This January, frog had the pleasure of hosting three young women from CUNY schools around the city as a part of the WiTNY (Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship New York) Winternship initiative. The three-week design intensive began with an initial week of design research to narrow down a project to work on together under the guidance of a team of frogs, including strategists, designers and program managers. Once they landed on building an AI tool that helped teens talk through their emotions, they spent the second week learning and building the technology and the third week refining and polishing their presentation. The result was Elixir, an AI tool built on Amazon’s Alexa platform that is trained to ask the basic question: “How are you feeling today?” It then offers suggestions for content or tasks based on the user’s answers.
The WiTNY Winternship program, part of a larger collaboration between Cornell Tech and CUNY, with support from Mayor de Blasio’s office, offers freshman and sophomore female college students the chance to intern with diverse companies around the New York area. frog was humbled and excited to be in such good company with this year’s roster of impressive participating companies, from industry giants like Verizon and IBM to innovative startups like Warby Parker.
We spoke with founding program director Judith Spitz about how WiTNY aims to bring more young women into the world of tech by arming them with real-world experience and bolstering their resumes so that they can share their amazing ideas and skills with the world:
Q: Mayor De Blasio, Cornell And Cuny Launched The “winternship” For The Witny Program To Support Women In Stem, Specifically Womenpn Freshman Or Sophomore Year. Why Is Helping Women Enter This Field An Important Initiative For Nyc?
A: I had a wonderful career in tech at Verizon, but throughout my time it became obvious that the pipeline of women coming up behind me was not robust enough. In fact, the data shows that the participation of women in computer science has been going down for the last 30 years. The fact is, we continue to need more and more tech workers in the country, so from a workforce perspective alone, we must address this challenge. Almost half of the available talent pool – women—is sitting on the sidelines of this incredible opportunity for a great career and we need their participation in shaping our futures for the digital age. WiTNY was created as a public / private partnership that demonstrates that both the industry and the city of New York have a vested interest in closing this gap.
Q: What Barriers Do Young Women Face When Entering Technology Careers?
A: While there are many challenges that underrepresented groups face when entering the workforce, in this case we realized that the CUNY women in tech didn’t always have the right experience on their resumes to get their ‘foot in the door’ for a first work experience at a tech company. But the problem is not with the young women, it’s about accessibility. We need to find innovative ways to help credential these young women so that they are equipped for the job market ahead.
Q: How Does The Witny Winternship Program Prepare These Young Women To Meet Those Challenges?
A: The WiTNY Winternship program is designed to get these young women some real work experience in a tech company BEFORE they are competing for full 10-week summer internships – to give them both a resume credential but also a chance to show what they are capable of in a way that is not considered a ‘big risk’ for the host companies. What we have found is that everyone wins; the students get the experience they need and a chance to show what they can do, and most companies have been so amazed by the students that they are seriously considering them for internship opportunities that they would not have before the Winternship experience.
Q: How Do You See The Witny Winternship Program Growing Over The Next 5 Years?
A: The program began with a pilot in January of 2017. Five young women were placed at Verizon and Verizon was so impressed that they invited each Wintern to interview for a summer job. All 5 Winterns worked at Verizon for the summer and 4 out of 5 got return offers for the following summer. These young women are now armed with experience and resume credentials.
For our 2018 program, we set the bar high and asked if the Mayor’s office would lend their platform for a city-wide call to action. With that boost, along with ads on LinkNYC, support from Tech:NYC and network outreach, 46 companies signed up to host winterns. So far, we’ve seen huge success and interest from both the companies and the young women, so we hope to build upon this by expanding the program and getting more young women into summer internships and jobs beyond college.
Q: What Are 3 Major Things That Those In The Field Now Can Do To Enable More Young Women In Stem Careers?
A: The biggest thing companies can do is open their doors. A winternship is a great place to start, but we hope that once a part of the WiTNY network, companies will continue to foster relationships with these women and provide support for their careers in the form of summer internships or jobs. Beyond that, every company needs to work on the culture within their doors to make it more inclusive and welcoming to women and other underrepresented groups. The first challenge is to get more women in the pipeline and placed in tech jobs. The next challenge is to make sure that they feel welcome and included so that they stay in the profession.
Q: What Inspires You Most About These Young Women And Their Stories?
A: There are so many wonderful stories that come out of these experiences that I couldn’t possibly begin to recount them all, but I will say that each and every one is truly transformative. We had one young women who was placed at Warby Parker for her winternship, and she told us how amazing it was to show up to work on her first day only to step in the elevator with the CEO of the company. In that short ride, she experienced first-hand how important the “elevator pitch” is, and can now take that experience on with her.
Kat Nieves is a freshman at John Jay college, majoring in computer science. Her dream is to be a game designer, and hopes to never have to between doing something she loves and something that supports her financially.
Sara Abdelnaby is a junior at York College studying computer science and is interested in the process of analysis when it comes to programming and AI. She got involved in WiTNY to be inspired by other women in tech.
Briana Connolly is a sophomore at the College of Staten Island, studying engineering and math. She was excited to learn more about coding, as it’s a skill she can apply elsewhere.