By Susan Hickman
Niki Galagedara, a Grade 12 student at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School, believes women will play a huge role in technological advances in the future.
That’s why the 17-year-old joined 106 youths from Ottawa high schools at the Technovation Challenge launch and hack day at Carleton on Sunday, Jan. 17.
“We clearly know the world is heading in a direction where technology will most probably be an element in all aspects of our lives,” said Galagedara, who plans to pursue post-secondary studies in computer science, engineering or computing technology this fall.
Under the Technovation Challenge, designed to interest girls in careers in technology, students meet weekly for three months at high-tech facilities, including IBM, Shopify, Pythian and the L-Spark enterprise software incubator and accelerator. They learn to develop a concept for an application that addresses a community issue under the guidance of students in Carleton’s Technology Innovation Management (TIM) program and experienced, trusted mentors.
The Ottawa students are among several thousand females worldwide, aged 10 to 18, who have applied to the California-based Technovation since 2010 to develop practical mobile applications. The youths work with mentors to conduct user research, create a business plan and build an app prototype aimed at solving real-world problems. Regional Technovation chapters co-ordinate with local school boards to introduce the program and recruit teams of high school students.
The Ottawa Chapter of Women Powering Technology (WPT) brought the Technovation Challenge to Ottawa and Carleton for the first time last year and it attracted 50 participants.
WPT board member Jennifer Francis, who has been in the high-tech industry for more than 30 years, said there are not enough women in the field. Female enrolment in computer science, information technology and electrical engineering remains at less than 25 per cent, she says.
And yet the industry would benefit from tapping into “the other half of the population,” said Francis. “It’s a growing sector, with a lot of well-paying job opportunities. And organizations with more diversity outperform organizations without a mix of backgrounds. It improves innovation.”
Galagedara anticipates the Technovation program will be fun way to learn about the trade. “Moreover, the fact it is (aimed at) women really reinforces my interest to take part. I hope to learn as much as I can and hopefully see our technological world through new and innovative eyes.”
Last year, the Merivale High team, Women with Ambition, won Carleton’s first Technovation Showcase and Competition. The girls designed an app called Voluntapp to link high school students with organizations looking for volunteers.
Francis found it rewarding to watch the first crop of girls transform from doubtful to thrilled as they completed the challenge.
“They weren’t sure at the beginning if they could do it. But they all finished. The community and social aspect of the program keeps them pretty engaged and builds confidence that these are careers they can go after.”
Ahmed Shah, a master’s student in the TIM program and an instructor at last year’s Technovation, recalled: “I was amazed at the technical challenges the students overcame. It’s easy to see that the program is empowering them with skills to become future leaders in engineering, science and business.”
Anar Simpson, a Canadian technologist now based in Silicon Valley and the global ambassador for the Technovation Challenge, attended Sunday’s hack day with a message for the young women:
“Canada is seen as a beacon of hope globally and the app ideas from the capital of this country will speak volumes. So I encourage you to spend the next 12 weeks making the most use of your technical prowess, intellect and creativity, and also to utilize the support of mentors, coaches and teammates to come up with amazing apps.”
Noted Carleton President Roseann O’Reilly Runte: “The capability, enthusiasm and diligence of these young scholars is truly impressive. They are headed for success and I believe they are the leaders of the future.”
“I am very impressed with the talent of these young women and girls,” said Tony Bailetti, Entrepreneurship Teaching Area Co-ordinator at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business and director of the TIM program in the research-intensive Faculty of Engineering and Design.
“We will make a special effort to attract each of these talented individuals to Carleton’s minor in entrepreneurship and Bachelor of Commerce in entrepreneurship.”