March 20, 2018, 20 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
For this week’s interviews, Julia and Sarah got together with Malavika Vivek. While still in high-school herself, she co-founded 'Girls Make Apps', an organization offering computer science education for female middle school students in the US. Her events and courses have impacted hundreds of girls and young women to aspire a career in tech.
In our conversation, we talked about high-school pressure triggering students to pull all-nighters, feeling entitled to be in the room, how she convinced Microsoft to sponsor their event and how to effectively motivate struggling students.
Hi Malavika. Great for having you on.
“Great to be here. I'm excited!”
You're 17 years old as of now and a senior in high school. At that age, you're pretty active and very passionate about everything related to coding. You are encouraging girls to pick up coding skills and just generally foster their interesting in STEM. You're the co-founder of 'Girls Make Apps' and 'Women Tech Exchange' and a few other things. Why don't just start off by giving us a short introduction to yourself? What is it that you do and what else would you like us to know about you?
“Sure. I began my journey in tech during middle school. That's when I first started coding. It started out as me going into a summer camp for that from the Center for Talented Youth, and while I was there I learned how to program in Java. That was my first language and I was immediately hooked. I love the problem-solving aspect of it and how I could build and create things just from a computer. When I got to high school, I chose to go to a STEM-focused high school. I now go to an engineering high school called the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies. As part of the engineering curriculum at this school, I have been majoring in electrical engineering and computer technologies. The school is really unique because you have the aspect of choosing a career major and actually taking college-level engineering classes throughout high school. That was amazing for me.”
How did your voluntary engagement to promote girls in coding start?
“While I was there, I saw that a lot of my female peers were having trouble going to events like hackathons and different coding opportunities because they didn't really see a place for them there. It was something I really wanted to change because I had always felt encouraged to be in tech and it felt right for me. I wanted to show women that there was a place for them and that they could be interested in it as well. Women Tech Exchange was my first endeavor. In 10th grade, I started a conference/panel series in my school where I invited female leaders in business and tech to come and share their own experiences. It was a bit of a challenge at first because I had to show the girls in my school why this was important, and eventually they had a really amazing time. Getting them there was the hard part. This aspect of showing girls positive female role models later translated into one of our core values at Girls Make Apps [an organization that organizes free coding classes, workshops, and hackathons for girls.”
How did you meet your Co-founder, Akshaya Dinesh?
“We actually met through the National Center for Women in Information Technology . We actually only live 30 minutes from each other but we would never have met if it wasn't for this organization. We met on the Facebook group and realized that we had so much in common, including the passion to bridge the gender gap in tech. We decided to start this organization as a very small scale thing at first. We did an eight week Android AppInventor camp with Microsoft, who provided us with a venue and devices for all the girls to program on. We had about 40 middle school girls who started out in the camp and at the end, they all created and published Android apps on the Google Play store.”
“Learning how to learn from your mistakes,
move on and use it to push yourself
rather than to bring yourself down
is something we have to focus on a lot more.”
You were in high school in 11th grade when you did that. How did you pull that off to get Microsoft's support? How did you make an eight-week boot camp happen? Did you have any help?
“My Co-founder and I did most of the groundwork ourselves. We reached out to a ton of different companies and she actually had a contact at Microsoft because of a hackathon she had previously attended. They loved the initiative and the fact that it was going to be middle school girls coding. They gave us access to their space on Fifth Avenue in New York City, which is made for camps exactly like ours. And they helped us with event managers who ensured the event ran smoothly. We designed the curriculum ourselves. Recruiting the girls was definitely difficult but we finally got a good group of 40 middle school girls between 10 to 13 years old. We did it by reaching out to their school counselors and Girls Who Code Clubs in the areas.”
What sort of applications were the girls building?
“They were all building Android applications through the MIT App Inventor software. It's sort of a drag-and-drop software that gives a really good introduction to coding for people that aren't familiar with the syntax and harder aspects of coding. They all built app targeted to some form of social impact and we had apps on everything from bullying and nutrition”
I'm interested in how to create an interest in coding in girls of that age. What were the things they were building and what were they passionate about creating?
“Indeed, we've got to find something they're passionate about creating. We try to tie it in with this aspect of social entrepreneurship. A lot of the girls at this age have social causes that they're passionate about, like bullying, health, education, and nutrition. We asked them to pick a cause and build an app to help it. For instance, we had girls building apps to help English as a Second Language (ESL) Learners to master English. These girls had many friends like that who struggled in a challenging school environment in a language that was foreign to them. And we had another girl build an app that targeted cyberbullying where you could talk to friends in your school about problems you were facing anonymously.”
“Whenever you walk into a room,
walk like you're entitled to be there
and know that you belong there.”
What came next?
“After that, we had a lot of parents come to us and ask “What's the next program?”, but we didn't have anything. And they reacted with: “You have to do something! These girls are interested now.” We acknowledged that and realized we couldn’t stop there. To continue our programs, we did a machine learning workshop that was one week long in the Bay Area. This was our first time working with high school students from the other side of the country and coordinating this with them. But it was very successful and we had Facebook's Oculus donate Virtual Reality Oculus Rifts which was amazing because it gave these girls the opportunity to work with actual virtual reality software that they were working with. Another event we did this year was a machine learning workshop for beginners.”
You also organized a Hackathon called ByteHacks. Why did you choose to do that and what was your approach?
“My Co-founder is an avid hacker. She has been to over 30 hackathons, which is insane for someone of our age. She’s always wanted to organize her own hackathon and I was onboard. Byte hacks was an all women hackathon that we had last June at the Spotify headquarters in New York City. It was an amazing event with over 150 high school and college women coming in and spending 24 hours building actual software products that were judged by engineers. We got the participants through advertising on Facebook and different social media, as well as emailing friends in different New York City and New Jersey high schools.
Some hackathons are intimidating because they say that you have to build a product in 24 hours. We advertised it as completely beginner friendly and stressed and showed participants that even if you don't build a product, you can learn to build a product. Our aim was to provide a safe environment where they could come and experience a hackathon because many hackathons are male-dominated. We put the women together and they can learn with each other. That provides a really positive first experience of tech, which is the mission for those makeups.”
You have mentioned you’re pretty hands down when it comes to running these things. Are you moving in your comfort zone when it comes to the technical skills or are you relying on experts who may be deeper in certain specific niches or applications?
“Between me and Akshaya, we have a couple of different technical skill sets. She does a lot of Android development and virtual reality. I do a lot of machine learning and web development. Between those skills we've been able to coordinate the different things that we've been leading. We have mostly built the curriculums completely by ourselves. We do go to experts sometimes if we want to go a little bit deeper into new topics. Also, the Internet is a great resource for us. But as Girls Make Apps continues to grow and expand, I'm sure that we're going to have to rely a lot more on experts in different topics just to cover the wide range of things that girls want to learn these days.”
What do you do with Women Tech Exchange?
“My plan with Women Tech Exchange was to show girls at my school just how diverse the field of technology was. It didn’t exactly work out as I had planned and I came to the realization that these panels weren't exactly useful if the girls didn't have any tech experience going into them. It made me go back and rethink, and I realized that Girls Make Apps was a much more effective way for us to have a real impact - by getting these girls coding, giving them technical skills and showing them that tech is a great field for everyone. Learning from the failure of Women Tech Exchange was very valuable.“
How much do you think is geography impacting your ability to pick up coding at a young age? Not every area in the US has such amazing high schools like yours.
“I think geography definitely has a really big impact. In areas like New York, where we started, a lot of the schools already have some sort of computer science curriculum and the girls often had had some sort of introduction to it. As part of our expansion, we wanted to target more remote areas where girls might not have had as much exposure to this kind of stuff. We recently conducted a web development workshop in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. At first, I was pretty hesitant about doing a workshop in a remote area just because I wasn't sure how many girls we could even get into the program. There are not as many ‘Girls Who Code’ clubs and very few schools with a tech-focused curriculum. But it all worked out. We had a great partner (Workshop Mercantile) in that area, who provided the venue space, helped us fundraise and contact the schools. Villanova University helped us provide some laptops for these girls too as some did not have one.”
“You could be that person in that girl's life
that turns her into a female leader in tech. Wouldn't you want to be that person?”
What impact can a single event have?
“It’s an interesting question and it’s one we had as well. We had the girls take a pre-survey asking things like “Do you think tech is for you?”, “Is tech something you're interested in?”. Most of them put “No.” or “I don't know anything about tech.”. But by the end of the program, they built a website. Many created sites about environmental topics or animals such as dolphins. It was very cute. At the end I told them “Guys, do you realize what you just did? You made a website from scratch in three weeks when at the beginning of this program you came and said that you don't know what technology was.” Even in these less urban areas where tech might not be as emphasized, there are so many smart girls just waiting for people to come in and show them how diverse tech is. Now we're focused more on getting more into these areas.”
Would you say that an exposure of three weeks is a sustainable impact to keep the girls going even after the class is over?
“Yes, absolutely. Three weeks seems like a short time. But the main point is getting them to build something. It might not look pretty and it might not be too functional but when they see that they can make something it creates an immediate hook that stays as a sustainable impact. In these areas, we try to do more follow-up workshops where the girls can come back and have a chance to expand more on what they've created previously and advance their level of coding. We also encourage them to go back to their schools and tell as well as teach their friends.”
Do you have any thoughts on getting young professional women into coding? The hook for them is probably not going to be a dolphin website.
“Professionals are not currently our target audience. But with events like ByteHacks we actually had a mom who is a medical professional without coding experience participate. She came with her daughter who was in middle-school and they built a product together in that hackathon.
Also, we try to get older professional women to work with younger girls and share their experience. We’ve found that to be highly effective. We highly encourage parents to participate in workshops and learn themselves. Whenever we see them work together with their kids to solve problems, we really see that they get excited as well. Coding can be a family activity that helps to bond parents and children and everyone is learning something.”
“Positive encouragement can work miracles.
It can be such an important tool when you're teaching something very technical like coding. A lot of people tend to focus on just the technical aspects and steps, but the ‘how’ of teaching is crucial.”
What's something around people that you have learned on your journey?
“With regards to dealing and motivating students, one of the biggest things we've learned is that positive encouragement can work miracles. It can be such an important tool when you're teaching something very technical like coding. A lot of people tend to focus on just the technical aspects and steps, but the ‘how’ of teaching is crucial.
For example, it is important to share how you learned and to share your own personal experience. I always tell middle school girls: “This is where I messed up. This part was really hard.” You have to make them feel comfortable and show them that you are not perfect, that you messed up and struggled as well. And that it is just part of the experience overcoming that.
Sometimes girls can get frustrated when they are stuck. We will say “Let’s just take a step back and look at the problem and what you have done. Look at this, this is something you've done really well. How about we use that to solve this problem as well?”. We always try to focus on the positive aspects of it and what they've already accomplished because often they've accomplished so much and they're just really hard on themselves.”
You have also interacted with a lot of senior people, trying to gain them as collaborators or sponsors. How do you deal with these people? How do you present yourself?
“A lot of senior people tend to look at these organizations and they're not able to see the end results. And for that reason, they might not be as willing to sponsor something like it. One of the biggest things we've had to learn is that we have to show them the direct impact that we're going to have. And that's really how to get them involved and how to have them fully support us.
We show them pictures of these girls learning and you can see that their faces light up and they have a moment where they're hooked. We tell them about how girls come in with no experience or interest in tech. But they leave with such a passion for it, saying things like 'I'm going to major in computer science when I'm in college'. I tell them 'You could be the person that makes that happen. You could be that person in that girl's life that turns her into a female leader in tech. Wouldn't you want to be that person?'”
It sounds like you don’t talk so much about the financial bottom line to them, and how their investment will pay off?
“The financial bottom line is there and obviously for companies, it's an important factor but we tell them: 'Don't you want to build a better world?'. We've seen that a lot of companies talk more about corporate social responsibility and things like that. And that really helps us and our mission because they're willing to support organizations like us and help us empower women. In addition, we show them by supporting these initiatives they are their potential future employees. This conveys the numerous rewards to them”
“Satisfaction isn't something that you can get
just from achievements, awards, and honors.
Satisfaction is something that purely
comes from within yourself.”
You've started all these different grass root activities. How do you go about creating and acting upon a vision?
“My co-founder and I absolutely have a vision that one day we want Girls Make Apps represented across the world and especially in countries that don't have access to these kinds of opportunities. Where there are girls who did not have the privilege we've had growing up with parents that completely support us and gave us all these opportunities. But for now, what we really learned is that taking it step by step has been one of the best approaches for us. We're both high schoolers with extremely hectic lives. Sometimes, we get too caught up on the bigger vision, and it can feel a bit overwhelming when you are missing your targets. So we're focusing on smaller victories in the present, breaking things up and focus on delivering a great experience, one workshop at a time. That helps us stay very well coordinated and make sure that we're giving every single one of our workshops 100 percent.”
You are a power duo, managing really a lot of the work on your own. What's something you would mention as a method or a technique for you to achieve maximum output at minimum input, to scale and make things repeatable?
“Something that really helped us is the way we design our curriculum, which is generally something that's extremely time-consuming. We've seen that we can design a certain curriculum for a certain topic and then reuse that multiple times. The other thing we've seen is we've built very lasting relationships with the counselors’ teachers and parents of the girls in our workshop. This has helped us with recruitment immensely because getting it off the ground was obviously one of the hardest challenges. But once we've been able to do that, by maintaining these relationships and by emailing them every few weeks saying “Here are more opportunities how we can help your girls!”, they can pass us on by word of mouth and by spreading the info it in their network. Some of the stories of the girls in our workshops on how they heard about us are amazing.”
“All you have to do is ask.
There's a whole community
of people out there willing to help.”
Let’s talk about yourself and your prospective career. What is something hard you are putting yourself through, an effort that you are taking in order to create better opportunities for yourself? Other than, of course, your amazing work around Girls Make Apps.
“Something that I became very interested in high school was combining biology and computer science. I never really thought that I would love biology as much as I found I did in high school. I took a biology class and was immediately hooked. I loved the systems aspect of it and I thought there were so many amazing ways we could combine biology and computer science, for instance, bioinformatics or bio data analytics. What I decided to do was I wanted to get some firsthand experience in it. And so a classmate and I cold-emailed a bunch of professors, telling them about an idea we had about combining machine learning and pediatric food allergy. We finally got a response back by a professor at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who was the Chief of Allergy and Immunology. He invited us to come by and tell him about our project. And so we talked to him and it turned into a big year-long project where we worked with him throughout the school year. In the summer I lived in Philadelphia and worked at the Children's Hospital and we created this machine learning based tool that diagnosed cross-sensitization in pediatric food allergy. This was an amazing first opportunity that I had to combine my passion for biology and computer science. It was absolutely challenging and there were days where I did not know what I was doing at all. Overcoming all the professional and technical challenges was an amazing experience. Though it was hard, it really opened my eyes to the field and showed me that this is absolutely something that I want to do.”
How did you solve the problems where we didn't know how to approach them?
“I talked to so many different people. I talked to a professor a lot but he was very biology based and didn't have as much technical experience. Our product used two-class neural networks for predictive analyses. So I talked to engineers who were building products using machine learning and who were doing things with neural networks. I got their feedback on how to improve our algorithm and make it more accurate as that's the biggest issue we were facing early on. And they gave such great advice. So many engineers and people in computer science I found are super open to sharing their ideas and their experience. And all you have to do is ask. There's a whole community of people out there willing to help.”
How did you get to know these people?
“I semi-stalked them. I went and I looked at their blogs and the things they were saying on Facebook or machine learning blogs. I literally just found them online and their contact information is available on their blogs. I just sent them an email and they were able to help me, which is just amazing. The connectivity we have these days is so great.”
Any other examples?
“Over the summer, I wanted to do something similar and I became very interested in cancer research and how computer science could really further cancer research. My dream for this summer was to get an internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center because it's one of the top cancer centers in the world. They see some of the most interesting and crazy cases of cancer. I really wanted to work in a place like that where they're just furthering innovation every day. I was able to get an internship there, which I think was a life-changing experience for me. I worked at the Barry Taylor lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering. They specialize in bioinformatics and studying molecular biology through computer science. Therefore, they do many large-scale data analytics projects where they identify novel gene targets or different mechanisms of resistance and cancer. My project was to identify these gene targets through a genomic analysis of cervical cancer. This was very biology-based and heavily computer science driven. It helped me see computer science as a tool that could really further biology beyond our imagination. It is an ongoing project that I am actually still working on with them. It has been an amazing experience so far and I really learned so much in a very short period of time. You really accelerate your learning when you're trying to push to do challenging things by yourself.”
“Many people don't take time to just
focus on themselves and take a
break from all the technology around them.”
What are some of your habits and routines?
“A lot of people don't know I meditate a lot. It's something that I've found helps me so much. I'm a very energetic person, very talkative. People don't associate me with something like calm, still meditation. But I do meditate a couple times every week for just about half an hour. It's something I got through practicing Taekwondo. I did taekwondo from the time I was a child to about like 10th grade in high school. Meditation is a huge spiritual aspect of taekwondo. Learning how to meditate has definitely changed a lot of the ways I've done things. Whenever I'm stressed out about too many things going on, meditation is a way to focus and release all of that anxiety that I might be facing. Many people don't take time to just focus on themselves and take a break from all the technology around them. ”
I can relate to a lot of things you're saying. For myself, I have trouble to find an entry point. When do you do your practice?
“For me, it began at a much younger age so maybe that's why I was easier. I usually meditate in the night before going to sleep. Shorter periods of time might be a better way to get into it. Instead of 30 minutes, maybe try five minutes a day or something. That might be a really good way to just start and then build on.”
Do you believe in the 80/20 rule? It says that 80% of the outcomes are caused by only 20% of our efforts. You can apply it to different things but the idea behind it is that we're actually doing a lot of things that don't lead to too much impact. And then there are certain things that really cause the tremendous big impact that we want to see. Is that something you can observe in your life or do you try to make sure all of your activities yield equal outcomes?
“That definitely applies in my life. A lot of the people I've spoken to say things like “Oh, so many of the things you've done can be seen in so many positive ways”. But they don't see all the things that I've done that haven't amounted to anything. There's been so many internships and awards I've applied for and not gotten. All those things are just as important to make me who I am today than the things that I have had a chance to get. In our times, results and achievements are so emphasized. Being ok with failing and accepting it as a part of life is something that has really helped me. It's something I struggled with a lot in high school. I go to a very competitive high school and getting bad grades was a big deal for a lot of people. It was a big deal for me too. Being okay with it and just learning how to learn from your mistakes, move on and use it to push yourself rather than to bring yourself down is something we have to focus on a lot more. So yeah, absolutely, I failed. There are things that I really wanted that I did not get. And I think it's made me a better, stronger person and to help other people get past their own failures. Satisfaction isn't something that you can get just from achievements, awards, and honors. Satisfaction is something that purely comes from within yourself.”
“Pulling an all-nighter is something
that's just hailed as some sort of
good thing. But it's so bad for you.”
What is something you have learned about yourself during the last years?
“I am terrible at prioritization. I'm very indecisive when it comes to priorities. There are just so many things that I want to do all the time and that I'm interested in that I definitely struggle to figure out what's most important to me. I sometimes still take on more than I should. Learning to say ‘no’ to things and being okay with that is definitely something I am still working on. There are so many new challenges and opportunities that come up about all the time where I'm like “oh I want to do this”, but I have to focus on what's important to me. And give 100 percent to the things I'm actually involved in because I don't want to make half-hearted commitments.
Another thing that I've learned is that I need to sleep at least 7 hours every day. A lot of high schoolers here do not sleep enough at all. They're sleeping like four or five hours every night. It is part of the culture - pulling an all-nighter is something that's just hailed as some sort of good thing. But it's so bad for you. In my freshman year of high school, I really didn't sleep much at all. In more recent years I've been sleeping much more regularly. I focus on getting that sleep even if it means that I don't study enough for one thing or if I don't send another email out.”
There is a book called 'Essentialism' by Greg McEwen which I can highly recommend to you. It's exactly about that, focus and doing less but better. There's a lot of powerful concepts and hands-on tools actually in there.
What's the best advice you have ever received?
“Some of the best advice that I've received is whenever you walk into a room, walk like you're entitled to be there and know that you belong there. I think something that holds a lot of people back, especially women in spaces like tech, is when you walk into a room you and you don't feel confident about being there. Instead, you might feel you are lacking the necessary skills or experience. And I felt like that before but it really holds you back. A lot of the amazing women in tech that I've had the opportunity to talk to always gave me that advice. Don't be afraid to say things and make suggestions. Don't be afraid to be wrong. When you don't have that fear, you don't put that pressure on yourself, the ideas you can contribute are so much more high quality and they can actually push things to further innovation and help people. It's really made me be able to voice my opinion so much better and be heard much more.”
Malavika, thank you for being on here today. We wish to stay in touch and learn more about the progress that you make with all your initiatives.
“Thank you so much for having me. I love ‘Here She Is’.”
Malavika Vivek is a senior at the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Technologies. She is the executive director of Girls Make Apps, a US nonprofit organization that provides free workshops, programs, and hackathons for female middle school, high school and college students. Besides this, she is the Director of Programs for the US nonprofit ProjectCSGirls. For her efforts to introduce women to computer science and STEM, she has been awarded as a national runner-up by the National Center for Women and Information Technology and was named a 2017 #include fellow. She is also passionate about computational biology and machine learning research and has worked with researchers from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She is a two-time Siemens Competition Semifinalist for her research in food allergy diagnostics with machine learning and cervical cancer genomics. If you want to read more about Malavika - she has been featured in the Huffington Post , ReigningIT , Future Sharks , and Doer Society.