Editor’s Note: The original version of this story erred in describing the name of Kisha Robinson. Also, all instructors of the organization are women of color but not all mentors. The story has been updated.
A longtime audio engineer in the theater world, Ashley Turner was tired of the long hours and wanted to code and build websites instead. She started taking programming classes and went to local tech events to build her skills, but felt isolated as she tried to enter the industry.
“When I attended these events, I always noticed that there weren’t a lot of people of color, and especially women of color,” she said. “So I always had a desire to have a space where women of color could attend these workshops together and not feel so marginalized.”
While looking for more events, she stumbled across a group called Philly Tech Sistas.
The group was exactly what Turner had been looking for — an informal organization of women of color who went to conferences and events in the tech industry together. Started in 2014, Philly Tech Sistas was a casual group of women who felt as isolated as Turner.
Around a week after Turner joined, the initial organizer stepped down, so Turner took the opportunity to become the group’s leader. Since then, she and other volunteers have developed a series of workshops and classes to help local women of color learn the skills they need to enter the tech industry, expanding beyond the community to those who already have jobs in the sector.
After growing a base of volunteers, Philly Tech Sistas launched its first coding workshop in May 2019 and has continued to offer classes in website design, beginner programming skills, and more.
Part of the reason Turner transitioned Philly Tech Sistas to a skills teaching organization was because she “noticed we still weren’t getting the jobs” in the tech industry.
A report released last April from the National Center for Women and Information Technology showed that while women comprise 26% of the computing workforce, African American women make up only 3%, Asian women 7%, and Hispanic women 2%. “I want people to think about that and how they can change it,” Turner said.
Turner sought to focus workshops not just on code, but on career “soft skills” as well. “I wanted to have leadership workshops, goal-setting workshops, or panel discussions around the skills you need to further your career or gain employment.”
While there are a growing number of similar workshops and programs for middle school students like Girls Who Code, Philly Tech Sistas aims to provide these resources to adults.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, all workshops cost $25, which Turner used to provide lunch and supplies to students. Now, with the workshops entirely online, workshops are free. And if a student doesn’t have access to a computer, Philly Tech Sistas has machines for students to borrow. “I didn’t want the women to have to worry about anything else but learning during the workshops,” Turner said.
Turner also wanted to use mentors as teaching assistants, who could help students one-on-one. She tries to ensure that all instructors are women of color. “Representation does matter,” Turner said. “You can’t be what you don’t see.”
Philly Tech Sistas is a completely volunteer-based program, even for Turner, who works full time as an academic technologist at Swarthmore College. Since offering the first workshop, Turner says membership, which consists of MeetUp attendees and a mailing list, has “gone through the roof,” increasing by nearly 20% to 1,500 during the pandemic. With growing interest, she wanted to find a way to provide more resources without increasing the cost.
Last year, she received a grant through Philly Startup Leaders. Jaclyn Allen, the head of programs and operations at Philly Startup, said the funding comes from a partnership with the city’s StartupPHL Grant Program, which split $75,000 among 20 entrepreneurs.
While Philly Tech Sistas is more an organization than a business, Philly Startup Leaders saw an innovative spirit in Turner. “She’s an entrepreneur at heart who’s building a community around technology and coding,” Allen said.
Philly Tech Sistas received its grant at the start of 2020, and Turner said almost all of it has gone to transitioning their workshops to an online format. She declined to say the amount of the grant. She’s also hosted webinars on career skills and diversity in the tech industry. “I want to keep the conversation going on how we can still advance in this field, during this time of COVID, by being out there socially online,” Turner said.
In the spring, one mentor, Kisha Robinson, lost her job at a local tech company. She offered more of her time to the program, taking on an instructor role.
Robinson thinks the confidence she gained from leading workshops is what ultimately led her to find a new job with education technology company Udemy in San Francisco. “The community at Philly Tech Sistas let me know that I’m not the only Black person in tech,” she said. “And it helped me realize that it was important for me to not only work with other Black people, but with people from all different walks of life.”