In the ongoing conversation about the lack of African Americans in the STEM fields, particularly women and girls, Google has been making efforts to change the narrative. Leading the charge is the company’s newly hired Head of Black Community Engagement Valeisha Butterfield.
“I came onboard in January to oversee the internal and external engagement for Black communities in the U.S. and abroad. My goals are directly linked to #1 the recruitment of potential Black engineers and non-engineers into the company. #2 is about retention which means working internally with groups like the Black Googler Network to make sure that the Black Googlers who are here can thrive and have a clear path to leadership,” she shares.
She continues, “#3 is just about how we tell the story of being more proactive in how we communicate, externally, the work we are doing in making sure that we strengthen and deepen our relationship with the Black community.”
One of Google’s most recent efforts on the diversity in tech front was a partnership between the company’s Made with Code initiative and DJ Beverly Bond?s Black Girls Rock!, an amazing 10-year old nonprofit that honors and promotes young girls of color. The inaugural event that came out of the partnership, Girls Rock Tech, took place in Newark, New Jersey the day after BGR’s live taping of its annual award show on BET.
At the event, Made with Code awarded a BGR student with a coding scholarship for $10,000 and a commitment of $20,000 more in scholarships to follow in support of the student’s continued computer science education.
Here, TNJ.com talks to Butterfield about the partnership, and Google’s other initiatives and upcoming plans to engage with the Black community.
TNJ.com: Tell me about Google’s Made with Code initiative, and the decision to partner with Black Girls Rock!
Valeisha Butterfield: I am really excited about the project. Google created the Made with Code program in 2014 and it was specifically designed to inspire teenage girls to consider computer science as a major. Through data and research, we found that 74 percent of girls are interested in STEM at the middle school level but they tend to drop off as they enter college, so we, as a company, really wanted to tackle that challenge. Made with Code was created for that purpose. And just this year, after 10 years of Black Girls Rock being an established, well-respected organization, we were so thrilled last month to have an inaugural innovation summit designed for teenage girls in Newark, N.J. It was the first tech component to BGR and it was called Girls Rock Tech. There were 120 girls present and they were inspired and excited more than ever to consider computer science as a career path.
TNJ.com: During the event, what, if any, challenges were the girls talking about with regard to their feelings about science? Also, were there any panel discussions or workshops?
V.B.: We had two panel discussions and then a workshop on coding; actress Tatyana Ali was our surprise celebrity guest; and we had individuals from the White House participate in a panel with the girls. But the recurring theme throughout the day was that young girls were so inspired by the fact that coding applies to our everyday lives. That was the wow moment. Whether you want to make the next film or be the next Shonda Rhimes or Ava Duvernay, or take on the fashion world and design clothes, looks and trends, or even save lives, the girls were blown away by the options they had. I think so often young girls think about science in a way where they don’t fully connect it to their every day lives and passions. So the most inspiring moment was seeing them make the connection to what they would love to do with STEM so that connection was made that day and I hope to see more of that.
TNJ.com: Valeisha, you mentioned that research indicates that African American middle school girls who were once interested in science lose interest before entering college. Has Google done any research on what parents and business owners can do to get involved and help bridge the gap?
V.B.: Yes, we are finding that this is a trend among Black girls and with my role here, I am particularly focused on what we can do to change that around for them. We have found that the encouragement of adults and student peers can be a number one contributor to a girl’s decision to pursue computer science. So, the programs that we have designed here are in partnership with the parents. Even in the partnership that Made with Code had with Black Girls Rock!, at the event, the parents were in the room; they were very involved and very active. We wanted to make sure it was a community effort to keep the young girls inspired and engaged, so absolutely parents play a monumental role in getting young girls inspired to pursue computer science but we wanted to make sure we did our part, too, in partnering with the parents.
TNJ.com: When did Google realize it had a numbers problem with regard to a lack of diversity in its hiring practices?
V.B.: It’s no secret that there is a lack of inclusion in diversity in technology and we wanted to take a bold step two years ago as a company to be transparent as a company to reveal and share the numbers. We have known for a while that we had challenges in that area as does the industry as a whole. But we were deliberate and intentional in wanting to be transparent so that we could ultimately not only share it, but solve for it. We wanted to make sure we were doing our part to acknowledge the challenge. I believe it was a step for us in the direction of change.
TNJ.com: Are there any numbers indicating the amount of African American employees, particularly women, are currently employed at Google?
V.B.: I don’t think we have the numbers specifically for African American female employees, but the number for African American employees at Google is 2 percent.
TNJ.com: Let’s say I’m a college student who has always wanted to work for Google. What advice would you give if I asked the following questions: What skills should I bring to the table? What should I do to be interview-ready and job-ready for a great career at Google?
V.B.: Great question. Beyond education and having a sound understanding and academic grounding in comp science is key. Sharpening your interview skills being prepared and ready to whiteboard and really do everything it takes in a technical interview to land a position is key. Interview prep and job readiness are a big pieces of that. Finally, I would say mentorship. For me, I am new to the tech industry after spending 18 years in the community engagement space, and so upon entering a new industry, I sought mentors out. And I think it is so important for young people to seek guidance through mentors who are in the industry to help them navigate the waters. So that would be the final piece, to seek out mentors as early as possible.
TNJ.com: Tell me about Google’s initiative to make Internet access more affordable for underserved communities and others who need it.
V.B.: We kicked off Google Fiber to tackle connectivity challenges and, ultimately, the digital divide especially in public housing communities. There was a trial in 2011 when we piloted the program and it began to take off in 2013. We expanded the program this year and there are additional expansion plans to market in high Black populations like Atlanta, Jacksonville and other markets. We are really excited about the work we are doing there to connect communities. Having that kind of access can be everything to our ability to thrive economically in the job sector an even beyond.
(CLICK HERE to read another article about the digital divide.)
(Pick up a copy of The Network Journal in late June to read a brief news announcement about Butterfield?s new position at Google.)