Wisconsin Life (Wisconsin Public Radio)
BY Erika Janik
June 28, 2017
Winnie Karanja first discovered coding in high school. But it didn’t seem like a field for her. She’s very social; she’s female; and she’s African American.
“It’s hard to enter a field where you’ve never seen anyone look like you,” says Karanja. “It just didn’t seem like a space for someone like me.”
The tech industry is notorious for being largely white and male. Women and people of color are underrepresented in the field in Wisconsin and around the country.
But in college and then graduate school at the London School of Economics, Karanja began to understand how she could marry her interest in international development and technology.
“I had a very different international scope of people that I worked with,” describes Karanja. “We had a huge diversity of voices and I thought, “this is what we need.” We need to hear from people with different backgrounds and see how different people are using the products because that will make for a better product.”
Then she came to Madison, and even though she knew about the disparities in the tech industry, the reality still shocked her. But rather than sit back, Karanja decided to do something about it. In 2015, she launched Maydm, an educational nonprofit that teaches kids entry level tech skills in hopes of shifting the demographics of the industry to be include more women and more people of color.
“I saw firsthand the benefits of having people from different backgrounds, from different places, from different ethnicities involved,” says Karanja. “I wanted to create a space for that here.”
The training covers a wide range of topics from programming to mobile app development and animation to meet the needs and interests of students. Karanja wants to make sure that creativity is always on the table.
“A lot of students think that it’s really analytical and that they don’t belong but we want to show them that anything they are interested in can have a tech angle,” says Karanja.
Students have built websites devoted to their favorite sports teams and bands. They’ve started food blogs. Karanja is continually surprised at how smart and creative the students are with their questions and projects.
“I can’t believe I get to do this work,” says Karanja. “I don’t take it for granted.”