Congratulations to TechGirlz Founder, Tracey Welson-Rossman, on being a Science Center Nucleus Award Honoree! As part of the award announcement, Tracey and the other honorees were interviewed in this post by the Science Center. See Tracey’s portion of the interview below.
Cultivation Honoree: Tracey Welson-Rossman
Co-Founder of TechGirlz & CMO of Chariot Solutions
It’s clear there’s an opportunity for more women to occupy more seats in tech. What is the TechGirlz origin story and why did you target middle school as the time to inspire girls to pursue tech as a career path?
I started my career in tech with an accounting software company which then morphed into Chariot Solutions in 2002. I noticed there was a lack of women in the industry after a few years at Chariot. There was a lack of women in our recruiting pipeline.
I began to do some research and found that women were not matriculating into technology focused college programs. Two studies I found showed the drop off for girls not considering tech careers was in ninth grade. As I started looking at middle school, it just so happened that my children were in middle school at the time (I have two boys). Their friends who were girls were still into math and science. I felt middle school was where we should be focusing.
I put together a committee and we did some focus groups with girls and teachers to get a better understanding of the reasons for this waning interest. From that advisory group, we came up with what TechGirlz would become. Research showed that there was a lack of understanding of what a tech career looked like, and a lack of understanding of what people in tech look like.
We also want to make sure that not only did we talk about coding, but that we really showcased the breadth that technology was such as website design, cyber security, Photoshop, creating podcasts and so much more. Our first event was at the Science Center, who has been a true partner to TechGirlz from the get-go. That first event, at Quorum (when it was 3711 Market Street), had presentations from different people in tech, like the founder of ModCloth, Dr. Frank Lee of Drexel talked about gaming, Gloria Bell a social media expert, and a woman who had co-founded a tech startup, who was very pregnant at that time. So we really showed the variety of what people looked like.
When we first started, I thought we would be lucky if five girls attended – we started with twenty-six. We did five more events that first school year. By the next school year, our first event had a waitlist of fifty girls. What I discovered after the first event was that I became the de-facto expert on girls in tech. This showed me how open the market was and how much of a need there was for what we were doing.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in getting TechGirlz up and running?
I wanted to treat TechGirlz like any startup. You’re challenged with lack of finances, getting the word out, the marketing, making sure you’re creating a product that people want, understanding who your customers were, and creating an organizational structure. The only difference was that we were a nonprofit. We got our 501(c)3 in under six months so it went from zero to sixty pretty quickly.
Why is Philadelphia uniquely positioned to lead the way in women pursuing tech careers? Beyond TechGirlz what other resources does the city have to offer? What more do we need?
I believe that no other region would have fostered what we developed. As people learned what we were doing with TechGirlz, I never heard “no” when we asked for help.
We got to a point in our second year where we had volunteers running our workshops to help us expand the number of girls we could work with. We quickly involved, institutions and companies like Drexel, Comcast, Bentley Systems found financial support from foundations like Lenfest Foundation. Individuals from the developer community came in too and were always supportive. Individuals were generous with small amounts of money. As much as Philadelphians get negative press about the way we may be “gruff,” what I know is that TechGirlz would not be here without the Philly tech community and the business community.
On the flipside, as much as we had support, we did need more money. From a nonprofit standpoint, there’s always difficulty in fundraising. We ran very lean out of necessity. I would say there’s a lack of understanding of the resources and time needed to get from point A to point B in educating. Whether it’s middle school girls finding their way and understanding that they belong, or it’s somebody who is changing careers from a lower skill position, there’s a good amount of time that it takes to become a skilled technologist. We need more investment, and we need more flexible metrics as to what success looks like.
When TechGirlz was acquired by Creating IT Futures two and half years ago, we had seven employees. I cannot have had this success without a team of people who bought into the vision and were as passionate as I was about the mission.
It takes a village. We had the parents who were committed to their girls having this type of opportunity, the volunteers, the businesses, our staff, people (like my mom) who sent me articles – so many people who were looking out for the wellbeing of our group; that’s always been amazing to me.
What are you most proud of when it comes to TechGirlz and what you have been able to achieve in the past twelve years?
First, I’m so proud that we’ve been able to have so many girls, not just in Philadelphia but across the country, who have learned to think differently about what their abilities could be and what they could do. Sometimes you just need somebody to tell you, “you can do this” and believe that you can do it.
Second, I’m so proud that we created a sustainable organization that lives past my tenure. The ten-year mark was when management changed hands and we were headed towards [having served] 25,000 girls. When the pandemic hit a little over a year after we changed hands, the TechGirlz team (led by Amy Cliett) changed over to virtual programming, and they’re now able to reach even more girls and secure more volunteers.
I’m also proud that I was able to express the need for what we were doing. Right now, it’s common to have these discussions around more diversity in the tech workforce. But twelve years ago, it was considered a bit cutting edge. I’m glad that I was able to play at least a part in bringing it to the forefront in a way that was positive.
What is your favorite thing about Philadelphia?
I love Philadelphia. I’m born and bred. I love our music scene, the culture, what’s going on in the restaurants, being able to walk and get around so easily. And the region itself, there’s just so much to it. There’s just so much to do here. What’s also great is how new people can come here and start new things, with new perspectives, and they’re accepted. And I’ve heard from people in other cities that’s not always the case.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be Jane Goodall but then I understood that monkeys were not pets so that went to the side and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be out in the wild for long periods of time. I did a 180 and went into fashion and now I’m here, starting a new company. Life takes unexpected turns.
What is your superpower?
My superpower is to take an idea and execute it. I’ve done that many times. I have a tendency to hang around people who also get stuff done. When you build that type of community, I would also call that a super-power: finding those likeminded individuals.
And one last note – I know that this is a women’s organization, but we’ve had a lot of men who have been important to its growth and sustainability, and the three men I would really like to give a shout-out to are my husband and my two boys because they shared me when I would have to go out on a Saturday or evening and do events. They were also part of running the company. Both my kids worked for TechGirlz at some point in their journey to where they are now, and my husband has just been so supportive. Chariot Solutions and their CEO also deserves thanks for giving me the leeway to do the work and never questioning the value of it.