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Not just a young man's game: Women in Detroit's growing tech scene





On a sunny late afternoon in April, about 65 women crowd into the lobby of Grand Circus in Downtown Detroit's new "startup neighborhood" -- the Madison Block. They are young and old and wear a variety of clothing, from corporate suits to jeans to hijabs. They sip cups of Coke and Chardonnay, snack on grapes and cheese, and trade stories about HTML/CSS, JQuery, and JavaScript.

The women are gathered for the kickoff of Detroit Women's Tech Mentoring Group, a partnership between Grand Circus, a training institute for Detroit's tech community, and Girl Develop It Detroit, the local chapter of a national organization that provides tech education to women. The aim of the mentoring group is to host expert panels and networking events to connect women with tech industry experience to those looking to get started. The group will also serve as a clearinghouse to match companies who are interested in hiring women with local talent of the female persuasion.

"I knew there was a tech industry evolving in Detroit and I wanted women to have the opportunity to get involved from the ground up," says Michelle Srbinovich, Interim General Manager and Digital Director at WDET and co-founder of Girl Develop it Detroit.

Srbinovich, who was working in marketing at the time, launched the local chapter in 2013 with web developer Erica Carlson after her attempts at self-directed "MacGyver-style coding training" on websites like Code Academy left her wanting a real classroom experience and a sense of community.

"It went viral," she says. "We were blown away by the response we received, not only by the number of women who came wanting to learn, but also by the women who were already developers who said how they had been looking for a group like this."

Michelle Srbinovich
According to Srbinovich, getting women together to learn and network is essential to making sure that they will benefit from Detroit's booming tech industry.


Detroit is home to a growing number of tech startups that are increasingly gaining a national profile. Earlier this year, seven Detroit startups participated in Google Demo Days, a competition in which tech startups pitch their companies to an audience of Silicon Valley investors. One Detroit company, IRule, traveled to Silicon Valley in April to pitch it's universal remote app product.
This summer, Detroit will be part of a four-city Rise of the Rest bus tour spearheaded by AOL founder Steve Case. The tour will highlight the growing tech ecosystems in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Nashville. As part of the tour, Case will host a pitch competition with a $100,000 prize in each city.

But, in both Silicon Valley and metro Detroit, tech companies are notorious for being dominated by those with, shall we say, pasty complexions and Y chromosomes. Efforts to diversify the tech scene in recent years has seen the launch of organizations like Girl Develop It, Sisters Code, and Digerati Girls locally, and Black Girls Code, Women 2.0, and the NewMe Accelerator in the valley.

"It's not just about diversity for women," says Srbinovich. "We emphasize that diverse teams make for better products."

Leeann Drees is a freelance web designer & developer who became involved with Girl Develop It Detroit first as a student, then as a teacher, and is now helping to lead the Detroit Women's Tech Mentoring Group. A lifelong feminist with a degree in Women's & Gender Studies, Drees became interested in tech after college and is currently in the process of launching her own web development business.

"So Girl Develop It was a perfect fit for me," she says. "I am interested in anything that can help empower women."

Leeann Drees
The group is also helping to provide women who left tech to work as stay-at-home moms with an on-ramp back into the field. Karen Kenward worked as a database developer before leaving to stay at home with her family for 10 years. When she started looking for jobs again after her hiatus, she found she wasn't getting interviews.

"I found it very difficult to come back and start over again as a junior developer," says Kenward. "People would look at my resume and say, 'You have all of this experience, so we can't hire you as an entry-level, but you also don't have current experience in the technologies that we are using now.'"

So Kenward started attending Girl Develop It Detroit courses to freshen her skill set. But she also found it to be an excellent opportunity for networking.

"I think it is important to reach out and network and get to know other people in the area and in the field, and especially for women to know that we are not alone in this field," she says. "There are other people trying to do the same thing and having the same family and life balance issues."

Kenward was able to land a job with a tech consulting firm, where she works on JavaScript development.

Building that network is critical to advancing women in tech, according to Srbinovich, because it can help steer the conversation where it needs to go.

"I still don't feel the conversation here has shifted to where I would really like to be, where women in tech are clearly in leadership roles," says Srbinovich. "But that will come in time, because if you are a woman who is interested in tech, there is really a positive community here."

But, she notes, there is clearly a lot more work that needs to be done to get women in leadership roles.

"We have not really broken into more corporate structures, like, for example, within Compuware or in the automotive companies who are doing a lot of the hiring of developers," she says. "And I would love to see more women not only getting jobs in tech, but starting companies. I think that is when we will really start to see a shift."

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a freelance writer and project editor for Issue Media Group. Follow her on Twitter @
ninaignaczak
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