“Did you have many women mentors in technology that you could look up to while you were in high school?”
Stéphanie Jecrois answered the question right away and with a good laugh afterwards: “Not really.”
Jecrois, a Haitian-born Montrealer who came to Quebec when she was a child, cofounded the Montreal chapter of Technovation Girls. It’s a global tech entrepreneurship program that challenges girls to identify real-world issues and build apps to solve them.
Tomorrow will be the culmination of five months of hard work for 20 teams of girls aged 10 to 18 living in Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau. The girls, about 100 in total, have been working with volunteer mentors, most of which are successful women entrepreneurs, but also including male mentors. Saturday will mark the program’s Demo Day.
At the online Demo Day, the 20 teams will present their app ideas that solve a specific problem or need within their community.
Some of the apps created by this year’s Montreal-based teams target domestic violence victims, reducing food waste, helping teenagers deal with intimidation and reducing one’s carbon footprint.
All the ideas are inspired by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN’s 17 SDGs include goals like no poverty, zero hunger, quality education, clean water and sanitation and more.
“The girls are pretty aware of what’s happening around the world and in the news, and they want to start contributing. Part of this program is teaching them how to become leaders and engaged citizens in their community,” said Jecrois.
To get there, the budding entrepreneurs have been learning both business skills and coding skills. The mentors help teach them how to develop their teams, how to code their apps and bring them to market.
“It really comes down to the girls,” Jecrois told MTLinTECH. “We give them the overview but they’re discussing the themes that are close to their hearts and then they start building and validating their own app ideas,” said Jecrois. “They perform the entire cycle of creating an app.”
The teams will pitch to a panel of judges including Mona-Lisa Prosper, Director at Black Entrepreneurs – Futurpreneur; Wemba Opota, Artificial Intelligence Enterprise Solutions Lead at Microsoftl; Étienne Mérineau, CEO at Heydai.ai; and Naysan Saran, CEO at Cann Forecast.
If they’re successful in doing so, they’ll earn a spot in the next round and maybe even the finals, held in August.
The action starts at 1 PM tomorrow. Here’s how you can watch it all unfold.
Successful tech role models for girls to look up to
One of the goals of the program, says Jecrois, is to prompt young girls in Montreal, Quebec and Canada to believe that they can succeed in the STEM fields.
“The idea is that the girls can project themselves in these career fields. They see other women who are thriving in this industry and they can think, if those women did it, they can do it too,” said Jecrois.
The stats clearly tell us that the “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have seen historically low participation among women since their origins. A lower number of visible role models for girls can, at the very least, dissuade someone from seeing STEM careers as viable.
So what’s the solution? For Technovation Girls, their stats show that as long as they can get girls in the door, the majority of them tend to stay.
After participating in the program, 70 percent of girls expressed a greater interest in technology and leadership. Meanwhile, 58 percent of them enrolled in more computer science courses.
“One thing I really enjoy is being surrounded by extraordinary people, extraordinary women and learning from them. So I wanted to share and teach other girls how they could contribute to something,” said Jecrois.
When she first heard about the program, Jecrois learned that it was based on teaching things like digital literacy, problem-solving, communication skills and civic engagement.
“I thought, wow, this is wonderful. Imagine if at their age they could learn about all of that and how it could open doors for them and give them access to opportunities later on in their lives,” she said. “That’s what really attracted me to this program.”
The organization is also making an effort to attract girls speaking both English and French. It hasn’t had too many francophone chapters in the past, besides Montreal and a few African cities.
This year, however, a francophone team from Ottawa – Gatineau will compete. While the teams must present supporting documentation and video explanations of their app in English, they can perform their local pitch in either language.
Returning to the question
Jecrois said the interest in technology was certainly there when she was a teen, even if visible mentors were in short supply. And so she feels that it’s important to give girls a chance to be exposed to the STEM fields.
“Some people say girls are less interested in STEM but I really don’t think that’s the case. It’s about being exposed to all the career possibilities, and I think that’s what this program is doing. Some may end up in tech after the program and we have testimonies of girls who said it’s because of this program that I chose to take computer science classes in CEGEP or now in university.”
“It’s about opening up their eyes and allowing them to see all the possibilities,” said Jecrois.
(Main image by Matteo Zamaria)