As a part of Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY), groups of young women recently completed a day long build-a-thon, Connect Me, Alexa!

Their objective: to develop a skill for Amazon's Echo to make it easier for senior citizens to interact and communicate with their families, communities and important constituencies.

“Women from high school, undergraduate and graduate school, and women working in the tech industry were all trying to alleviate the frustration senior citizens face when using new technology," said Melissa Rojas, a current software engineer intern for AOL and a former graduate student of City University of New York, Brooklyn College in New York. “We asked ourselves what problems senior citizens were most likely to have, and worked toward Alexa skills that would make life easier for them."

An initiative established by Cornell Tech in partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY), WiTNY is designed to help more women enter the tech industry in the New York City. WiTNY helps provide scholarships and internships for women in tech, but also seeks to provide space for collaboration and professional networking for women in high school, undergraduate, and graduate programs with events like build-a-thons and talks with women who hold senior tech positions.

Making A Difference

One element of community WiTNY is fostering are design challenges — or build-a-thons — where tech-minded women form teams to create real products and learn from one another.

“WiTNY's build-a-thons are different than other hackathons I've been to," said Melissa Chan, a rising sophomore studying cyber security and computer science at John Jay College. “It really brings together a bunch of different women who are of different ages and backgrounds, and it makes participants work on random teams so that everyone gets to socialize."

These events have had a huge impact on the women in attendance. For a program that's still less than a year old, Rojas says it's been life changing for her to have been a part of it so far. “I got involved last summer and was at the first WiTNY event," said Rojas. “After attending different WiTNY events over the past year, I now know other women in technology. It's been inspiring to know how they got into technology and how they've worked their way up into these top places. For me, it is a big confidence builder."

Rojas credits a WiTNY internship with helping her get positioned to apply for a job at AOL. "Big companies have so many applicants, it's really hard to get your foot in the door sometimes," said Rojas. But through WiTNY events, young women interested in technology careers have the opportunity to network with people from around the industry and other women further along in their tech careers.

New Skills, New Paths

In addition to broadening a young woman's network, events like WiTNY's recent build-a-thon give participants the opportunity to learn new skills from one another.

Chan explained that her team was thinking thoroughly about how an elderly person might struggle to remember a difficult password, even though complicated passwords are now generally required for many software applications. “It really made me think from different angles when we were trying to problem solve," said Chan. “I'm happy it broadened my idea of what cybersecurity can be."

These kinds of WiTNY events not only help young women build a strong network, but also expose them to new skills. As part of the build-a-thon, many of the women learned how to use the programming language Python—a language that many of the women at the event hadn't used before.

“I have worked on programs for Google Home before," said Radhika Kalani, a rising computer science freshman at Baruch College. “But Amazon's Alexa required me to learn Python so that we could test out our ideas. I'm really thankful that this program pushed me to learn more than I normally would—now I want to buy an Echo and try to develop apps for it on my own."

Kalani, like Chan, is also unsure of what she might want to specialize in when it comes to the vast field of computer science, but she thinks the build-a-thon, and meeting numerous women in the field through WiTNY, has made her think more seriously about artificial intelligence.

"Because of the build-a-thon, I can see that AI is about much more than getting Amazon Echo to play music," said Kalani. "It's an emerging field and I know now there are other paths opening up that I could explore." Many of the women explained that the build-a-thon helped them think more critically about how diverse groups of people, including the elderly, need to be included within an app's design thinking process as well.

Even if a young woman's goal isn't to be an engineer, Kalani said WiTNY events can help give them important context. "We're really grateful for this experience and think that even if you don't like to code, it's important to know what's possible and how it applies to other fields."