Upcoming BlackComputeHer Conference Goes Beyond High Tech And Hidden Figures

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz


Computer science is more than high tech and hidden figures.

It’s a way of thinking, of training young people to be critical thinkers, and of problem-solving to scale.

That’s the message Dr. Jamika Burge is trying to get across in advance of the BlackComputeHer.org 2018 Conference, scheduled for April 5 through April 7 at the Georgia Tech Conference Center in Atlanta.

BlackComputeHer is a community of tech women interested in changing the narrative around what it means to be a computing scientist.

We are in touch and connected to the needs of our community, a force to be reckoned with,” Dr. Burge said in a Moguldom interview. “We are not just contributors, we are innovators and educators supporting Black women and working with our allies.”

Started in 2016 by a group of three women, blackcomputeHER (pronounced “black computer”) seeks to amplify the presence, opportunities, and voices for black women in computing, and tech, more broadly, according to its website:

While gender and race are the most obvious and relatable distinctions among us, those constructs represent a sliver of who we are as people. We join the tech conversation head on, by offering deep technical knowledge, invaluable resources for professional development, and research expertise in support of true tech inclusion.

Co-founders of BlackComputeHer, Dr. Jamika D. Burge, left, and Dr. Jakita Thomas, right. Photo: BlackComputeHer.org

Dr. Burge founded BlackComputeHer with Dr. Quincy Brown and Dr. Jakita Thomas. All three know all too well about the lack of black women in computing science.

They have navigated the waters of computer science and are not novices in their field. They understand the conversation of diversity and inclusion. Through graduate school, work experiences and research, all have experienced challenges in their industry.

“Our experience is different and unique than our counterparts’,” Dr. Burge said in a Moguldom interview.

Dr. Jamika Burge. Photo: BlackComputeHer
  • Dr. Burge is the head of communities of practice for One Design at Capital One, and founder of Design & Technology Concepts, LLC, a design research and computing education consultancy. She also works with a host of programs funded by the National Science Foundation and the Computing Research Association.
Dr. Quincy Brown. Photo: BlackComputeHer
  • Dr. Brown is a program director for STEM Education Research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and was previously a senior policy advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Dr. Jakita Thomas. Photo: BlackComputeHer
  • Dr. Thomas is a Philpott Westpoint Stevens associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Auburn University and director of the CUltuRally & SOcially Relevant (CURSOR) Computing Lab. She received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award (2012 – 2018).

After years of conversations and research on the effects of the lack of representation of black women, this group of determined science leaders decided to create a safe space where women who look like them in their field can build a growing and healthy community.

The first BlackComputeHer conference was held in 2017 in Washington, D.C. About 100 people attended. This year, about 300 are expected to attend the 2018 conference.

BlackComputeHe.org is dedicated to supporting computer science and STEM education and workforce development for black girls and women iIn an industry where Black women make 79 cents on the dollar of their white male counterparts.

The conference is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Intel, the Anita Borg Institute and Thurgood Marshall College Fund, among others. Speakers at the upcoming event include experts in diversity and inclusion, computer science, health and wellness.

Moguldom sat down Dr. Burge to discuss some of the goals, challenges, and achievements of Black women in computer science.

Moguldom: Why did you form BlackComputeHer?

Dr. Jamika Burge: We wanted to have the larger conversation about how do we, who are in the space, do a better job of connecting with others who are doing similar work? Even from our various conversations about, during and after we obtained our formal education, we knew there had to be a way to improve the landscape. We knew at that time our experience is different and unique than our counterparts. In our approach to this, we are different, because of the research piece. We are using research to create and build out a clearinghouse of research and literature that not only speak to the intersections of Black women in tech, but we are talking about how we can share this information with the nation and help change the narrative of what it needs to be a computer scientist. We are also offering fellowships for 20 women in the industry not only to continue to learn but to have direct contact with senior-level experts and leaders.

Moguldom: Research seems like a huge differentiator from other Black tech groups and events popping up more and more. Why focus on computer science? Why not just partner with others having the diversity conversation?

Dr. Jamika Burge: All aspects of tech, even computing science technology, can be discussed as a broad discipline, but when we look at it from an academic sense … many do not have training at those events for computer science. It has been a struggle in the industry to help minorities, but when it became a national initiative by the Obama White House, it amplified the fact that computer science is one of those areas where it is an additional thing people must learn.

Everyone is exposed to (computer science) and the opportunities that computer science, as a discipline, brings from the data science of big data, machine learning with AI and blockchain technology. The primary areas that are hot right now are computer science, and computer science is not just high tech. It is also a way of thinking. How do we train ourselves and our young people to be critical thinkers? That is the epitome of computer science — how we think about problem-solving in a way that is scalable. I like to think of computer science typically in that way. Computer science still falls in tech, but its use can be complex or simple in our everyday lives.

Moguldom: Computer science is not what we once thought it was years ago, right?

Dr. Jamika Burge: Right. Today, we understand the impact of teaching computer science to all people. We recognize that computer science is not just coding. In fact, if you are working in big data, you are using computer science programming language. If you are interested in fashion, wearable computing devices (are) an area in computer science. If you are into music, you can create a digital turntable for your music and program in a way that allows you to take it on the go. Computer science is a vehicle that will enable us to connect to every discipline, including the humanities.

Moguldom: How many people attended blackcomputeHER last year? How many people are you expecting this year?

Dr. Jamika Burge: We had a workshop in 2016 to connect with women in the industry to help us think about what a conference for us would look like. So it was a research-based approach to understanding the community. In 2017 we were in Washington, D.C. and he had about 100 people. This year, the second year, we have well over 100 people already registered, and we are prepared to welcome 300.

In taking this approach, we were able to grow and understand the magnitude of how the community has responded to the conference. So we are looking forward to welcoming an even greater diversity of people.

Moguldom: So you are growing pretty fast?

Dr. Jamika Burge: Yeah, we are expecting to see 300 people and every day we see registration numbers increase. We are hoping to go beyond not only what we did last year, but we look forward to having conferences where we are joining with other community groups and other groups more broad than our focus. I think datasets that we have show there are opportunities for us to connect with other Black organizations to see how we can combine our efforts in a way that does support the broader community.  So we are looking ahead to what we would like to do next. However, for this year, we are absolutely going beyond last year.

Moguldom: BlackComputeHer has some pretty big sponsors behind it for such a young organization.

Dr. Jamika Burge: That is right. Intel, HP Ink (Hewlett Packard), AnitaB.org, the National Center for Women in Technology and others.

Moguldom: What is it like to have that type of support? These are some pretty heavy hitters.

Dr. Jamika Burge: Definitely. “For of those to whom much is given, much is required”. Obviously, this resonates with us, and they see we are in touch and connected to the needs of our community. Thankfully these sponsors see us as forces to be reckoned with in the field. We are contributors to the tech ecosystem. In fact, we are not just contributors, but we are innovators, and we are educators. What we are doing is providing support to the community of Black women and working with those who are our allies. We welcome this level of support not just for now, but for years to come.

Moguldom: It is early in the organization’s operations. What type of feedback are you getting?

Dr. Jamika Burge: I think there are so many stories of people who said that this is an outstanding conference. We had a college professor tell us it was the best conference she had ever attended.

Moguldom: Wow. That says a lot.

Dr. Jamika Burge: It does considering how many conferences she has probably attended in her career. (Here is) one statement we received from Tiffani Williams at Northeastern University.

“I was inspired and empowered by black women revolutionizing computing.”

We have received great feedback, and we expect to continue to do so with this year’s event.