As summer comes to a close, and we gear up for the fall, back-to-school season is upon us. Our newest scholarship winners — all of which are women — talk about how important opportunities are key to opening doors for them when it comes to their budding careers in tech.
The tech industry still struggles with gender parity. Women hold only 24% of computing jobs. We remain underrepresented in software engineer (14%) and computer science (25%) jobs. For example, women software engineering hires have increased a mere 2% over the past 22 years.
But there are some signs of progress. Women in tech are breaking the glass ceiling when it comes to leadership roles in the industry. According to a recent report from Deloitte Insights, women’s share in the global tech workforce has grown by 6.9% from 2019 to 2022, while their participation in technical roles has grown by 11.7%.
The Future Leaders in Technology Scholarship bridges the gap between opportunity and gaining access to a key for an aspiring scientist or technologist's future. Here at Virtasant, we award three young scholars (including two high school students and one university or college student) as they work towards pursuing a degree in data science, electrical engineering, or computer science. This powerful award helps advance students, especially those in marginalized groups, be it Black, LatinX, Native and Indigenous, or LGBTQIA+, as we know that these marginalized groups are still missing a heavy-hitting presence from the tech industry.
Our college award that goes to a university or college student is $2,500 and high school student award winners garner $1,000. Since the awards program started in November 2020, Virtasant has given out nine awards, totaling $11,500 in total funding to support aspiring future leaders of tech through Bold.org.
“At Virtasant, we understand the need to embrace fresh perspectives, probe unexamined problems, and tap into unique ideas,” said Virtasant’s CEO Michael Kearns in a statement. “We want to support the innovative minds that represent the groups and communities that are still getting left behind in tech.”
Here are this year's winners, who tell Virtasant about their plans for the future and the stories behind their award-winning essays.
Future Leaders in Technology Scholarship – College Award
Madison Hehir is entering her third year of studying electrical engineering at the Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. As the Future Leaders in Technology Scholarship’s College Award winner, she is grateful for this scholarship in such a male-dominated field. “Michigan Tech has historically been a male-dominated school,” says Hehir. “From the classes I’ve taken, I’ve only seen three or four girls out of a class of 80 or 90 people. In high school, the numbers were the same.”
She hopes more women will get into tech. “Most of the time, I don’t think much of it, but there are times when I look around and think ‘gosh, I wish there were more women her” she said. “I’ve struggled meeting other women at school doing the same thing I am. I plan on sharing my scholarship on LinkedIn to share my experience, to help encourage women into getting into STEM fields.”
Hehir first got into robotics in high school when a friend was doing it and was drawn to designing and building robots. “I thought to myself, ‘yep, this is what I gotta do,’” she recalls. Now, she is focusing more on solar power and renewable energy. “I saw the shift that was happening, that we need to move away from fossil fuels, and solar power seems to be the most widely accepted form of energy,” says Hehir, who started to study agrivoltaics (solar power for food crops) during her internship with Consumers Energy in 2021. “It felt like the answer,” she said.
She hopes to use technology to solve the world’s problems through renewable energy.
“I’m focusing on the energy crisis,” she said. “I want to help design the solar modules to make them more efficient. If one person put one solar module on their home, it would help the world. Its strength in numbers.”
Read Madison Hehir’s winning essay here.
Future Leaders in Technology Scholarship – High School Awards
Gabrielle Walker is a 16-year-old student entering her junior year at The Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a second-generation Cameroonian American who hopes to enter the medical technology field, even though she still has to get past junior and senior year first. “I want to ensure that I am making the most of my high school years because it only happens once,” said Walker. “In college, I hope that I'll be able to meet new people who share the same passion for STEM, as I do.”
Her winning essay details how medical technology is important to her as a career option, and her primary interest is in dermatology. “Rather than becoming a doctor, I could take an engineering approach to medicine and design medical devices or explore the intersections of technology and medicine to program an app to better identify skin conditions,” she said.
It ties into Walker’s family history with skin conditions, and how she aims to help people living with shingles, eczema and cold urticaria, especially in Black communities. Artificial intelligence can be a huge untapped factor to help.
“There are already so many apps and programs that aid us in our daily lives, so why not incorporate them into dermatology?” she asks. “One major caveat of diagnosing skin conditions is that their appearance may vary from person to person. I think that even just creating a database for dermatological conditions with a diverse range of sample pictures could help accelerate diagnoses times.”
Walker hopes that more women get into technology, going forward. “Diversity in the workplace is a catalyst for innovation and inclusivity,” she said. “I think it is imperative that women apply to tech positions; this also applies to people of other underrepresented and marginalized communities. When job fields are more diverse, companies can benefit from an increase in perspectives and can ensure that their product is accessible to as many people as possible.”
One woman that Walker looks up to is the Pakistani education activist, and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai. “I think that education acts as an equal playing field, where anyone has the opportunity to explore their passions and interests,” she said. “I admire Malala’s tenacity as well as her advocacy work. Malala highlights how activism has no age, and that anyone can make a difference in their community.”
Read Gabrielle Walker’s winning essay here.
Camille Edwards is an 18-year-old student entering her first year at the University of California, at Berkeley, where she plans on double majoring in Computer Science and Political Science.
She had her first technology when she was 10 years old, after attending a Girls Who Code event, where she got to try coding. “I was hooked,” she said. “Girls Who Code was my first real exposure to computer science, I got to learn all about coding in a supportive, positive environment filled with people who look like me, especially in terms of mentors, and seeing that possibility was very inspiring.”
Ever since she found her passion in computer science, Edwards has worked on several coding projects. She is not only studying computer science but aims to be an advocate who helps black women get into STEM.
“It's about creating a welcoming environment and making careers in the STEM field more accessible,” said Edwards. “The best way to curate a welcoming environment is to get women and minorities currently working in STEM to share their experiences, stories, and to make the areas feel less daunting and isolated.”
Edwards feels that access is everything — younger generations can get into STEM through more Outreach programs which target underrepresented and low-income communities. “If a child is able to enjoy a field in STEM and also relates to the people exposing them to STEM, it makes them all the more likely to continue to pursue the field,” she said. “This was my experience.”
Edwards is thrilled to be attending a computer science program at Berkeley University in Berkeley, Ca.
“With coding, there's really no correct answer, which is something that I enjoy,” she said. You can make it as straightforward or as complex as you want and at the end of the day, whatever you create using code is exclusively yours, because that's your code. It is your masterpiece, and you can apply it to change the world.”
She hopes to help more women get tech jobs, too. “Modern-day technology is overdue for a massive switch in perspective,” said Edwards. “Having more women working and researching STEM will hopefully bring a new perspective that wasn't considered before.”
Read Camille Edwards’ winning essay here.