Beatris Mendez Gandica wants young girls to see her and say to themselves, "Hey, she looks like me; she speaks like me, she eats what I eat."
And she’s in tech.
Mendez Gandica, a program manager at Microsoft, will be one of the keynote speakers at Latinitas’ Future Chica Conference on July 18.
This is Latinitas’ second year for the conference for girls ages 9-18 and their parents, part of the Austin nonprofit organization’s mission to empower girls to be innovators through technology and media education.
This year, though, Latinitas is bringing all-day virtual experiences of both speakers and workshops instead of an in-person event. Girls will pick up a kit in advance that will have all the supplies they will need to do the projects in the four workshops presented by Austin Energy, Zpryme, Applied Materials and E4 Youth.
"The whole purpose is for girls to learn about innovative technology work," says Sylvia Butanda, deputy executive director of Latinitas.
Last year, the girls were able to meet the speakers in person and do the projects in groups. Now through technology, they will still be able to work in groups, even though they will be at home. The girls will be challenged throughout the day to do product designs and solve a problem. Then they will present their solutions for judges who come from the tech industry.
The parents will have their own breakout room and learn how to navigate 21st-century tech, why tech is valuable for their children and how their children can access tech careers.
"In a place like Austin, where tech has been a focal point of the appeal and the city’s growth and prosperity, we want the Latinx community to see the value of that industry, the future of that industry," Butanda says. "We want the girls to see themselves not just as consumers of this technology but creators of it as well. We want them to see that their perspective is valuable to this industry."
While Latinitas focuses on underserved girls, its programs do not exclude others.
Being virtual does have its advantages. Mendez Gandica doesn’t have to be in Austin; in fact, she lives in the Seattle area. And Latinitas has been able to expand its reach for both the conference and its summer camps to girls outside of the Austin area.
Mendez Gandica is going to tell the girls her story, from a girl who grew up in Venezuela, learned English in Florida, spent part of high school in Germany, went to college in Wisconsin and traveled the world to China and India, and then landed a job at Microsoft.
Because of those experiences, she brings a different perspective, a different awareness of why other people see things the way they see them, she says. It helps her in her job when they are launching different products for different parts of the world.
She grew up loving to play video games, "and my mom let me play them," she says.
She was very curious about Microsoft’s then-encyclopedia Encarta and why it was that you could put in the name of a city and find out everything you needed to know about that city.
She also wants to explain to girls that technology and other STEM focuses are not just about coding. There’s so much you can do with technology companies, whether you like graphic design and art or you like engineering and physics, she says.
Bringing the tech world to kids is the work she does as the founder of Nuevo Foundation, which teaches technology skills to kids from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the tech industry.
She regularly brings kids from Yakima, Washington, whose families are migrant workers to the Microsoft headquarters to teach them code and help them see a possible future career.
"Let me inspire you that there’s this thing that can get you far, but if you don’t like it, that’s cool; there are other jobs in technology," she says.
She thinks about herself. If someone had come to her when she was younger and taught her about coding and technology, she wouldn’t have had to wait until college to learn it. "It would have been amazing if someone had come to my middle school, my high school and said, ’There is this thing called computer science,’" she says.
Latinitas is trying to make all its summer experiences accessible. The Future Chica Conference is $15, and its weeklong virtual camps are $50. It learned from this spring when it shifted its back-to-school programs from in-person to virtual. Many of its participants had access to a smartphone or a computer, but it was one that was shared among the family, or they had difficulty with Wi-Fi access.
Google Fiber helped by donating Chromebooks and hot spots. Some girls have been able to come to summer camp because of that, Butanda says.
"We want the camp to be as accessible as possible," she says. That means ensuring access to technology, making it bilingual and offering scholarships.
While this year does feel different with not being able to be together in person for camp or the conference, Butanda is hoping Latinitas is still providing an outlet to learn about technology as well as have social interaction with other girls.
"If you’re a parent right now, everyone is feeling the weight of the social isolation," Butanda says.
Camp includes ice breakers and other ways for the leaders and the campers to get to know one another. "We want them to feel like they are in the room with them, that they are part of this community," Butanda says.
The goal of Latinitas is still the same: For the girls to get inspired to move forward in STEM, "to be not afraid to put their ideas out there, to be innovators and game-changers — that is the value we see in teaching them technology," Butanda says.