Girls for Technology
Eight years after earning her college degree in health care administration, Sabrina Tucker-Barrett had worked for two large insurance companies and was well along her chosen career path. Despite the challenges that a woman of color often faces in the white-collar workplace, her future was secure. She and her husband, Anthony Barratt, had two toddlers on their hands—twins, a girl and a boy.
Nonetheless, five years ago, Sabrina Tucker-Barrett took a giant leap into the unknown. She left corporate America and with her husband founded Girls For Technology, a nonprofit, funding it initially with her own money and the couple’s combined sweat equity. Anthony is now the executive director of the Wilson-Gray Youth and Family Center at the YMCA of Greater Hartford.
Tucker-Barrett, now the president and CEO of an ambitious and expanding organization, was ready for a life change. “I didn’t think insurance was for me, it didn’t fuel who I was,” she says. “I’d always had a passion for working with girls, especially girls of color, to empower them, but I also had this entrepreneurial spirit, too — my dad was a businessman.”
Her mother had taught her the importance of volunteering to help others, at their church in Groton or at the local soup kitchen, so launching a 501c3 startup made perfect, if highly speculative, sense in 2015.
The mission would be to inspire and assist girls of color in their pursuit of STEM-related careers — in science, technology, engineering and math. When Girls For Technology was born, black women held only 3 percent of the technology jobs nationwide. Google reported in 2018 that just 2 percent of its stateside workforce consisted of African-Americans.
Starting its sixth year, Girls For Technology has become a high- profile presence in the Connecticut nonprofit scene. Tucker-Barrett’s girls have been to the White House, won an award from Facebook for their coding wizardry, hung out with Google engineers, programmed chatbots and made cool stuff using 3D printers — among other high-tech adventures.
In addition to expanding their horizons and improving their grades, the girls are having fun. Arianna Anderson, an eighth- grader at Sunset Ridge Middle School in East Hartford, takes part in Girls For Technology’s Saturday Math and Science Academy and recently went on a field trip to Stanley Black & Decker’s offices and maker space at Constitution Plaza. “I didn’t know such cool technology was so close to where I live,” Arianna says of the experience. “There were these robots and 3D printers designing products. It was eye-opening. Girls For Technology is like a sisterhood, we all get each other, we’re all here to have fun and learn cool things.”
In addition to the Math and Science Academy, which is open to middle school girls from greater Hartford, Girls For Technology (GFT) also operates an after-school program for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Rawson Elementary School in Hartford. Begun in 2015, it is funded by a grant from Hartford Public Schools and has served more than 300 girls to date. All told, 700 girls have participated in GFT’s various programs.
GFT also offers a diverse menu of workshops, activities and excursions for girls (and boys, too) right up through high school, such as college tours, job-shadowing days and a recent hackathon where multiple teams of four students each created useful chatbots.
Infosys Foundation USA sponsored GFT’s two-day SparkHart Hackathon in December, which was held at Infosys’ Hartford offices. “The kids were incredible; they left us all speechless at how smart they were, how focused they were,” says Kate Maloney, the foundation’s executive director. “At the end we had a Shark Tank-style judging competition that pulled in Infosys senior leaders and professionals from other companies in Hartford.”
Katherine E. Maloney, executive director of Infosys Foundation USA, takes a look at a project during the SparkHart Hackathon, sponsored by Infosys in Hartford in December.
Christina Chance, 19, of Hartford began taking GFT field trips when she was a junior in high school, including one to Google’s New York City headquarters. That led to an internship there last summer. Now a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, majoring in math and computer science, Chance will be interning at Google again this summer, this time at its Sunnyvale, California campus.
GFT changed her life, she says. “Before I went on that trip [to Google] I wanted to be a teacher, like my mother. I think if I didn’t go on those field trips and get introduced to Miss Sabrina, I wouldn’t be where I am today in terms of my career path. She’s become a mentor to me. We text. She checks on me to see how I’m doing, sends me information about scholarships, and she connects me with people.”
Chance has learned more than computer science from her interaction with Google employees: “One of my biggest takeaways from them is that I should do something I am interested in, that it will take me to a career I am happy in.”
Cassandra Chambers, 18, also took a field trip to Google, plus a GFT tour of black colleges and universities while she was at Wethersfield High School, where she was one of only a few black students. Now a freshman at Tuskegee University in Alabama, the tour that Tucker-Barrett led changed her perspective on college.
“I grew up in a pretty white town so there wasn’t much talk about HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]” she says. “Girls for Technology opened my eyes to the opportunities I have; it definitely pushed me to commit to a school like Tuskegee, seeing the uplifting atmosphere on black campuses.”
Chambers is pursuing a double major in aerospace science engineering and mechanical engineering. It’s a natural fit for her. She’s been fixing cars with her dad since she was in elementary school, including the “rust bucket” (a 1996 straight-six Jeep Cherokee) she repaired and drove from Connecticut to Alabama. She has already been in touch with one of GFT’s board members, a team leader at Lockheed Martin, the giant aerospace company.
The organization that is helping these and hundreds of other black girls make their way in the world is lean and evolving. Besides Sabrina Tucker-Barrett herself, there is only one other full-time employee and one part-timer. Outside consultants and paid instructors are part of the mix, along with hundreds of volunteers and mentors from area companies. GFT even has a program that engages parents to inspire them to participate in its activities and field trips.
This year Girls For Technology is launching a new program that will serve an older and more diverse cohort: young women — and young men, too — as well as Connecticut companies in search of technologically skilled employees. The Pipeline 4.0 Initiative is a workforce development program for 18- to 24-year-olds who will be “matched with employers to gain employable work experience along with soft skills.” Soft skills include public speaking, networking and preparing resumes.
Funded by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and Launch [H], Pipeline 4.0 initially will give 20 individuals the opportunity to learn from and connect with employees at prominent area companies such as Kaman Corporation and galaxE Solutions, and take courses taught by volunteers from Infosys, UTC and Mastercam.
Sabrina Tucker-Barrett, who has changed the lives of so many others during the past five years, changed her own as well: “I’ve met so many interesting and inspiring people who I wouldn’t have met sitting behind a desk at an insurance company. It’s has been an entrepreneurial journey. Even though this is a nonprofit, you have to look at it with a for-profit mindset while you’re doing good works.”