When Dez White came up with the idea for Invisible Text, she was very intimidated by technology – but her developer insisted on teaching her programming. Today, as she works with four different teams, she doesn’t have to sit on the sidelines.
"When we're coding our new improvements or setting up our new graphic design or looking at the database for the server and adding in new features, I'm right there...I'm working hand in hand - I'm not just sitting back saying, 'we should do this' and 'oh no, we shouldn't do that," says White "Educate yourself so you don't have to rely solely on your developer."
The help she got was part of the inspiration for GirlCode, a series of free tech events for girls and women ages 13+. On September 6, the first event will kick off in Los Angeles and include speakers, coding education, and networking.
White claims to be the youngest female African American tech entrepreneur to invent and successfully launch a suite of apps, which include private communication apps Invisible Text, Invisible Call, Invisible Email, and Invisible Social. She’s working with Jay Z’s former business partner Damon Dash on her next project, Blind Debit, an app that replaces plastic credit cards with fingerprints.
- THE BIZ JOURNALS
On Saturday morning at engage:BDR’s offices in West Hollywood, about 50 women and girls gathered to get a crash course in tech. Girl Code LA, the first in what the organizers hope will be a series of nationwide female-centric events, offered advice on the basics of coding, app development and marketing from women executives working in an industry famous for its bro culture.
Entrepreneur Dez White, founder of secure messaging app Invisible Text, hosted.
“She built it herself while she was pregnant and just married and didn’t know how to code and sort of had to learn how to do it on her own,” said Sydney Goldman, marketing manager at engage:BDR, who spoke at Girl Code as well. Nclusive’s Ashley Dana also presented at the event.
Goldman recapped Girl Code LA for me on Monday with details about who attended, what they learned and why events for women in technology are so important.
What is Girl Code?
Girl Code is a joint event between our organization and a couple of other female entrepreneurs. Essentially the reason we did it was you hear all the time about how women in technology are—it’s not the easiest sector to be in, and it’s not super welcoming and friendly. We wanted to show that there really is a safe place for women to work in technology and to learn how to code and develop their own businesses or have careers in technology companies.
What inspired the idea for Girl Code?
Dez sort of spearheaded the effort. She saw the lack of information and motivation, and she wanted to make this event to show girls that it could really be a very cool and profitable thing and make information really readily available to them. She reached out to connections of hers that she thought would be good organic fits, and then it ended up being this event.
Why was engage:BDR a good fit to host the event?
We are a digital advertising company. We started as an ad network and then branched out into other ventures due to the success of that, so we have a programmatic marketplace [and] we have our own in-house ad server that we built.
There were two reasons it was a good fit: One, because we’re really great at getting brands up off the ground and doing marketing for them, so we could get into that. And the other because we are a tech company, we have all these tech products that we built in-house, and we have a really strong set of women both on our managing team and in our company. So we just felt like it was a really good place for us to be able to showcase that beyond having your own venture, you can really have a successful career at a tech company.
How did Girl Code go? Can you walk me through the day?
We started around 11. We had girls come in and register and mingle a little bit. Then Dez and Ashley spoke, so they talked about both their stories and their careers and then they went into the logistical aspects of learning how to code an app or protecting your ideas legally, how to get funding—all sorts of nitty-gritty things that you might not think of or really know how to do. Then we broke for networking and refreshments, and the girls got to talk with the people who were in attendance. I spoke a little bit about how to market an app as well as my career in our company. Then Dez and Ashley spoke a little bit more about just the general business [aspects]. And then we all broke for questions.
So the event wasn’t necessarily hand-on, but it did provide some practical takeaways.
On a one-day event, there’s only so much you can teach. We didn’t sit down and have everybody code their own app. But we brought people from having an idea all the way to having successful business or having a successful career. And then all the women who spoke gave out their contact information. I’ve already had several girls email me asking questions and trying to move forward with whatever their specific area of interest is, and I think that we’re all really open to providing that continued relationship so we can help them out.
How was the event received?
We had about 50 attendees. It was aimed at girls 13-plus, but we actually had women of all ages who had heard about the event and wanted to show up. The audience was really engaged. They all had lots of questions, and it was a really positive engaging experience.
What was the age range?
We had some young girls who were in middle and high school. But then we also had women who already have careers and sort of are working on developing something on the side. I think we had women up to in their 50s. It was a really, really awesome turnout.
What were the participants working on, and what stages were they at in their projects?
There was a really big range. There were several girls both young and adult women who had ideas for apps that they wanted to sort of understand the logistics better of how to code it and launch it and start a business. But there were also several girls who were probably high school or college age who wanted to know what it’s like to work in that field, how do I get an internship, how do I turn an internship into a job, different things like that.
Did it cost the participants anything attend?
No. It’s a social initiative, something that we were all pretty passionate about doing, so we all came together to organize it, and it was not at a cost.
How did you reach out to potential attendees?
A couple of ways. I know there was some press coverage on local news stations, so KTLA 5 covered it, and that got a lot of attendees. But there was also social pushes on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We reached out to some of our employees: “Bring your daughters.” So there was a nice mix of people we had connections with and then people who had heard about it organically.
Will there be future Girl Code events as well?
This is the first one, and due to its success, we would definitely be interested in hosting more. I think there was really great feedback and [impetus] to do initiatives like this in the future.
Why are events like Girl Code LA important?
Two reasons: There’s a statistic I read that girls up to till eighth grade, there’s about an equal amount of boys and girls who will say they’re interested in science and math and technology, and after that it drops severely. So I think that it’s really nice to create a space that’s dedicated to these young girls and say, “It doesn’t have to be boring or male-oriented. It can be accessible to you too.”
And then I also think giving the concrete information—not just saying you can do it but like here’s how. Here’s things you should know about. Creating almost sort of a mini mentorship is really, really helpful.
We’ve all heard the dismal news that women are underrepresented in the technology sector. While women represent 59 percent of the workforce, they only represent 26 percent of employees in technology. Over time, there has been a downward trend in the number of women with careers in technology. Even if they start out in technology, they often leave the field. The question is not should we be doing something about this disparity, but rather what can we do, and how? It’s clear that tech companies want to hire more women, but there have been few tangible plans of action put forward on how to catalyze change.
To help fix that, here are six tactics that my company has rolled out (so far, successfully) to keep women on our team:
1. Value performance over politics: A major barrier for women is often company culture. The optimal culture to keep females in technology is one where performance and competencies are valued over social ties and relationships. Evaluate your culture and subcultures. Are you intentionally determining your corporate culture, or are you leaving it to entropy? Culture change starts from the top. Executives should even the playing field for women by encouraging a culture deeply rooted in measurable performance. Establish metrics and KPIs to evaluate the success of the company, down to each employee. Communicate goals clearly, track progress, and hold employees accountable. Create a robust recognition program to celebrate employee success. This will foster an environment where performance, productivity, and creativity prevail over after-hour relationships and social ties.
2. Create a social environment where everyone can participate: Socializing with peers provides for greater employee engagement. To further level the playing field, companies can provide opportunities for employees to socialize where everyone can participate without hindrance from outside obligations. For example, at our company, we host a social hour with refreshments every Friday afternoon. This gives employees a chance to bond with peers that they may not interact with on a daily basis. An inclusive employee engagement strategy that allows time for socializing will build comradery, understanding, and rapport and increase positive communication across the organization.
3. Cut out the stereotypes: Most tech leaders consider themselves supportive of women in the workplace, but sometimes stereotypes and value judgments seep in unconsciously. A common example is when a female colleague leaves work early to pick up her children from school. A colleague may roll his eyes, thinking that women with children don’t work long hours. Meanwhile, she may have been at the office hours before he even hit the snooze button on his alarm clock. Another common example is when a manager softens negative feedback given to a female employee for fear of hurting her feelings. While well intentioned, it may set her back. By not receiving honest feedback, she won’t have an accurate picture of her performance and what to improve to get to the next level.
4. Offer creative perks: Since women are underrepresented in tech companies, competition is fierce for top female talent. Aside from competitive pay and basic benefits, creative perks can really give your organization an edge. You don’t need to go the extent of offering on-site childcare or a full year of paid maternity leave. For smaller companies, these types of programs just aren’t feasible. You can get creative by offering perks like having flex work schedules or an unlimited vacation policy. Flex schedules and unlimited vacation work exceptionally well in performance-based cultures, since there isn’t always a correlation between time spent in the office and productivity. You can also work with local businesses to offer “convenience” perks that are of no cost to your company. For example, we have a dry-cleaning service that picks up and drops off directly to our office. Consider crowdsourcing ideas from your workforce to ensure your perks are relevant and will be appreciated.
5. Establish individual development plans: You can bring in outside consultants for leadership coaching or create an internal mentoring program. Make sure that your female employees have equal access to training and development. A well-thought out development plan demonstrates commitment by the organization to an individual’s growth. Companies should provide females equal opportunities for upward mobility, but they need to be careful not to promote an employee before they are ready. You can do great harm to a budding career with a premature promotion. If the individual doesn’t have the right tools to succeed in a new role, performance will suffer. Individual Development Plans will ensure that you are getting the right tools to the future leaders of your organization.
6. Support and encourage community and industry involvement: Encourage employees to get involved in industry events and organizations by serving on boards, sitting on panels, and participating in round tables. Provide opportunities for them to exhibit thought leadership. This approach provides more opportunities for females to shine externally and create relationships with potential mentors that may not yet exist within your organization. Encourage successful females in your company to mentor others. Consider getting involved in enrichment events that support the initiative to increase women in technology. For example, my company is involved in GirlCode LA, where we put on programming for young women interested in technology careers. Our commitment to these types of events makes employees feel they are in a place that truly cares about gender diversity. We are also helping to increase the future talent pool of women by inspiring more girls to pursue careers in technology.
Because the tech industry has become a huge player in our economy, culture, and way of life, it makes little sense for it to be a homogenous environment. Underutilizing women in the workplace will cause companies to miss out on incredibly talented and insightful employees. As an industry, we need to work together and make a commitment to reverse the trend and bring women back to tech.
-THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Dez White’s rise in the male-dominated world of tech development was fueled by her need to solve a problem. The Southern California native was first a writer, penning scoops on her blog. But her desire to find a way to encourage skittish sources to share information led her to create an innovative product.
White was newly married and pregnant when she taught herself the basics of app development. She then partnered with a developer who would write the code as she absorbed each step. She added an investor and a patent to the mix, and in 2011, Invisible Text was born. Users of the app will find that conversations are deleted when they end. Messages can be recalled before they are read by the recipient, and messages can’t be screen-grabbed and shared.
Now an entire suite of apps — Invisible Text, Invisible Call, Invisible Email and Invisible Social — all of White’s products seek to preserve user privacy by leaving no record of communication.
At just 32, her launch into the tech world has made her one of the youngest female African-American entrepreneurs in the industry. In 2017, White expects to release Blind Debit, a new pay by fingerprint technology program.
Recognizing the need to bring more women into the tech industry, White founded GirlCodeLA in 2014. The organization helps get girls and women interested and involved in the basics of coding, app development and tech marketing through events around the country.
The organization is dedicated to the memory of Camille Alexander, Dez’s older sister, who had a birth injury that resulted in cerebral palsy. GirlCodeLA donates a portion of its profits to help children with special needs.