In February 2018, a group of young Costa Ricans traveled to the UN headquarters in New York to be part of a forum to promote the inclusion of women in technological areas. Contrary to what one would expect, the delegation was not made up of politicians, academics or industry leaders; instead, its members were a group of four young women between 16 and 17 years, who were passionate about technology and came from vulnerable communities in Costa Rica.
The most surprising part of their story is that, until a few years ago, none of them had ever been involved in this field. Their journey to this world was one undertaken against the current, defying the expectations placed on them from their community. “Women are not normally shown the technological world, even when we are small. What they give us are dolls and cookware, and they never put us in touch with technology and the scientific world,” says Yoselín Solis, one of the team members. “How are we going to know if we like it or not, if it will interest us or not, if we never have contact with technology?” she says. Data further confirms her point: The World Economic Forum estimates that the gap between men and women in science, math, engineering and technology careers is 30% in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Her first real contact with technology was in a class at the technical school she attended. “I started to like it a lot. I love creating things, designing things, I love it. I told myself, this is where I belong, to a totally unknown environment,” she says. She hasn’t stopped since. Her passion was such that a few months later she had the opportunity to create a project with the mentoring of one of the greatest figures of electronics, Massimo Banzi, one of the creators of Arduino.
The project she created is an ode to her love for technology and the desire that more people, especially boys and girls who like her were never exposed to this field, discover their own passion for building and designing things. It consists of an interactive story to explain how pixels work through a story of an alien's encounter with an astronaut. To advance in the story, users have to perform a series of tasks of mixing colors. The idea is that children emulate the functionality of what happens behind all our screens in a simplified version, through the use of circuits and blocks.
Photo Gallery: the girls at the UN Headquarters in New York City
“Pixels have three colors: red, green and blue. To form an image, colors are joined with binary numbers,” explains Yoselín. “With the project, children had to overcome a series of challenges in the story in order to find, for example, the color pink or orange. To do so, they had to make combinations of zeros and ones to make a color,” she says. The project’s quality was such that currently an NGO uses it to educate children in the use of technology.
For another member of the delegation that went to the UN, Guissell Betancourt, finding her passion for technology was not easy either. Hers is a migrant family and they live in a community with limited resources. "We live in a poor sector, and it is quite hard because the people around us think that we will always live in this way and that our destiny is to work in a factory or cleaning houses," she says. “My family also thought that my destiny was going to be to work and have a family, and to work not in something big but in the same thing, in cleaning houses. Working on technology was something unimaginable.”
The members of the delegation were trained by a program called “Soy Cambio” from the Monge Foundation, an organization that works for the labor inclusion of young people in Central America. Since 2016 IDB Lab –the innovation laboratory of the IDB Group– has supported several innovative initiatives of the foundation, including the use of blockchain to replace the use of CVs and virtual reality to teach job skills.
“The great thing about the project with the Monge Foundation is that we work with the private sector and the public sector, we include an English component, and we also bring disruptive technologies. It is the ideal model for one of our projects,” says Martiza Vela, IDB Lab specialist and project manager.
The strength of the program stems from its work over several years with young people, supporting them to build greater self-esteem and self-confidence, and making them try new things that they can be passionate about. In the case of Yoselín, the foundation was instrumental in giving her the tools to expand her interest in electronics. “Monge Foundation has been a pillar for me. Through the camps and activities, I had the opportunity to work with Massimo Banzi. I also had the opportunity to be part of a volunteer at Intel, where we worked with engineers to teach children circuit simulators and robots that they could program using applications,” she says.
But above all, the strength of the program lies in listening. The participants are allowed to work on their own, on what they are passionate about, and given the tools to redefine the people they want to be. “I entered the Monge Foundation program when I was about 15 years old and my perspective changed a lot. My prospects for success changed and I really got empowered, so much so that they took me to the UN. I feel that I am a different kind of woman,” says Guissell.
For both students, their stay at the UN was a critical point in their personal development and learning about themselves. “The most important experience I had at the UN was to be able to share my story. Being able to tell other children that they are fully capable and should never doubt their ability. That no matter where they come from, or the barriers they face, it’s always possible,” says Yoselin. Guissell had a similar message. “Going to the UN made me realize that as a person I have a lot of talent, that as a woman I have a lot of talent. That I can achieve many different things, and leave my mark on my community, my country and the world,” she says.
“The most important experience I had at the UN was to be able to share my story. Being able to tell other children that they are fully capable and should never doubt their ability. That no matter where they come from, or the barriers they face, it’s always possible,” says Yoselin.
After their visit to the UN, Yoselín and Guissell started a project that uses technology to promote rural development, which they are currently working on. “At the UN I was really shocked at how much we as women in technology can do to help the planet, which needs it so much. What I want to do to work to create a better future, something that can help my community and the future of each one of us,” says Guissell.
To learn more about how more women can be encouraged to have careers in science and technology careers, download this publication.