As a techie, entrepreneur Dora Palfi knows the beauty of coding. In her latest project, she brings a sense of community, software and hardware together to empower teenage girls to shape the future with technology.
Franz Tschimben: There are lots of interesting companies and projects built to bring people, especially the youth, closer to the subject of coding, but let’s be honest: At the end of the day, computer science is a very nerdy subject. The first thing you have to do is buckle down and learn how to program. Can you tell us how you came to be interested in computer science and coding?
Dora Palfi: I became passionate about wanting to code and really started learning when I was at a hackathon. I was working on a health-related project, and I saw the wonderful things that people who knew how to code were able to create. So I learned to code not just for its own sake, but so that I could actually do all these great things that I wanted to do and solve the problems I cared about.
FT: Why do you think fewer girls than boys end up pursuing a career in technology?
DP: When girls are very young, they are still very interested in science and technology. Their involvement in these fields tends to decline dramatically during the teenage years. This may be due in part to the gender stereotypes girls are exposed to.
FT: You’ve been passionate about teaching programming to children and teenagers, especially girls, for a few years now. Why?
DP: We need girls to be equally involved in technology and play an active role in shaping the future. Diverse perspectives are crucial for creating better products and services to meet the needs of a diverse population.
“We need girls to be equally involved in technology and play an active role in shaping the future.“
Bringing women into tech may also help to close today’s skill gap. There are 700,000 new tech jobs in the US, but only 65,000 computer science graduates to fill them. Tapping into the pool of talent that is currently being left out might fill that gap.
FT: Do you see efforts being made in the education sector? Is there a push from policymakers to include girls to fill this gender and skills gap?
DP: More and more countries are considering making coding part of the school curriculum. However, I see no indication that efforts are being made to teach programming in a more gender-inclusive way and to encourage girls to participate.
In Sweden, for example, where my start-up imagiLabs is based, it’s now mandatory for students to learn some coding. But it is introduced in the context of mathematics, which is already a stigmatized subject; girls have been shown to have less confidence than boys in their math ability. So it is very likely that girls will be less confident when it comes to coding, too.
FT: I read an article in Tech Crunch that said something similar – it called for destigmatizing this subject and making the content more interesting in order to engage more girls. What do you think about that?
DP: I have done a lot of field research, talking to both men and women in technology and trying to understand why they got into this area. With men, it was mainly video games that got them hooked. Women often started out by creating their own personal websites. Many of the women looked at coding as a tool for self-expression, creativity and problem solving.
“I see no indication that efforts are being made to teach programming in a more gender-inclusive way and to encourage girls to participate.“
That’s why we’ve developed a smart accessory we call imagiCharm, with an app to go along with it, which is aimed at teenage girls. Using their cell phones, they learn to code in Python, creating various designs, animations and visuals that can then be uploaded to their imagiCharm. We’ve tested it and found that it has a significant impact on teenage girls; it makes coding more tangible, fun and relevant.
FT: How, exactly, are you teaching coding?
DP: We’re using the imagiCharm and the Python programming language to introduce teenagers to computer science. Through our interactive tutorials, they are learning roughly as much as they would from a high school course in computer science.
The social aspect of learning is also very important for teenagers. Our app encourages girls to share the results of their coding efforts with one another. They are inspired by what others are creating, and social interactions around coding happen naturally. Over time, we’re building a small community and offering new and engaging experiences that reinforce the girls’ interest in coding.
FT: We haven’t yet talked about role models. Do you think role models are important for bringing girls and women into tech?
DP: Yes, absolutely. Working as a developer, I saw first-hand that there were hardly any women ahead of me, women I could emulate. I had to figure out for myself what the next step would be. Of course I knew that Marissa Mayer was the CEO of Yahoo, but it wasn’t clear how to get there.
“I think it’s important to highlight role models in the local community, such as the women who are just one or two steps ahead of you.“
I think it’s important to highlight role models in the local community, such as the women who are just one or two steps ahead of you. We’re trying to do that with our communications, for example on Instagram. We tell stories of real women in tech.
Eventually there will be a positive reinforcement loop: The more women there are in tech, the more role models there will be, and the more products designed by girls and with girls in mind.
Dóra Palfi holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience with a minor in computer science from New York University Abu Dhabi and studied human-computer interaction at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. She has worked as a developer at Morgan Stanley and as a UX designer at Cisco. She has several years of experience teaching programming to children and teenagers, as well as advocating for women in technology. True to her namesake Dora the Explorer, she has lived, studied and volunteered in 10 countries across 4 continents over the past 7 years.
imagiLabs is an ed-tech startup that is building the world’s only mobile-first community for teenage girls interested in tech. imagiLabs is striving to be a global leader in empowering girls and equipping them with the skills and confidence they need to shape the future of technology. To that end, it is creating fun, social and easy-to-use tools for learning coding. Their first product, the imagiCharm, is a smart accessory that can be customized by programming it using a cell phone.
In its first 18 months, imagiLabs has built a mobile app that teaches programming and the imagiCharm, a smart accessory that can be customized by programming it using the app. Both are launching publicly in 2020, after a successful Kickstarter campaign for the imagiCharm in 2019.