We held our second annual Grace Hopper Awards for Insiders to join us at the Grace Hopper Conference in Orlando, Florida for a week of keynotes, sessions, and networking designed to help further women’s careers in tech. We’re excited to introduce the ten talented Insiders who won these awards this year.
These incredible women come from around the world. They’re artists and hackers. They’re mental health advocates. They’re first generation college students, and they’re a powerful reminder of the power of education and technology.
Finding their passion for computer science
The greatest thing that unites these women, and many of the women attending Grace Hopper, is their passion for computer science, but they each got their start in different ways.
Qianze Zhang, a senior at the University of Southern California, created a simple website with free image processing software and a clunky roller-ball mouse at just 10 years old. “I wanted this website to be a platform for my friends in my fifth-grade class to share interesting stories with each other,” she said.
Tamara Covacevich Stipichich, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Pontifica Universidad Catolica de Chile, loves technology because of the connections it fosters. “I am from the southernmost city on the continent, which used to mean that you were born there and spent your life without having much contact with the rest of the world. But this has changed now thanks to technology,” she said.
For many though, it was building something real that ignited their passion for computer science. Growing up in Zimbabwe, Pelagia Maria Majoni, a sophomore at Haverford College, was often surrounded by drought, disease, and poverty. Rather than become discouraged by these issues, she worked to improve them through projects, like the one she presented at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2017 on the potential of potatoes to solve Zimbabwe’s electricity problems.
Interning for NASA helped convince Jennifer Chang, who’s currently earning her master’s at Northeastern University, that she was on the right path. “Getting to see how important computer science was in future space missions and missions of the past like Apollo, I knew I made the right decision to pursue a field that is so revolutionary,” she said.
For Nana Aba Aprewa Turkson, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, her passion ignited when she participated in a robotics competition in high school. “The entire process of creating the robot was really fascinating, and that’s when I fell in love with computer science and robotics,” she said.
And for others, it’s simply a love of problem solving that’s led them here. As Chinonyerem Enyinne Obi-Egbe, who’s getting her master’s degree at Johnson & Wales University, said, “I am happiest when I have a problem to solve… I can easily see myself doing this for the rest of my life, and I really can’t wait to start.”
Supporting their communities
Supporting and improving their communities around the world also drives these young women and what they see as the future of tech.
Juleen Kristina Gentles, a senior at The University of Technology, comes from Jamaica, and she hopes that through a career in tech, she can help her home. “Though my country possesses abundant beauty and resources, we are still plagued by underdevelopment. I believe that technology is one of the greatest tools we can use to solve the problems faced by Jamaica and the wider Carribbean region.”
Nana and Pelagia also hope to use their computer science skills to help empower their countries in the future. Nana dreams of opening an all-girls engineering school in Ghana, and Pelagia hopes to use machine learning and data science to solve problems in Zimbabwe. “It is my community that keeps me going every day. I am because we are,” she said.
Anjum Farook hopes to use her skills to empower those with mental illness. As a 5-year-old in Dubai, she was told she wouldn’t be able to attend a traditional school because of her mental illness. Now, as a senior at UCLA studying statistics and psychology, she hopes to focus on research that prevents suicide, the second leading cause of death in college students. “My career goal [is] to use data science to develop novel approaches to diagnosing and treating mental illness,” she said.
The path to a career in technology hasn’t always been easy for this diverse group of women, and they hope to help open doors for women like them in the future.
For Qianze, she grew up with limited access to digital tools, and after interning for Adobe, knows how subscription prices can impact access to tech. “My motivation for pursuing computer science is not only improving creative technologies and their supporting platforms, but also making them accessible,” she said.
Jessica Lindsey Micallef, who is pursuing a dual-PhD in computational mathematic science engineering and physics, is the president of the Women and Minorities in Physical Sciences group at Michigan State University and also co-chairs the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. “One of the challenges that I’ve faced is being one of the only women in the room, especially in my classes, and sometimes, even in my research. This can be intimidating at times,” she said.
And she’s not alone. Many of these women have faced similar struggles. Jennifer was always interested in STEM but was often met with unsupportive remarks. “After undergrad, I found the courage to check out my burgeoning interest in computer science. Eager to automate repetitive tasks at work, I started taking coding classes at night,” she said.
Diane Le Phan, who is graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara this year, has pursued computer science on her own path. “As a first-generation student in a family of immigrants to attend a 4-year university, my parents did not expect me to succeed in a male-dominated field of computer science,” she said.
She used her statistics major to learn about data analytics, attended hackathons, and stayed persistent until she landed a job building productivity tools and writing Python scripts. “I learned that I don’t have to be a CS major to solve problems creatively. I have my own path to becoming an engineer, and I look forward to mentoring people of different backgrounds to break into tech with diverse skillsets and perspectives.”
Juleen hopes that her opportunities to defy the odds, like winning an international hackathon in Switzerland and presenting on women in STEM at a UN meeting, will inspire other young women. “My dream is to show Carribbean girls that endless opportunities exist in tech, because representation truly matters,” she said.
Chinonyerem also believes her greatest legacy will be teaching her daughter that there are no barriers to what she can achieve. She hopes that one day, as a mother, woman-in-tech, and mentor, she can be a guide to African girls, to help teach them and show them that anything is possible.
The future of technology
We’re excited to see what’s next for these women as they finish their educations and pursue a variety of important advances in technology.
For Tamara, Jennifer, Anjum, and Nana, they hope to improve healthcare in their communities and countries through tech. Jennifer hopes to harness the intersection of tech and science. Tamara would like to use AI models and Anjum data science to make a difference. And after losing her younger brother to malaria, Nana hopes to revolutionize the medical field with robotics.
Jessica is focused on advancing STEM as a whole and believes many problems in her field can be solved using groundbreaking computer science. “My future goal is to help bridge the gap between computer science and specifically, data analytics, and physics to help both fields grow simultaneously,” she said.
But the beauty of technology is the reach each and every one of these women can have in the future. “[T]hat is the magic of technology, being able to have an idea, code it, and then deliver it to the world instantaneously,” said Tamara. “This is an opportunity that we have today, and I am ready to take it.”