This article was first published in Team PA’s sister publication, Keystone Edge.
Tracey Welson-Rossman started her career in retail management and advertising sales, learning about lead development, marketing and distribution. But what she really learned was that she’s an entrepreneur – and an activist — at heart.
With several successful ventures behind her, today she is a founder and chief marketing officer for Chariot Solutions, a Philadelphia-based software development and consulting firm, helping it to grow from 10 employees in 2002 to 50.
That’s just her day job. Welson-Rossman is also the founder and current chair of the Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference, held annually in Philadelphia. She’s a founding board member of Philadelphia Startup Leaders, a regional organization dedicated to growing technology startups, and in her spare time, she heads the nonprofit TechGirlz to help adolescent girls embrace STEM careers.
(Team PA announced a new statewide initiative to help Out-of-School programs like TechGirlz be even more successful.)
Keystone Edge (KE): You’ve been a successful entrepreneur. What led you to found and head TechGirlz and why is its mission important to you personally and to the overall new economy?
Tracey Welson-Rossman (TWR): Being in the IT industry, it is pretty obvious that there is a gender diversity issue. It was important for me to understand why there were not more women coming into the field even though the pay and opportunities were so good. Bringing more women into the field has become more important for companies over the last few years due to the shortage of qualified technologists. It is now an economic necessity to bring in more women to help fill the job openings.
KE: Why are technology and STEM of special importance to young women?
TWR: The rate of women entering comp sci programs in college has seen a steady decline since 1985. Women’s leaving the field continues to grow, even in companies with in-house women’s support groups. There has been some progress, but there are issues that still need to be identified to understand why this is happening.
With technology used in almost every field, these girls would be shutting themselves out of many career opportunities. We need to help girls feel confident in their ability to learn and conquer technology in its many forms.
KE: How does TechGirlz approach the problem?
TWR: With TechGirlz, our strategy is to connect with girls much earlier than high school, where many of the tech programs are aimed. Our initial research showed that girls were self-selecting out of tech careers sometime in 9th grade. The girls were making decisions about a career in tech based on preconceived notions and stereotypes. Girls are not realizing the different possibilities there are involving technology in careers today.
TechGirlz is one of the few programs of its type in the nation. The challenge right now is to work on programs that appeal to girls, and measure the effectiveness of these programs – since previous approaches have not moved the needle. Patience is necessary, as well as research, data and some funding, to help us decode this riddle. The good news is the Philly development community has been very supportive of our work through donated money and time, as well as introductions to like-minded organizations and people.
KE: Can you share any examples of TechGirlz success?
TWR: We have been approaching TechGirlz like a startup business, testing and iterating on the idea that if we provide hands-on workshops showcasing the various forms of technology, we can inspire the girls to consider tech as a career choice.
We also set out to create a community for girls with similar interests. So far, 25 workshops and 175 girls later, we seem to be making a difference.
I think our biggest success is the number of girls who attend our events on a consistent basis. Nearly 30% of girls in the program attended more than three workshops during our last school year. We have heard from parents of girls moving into STEM high schools after being in our program. We consistently hear from parents about discussions with their daughters connecting technology to their career interests.
An unexpected offshoot of TechGirlz has been the community we are forming around women in the tech industry who want to give back and are now connecting with other women in the field. I am hearing of business relationships being formed from our organization.
KE: What’s next for you and for TechGirlz?
TWR: I plan to continue my day job at Chariot Solutions as we launch a new product that will revolutionize social computing.
As for TechGirlz, we will continue to offer our workshops through the end of the school year, which will bring the total number of workshops offered to 30, in which 200 girls were taught. We will offer our Entrepreneur Summer Camp again and perhaps a second one. We are currently testing an eight-week, after-school program. We are hoping to hire a fulltime person if we can raise the funds so we can offer more programming. We also plan to “package” the workshops to help others, outside the Philly region, launch similar initiatives. We are also in talks with a local university to form a partnership, but it is very early in the process. And we will continue to be evangelists about providing girls-only tech education.