The volunteer spokesperson for Girl Develop It South Jersey talks about how her organization hopes to empower women by teaching them how to program.
By Matt Skoufalos
Girl Develop It is a national nonprofit organization that provides low-cost, alternative educational opportunities for women to learn software programming and web development skills. The success of the Philadelphia chapter led to the outgrowth of a nascent South Jersey chapter, which will support the first hackathon in Camden City in two weeks. We spoke with Collingswood resident Katherine Schumacher, a spokesperson for the program, about the goals of Girl Develop It South Jersey and the hackathon.
NJPEN: The mission of Girl Develop It is to provide “a judgment-free environment” in which to teach women web and software development skills. Why is it necessary to create a separate setting for women specifically to learn coding?
SCHUMACHER: A lot of times it’s really intimidating for women to go into coding classes in college, even at the community level. Even if you are brave enough to go, you can have something called imposter syndrome, where you don’t feel qualified to be there.
Girl Develop It is run by women. We really create an area where we encourage people to be open. [Classes are] usually [held]in a more welcoming environment, not in a school setting: coffee shops, small businesses. It takes a little bit of pressure off of everyone to be perfect; to have that ideal image of what a web developer is supposed to be.
NJPEN: Is that kind of environment only achievable for women in a space without men?
SCHUMACHER: We do welcome men and people from all walks of life. We are not men-exclusive; we are women-inclusive. We do try and prioritize the women who want to come, but we don’t turn anybody away. If you want to learn and you think that this is a comfortable environment for you, we’re happy to have you.
We have a really great tech curriculum that’s been developed by Girl Develop It. It’s tried and true, and it’s successful across the country. We can have our laptop anywhere, but when you have a group of women supporting each other, that’s different.
NJ PEN: Who’s the ideal Girl Develop It student?
SCHUMACHER: We have people with families, people who have other careers, and people who maybe aren’t ready to commit to that big step of education. This is much more approachable. It’s easier to take a class on a Wednesday night than it is to sign up for a whole other semester when you have a family, when you have a job. If you are interested in it, you’re going to want something more formal, and we’re here to help you do it without spending thousands of dollars.
South Jersey has a lot of diversity and a lot of working parents. We have a lot of moms; women trying to switch their careers midway. It’s really challenging reaching out to those women. Right now we’ve had a lot of people from Camden because the founder of the South Jersey chapter is from Camden. I’m from Collingswood. The goal of the South Jersey chapter is to serve Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington County.
NJ PEN: What’s the curriculum like? Who provides the instruction in the classes?
SCHUMACHER: We have three different career tracks, one for designers, one for entrepreneurs, and one for web developers. We have teachers in the area who will teach everything from Intro to Java Script, Intro to GitHub, Intro to HTML. There is a cost that varies from each class. Intro to Web Concepts is $25; Intro to Java Script is $75 for a two-day class. It’s really, really affordable.
Some of the teachers are coming from Philadelphia because it’s a train the trainer system. We want to help women in our area become experts. It’s all on a volunteer basis. No one’s on salary. We’re all doing it because we just believe in it.
All the people in the [Girl Develop It South Jersey] leadership team—Pamela [Bey], myself, and Robin [Shreeves]—are all examples of people who have come through [Girl Develop It] Philadelphia and have examples of better job skills, better jobs.
NJ PEN: If it’s volunteer instruction, where are the class fees going?
SCHUMACHER: Part of the fee goes to the national organization, part of it goes to the local chapter, and a small part of it goes to the teacher. Pretty much everyone onboard is doing this for the love of technology. I really like connecting people and looking at information architecture for helping small businesses and nonprofits. I really would like to continue helping them attack those technology goals.
As we gain more people in South Jersey we’re hoping to develop a bigger tech community so that people with more technology goals start here. As they continue to learn, they can either choose to teach other women their skills—hopefully they will at that point have the job skills to get a job, get a different job, start their own business—and keep having classes that challenge people. We’re hoping that the skills that they learn, they’ll want to continue with Girl Develop It.
NJ PEN: On October 3, you’re going to be bringing the first hackathon to Camden City. What are the objectives of this event?
SCHUMACHER: I think a lot of times people think Camden needs assistance from the outside world, but Camden has huge businesses; multi-billion-dollar companies. We have amazing people who live here, and we don’t need to outsource. It’s a matter of bringing those people together and realizing we can do it all together.
The goal of the hackathon is to solve some of Camden’s problems. A few of the local nonprofits have submitted different problems that they want to work on. They’re going to be split into teams and then work on that problem. At the end of that hackathon, there’s going to be a solution for those nonprofits.
NJPEN: Who’s involved with this event?
SCHUMACHER: Dan Rhoton [of Hopeworks ‘N Camden]is really spearheading everything. Hopeworks ‘N Camden is a local organization that helps youth that have suffered trauma or poverty in their lives, and gives them career paths. He’s got sponsors from Starbucks, Subaru, and the Camden schools. Girl Develop It is on hand to provide some tech expertise.
It’s going to be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on October 3 at Camden Colab. Participants are 14-to-23-year-olds from different schools around Camden. We’re really excited to be part of it. The Hackathon is giving out 10 free desktops to 10 students who come.
NJPEN: What are your benchmarks for Girl Develop It South Jersey? What will you have to achieve to consider the program successful?
SCHUMACHER: A lot of people go to Philadelphia to work, but we feel if we can develop the talent community in South Jersey, we can build businesses. That’s our goal. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.
We think that there’s a lot of great talent in South Jersey. When we have full classes, when we have a long wait list, we’re going to consider ourselves a success for South Jersey. It’ll be successful too if someone wants to take this on when I’m done with it.