Behind every startup, there’s a story

AUGUST 25, 2016

Meet five entrepreneurs who are quietly shaping Madison’s tech scene

Winnie Karanja — The inspirer

Winnie Karanja has a vivid memory of what it felt like to be the only girl — and the only African American — in her web design class at McFarland High School.

“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t okay,’” says Karanja, who immigrated to the Madison area from Kenya with her parents and sister in 1999. “There’s such a benefit to having diversity in the tech field.”

Women and minorities are notoriously underrepresented in the tech industry, both in Madison and across the nation. Karanja’s desire to shift those demographics and encourage girls and students of color to break into the field led her to create Maydm, an educational nonprofit that teaches kids a range of entry-level tech industry skills. Karanja founded the initiative in November 2015, and in the first teaching sessions held from April through June of this year, she’s reached more than 80 students. Of those, 40% were girls, and 76% were students of color — statistics that are “very unlike the tech field,” Karanja says. She’s still analyzing demographic data for sessions held in July and August.

“Technology is made for everybody, but it’s not made by everybody,” Karanja says. Maydm, which is a play off the phrase “made by them,” aims to get students comfortable with the idea that they, too, can code the next big app or build the next iPhone.

Karanja is young — she’s under 30, but she declines to reveal her exact age, out of concerns that people in the industry won’t take her seriously. A self-taught coder and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Politics with a bachelor’s in education and a master’s in developmental economics, Karanja says her background gives her a “unique and intersectional worldview” that has helped define Maydm’s platform. As a teacher, she sees technology-focused education as an essential tool to propel girls and students of color into higher-earning jobs. And as a developmental economist, she knows that good jobs are among the most important factors for reducing poverty, hunger and housing insecurity among vulnerable populations.

“The average tech job in Wisconsin [pays] $70,000 per year,” Karanja says. “That’s where we want our students to be.”

Maydm targets youth from third to 12th grade, offering single-day and weekend training sessions as well as a flagship, semester-long course that officially launches this fall with the new school year. The program is fee-based, but Maydm partners with sponsor organizations to provide scholarships for low-income students. Students learn technical skills, including programming and working with open-source electronic hardware, as well as soft skills like communication, teamwork, leadership and resume-writing. Students develop a portfolio showcasing the skills they learned from Maydm, which they can use as a reference when looking for a job. Partners from local tech companies, like Bendyworks and Zendesk, serve as mentors, giving students an insider’s look at how the industry works.

Surveys given to Maydm participants before and after the course show that the curriculum has a big impact on the way students think about themselves and technology. Karanja believes Maydm will eventually become known as a “top talent pipeline” that connects bright young workers from diverse backgrounds to job opportunities at local tech companies. In the future, she plans to form an alumni network to make sure program graduates remain connected as they begin their professional lives.

“If Wisconsin is moving to become a tech hub,” Karanja says, “it should not be an afterthought to bring in girls and students of color.”

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