Baratang Miya is the Founder and CEO of GirlHype — Women Who Code, a not-for-profit that provides programming and app development training for girls and young women. Baratang is a key leader of the Mozilla Clubs for Women and Girls. A self-taught coder, she has been sharing her skills and experiences with women and girls through her leadership of Mozilla Clubs and her own organization. As a Regional Coordinator, she oversees execution of 5 clubs in Cape Town, South Africa. Her success has been amplified by her keen awareness of the challenges of making Mozilla programs and content relevant to people with little access — as in those living in the townships in and around Cape Town. Although she focuses on getting women into STEM, she understands that this is about building women’s self efficacy and confidence, to work in tech or beyond.
Please tell me a bit about yourself.
I am a African women, mother of three, and a self-taught coder. Being an African black girl born during the time of Apartheid meant that I had no future at all. The system was designed that for me being black and a woman meant double disadvantage. The work that I do today for the girls is very personal to me and very close to my heart, I am very passionate about diversity and inclusion of women in the tech space.
Looking back at who I have become today, I give credit to my uncles and aunts who took care of me as a little girl and continuously told me that I am different. They told me I am extremely clever, to differentiate me. That gave me confidence and kept me doing my best even when the society was designed so that there was lack of opportunities and no hope for me.
As I grew older and realized that being female meant being denied certain educational and career opportunities — I was inspired to work with women and girls. Growing up I really wanted to be a lawyer, so when i finished high school I applied to become a prosecutor, everything was going well during the interview and the application process was positive until I was called for uniform fitting and the man who was interviewing me found out that I was pregnant (because my body could show).
I lost an opportunity to become a lawyer because in 1993, South African women with children could not become prosecutors. At the same time, because of lack of information, when I got a university acceptance, I hid the pregnancy from the world. I assumed I couldn’t study while pregnant — which was not true and a very wrong decision.
I then became an interior designer and started my formal entrepreneurship journey after studying one year entrepreneurial course at University of Potchefstroom and receiving a small amount of funding from the government to start a small business as an interior designer.
After seven years with the business, at the age of 27 and a mother of two, I left business, packed my bags and my two kids, and moved from my hometown to study at University of Cape Town. I had all of a sudden become a mom and a full time student at the same time, something I was not prepared for. I look back and realise that it was the support structure I had that made me complete two degrees and be the best mom (according to my kids) at the same time.
During my University time I became really involved with student politics including being on the Student Representative Council (SRC) of the University, Humanities Faculty Council Secretary and Women’s Movement (feminist movement), SHAWCO and SHARP. I really believed that all human beings should have equal access to opportunities.
I learned how to code in about an hour of learning FrontPage in 2003. I knew that I had just learned a very powerful skill that every child should learn. It was made so easy for me to understand and at the same time I saw results with immediate effect. The digital divide is still a big problem in South Africa. Most women and girls I work with touch a computer for the first time when we start teaching them — and that computer they use in class is the only computer they ever have access to. They go back home and there is no computer besides their cell phone.
Being a female entrepreneur in the tech space isn’t easy. I started Girlhype because I felt the magic happen after I was exposed to the tech entrepreneurial world. My mindset completely changed and my life’s path immediately looked very different. I thought how powerful it would be if more young women could get the same exposure, have a peer-to-peer community, and know technology and entrepreneurship is an option.
I know I did not see it as an option until I learned how to code. Girlhype is also a platform for empowered woman to be able to empower other groups of young women around them — through mentorship and instilling values and beliefs of, “I can do it,” through tangible leadership tools and education that teaches girls emotional intelligence, professional skills, and personal growth.
I founded Girlhype Coders, an organization that is committed to ensuring that the next generation of South Africa’s girls have a better chance of achieving their full potential and also address the issue of unequal access to opportunities for South African girls. The faster womens digital skills are being developed and women are being given internet access, the faster they will become economically strong. They will be able to realise the economical benefits that can be unlocked by being on the web, and access opportunities that are being provided by ecommerce.
Can you give me an overview of your work and your overall goals?
I started Girlhype in 2003 with the aim to address the gender gap in technology and to bridge the digital that exist in our communities. It was easier to teach girls computing skill to give them confidence. The digital divide is still very high and it mainly impact women and girls. Most women in business have no access to internet and don’t own computers and this limits their opportunities to access customers and be part of the benefits that technology is offering.
My goal with Girlhype Coders is to empower African women and girls through technology and connecting them to the rest of the World. We do this in two folds. First, we educate and empower girls and young women with technology skills by teaching them how to code and digital literacy. Once they have the skill sets needed to succeed, we help them find employment as programmers and encourage them to pursue careers in stem or start their own companies.
Secondly, we teach women basic digital literacy. We teach those who are in business how to start using the web to market their business online. Our goals are to educate girls and women in Africa to economically empower them by helping them find employment so they can apply the skills they have learned at Girlhype Coders. For women to start business and use the full benefits of being on the web.
As a Regional Coordinator for five Mozilla UN Women and Girls Clubs in Cape Town, I have managed to spread my wings and test the ground for inclusivity of women from all backgrounds. We teach women of all ages and abilities to learn anything from basic computer skills to coding — we even had a club for women with disability. Some start out by learning how to type, others learn how to use the internet, and those women already equipped with basic computer and web skills learn how to code. We created safe spaces for women to talk about issues affecting them and be safe online.
Girlhype, as an organisation, is a Regional Ambassador for Technovation, which is a global tech entrepreneurship competition for girls. Girls take part in an entrepreneurship program with the goal to design an app that addresses problems in their communities.
“Read and write the web”can encompass many things — could you give me an example of what that looks like in day-to-day terms?
“Read the web,” for me, is being able to read and understand the web as it presents itself — reading news, blogs, emails, etc, is a means to read the web. “Write the web,” is not about consuming information that the web presents to you — it’s being able to write content that is relevant to you and that can build people around you.
Media is one of the biggest influences on how girls define themselves. We want them to write and curate content for various distribution channels to inspire healthy conversations and honest perspectives of women. At the moment most women and girls are excluded from contributing to the internet as they have no access to resources and cannot afford to buy internet data. They have to make a choice between spending the one dollar they have in their hands on paying for internet access at an internet shop or buy bread for their family.
In our case it’s as simple providing safe space, access to a computer with internet and the skill sets needed to operate a computer to women so that they can be able read and write for the internet, empowering women in business who come through our programs who didn’t even have an email together or even use a mouse.
My first class is always, “this is how you use a mouse.” Most ladies will roll it and say, “it’s gone!” — meaning the icon on the screen disappeared . I had to literally hold their hand and say, “this is how you move a mouse.” Three weeks into our program they know how to use a mouse and understand how to read a computer — within two months they’re sending emails outside to the world.
We take them through that whole process of how to become part of the web. They’re beginning to do research about their businesses and how to interact with the internet itself. It doesn’t take long before I’m told, “my business has a Facebook page!” Many women come here thinking a computer is the most difficult things to use and then two months later I hear them say, “Bara, have you seen this business? It looks like mine!”
Our curriculum covers both the positive and negative aspects of the internet. We start by teaching them the positives so they feel encouraged and empowered. Then once they feel comfortable, we teach them how the internet can be harmful if they’re not careful. We explain privacy settings and concerns — this is how you block your posts, you don’t just post any picture, and you don’t just put yourself out there making yourself vulnerable to everybody — it can be used to destroy people.
People really believe computers are going to change their life —it’s not something I have to sell these days. In the past we used to have to sell it, but nowadays they know it will help them get a job. If you have a skill, it’s quite nice — but if you have a sophisticated skill then people start respecting you.
One week it’s keyboarding skills, especially young ones, and then the following week we go straight to coding — because once they know that, they then all of a sudden have the sophistication of how to work around problems. That surprises lots of people, especially coming from a woman. They can troubleshoot things and they’re not even scared to say, “no that won’t work — do this.” Then, when they apply for a job, all of a sudden they get respect.
And when you say coding, are you talking HTML? PHP?
Can you tell me about a time where you felt a sense of success with your work?
I feel successful almost all the time —Every time we open a new chapter of girls coding club I feel warmth in my heart. When an eighteen year old girl gets a job at a tech company and immediately move to middle class, being able to support their family and change their lives — that is success for me. When a person like Shumikazi, a mother of two who was unemployed for almost four years, gets a job at the city council and change her children’s lives — that’s success for me. When a women who had never touched a computer in their lives is sending me emails within a month and starts marketing her business online within two months of knowing computers — that’s success for me.
Sometimes its small achievements that makes me happy, just seeing the bulb in the little girls eye when they write their first line of code — hello world! When they see the power of what they just created its amazing, and or when a woman in business sends me their first email, the excitement on their emails you can feel and touch it. I know for a fact that I have created positive changes in people’s lives, and it’s been the most rewarding thing on the planet.
I used to work for a program, Capaciti, where I was teaching young women Java. These women have degrees but don’t know how to code, so they go and register themselves for honors in software development — this course is difficult and many fail.
How the program recruit is that those who don’t make it at the BootCamp are deregistered, within a month there is another assessment and those who don’t make it are also cut out. One of the facilitators at Capaciti would literally say to the ones who are cut out of the system, “Go to Baratang and she will teach you how to code — Capacity is a bit difficult but if you understand basics you will be fine — coding is for everyone — Baratang says so.”
One time she sent a group of six young people who had been cut out of the program and four of them ended up studying with me full-time. I started taking them through Java for three months. This group will always stand out in my heart because one of them went and became a Java developer. After being kicked out of the program and told, “you can never code,” I taught her Java in three months and she’s now one of the best Java developers.
I am not the best developer you can ever find in the world — but I don’t do my work because I want to be the best developer. I have always told people that my job is to teach young people to think logically and to help them understand the concepts. I also create a platform for people to empower one woman at a time.
Now how about an example of a challenge that you faced recently in your work?
We are mainly restricted to running programs in areas where people have no access to computers and internet. Most people grow up without computers in their homes — some have never even touched one before. Even if people have access to a computer, having access to data or the internet is another story — it’s expensive. Most of women and girls have no access to internet period.
Another challenge we’ve had is getting people to show up to class — we need them to come to class everyday so they can keep up with the program. We live in a country where many are living in poverty and can’t afford to be in class every day. We understand the needs of the people here and address them the best way we know how — incentives.
Women’s safety, security and travelling concerns outside of their neighborhood is really challenging. Girls always have to be offered transport allowance or we are running the risk of putting their lives in danger. Poverty, Financial issues and limited job opportunities for women we work with are putting them at a competitive disadvantage. We always have to feed the girls as most of the girls that are on our programs are on schools that have hundred percent feeding schemes.
There’s also a huge gap between where the resources are and where the people are located. Their willingness to show up for class and learn also depends on how far they have to travel to get to class. These are the types of things we have to consider when planning our programs.
Lastly, we can’t run a successful program without the right resources. We need the right working space, enough computers and laptops for everyone, data plans, and WiFi — and this can be a struggle.
How do you manage accomplishing all of this? What kinds of skills are helpful?
I think one need to be very agile and adapt to all situations. Be very resilient and a great networker. I have to be “master of all” with GirlHYPE — I am a logistics person, I am a driver, I am a teacher, I am an organizer , social worker and a mother to so many girls — I had to learn to do everything all at once.
What are some other strategies that you’ve used to address these challenges that you’ve just raised?
It’s only through partnerships with academic institutions, corporate and government , non-governmental sector and a great network of volunteers and mentors that we can achieve what we do. Our global partners like Mozilla, Technovation, and TechWomen are a great support for us to reach women we wouldn’t normally reach.
Also peer-to-peer learning is a great way to address some of these challenges. The skill levels of students vary widely, as does speed to which they pick up these skills — some catch on quickly and some are slower to learn. Once you assess the class you can have those at the head of their class help other students who may be further behind. This is not only helpful to me, but can help those who are struggling because they are learning from someone with a different teaching style than my own.
This learning environment motivates students because they see their own peers teaching and learning faster — it breaks that, “I can’t do it,” mentality women often see in their peers. Over the years I’ve learned that there is no one right way to teach or learn.
I have to be flexible and go with the flow. If I walk into the class and say, “Hi, I came here to teach you how to code,” and the girls look at me worried and say, “We don’t know how to use a computer,” — I am not going to say, “Yeah, you’re going to code.” Instead I say, “OK, we’ll start with learning how to use a computer.”
Even if it is just these few girls that are doing it, they go home and say it to their sister, “Oh, I did this,” then it might click in their sister’s head and maybe we might change this generationally, there is lack of women’s voice on the internet.
Leadership skills are the key to accomplishing this — you can teach people how to read and write the web but if they are not confident, they are going nowhere. They’ve to be confident of what they’re doing. They have to develop that confidence says, “I can do this.” Once they develop that confidence of, “I can — it’s me who did this,” then you’re on the right track.
Shifting now to the internet. What, for you, is the open internet?
Open internet is internet that is open for all, source codes must be made available for all to be able to learn and produce content. I think if internet is not open as it is at the moment there are those who are controlling information and the rest of us are followers.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the open internet is a space where all people should participate — it should be open for people to participate in a conscious and clear manner, and where they know the benefits and the pros and cons of what they are doing.
Can you tell me about a time when the open internet has been important to you?
I grew up on the internet space per se knowing about internet when I was at University of Cape Town in 1997. Before that, I had never used a computer before. I used to be a content developer strategist for the city of Cape Town. I was advocating and helping communities to develop their own content and write stories about themselves so we could start seeing pictures that reflects our communities on the internet. I also use other people’s code when I want to write something fast or teach the girls how to edit code.
Shifting now to Mozilla — how did you get involved with Mozilla? What is that been like?
I’m part of TechWomen, an initiative of the US State Department. I got to spent six weeks in Silicon Valley last year as part of the 2015 fellow. As members of the TechWomen delegation, we were welcomed by Mitchell Baker. I remember her speech at Juniper when she was talking about her values and why she started Mozilla — I felt like, “My gosh, I’m connected with this woman. Everything she’s saying is what I want to hear.”
I attended four or five workshops with Mozilla at the conference. Amira was one of our speakers. When she finished giving her talk I already had a goal — so I went to her and said, “I work with women in the rural areas of Western Cape. I would like to work with you in future.” Although the topic ended there — we befriended each other on Facebook. Two months later, Amira sent me a message and said “I’m working on a project, would you be interested in working with me?” I said, “Yes, I’d be so happy to work with you.”
In February we confirmed that I will be working with her on a Mozilla project. At that time, it was one of the projects that I chose purely because of the values she had set. When you are in TechWomen you get exposed to so many programs. There were a few of them that I really liked, and Technovation was one of them.
During a phone call, Amira spoke on values of this program and I was attracted to the idea of a community of mentors — I thought, “yes, we’ll have mentors from Mozilla.” I also read a lot about Mozilla and I realized this is something I would like to be involved in. Amira asked me if I want to be the coordinator for their project and I said yes. I had already had a vision of how I want to impact women in the future.
As the business development manager for CITI, I worked a lot with women in business — teaching them the computing skills in my own private time. Even though I was managing the center, I was still teaching women how to write and how to read. Because of that, I was in a space where I was now left working with young girls. I was seeing women from all walks of life every day. Teaching them and realizing their challenges and everything. Then I said to myself, “We need to reach all women.”
When the opportunity to work with Mozilla came up, I knew it would broaden our reach. Mozilla has a brand that is bigger. It’s bigger because people would say, “what is Mozilla?” And I would say, “you know the Firefox people?” They were like, “yes!” So when I said we’re working on a project with them, it all of a sudden recruited a lot of people. It’s allowing us to reach to different kind of women that what we’re known for. Our branding is important, but the Mozilla brand was also important because it gives us a different reach — a certain level of credibility.
Thinking about your interactions with Mozilla, can you tell me about a time where they didn’t meet your expectations? Where can they do better?
I would say that it’s a bit disappointing because it’s not just called Mozilla — that it’s called UN Women and Mozilla. People wanted to find out how to work with UN Women but they’re nowhere to be found.
Also, I’m a vibrant, energetic person — it’s one of my strengths. I felt like there was a slow pace to things actually happening from the Mozilla’s side. My energy and my excitement would vanish because I didn’t know what was going on. I’m not that type of person — I want to know where I’m going. Even if you tell me, “You know, Bara, this might happen or it might not happen. This might take three months to happen or it might take a year to happen,” at least then, I’d know.
Also, from my angle, there were huge expectations from all these different parties. They drafted a program called Moz club and didn’t take the challenges we face as Africa into consideration. Although I was part of the strategy, I didn’t fully understand what their goal was — there was a bit of a disconnect for me. They designed Moz club for people with access and for people like me who carry their phone with them all the time. Maybe the goal is a bit different from what I wanted. In the beginning I thought the goal was to teach women — but then I realized, no — it’s about Moz club.
Now that you’ve gone through this process and told your story, how might other people’s stories be useful to you?
When I was in London, I listened to many people from Mozilla tell their stories. When they told their stories and how they dealt with their journeys, a bulb went off in my head and I thought, “Oh my gosh, wow. It’s very interesting.”
Many women ask me, “how did you start and where are you going? And how?” There maybe someone brave out there that wants to start a computer club and they don’t know where to start. If they can hear my story and then they can say, “Oh my gosh, it’s so easy. I will do it.” With these stories that you collect, some people will avoid the challenges and some people will grow from them.
GirlHYPE has always been trial and error for me — I am that girl that turned my story of struggle and adversity into a story of triumph and connectedness. I cannot say it has been an easy journey for me. But hopefully other women and girls will be able to look at what we’ve done and say, “OK, I’ve done all this, but it doesn’t define me. I could do better and grow from it.” Or somebody can say, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want to go through all of this, so I will plan better.”