Andrea Lombard scrapped her way into UC Berkeley, transferring after two years in community college. With a childhood spent hustling with her parents in their family business, traveling the world selling products at fairs and tradeshows, the daughter of entrepreneurs was ready for the pressures and rigors of the country’s top-ranked public university. But Lombard, confident and quick on her feet, was blindsided by a problem that many transfer students face: social isolation.
After a lonely first year, Lombard did what she has always done: find a problem to solve. She noticed that as a media major with an interest in technology, she often felt like an outsider in maker spaces and computer labs. After a summer spent surveying students of all majors about their interest in tech, she noticed that her experience was part of a bigger trend on campus. Her solution was to create the first tech club for women of all majors on campus, called FEMTech.
Lombard, who graduated in May, launched FEMTech in 2015. After two years, the group now has a full series of programs including speaker events, web-development workshops, tutoring services and a robot building team. FEMTech now has more than 30 board members, hosts weekly speaker events and workshops, and is helping make critical STEM skills accessible to women of all majors at Berkeley. Students interested in building things can attend FEMTech Make; students interested in coding can attend FEMTech Share; students just looking to learn from top minds in tech can attend FEMTech Talk.
FEMTech also creates leadership opportunities for its members, and an inspiring community of women from all walks of life have now taken the reins. Lombard’s goal is to remain involved with FEMTech and serve as a career coach for club members to help solve another common barrier to women in tech: shyness.
“If we want more diversity and more women in this game, they are going to have to take more leadership roles,” Lombard said. “They might be geniuses and know how to code, but if they can’t look you directly in the eye and communicate, then it’s going to be really hard for them to run a team or a company, and start that process of more women running things.”
The rise of FEMTech
Lombard was first exposed to technology when her father and brother taught themselves coding to create a website for the family’s business. Knowing that she always wanted to work in the tech industry, she set out to look for the problem that was preventing female students from going into tech. After doing three to five interviews a week for the entire summer of 2015, she was surprised by how many women shared her interest.
“It is amazing how many women in sociology, anthropology and political science wanted to know about computer science, but they were afraid of going into the computer science department,” Lombard said. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to build a club, I will bring other majors to hang out in that area of campus.’”
In the following semester, she rallied support from the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Jacob Institute for Design Innovation to provide a venue where she could hold an event, and pitched her idea to a packed room of 120 students who saw her flyers on Sproul Plaza.
“The demand was there,” Lombard said. “Social science and engineering students need to communicate, and the biggest thing about FEMTech is we bring these people together.”
Whitney Hischier, faculty director of the Center for Executive Education at the Haas School of Business and Lombard’s mentor, said that FEMTech bridges the connection between Silicon Valley’s ecosystem and students at Berkeley, where the need for one-on-one attention and coaching is particularly great.
“When women don’t see other women in STEM fields, they assume that it would be difficult. FEMTech brings visibility to female leaders in STEM, who are really the key to offering both inspiration and networking opportunities for students,” Hischier said. “Andrea has built an incredible network across the Bay Area, and it has the potential to become a national movement.”
For Lombard, the meaning of FEMTech has gone beyond a tech club, as she encouraged members to initiate new programs and create their own roles.
“Helping people get through the internal fears, anxiety and communication barriers, my heart races when I think about that,” Lombard said. “FEMTech is the support system we created for women to say, ‘I want to do it, I’ve never done it before, but I’m going to do it now.’”
A club for the curious
Maia Rosengarten spent the first three years at Berkeley studying political economy and minoring in education, with the intention of graduating early, going to law school and becoming a human rights lawyer. Before her would-be last semester in 2015, she asked herself, “Why not try something completely new?”
She took CS 61A, the introductory computer science class, which eventually led to two more years at school, a second major, and a radically changed sense of self. But before all that, her goal was, “simply to try something new, because I used to tell myself I couldn’t do it.”
The biggest barrier was my fear of failure, of being in the wrong place and not able to compete,” Rosengarten said. “However, working through the self-doubt, I felt empowered by a completely new way of thinking. I just fell in love with a new sense of myself that is able to problem solve in a way I was never able to before.”
She still remembered the embarrassment of feeling like one of the few girls in office hours, asking what felt like dumb questions.
“Professors, TAs and tutors are, in fact, ready to help, and I didn’t realize how collaborative a discipline computer science is when I first started,” Rosengarten said. “There is the assumption that CS is cold, anti-social and robotic, but, in fact, you cannot survive without working with other people.”
Rosengarten is the director of FEMTech Share, a 10-week web-development workshop series that teaches HTML and CSS to students without any prior coding experience. Reflecting on her own journey into the tech field, she said that embracing a beginner mindset with patience and fully immersing herself in the experience was the key to her success.
“Taking one step at a time, testing my limits, and learning more and more about what’s possible are the most important things I learned, besides the coding skills,” she said. “You really have to come to a decision of why you are doing it in the first place and remember that. Then even if you are struggling, you won’t let the frustration get the best of you.”
Mentorship for makers
Gresshaa Mehta is a first-generation entrepreneur and designer. Entering Berkeley-Haas, she knows not only how to market a robot but also how to make it, and it is FEMTech that first motivated her to take introductory computer science classes.
Each Saturday for three hours, Mehta worked in the CITRIS Invention Lab with her team to build an aqua robot. In a world of saws, laser cutters and 3D printers, she’s in her natural habitat.
The robot project, or FEMTech Make, was started by Suzannah Childs, who graduated from Berkeley in 2016 with a dual degree in geography and conservation and resources studies. She now works at Apple and still comes to Berkeley frequently to check on the robot.
With tools for iteration and rapid prototyping at the lab, the team can experiment with cardboard and Adobe Illustrator files to cut out multiple pieces in order to find the best design for each part, said Chris Myers, manager of the Invention Lab and a mentor of the team.
Myers teaches students to learn how to overcome a problem rather than avoiding it, an approach that he’s seen Mehta embrace by becoming comfortable with figuring out solutions instead of flagging upcoming problems and dismissing ideas.
“Chris is always there to help us out,” Mehta said. “He is more of a friend than an intimidating teacher, and in his method of teaching there is no stupid question. I became a maker because of Chris, and FEMTech gave me access to Chris.”
Mehta says that FEMTech shaped her college career and became her guiding force.
“When I was frustrated with just studying business, Andrea took her time to help me find out the correct career path. With so many mentors to look up to, it’s great when you can talk to someone who looks like you and has already made it into the industry,” Mehta said.
Taking over as the new president of FEMTech, Mehta says that she wants to focus on strategic planning for the growth of the club.
“Our audience increased more than twofold and as a result our staff grew from eight to 30, all over one semester. This semester, we will focus on building sustainable development for the organization, while continuing to provide resources for students across disciplines,” Mehta said.
From timid to team leader
Lisanne van Engelen was introduced into computer science as a kid when she received a book called Hello World! from her computer-scientist father for Christmas. By the time she moved from Tallahassee, Florida, to Berkeley as an EECS major, she had already taken college classes in high school. At the beginning of her computer science education, however, she felt alone.
“The majority were guys, and when I looked around there was no one who I really identified with. So, when I saw FEMTech, I immediately wanted to be a part of it,” van Engelen said.
Not only are computer science classes traditionally male-dominated, but there is often little diversity in the majors of the students, which FEMTech is helping change.
“As tech people, we are often in this little bubble and we only talk to people in our majors. FEMTech creates an interdisciplinary mix,” van Engelen said. “It is great to be able to talk to other people from so many different backgrounds, listen to their problems, and try to apply computer science to solve these problems.”
Reflecting on her professional growth within the club, van Engelen says that she never thought she could actually have a big impact on the club.
“I’ve never been in this type of leadership role before, and I was always quiet and not confrontational. From starting with the internal outreach team to becoming the chief of staff, I was really forced out of my comfort zone,” van Engelen said. “Now, as vice president, I’m able to help better strategize and figure out FEMTech’s next steps, in order to build a strong foundation for all of our programs, so that our club will continue to grow and hopefully exist for a long time.”
Originally published Sep 19, 2017, UC Berkeley News