“I have this old busted-up computer. You want to take it apart and get to the guts?”
When Becca Refford heard those words from her aunt, Steph Alarcon, she had no idea that her childhood love of making would later help other young women launch their own STEM journeys. Becca’s aunt introduced her to an organization called TechGirlz, which provides free, hands-on workshops for middle school girls to help them “get their hands dirty” with all kinds of technology.
“We offer a little bit of everything. We offer plenty of programming workshops, but we also offer workshops in graphic design, virtual reality, security, robotics, smart textiles, the list goes on! The more that I started learning about TechGirlz, the more I started thinking, ‘wow I wish there was something like this for me when I was growing up.’ ”
As a student at a competitive high school, Becca encountered negative attitudes toward careers in creative fields, often being asked “what are you going to do with an art degree?” so she looked for alternative ways to do what she loved.
“The minute I found out that there was a path to creative pursuits using technology, I was sold. There’s no dichotomy between being creative and being in tech. If you’re into art or design, consider UI and UX, how people interact with technology or graphic design. In this day and age technology touches absolutely everything. I want to break down that misconception of ‘you need to have a math brain to do tech.’ ”
Becca knows this firsthand, because it was her work in marketing that initially led her to web design. After producing numerous graphics for TechGirlz, she decided that she could scrape together enough knowledge of the scripting language PHP to completely overhaul the website in 2016.
“TechGirlz was the first website that I ever launched by myself and took from start to finish. That got me really excited about web design, thinking ‘I could do this as a career.’ ”
Becca went on to design the website for the Women in Tech Summit. Her belief in her abilities to design websites from scratch took off because of support from other women.
“The TechGirlz founder, Tracey — she’s my Superwoman. She exemplifies what a super savvy business woman looks like: knowing your strengths, but also knowing exactly where to find a solid group of people to fill in those blanks for you. I watched her do that with hiring Karen [long-time Program Director, now Advisory Board member at TechGirlz], another one of my Superwomen. Karen is detail-oriented, she’s got spreadsheets for everything. She is more on top of it than I could ever hope to be in my entire life.”
The mentorship Becca received from women like Tracey and Karen proved pivotal in her professional journey, and she encourages other young women to find mentors early in their lives as well.
“Finding a mentor — not just anybody, but somebody who you look up to personally and whose values you respect — is huge. Get your hands dirty. Say yes. Find a little bit of time to volunteer, join a group, or offer your skills or talents to an organization that you can really get behind. That opens doors to meet women who can speak to the specific challenges you face. Ladies gotta stick together!”
The value of mentorship goes both ways, with mentors often learning a great deal from their mentees. Becca mentioned that she learned from the girls she taught in TechGirlz camps.
“They knew what they wanted. All we had to do was put the tools in their hands and they would fly. When we were packaging our workshops, TechShopz in a Box, so that people anywhere could teach girls, we faced doubt from parents and organizations who thought the curriculum would be too hard for twelve-year-old girls. They could not be more wrong. These girls were capable of grasping big concepts: minimum viable product, prototyping, user flows. Don’t undersell these girls for a second, because they are whip smart.”
Ultimately, the value of mentorship is far deeper than career advancement and networking connections. In December 2017, Becca was biking in Philadelphia when a delivery truck struck her and ran over the bottom half of her body. She spent a year re-learning how to walk.
“The women who I had surrounded myself with for the first couple years of my career — Tracey and Karen, these superheroes — were the first ones to scoop me up in such a scary and awful time. Coming out to my parents’ house way outside of the city just to spend time with me. Helping me transition back to working again. To have emotional bonds with these women was just absolutely breathtaking. That’s the power of community.”
Just as Becca seeks to do away with the notion that technology and creative pursuits are diametrically opposed, her personal story evokes the idealism and values of the early internet — the idea that technology, at the end of the day, is about bringing people together.
This story was written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter.
WITS has several summits happening around the country. Learn more and check out their event schedule at https://womenintechsummit.net/.