The best way to understand the shape and power of Break Through Tech’s work is to hear from the people who are part of it — from the young women participating in our innovative programs, to the leaders who host those programs inside their organizations and the team members who run our programs in cities around the country and online.
In this first edition of Break Through Voices, we turn the spotlight on Donna White, director of Break Through Tech DC. Break Through Tech DC supports the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and is anchored by partnerships with the University of Maryland at College Park and George Mason University.
What makes the DC metro area a great place for Break Through Tech?
Donna White: There are so many diverse types of businesses in the DC region. Plus there’s been tremendous growth in the local tech industry, before recent headlines about tech layoffs. According to some rankings, DC is the 4th-ranked market for tech talent in the U.S. and Canada. The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects IT jobs to grow 11 percent through 2029 and the security space 31 percent.
The federal government is a large employer, and all of its subcontractors. There’s also a large number of fintech orgs headquartered in the area, and a large healthcare contingency. We also have think tanks and a number of world-class higher education institutions. All of these different industries call the DC region home, which allows us to offer incredible opportunities for career access to our students.
It’s also important to note that tech is embedded in every industry. So even if tech isn’t the first thing people think about when they think about a company, tech is an integral part of what every industry is doing. In fact, in response to recent layoffs at large tech companies, other sectors, including the federal government, have been hiring tech workers in greater numbers.
We help students to think broadly about what a career in tech might look like, and to connect opportunities with local companies to their varied interests and aspirations.
Tell us about some of the programs you’re offering with local industry partners.
Donna White: Industry partners are an integral part of the work we do. The largest program we offer in partnership with local companies is our SprinternshipTM program, a micro internship program that pairs students with an employer host for three weeks.
SprinternshipsTM give first- and second-year students real-world experience working on a tech project inside of a company — projects have included things like using data analytics to reduce employees’ carbon footprints, creating chat bots, and using virtual reality and other immersive technologies to create an interactive tour of Washington, DC’s U Street Historic District. The companies are able to see student talent early, which can increase the chances of them offering those same students internships and even full-time jobs down the line. Some of the companies that have hosted SprinternsTM in the DC area include Mastercard, Bechtel, Easy Dynamics, Two Six Technologies, Cloudforce, American Express, and a number of start-ups.
Another program we offer in partnership with industry is our Guild program, which runs for a week during the summer and is open to students with no or limited experience in tech. Students work in small groups, with a minimum of one mentor from the host company, on a design challenge around a specific topic — some of the projects have focused on transportation solutions, supporting neurodiverse people with executive functioning, and early childhood reading. Students learn code, and design thinking, but they also learn what people would call “soft skills,” like collaboration. It’s a real testament to the curriculum, how much students can do in just five days, not just creating a project but also presenting it.
The Guild experience teaches students, who may not have thought tech was for them, that learning about tech is accessible, and it connects students with a local company. Industry partnership is critical to the work that we do. We want to give students a sense of community not only while they’re in school, but also, after they graduate.
What’s a favorite piece of feedback you received from a local company?
Donna White: When a host company — a global consulting firm — said that the students not only did great work, but also added real value for their clients.
And what’s a favorite piece of feedback you’ve received from a student who’s gone through one of your programs?
Donna White: I think of a few things. I think of the student who said, “One of my biggest takeaways was not being afraid of asking for help.” I also think of the SprinternTM (program participant) who said that working on her SprinternshipTM project for three weeks felt different from projects from school because she collaborated more…she felt this gave her a better starting point for entering the workforce.
For some of the students, our programs are their first experience with collaboration. This is so important, because so much of the work you do in tech, you do as part of a team.
What does this work mean to you personally? How does Break Through Tech’s mission line up with your own career focus?
I’ve directed programs for a number of nonprofit organizations, many with a focus on helping women and girls. So helping more young women, especially those from underrepresented communities, have the opportunity to work in tech, and knowing that we are an extra layer of support as they persist through college, is very meaningful.
Anytime I see our students in action, it’s exciting for me, and it helps me paint a picture for potential industry partners. Being able to sit in on a student presentation, to see what they were able to create and present in under three weeks — from learning about a project, to doing research, then coding and turning around a presentation — gives me joy. It’s also about the networks the students are able to create through Break Through Tech. Those networks prove invaluable in many ways.
What work are you most proud of at Break Through Tech DC?
I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with our partners in a short time — under two years. On the university side, both the University of Maryland and George Mason were already doing great work, but seeing what they’ve been able to do with our support has been exciting — from the opportunities students have through our SprinternshipTM and Guild programs, to seeing more students attend conferences that are important to networking and getting in front of potential employers. Plus helping students connect with other students in tech is an added benefit.
What’s next for Break Through Tech DC?
The biggest thing is that we want to expand our SprinternshipTM program. This year, we had 112 students across 14 organizations. It’s a competitive application process, and we had to turn away a large number of qualified students. So we’re hoping to expand to 200 students in 2024, which means expanding our number of industry partners, not just big companies but also small and medium-sized. We also want to expand opportunities for students to get exposed to the myriad of tech career opportunities.