In 2019, according to NCWIT, only 26% of the computing workforce were women and just 3% were African-American women.  Technology companies large and small are highly challenged to significantly address the talent imbalance and achieve inclusive practices that attract women and people of color to their ranks.  

As an NCWIT affiliate, the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Awards Program (MNAiC) is devoted to addressing the overall shortage of female technology talent, and to work with schools, community, and business partners to significantly increase the number of women of color choosing and excelling in technology-related education and career pursuits.  In the eight years of the MNAiC program, an average of 57% of the selected top-level Minnesota honorees have been women of color. In 2020, six of the forty-three top female honorees identify as Black or African American (14%). 

The past Black History Month, the Minnesota Center of IT Excellence celebrated six top-level honorees --who were recognized along with their peers at an April awards ceremony-- for their computing-related interests, skills, and accomplishments. The young women were aksed to identify a person in Black history who has inspired them the most and why — here’s what they shared with us:

Sarah Ali, Junior at South High School – Minneapolis

“I am inspired by Dorothy Johnson Vaughan a computer analyst and mathematician. She inspires me because despite being one of the only women in the room, she was also one of the only women of color. By sticking it out through these working conditions she was able to pave the way for the generations to come.”

Ali is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing National Honorable Mention and State Winner. In her spare time, she enjoys teaching her Girls Who Code classes to 2nd graders and running community service events such as blood drives and hosting awareness weeks at her school. She is also president of an all-girls technology club at her high school and is the community service officer of the student council. In the near future, she hopes to have a career related to cybersecurity.

Mary Ghebremekal, Sophomore at South High School – Minneapolis

Lena O. Smith, who was a famous African-American attorney in Minneapolis from the 1930s to the 1960s. She fought for those who, at the time, had no voice within the court system. Her tireless work for minorities and civil rights in the face of adversity is simply inspiring.”

Ghebremeskal is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing National Honorable Mention and previous State Winner. In her free time, she teaches robotics classes to elementary students and participates in other clubs at her school. Her current job at a Best Buy Teen Tech Center has taught her the skills needed to achieve her future goals in cybersecurity, game development, and politics.

Claire Jensen, Senior at South High School – Minneapolis

“African American author Toni Morrison inspires me because she was bold enough to initiate change and forge a path in a field where she was not welcome in society’s eyes. She didn’t let anyone hold her back and didn’t ever stop doing what she loved, no matter what she gained or lost from it. Toni Morrison inspires me to change only for myself and to never stop pursuing my passions, and I strive to be as dedicated as her.”

Jensen is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing National Honorable Mention and State Winner. She was a founding member of Sisters-n-Technology, an after school coding club for girls. She also co-founded a Black Student Union at her school, giving a voice to the students and creating a safe space for students of color.

Aliyah Sahal, Sophomore at Blaine High School

Malcolm X has always been a great influence on me, a strong Black, Muslim, man who stood up for what he believed in the face of oppression. He is who I aspire to be like through my soul, I too hope that I’ll never be afraid to stand for who I am.”

Sahal is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing National Honorable Mention and State Winner. Her passions include speech competitions and volunteering. She’s involved in many clubs at her school including, Student Council, Muslim Student Association, and much more. After spending time in her home country of Somalia this past summer, she realized why it is important that she pursues an educational and career track in Biomedical Engineering. She hopes to help leverage her technology skills to help develop sustainable solutions conducive to a more humane and enjoyable life for the Somalian people.

Afiya Ward, Senior at Central High School – St. Paul

“I have always been amazed and inspired by the story of Ms. Katherine Johnson. Of course, my technical field of interest is very different than hers, but her examples of drive and resilience have inspired me to continue to work towards my goals, even when it gets hard.”

Ward is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing State Winner. Over the past year, she has worked with ARTS-Us to create a summer program for middle school and high school girls as well as youth of color, to help them explore their interests in STEAM and provide them with leadership opportunities. Afiya is also a basketball player and volunteers with many organizations in her community.

Dorothea Watson, Sophomore at Hopkins High School

“A woman who is an important figure in both the African-American community and the global community, that has affected me greatly is,  Henrietta Lacks. She was a black woman whose cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line and one of the most crucial cell lines in medical history. The name Henrietta Lacks has stuck with me for so long because for decades, she went unrecognized for her contribution to the medical field although her cells were paramount in advancing medical practices. This, to me, is something to hold onto every day because it is a reminder of the suffering black people have had to endure and my job as a member of the black community to put an end to that unnecessary inequality, inequity, and suffering.”

Watson is a 2020 Aspirations in Computing State Honorable Mention. In middle school she took a STEM elective, however, she was unsatisfied with the scope of the courses resulting in her teaching herself HTML, JavaScript, and CSS. An interest in science and technology led her to participate in Tech Trek, an all-girls STEM camp. Currently, she is studying graphic design, engineering, architecture, and coding. In the future, Dorothea hopes to attend Stanford University and pursue a career that allows her to unite her love for STEM and the social sciences.

The Minnesota Aspirations in Computing (MNAiC) Awards Program partners with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) to inspire, empower, and honor young women of high school age for their computing-related achievements and interests. The program is supported by the Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence and numerous businesses and organizations. The powerful story of honoree accomplishments does not end at a recognition ceremony in April of each year, it’s just the beginning! Over 400 young women who have been honored since the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Program inception in 2012-2013 continue to pursue life-changing education and career opportunities, becoming accomplished practitioners and leaders in a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

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