When Kimberly Bryant realized that her 12-year-old daughter was serious about following in her footsteps and pursuing a career in engineering, Bryant said her strongest emotion wasn't one of pride, but of concern.
"Knowing all of the things that I went through in my career and before that -- as a student, one of very few women of color in my engineering class at Vanderbilt -- I knew the road ahead was going to be very difficult," Bryant said.
She spoke Wednesday in San Francisco at an event hosted by INFORUM, a division of the public affairs forum called the Commonwealth Club. Bryant, founder of the technology education nonprofit Black Girls Code, said she started the organization to equip young girls with the skills and, importantly, the confidence needed to stick it out in a career field where they will be part of a very small minority.
According to a US Census report, in 2011, 11 percent of the workforce was black, and six percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs were held by blacks.
In an interview with Salman Khan, founder of the education nonprofit Khan Academy, Bryant said that the best hope for ensuring that the future STEM workforce has a diverse makeup is to train minority role models now.
Bryant credits her own mentor, an electrical engineering upperclassman she met in college who was black and female, for keeping her -- a student from inner city Memphis -- in technology and in school.
"Had I not met her, I'm not sure that I would have stayed in the school of engineering. I'm not even sure I would have stayed at Vanderbilt," Bryant said.
While it's natural for most people to gravitate toward others who look like them and share similar experiences, this phenomenon is happening to an extreme -- and harmful -- degree in the mostly white and mostly male tech scene, Bryant believes.
"We often like to think of Silicon Valley as this ideal meritocracy," she said. But the region's workforce is more like a 'mirror-tocracy' in which those in top positions are, likely in many cases subconsciously, hiring people who resemble themselves.
"[The key is] understanding that is the case and pushing ourselves to think a little bit differently," Bryant said.
Bryant added that technology's impact seems to have plateaued. We've perfected the dating app, she pointed out. But in order for tech to reach its next level of achievement, women will have to show up at the table, she said.