Tuesday I had the privilege of participating in the annual DigiGirlz Day at the Microsoft Store in the Houston Galleria. Every year, about 50 high school girls, educators, volunteers and Microsoft employees get together to promote the advantages of young women pursuing STEM college degrees and future careers. The girls are from a variety of backgrounds and schools around Houston, some privileged, others from low income areas. This year, we were blessed to have Texas DARS send a talented, visually-impaired young lady who injected so much energy and excitement into the event one would never have guessed she was anything but an average high school girl.
I was lucky enough to join a panel with six other successful women who were primarily IT leaders and one educator/author. They each shared insights into their early lives, their educational and career journeys, and their secrets to happiness and success. The girls were an outstanding audience, peppering the panel with creative and relevant questions that really inspired not only their peers, but the women who had come to do the inspiring.
Lately, I’ve suffered some moments of self-pity, lamenting the setbacks in my life that make things…complicated. As I sat on that stool in front of those young, eager faces, (okay, some were yawning), and shared my life’s journey from poor minority kid to full scholarship college student, NASA nerd and finally computer geek, it dawned on me that I’ve already lived such a full and privileged life. Sure, I had to work hard to get there and took some pretty tough knocks along the way, but nothing I’ve ever had to face holds a candle to what some of these young girls have already gone through. And yet, there they were: bright-eyed and full of hope for the future, eager to hear what those of us who had made our way before them had to say.
My self-pity dissipated as I later talked one-on-one with the girl who was born blind in one and eye and with tunnel vision in the other. Instead of letting her circumstances get the better of her, she had thrown herself full force into music, learning on her own to create her own mixes and ready to move on to writing her own music, and she was so excited to hear how I’d blended my geek life with my passion for music. We spent some time talking about how far Windows Phone technology has come in terms of accessibility for the visually impaired, and explored some of the music apps in the Windows Store, excitedly exchanging ideas about how she can prepare herself for a future audition with my alma mater, U.T. – Austin.
I know the big software vendors are sweating the transformation of the digital world from one of proprietary, expensive software suites to a proliferation of low-cost, simplified applications – “apps” – that do everything from entertaining you with highly popular games to teaching you how to read music or play piano and still manage your budget with a few pokes of the touch screen. The big vendors may still own the enterprise, but the average consumer can now do much of what they need (short of the top productivity applications) for less than $10. If your income is dependent on those high profit, proprietary software sales, this is a scary, scary time. But for people like the girls I met this week, the new digital landscape opens the door to whole new worlds for the underprivileged who once had no chance to compete with their upper-middle class peers when it came to breaking into top colleges and careers. Why? Because for $6.99 kids in the ‘hood can take piano lessons from a pro, or for less than $3 sharpen their math and engineering skills.
Sure, many of the girls I met this week had never seen nor touched an iPad, let alone a high-end machine like the Surface Pro or Sony’s Vaio Duo before walking into the Microsoft store that day. But as more and more schools dedicate budget to issuing tablets to students, and as the price of these devices begins to drop, there is great hope for the future for these bright young women. With technology becoming so accessible to all, I can’t wait to see what this next generation of young women can accomplish!
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