According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women comprise nearly half the U.S. workforce yet hold only one quarter of technology and engineering jobs.
ChickTech—a national nonprofit organization—is working to change that by empowering women and nonbinary people to broaden the tech pipeline and provide equitable opportunities to all.
Founded in 2012, ChickTech supports and creates community for tens of thousands of people in more than 34 states, including Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona and Montana.
ChickTech: High School has connected more than 6,500 students to education, opportunities and resources in science, technology, engineering and math. (See sidebar on page 15 for adult programs.)
“We can see through elementary school and middle school that there is equal interest in STEM fields for girls and boys, and then with each education level it continues to drop,” says ChickTech CEO Katie SanFilippo. “That’s why we work with high school students—so that as they are thinking of careers, they can consider STEM as an option.”
Students attend monthly mentorship sessions and workshops exploring everything from software and coding to hardware and user experience design. An annual STEM fair connects them to internships, scholarships and employment at corporate partner companies and community organizations.
“We give those students we work with a burst of confidence and mentors and workshop leads who can relate to them,” Katie says. “They can start to see that there are others in this field and it is possible.”
Last year, despite COVID-19 restrictions that prevented in-person events, the program served 272 students with 4,021 hours of online programming and 41 events. ChickTech plans to retain the online component of the program as it returns to live events so a greater number of students can participate.
Teachers, career counselors and community members can nominate students they believe have the potential to excel in a tech-related field and don’t yet have the confidence or support to do so. Students may also nominate themselves through the ChickTech website.
There is no fee to participate. ChickTech provides laptops and Wi-Fi access to those who need them.
Know You Belong
Lorelai Fosselman, a sophomore from Lebanon, Oregon, is in her second year with the program. She attends an online high school where she says the STEM and coding classes are limited and traditional compared to her experience with ChickTech, where she can choose from hands-on workshops on coding, circuits, digital art, robotics and more.
“A lot of kids don’t know tech is an option for them or they go into an engineering class, see a bunch of guys and think, ‘I don’t belong here,’” says the 15-year-old. “Having that support and community is really important.”
Lorelai serves on the ChickTech Leadership Committee, which helps shape the organization’s programming.
She and her peers are planning virtual movie and game nights and hackathons to work together on coding projects. The group has also set up an online channel where those with similar interests can meet up to share and collaborate.
“Now that we have the information and the means for doing it, our imaginations can take us a lot of places,” Lorelai says.
In addition to her high school classes, Lorelai takes college courses to earn her associate degree. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
“The exposure to ChickTech changed the trajectory of my life,” she says.
Ask for Opportunities
Mazie Houchens was one of two girls in the Toledo High School class of 22 students to be nominated by her science teacher for the ChickTech program.
She traveled an hour from her home in Newport, Oregon, to attend her first weekend event at Oregon State University in 2014. There, she learned to code and solder electronics and was introduced to a LilyPad system—a set of sewable electronic pieces designed to create interactive e-textile projects.
Mazie created a Star Wars R2-D2 character for her laptop bag that lit up and played the movie’s theme when touched.
She says the soldering and design skills she learned stuck with her.
“It was the first time I felt really engaged in something,” Mazie says. “I was learning a solid skill that would help my future. It was one of the first things that gave me the confidence to keep asking for opportunities.”
The second confidence booster was the advice she heard from a speaker at a ChickTech event.
“She told us, ‘You never get any job you don’t apply for,’” Mazie says.
At 16, Mazie realized it was time to act.
She began by helping with soldering projects at her high school. During her senior year, she applied and was accepted to the engineering program at Oregon State University.
There, she worked in tech support and landed a teaching assistant position the summer after her freshman year. Another job offer followed, and she decided to leave school to work full time.
Now 23, Mazie is an engineering technician and lab manager for a wellness consumer electronics company in Bend, Oregon. She does rapid prototyping, start-to-finish product development and holds 12 patents.
With her employer’s encouragement, she is working toward her bachelor’s degree.
“ChickTech had a huge impact on my life,” Mazie says. “Where I grew up—because there weren’t any of those influences or role models—that was who I looked up to. It changed how I approached things and gave me the confidence to know I could do it—that it was something within my grasp and capabilities. It was the first program that gave me the confidence to do something I really wanted to do and that actually fit me.”
Mazie says she has learned to jump on opportunities as they arise, and failure is nothing to fear.
“If you make a mistake, it just helps the future a little bit,” she says. “You won’t make the same mistake again or if you do, it won’t be as bad. And if it fails, I can always try something else.”
Mazie has advice for others who wonder if a career in tech or engineering is the right choice for them.
“If there is something you think you are passionate about, it’s always good to try it,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in app development or website design, but then I heard someone talk about it and I became curious. I didn’t realize how much I was into it until I tried it.” n
To nominate a student for ChickTech: High School, go to chicktech.org/nominate.
Introducing a diverse group of young people to tech careers is only one step toward creating a more inclusive workforce. It also is essential to retain those already in the field.
“Fifty percent of women in tech leave their employers about mid-career, right about when they would be going into leadership roles,” says ChickTech CEO Katie SanFilippo. “In Silicon Valley, only 5% of leadership roles are held by women.”
Through its program Advancing the Careers of Technical Women (ACT-W), ChickTech helps professional women, nonbinary adults and allies advance their careers, move into leadership positions, celebrate diversity, build technical skills and create community.
ACT-W offers an online membership platform that provides continuing education, a job board, and opportunities to connect with hiring companies and network with others in the industry.
A free virtual career fair is May 11. Job-seekers can meet with recruiters and companies looking for new hires.
The annual ACT-W conference, August 30 to September 1, includes online speakers, workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions.
Katie says more tech employers are working on recruiting projects and acknowledging the need for diversity, equity and inclusion today than even a few years ago.
“ChickTech is working alongside our partners to hold action to those words and statements that are put out there,” Katie says. “Hopefully, we are on the verge of big change right now.”
For more information, go to https://www.act-w.org.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.