Empowering young women in tech has become Avni Barman’s mission

Student-founded She Leads pairs teen girls with female entrepreneurs

Avni Barman, a USC senior, remembers the first day she interned at LinkedIn.

She was excited about the software engineering internship, where she would go on to create features that are used by thousands on the platform today. But, when she walked into its San Francisco office, she was a bit startled.

“I was the only female on my entire team,” she said.

Barman, and probably most of you reading now, are familiar with the statistics:

  • Google reports that 31 percent of its overall staff is women. When you narrow those positions to leadership or engineering, it gets bleaker: Both are about 25 percent.
  • About 2 out of 10 leaders are women at Yahoo.
  • Linkedin reports higher numbers, with about 31 percent women in leadership positions.

For Barman, a bell went off. While there was a push for women in STEM careers, she thought there should be just as much support for getting women in positions of power at tech companies.

Avni Barman addressing her peers about She Leads.
Barman thinks it’s important for girls to see entrepreneurship as an option from an early age. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

“People tend to recruit people who look like them,” said Barman, a senior at USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy. “My hypothesis is if we are able to create female founders, we are able to create more company cultures led by women and naturally help our diversity statistics.”

She started to think: “What if we tackled this at a younger generation — who will be the generation of female founders?”

This led Barman to come up with She Leads, a nonprofit mentoring program that pairs teen girls with female founders. In March, it will kick off with a two-day “makeathon” at Snapchat’s Santa Monica headquarters, where dozens of teen girls will get hands-on workshops on everything from marketing to product development. There will be a pitch competition, where a lucky dozen will leave as the nonprofit’s first cohort of mentees. The idea isn’t just to get advice, but to help these young women bring their business ideas to fruition.

Student staff powers She Leads

Avni Barman, right, with Shirley Huang and Danielle Boyce, work on their nonprofit, She Leads.
Avni Barman, right, with Shirley Huang and Danielle Boyce, work on their nonprofit, She Leads. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

In the months leading up, Barman and her team — nearly all women of color and many colleagues in the academy — have spent hours glued to their laptops. There’s sophomore Shirley Huang designing, sophomore Dani Boyce on branding and senior Sarah Kim tackling logistics and accounting — and that’s just a few. Nearly all pitch in on other stuff too, whether it’s design or coding.

Academy sophomore Kaitlyn Chu, overseeing partnerships, loves the idea of She Leads because she herself was a teen entrepreneur who, with zero guidance, was flying by the seat of her pants.

“I had to learn a lot of stuff on my own, through YouTube and Google searches,” Chu said, who made hand-designed iPhone cases in high school. “I was super on board when I heard the concept. … It’s something I would have wanted.

It’s important, at an early age, for girls to see entrepreneurship as an option, the team said. Talking to female founders in her research, Barman said, the one commonality was how much their environments impacted them — whether it was supportive fathers who brought them on business trips or seeing their mothers be breadwinners.

She Leads: Broadening exposure to entrepreneurship

Exposure to entrepreneurship shouldn’t be limited to a fortunate group, Barman said, and that’s the idea behind She Leads.

Barman is also the president of USC Girls in Tech, the only university chapter of the international organization, bringing its membership up from a couple dozen a few years ago to roughly 200 now. She’s created a scholarship to bring students annually to Grace Hopper Celebration, the biggest conference for women in computing in the world. She also hosts events, such as a hike around Griffith Observatory with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to familiarize students with local tech companies.

For those who can’t attend due to financial hardship, She Leads has scholarships available to attend the March event, thanks to Snapchat. And the group website, which will provide the communication and curriculum for mentors and mentees, will also have a DIY entrepreneurship handbook available for download. 

Empowering young women in tech, it seems, has become a mission of Barman’s and she has no desire to slow down.

By Joanna Clay

>Read the original story on USC News