First and foremost, Gloria Kimbwala, a campus program specialist at Square, is an engineer.
She went through Square’s College Code Camp exactly two years ago. Today, she’s running it. Code Camp, now in its sixth session, is a five-day program at Square designed to immerse young female computer science or engineering majors in coding workshops, leadership sessions and a hackathon. Kimbwala attended Code Camp when she was pursuing her master’s degree, in which she was the only female engineer in her program.
“Because I’m an engineer, I like to look at problems and things I see are problems,” Kimbwala told me. “My path through technology and through computer science — I was always very aware I was the only minority and the only woman in all of my classes. But I thought it was a problem that only my class was facing, or maybe my college was facing. I wasn’t aware that it was a problem that my whole industry was facing.”
When Kimbwala got to Code Camp, it was her first time meeting other female engineers, she said. It was also her first time meeting another African-American engineer. While at Code Camp, Kimbwala learned that the lack of diversity is a problem within tech as a whole, and not just at her school.
“So I started to look at it very technically and think, “Ok, what are the problems that we’d like to solve?” and for me, it was diversity,” Kimbwala said. “It’s something that very directly affects me and I thought that I at least had a perspective and an insight where I could make some true headway if I tackled this specific problem.”
When the opportunity to run Code Camp came about, Kimbwala jumped on it because she saw it as a way to make a big impact on diversity in tech from the inside.
Code Camp, Generation Six
Before Kimbwala officially started running Code Camp at Square, she assisted Square Head of Diversity and Inclusion Vanessa Slavich, who started Code Camp, in running the program this past August. The most recent Code Camp, which took place earlier this month, was Kimbwala’s first time doing it all on her own.
Kimbwala selected 20 young women currently enrolled as full-time students at either an American or Canadian university pursuing computer science, computer engineering or some other related technical field. As part of the program, campers had the opportunity to work with Square engineers building code, meet with Square executives like Jack Dorsey and Square CFO Sarah Friar, and participate in a hackathon.
During their five-day trip to San Francisco, the campers took tours of tech companies like Yelp and Twitter. They also participated in workshops around iOS, Ruby on Rails, hardware, data science and security. On the last day of the program, the campers presented their hackathon projects. The assignment was to build a web app that helps connect past, present and future Code Campers.
“When you’re in college versus the outside world, the two computer sciences are different,” Camille Ramseur, a Code Camp participant and recent graduate from the Florida Institute of Technology with a degree in computer science, told me. “So I wanted to do more professional development. I thought it was a good opportunity to better myself in computer science and connect with other females. In my graduating class, there was only one other girl in computer science. I had never been around 20 other female computer science majors.”
Through Code Camp, Kimbwala wants to help every young woman who goes through the program realize that they have a place at Square, and in the tech industry in general.
As part of Code Camp, Kimbwala hosted an hour-long imposter syndrome workshop. Imposter syndrome, an idea first explored by Dr. Pauline Clance in the 1980s, is the feeling that you’re not as qualified for the work as people may think you are, and will be found out as a fraud.
“I feel like a lot of people experience it but don’t know what it is,” Kimbwala said. “The more you can expose people to what it is, the more they can work out strategies to overcome it.”
To kick off the workshop, Kimbwala had the Code Campers watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on imposter syndrome.
Next, everyone, including myself, dove into the workshop’s first exercise. Part one asked each of us to write down three things we value, write a sentence about why one of those values are important to us, and what the last topic was that someone asked us for advice on. That last part is especially important because if someone asks you for advice, Kimbwala explained, they’re essentially telling you that they respect your opinion and find value in it.
We later discussed the effects of imposter syndrome, which include not applying for certain jobs or promotions, as well as strategies for combatting imposter syndrome, such as keeping a record of your accomplishments and reviewing them often.
During the workshop, Kimbwala spoke about her own struggles with imposter syndrome. She described how during her first week at Square, she was waiting for the company to realize it had made a mistake in hiring her. I asked her to elaborate on that when we sat down to chat.
“I thought, ‘At some point, they’re going to realize they made a mistake and that I really don’t have the skills they’re looking for and whatnot,’ so I really didn’t dive into anything,” Kimbwala said. “I was doing a lot of self-reflection and looking around, and then I had that moment with my mom, when she called and got all excited and asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘Well, I’m just kind of hanging out, waiting for them to fire me.’ She was like, ‘Why would you even be doing that?!’ I said, ‘Well, they had to have made a big mistake. I’m surrounded by some of the most brilliant people I know, and they’re going to figure out that I’m not as brilliant as they think I am.’ She said, ‘Well, I strongly suggest you get to work.'”
Since joining Square in July 2015, Kimbwala said that she has come to terms with the fact that Square hired her because of her knowledge, talent and skills. She eventually realized that she’s well-connected and has a unique perspective to offer Square. But the profound moment for Kimbwala — when she realized that Square is where she should be — happened shortly after Square appointed Ruth Simmons, former president at Brown University, to its board of directors. Before her post at Brown, Simmons, an African-American woman, was the president of Smith College, where she established the first engineering program at an American women’s college. Simmons joined Square’s board in August as one of the only black women on a tech company’s board of directors.
“My mind blew,” Kimbwala said. “When she walked through the door, I started to cry. It was a physical manifestation of everything I’ve ever dreamed to be and it was something that I didn’t have to specifically try to figure out how to be it, but I could see it. And that’s when I realized this was the best place for me to be. That made the imposter syndrome and everything else just kind of go away.”
2016 Goals and Beyond
This year, Kimbwala has committed to spending 500 hours doing service within underrepresented communities. If she hits those hours by June, she’s going to bump it up to 1,000. Ultimately, Kimbwala sees herself pursuing computer engineering as a career.
“This year I’m learning Swift and iOS design,” Kimbwala said. “It tends to itch — the coding part of me — and then I start to see problems I want to solve. I’m always looking for the next hackathon that I can work on. I’m an engineer and even when I interviewed [with Square], I let them know I’m an engineer first and foremost. You’re not really going to be able to take that away from me, so at some point I’ll probably transition into engineering. I think the world needs to see that too.”
Across the board, the number of black female engineers at tech companies is very, very low. Although several tech companies have released diversity reports, Square has not done so…yet. But, for Kimbwala, it’s not about the numbers.
“I don’t really care too much about the number, but how do I feel in your home? Is this a place where I’m safe?” Kimbwala said. “I feel safe here being the person that I am and I know whoever I invite into this space will also feel safe in this home, and that’s more important than general numbers.”