Break Through Voices: In Conversation with Nimmi Arunachalam, Site Director at Break Through Tech Miami at FIU

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.


Meet Nimmi (Nirmala) Arunachalam, director of Break Through Tech Miami at FIU (Florida International University), which serves diverse undergraduate women and non-binary students from across the Miami metro area, which Forbes calls an “emerging [tech] hub for Latin America without actually being in Latin America.”

What does this work mean to you personally? How does Break Through Tech’s mission line up with your own career focus?

I’m an engineer, and I have an MBA, and worked in India on HR enterprise software.  I learned programming as part of my job, and I saw how tech touches all walks of life — it’s a problem-solving tool.

I came to the U.S. and took a nine year career break to focus on raising my daughter and my son. Then in 2009 I became a substitute teacher at a local high school. It was quite a transformative and shocking experience at first, but then I fell in love with teaching. I taught computer science (CS) and engineering at the same high school for over a decade, and then worked for the school district of Palm Beach County, FL in supporting students and teachers in the field of computer science. I had continued my journey as a learner by getting a masters in education leadership; as heartbreaking as it was to leave the classroom, I thought I could scale up the impact I was having.

I initiated and ran an event called Girl Engineers of Tomorrow (GET) Day at my high school for six years, to introduce CS and engineering to girls in their 8th grade year when they were figuring out where to go for high school. We bussed 60-100 girls in for an experiential learning day that was run by girls in the school’s engineering academy — we supported girls to support other girls.

When I heard about Break Through Tech, their mission appealed to me right away because it seemed like GET Day, just on a more massive scale. I heard they were hiring in Miami, specifically at FIU and I said, “Sign me up.” Serendipitiously, I had also applied and been accepted to a PhD program at FIU — one of very few PhD programs in the country for CS and engineering education. It is worth mentioning here that FIU is the largest Hispanic Serving Institution in the United States, and it proudly trains the most number of Hispanic engineers in the continental United States

I’ve found a way to not just make an impact through my work at Break Through Tech, but also by diving into research to find more effective ways of reaching students and helping them achieve the milestones that Break Through Tech strives for.

What differences have you noticed between the field of tech in India, and here in the U.S.?

In India, a lot of computer scientists are women. So I saw many women in the tech workforce and with tech degrees. So the idea of having to fight for girls’ representation in tech was alien to me. I remember one day in my classroom in Florida thinking, “Wait, I don’t see any girls in my CS classroom — where did they go?”

If a girl chooses not to study CS or engineering because she tried it and it’s not for her, that’s one thing. But for girls to self-eliminate when they haven’t even tried it, because they’re made to feel it’s not for them for reasons that aren’t valid — that angers me. I want to fight that.

With Break Through Tech, we show them what computing can do in their lives and careers — and if they’re socially minded, what it can do for having a social impact in the world; it gives me a lot of happiness to introduce it to them.

How do you expose female and non-binary undergrads to CS and engineering, if they don’t identify as “tech people” or have internalized that tech isn’t for them?

We have had so much success with Break Through Tech Guilds changing students’ outlooks and creating impact at FIU. For the students who go through it, even if they don’t end up clamoring to major in CS, they see that computing is a medium to solve problems across different parts of life. Some students end up applying what they learn to their own area of study, such as journalism; even that is a win. We all have to be tech savvy; we can be sure that without computing, no job is going to exist in the coming decades. So when students emerge from the Guild program more open to computing — that’s a success.

What makes Miami an especially compelling or effective place to do this work? And what about FIU?

FIU is the best-kept secret in South Florida. Even as an educator in Palm Beach, I didn’t realize how big it was or the impact of their work, especially when it comes to diversity in STEM. There is nothing but diversity on campus- for example, we have more Hispanic STEM grads than anywhere in the continental US.

And Miami has been called one of the fastest growing tech ecosystems in the country; we’ll be giving Silicon Valley a run for its money in the next decade. There is a palpable excitement,  not just on campus but city-wide.

What kinds of local companies are you working with?

We have a lot of tech companies in Miami, but also, we realize that every company is a tech company. That’s the mindshift we all have to make. Every company is investing heavily in tech, and they all need students to pipeline into the workforce. So we’re reaching out to companies across industries, and approaching every company as a tech company, no matter its size. We’re also targeting blockchain and gaming companies and we’ve also had success selling our program internally to various units that work with industry within FIU, who see that this is a way to cultivate their pipeline.

What have you noticed about the students that Break Through Tech Miami attracts?

I notice a lot of hunger for learning. Most students want to learn something real-world, concrete, something they can use as a tool. They are overwhelmingly open to learning new ideas. In addition to introducing them to computing, we teach emotional intelligence, presentation skills — the critical skills people use when they go to work. Tech workers are not just going to be looking at a computer; employers will expect students to come with collaboration and people skills as well. A recent email from a FIU CS student who was placed in a 3-week summer micro-internship at a large financial services company in South Florida resonated with me in a profound way. She said: “I am grateful for the opportunities Break Through Tech presented to us, which expanded our knowledge, refined our skills, and boosted our confidence. These experiences validated our presence and contributions in the tech industry, reaffirming our valuable place at the table. The program provided valuable industry experience and the chance to learn from mentors and role models.I am honored to have been a part of this transformative program.” These sentiments powers and inspires us everyday at Break Through Tech Miami.

Reflecting on all you’ve accomplished at Break Through Tech Miami, what gives you the most pride?

The community I’ve helped build. I truly believe, especially in computing, but really in every walk of life — it is always better with community. Alone we can only achieve so much, but in diverse communities, when we support each other, magic happens.

I truly believe that without community, you cannot create change. When you create a culture of learning and support and “we’re in it together,” things will start happening.

What’s next for Break Through Tech at FIU?

Partnerships and continuing to connect the dots with others in the local tech ecosystem so we can have a greater collective impact. There is so much happening in Miami — how do we hold hands and find ways to augment each other’s efforts? I am particularly excited by the educational innovations in tech that are happening at our sister organization: Miami Dade College. We are also continuing to explore curricular innovations, in areas like AI/ML and data science.

The Break Through Tech team is becoming more and more well-known on campus. Students are referring each other to us, professors are saying, “go talk to Break Through Tech.” There was a conference about women in tech recently at FIU, and Break Through Tech was front and center. It feels like everybody’s marching in sync, and that just feels right.