Tracey Welson-Rossman is about as hardcore a modern business and tech veteran as you can find in Philly. She opened a branch of, and ultimately took over transportation company KangaKab, which she sold in 2000; was the director of sales and marketing at Skylight Systems, a server software company; and is now chief marketing officer of Chariot Solutions, a software developer in Philadelphia. She is also a founding member of startup advocacy group Philly Startup Leaders and the Women in Tech Summit.
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But Welson-Rossman’s most lasting impact on the local tech scene is likely to be felt decades from now. As the founder of TechGirlz, a Philly-based nonprofit that provides middles school girls with extracurricular STEM classes, Welson-Rossman is hoping to launch an army of young female tech professionals into the world—and reshape the technology industry in the process.
“I have an interesting perch, because I’m not just working in a software solutions company, but also we’re really active in the software development community and the open source community,” Welson-Rossman says. “And around me, there were a lot of people who really thought there should be more women, and didn’t understand why there wasn’t. We were looking for a solution.”
At Chariot Solutions, Welson-Rossman saw firsthand how difficult it can be for women in tech, specifically from a recruiting standpoint, where very few female candidates were coming through.
“It’s hard to find candidates if they’re not studying what you need them to study when you’re looking to hire them,” says Welson-Rossman. “It took me a while to get off my—well I don’t want to say butt—but to try and do something about it.”
So Welson-Rossman began to talk with colleagues about starting a coding workshop just for girls, and they took to the idea pretty quickly. She says that the general consensus was that there was something wrong with the number of female candidates that her colleagues were interviewing, and that a change needed to be made.
“Everyone comes in different sizes and shapes and everything, and different ways of learning, but there seems to be something missing about how we get girls interested in tech,” says Welson-Rossman. “And that’s really what Techgirlz is about.”
“I gathered some friends, who could put some time and effort in with me to sort of say ‘Let’s try something, and if it doesn’t work we’re cool with that, but at least we’ll have tried something,’” she says. The group did extensive research into the tech market, and searched for what was missing; Welson-Rossman says that the research led them to middle school, where research showed that girls were self-selecting out of tech by the 9th grade. From there, Welson-Rossman began to design a coding program for middle school girls.
The resultant program—which is now TechGirlz—gained traction quickly, and is now the premier STEM educator for girls in Philadelphia.
Since 2010, TechGirlz has run workshops for thousands of Philadelphia-area girls, growing to more than 1,000 for the last two years. The classes, taught by dozens of volunteer coordinators, are on everything from coding to 3D printing to virtual reality design. Welson-Rossman says the group has had requests for classes from 30 states, and that—after launching a “TechShopz in a Box” program last year—girls as far away as Paraguay and Belgium have participated in TechGirlz programming. The organization is in the midst of making plans to expand stateside, as well as grow its local programming.
TechGirlz couldn’t ask for a more qualified leader, and the area couldn’t ask for a more vocal women-in-tech harbinger. She’s opinionated, experienced, and not afraid of laying out her agenda in bold terms. To whit: She recently published the “TechGirlz Manifesto” on Medium, laying out eight precepts around which the non-profit is centered, including the notion that “all girls have the right to be part of the innovation economy” and that “technology is more than coding.” She wants to create a more cheerful, inclusive future for women in tech.
For Welson-Rossman, it’s one thing to acknowledge the problem—as she says, talk to virtually any woman who has worked in the tech field, from coding to marketing to analytics, and they’ll be able to tell you about discrimination they’ve faced—and it’s another thing entirely to try and fix the problem. Her point is made obvious when you simply Google phrases like ‘Women in technology’ or ‘women and coding.’
It’s reported that only 5 percent of tech-based startups are owned by women. (While the numbers are skewed in Philadelphia too, we do have several high-profile tech companies—like MilkCrate, ROAR for good, FixList, Choosito and others—that are led by women.) Women, according to the National Center for Women in Technology, receive about 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States; but, women receive only 16 percent of computer science degrees from major universities.
Overall, women leave tech fields at a 45 percent higher rate than their male counterparts, often citing discrimination and condescension among their reasons for breaking away.
The plight of women in tech was illustrated recently by reports that a startup led by a pair of talented female businesswomen didn’t get any traction until they pretended to have a third founding member named Keith Mann.
Since 2010, TechGirlz has run workshops for thousands of Philadelphia-area girls, growing to more than 1,000 for the last two years. The classes, taught by dozens of volunteer coordinators, are on everything from coding to 3D printing to virtual reality design.
Welson-Rossman and the crew at TechGirlz—all of three full time employees—are trying to disrupt the tech industry’s toxic edge with the power of positive reinforcement. The goal of TechGirlz isn’t to prepare girls who are interested in tech for the harsh realities of the challenging world that they may choose to enter, but rather to give them a positive, inclusive and engaging early tech education, devoid of stigma, doubt and sexism. Kids, Welson-Rossman says, thrive in happy work environments, and she doesn’t want to discourage girls who are developing an interest in tech fields. She wants to arm them with the right skills, whether they want to be coders or managers or marketers—like her—at technology companies.
Also vital to Welson-Rossman is ensuring that girls from every socioeconomic background are able to partake in TechGirlz classes in some form or another. Many young women in Philly, she says, certainly won’t have access to a graphing calculator or coding modules, so TechGirlz offers free classes catered to all levels of technological access. “Our workshops can require everything from just a pen and pencil to real equipment,” she says.
Sara Syed, now a high school senior, was always interested in technology. But it wasn’t until she took a coding class at TechGirlz when she was in sixth grade, that she really felt at home. “I just really enjoyed how they were with their mission, and how they were trying to close the gender gap with girls in technology,” says Syed. “I myself have always been interested in STEM and the technology fields. I’d been attending classes since I was a little girl. And I always noticed how I was one of the few girls there, which made me more uncomfortable and less open to it. But when I went to the TechGirlz workshop, I was super excited, and I could see that there were a lot of girls out there like me.”
Syed now has a teaching workload for TechGirlz that would make a Penn adjunct blush. She runs camps and workshops, and does it all: She’s created lesson plans for animation classes, taught classes on how to use Raspberry Pi miniature computer units and served on their teen advisory board. Syed says that she wants to work in the tech field in the future, and plans to study tech in college—although, the polytech that she is, she doesn’t know what best interests her.
TechGirlz has gone from from a philanthropic aspiration to a major player in the Philadelphia STEM universe and beyond. It has all-star financial backers, including the Lenfest Foundation and SAP, and Welson-Rossman says they have plans to expand their footprint far beyond Philly. Last year, they successfully launched their TechShopz in a Box program, which includes a box (you guessed it) containing work and lesson plans for onsite tech workshops, so anyone can run their programs from anywhere in the world.
On the Philly front, Welson-Rossman says that TechGirlz seeks to expand its working relationship with Drexel University, which has assisted in hosting classes and designing curriculum for the group. Most recently, TechGirlz has expanded its in-person classes to Camden.
But the task at hand, which is far more important than expansion, is getting brilliant kids with diverse skillsets like Sara Syed happily and wholly into tech.
“Everyone comes in different sizes and shapes and everything, and different ways of learning, but there seems to be something missing about how we get girls interested in tech,” says Welson-Rossman. “And that’s really what Techgirlz is about. We’re about taking the myths out of what tech is about. Yes, there’s coding. But there’s an art piece, there’s a collaborative piece. We talk about and practice the idea of bringing this community together.”Header Photo: Facebook