Mentorship

Finding Superwomen: How supportive mentors and a love for art jumpstarted Becca Refford’s career

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

“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.

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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/.

The Hidden Value of Detours: How a serendipitous stumble into a cyber-cafe catalyzed Gladys Maina’s IT career

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina wasn’t always going to be an IT professional. A dutiful daughter, she initially obeyed her parents’ directions and pursued a medical laboratory certification, following in her medic father’s footsteps.

“Then during a long holiday, a friend introduced me to a cyber-cafe. These had just started coming up in Nairobi, Kenya in 2004. They said, ‘Here, you can pay a bit of money and then you can access the internet.’ I came from Nyahururu, a village, so I was very impressed. I remembered thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Gladys describes the halcyon days of the early internet with fondness, reminiscing on MSN and chatting with people around the world. The feelings of liberation and connectedness that the early days of the internet provided proved to be alluring distractions from the career opportunities that awaited her in the medical field. She got her opportunity to switch sectors when a friend recommended her for a sales position at a newly opened a cyber cafe. After working in that role for three months, she became a cyber cafe attendant.

“That meant internet was free. I could research as much as I wanted, and had a computer at my disposal.”

Later, she studied information of management systems at Kenya Methodist University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Now, she’s optimistic that young women from similar backgrounds as her, who haven’t grown up in Kenya’s biggest cities, will have a more direct path to tech access. She points to innovations like the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) communications protocol, which enables information and money transfer over basic phones.

“For instance, you can use a standard phone to enroll in M-Shule [mobile learning management platform delivering educational content via SMS]. You don’t really need to have a smartphone for you to access technology. The government of Kenya is trying to digitize a lot of schools and services, from issuing tablets to students to establishing walk-in centers such as Huduma where you can access internet and get government services.”

Access isn’t everything, though; it’s always helpful to have somebody model what success looks like and encourage you throughout your journey. That’s why Gladys is active in mentoring young women pursuing STEM paths, working closely with African Women in Technology since 2016, and mentoring girls through the Ghana-based Nsesa Foundation. The experience of working with young women has left her with strong beliefs about the importance of lifelong learning and letting youth choose their own paths.

“Mentorship is a symbiotic journey where you are both learning. I believe you are never too old to be taught and never too young to learn. I would tell [parents and educators] to let their young ones pursue their dreams.”

She alludes to her own decision to switch fields as one of the reasons she feels strongly about giving young people the freedom to decide their vocations, and says that choices about work can cause friction in relationships between parents and children. In such situations, all is not lost.

“You can finish the degree that your parents are paying for, get a job, and then work toward what you want to do. That’s what I did. My parents finished paying for the medical laboratory school, but for my diploma, bachelors and masters, I paid using my own money.”

Her story is a testament to the value of flexibility and risk-taking, starting small and working your way up. Today, technology has advanced from the days when Gladys worked as an attendant in a cyber-cafe and chatted on MSN. So too have public perceptions of women in tech.

“Now people can celebrate women like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Here in Kenya I look up to Dr. Chao Mbogho, who has been changing the narrative and showing that women can make it. We aren’t born with a male brain or a female brain. You can achieve what you want, you just have to put in the hours, then keep on going. Sometimes it will get tough, but you have to keep going, keep learning, and keep developing yourself.”