the coastal areas. “That’s why I decided to pursue a career in computer science,” said Moss.
Her interests lie in computational sustainability to benefit the earth, society, and the economy - specifically to reduce pollution in low-income cities. “Low-income populations have some of the least access to clean air and water, and these low, socioeconomic areas are more susceptible to waterborne diseases. Not being able to afford adequate health care or clean water is a stark reality for some who reside in inner cities.”
“I want to help diversify tech for women and minorities. I wish there were more underrepresented groups in technology”
By helping develop software to gather valuable data from these cities, Moss said she wants to “provide cost-effective solutions.” She knows this effort would hugely impact Black communities who are more likely to live in the most impacted areas.
Through her research, she learned that the emphasis needs to be more on governments, corporations, and institutions instead of people. “A lot of the time, while recycling every day is great, we really need larger corporations to help solve this problem,” said Moss.
“I love programming,” she said. “I want to help diversify tech for women and minorities. I wish there were more underrepresented groups in technology. On average, I have been one of five women in science classes, and most other women are white. Some people might have a false perception of a career in computer science.”
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