British Columbia

Teen hackathon winner creates app to connect female students with tech industry mentors

A teenager led her team to victory in a recent Vancouver hackathon that aimed to support and advance women in the tech industry.

Contest asked competitors to find ways to break down barriers for women pursuing careers in tech

Scarlet Nguyen (left) reviews her winning app design for the Women in Tech Activation Hackathon. (CBC)

A teenager led her team to victory in a recent Vancouver hackathon that aimed to support and advance women in the tech industry.

Scarlet Nguyen, 17, beat out a number of highly experienced adults in an app-building competition with her idea for a platform that helps high school students connect with professional mentors based on matching interests.

The Vancouver teen said she got the idea in Grade 10 while she was struggling to choose her own career path, and saw many of her friends in the same position.

"I thought that it'd be cool if we can make an app that helps students break that closed environment and go out there, explore the world to see and understand themselves better," Nguyen told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

Scarlet Nguyen, a high school senior in Vancouver, created the winning app design at the Women in Tech Activation Hackathon last month. (CBC)

The competing developers in the Women in Tech Activation Hackathon drew from data collected on the experiences of Canadian women in tech from more than 30 communities across the country.

The nonprofit group Women in Tech World spent nine weeks touring communities and asking people in the industry what they saw as the largest barrier preventing women from choosing a career in the field, according to CEO Alicia Close.

Close said they chose Nguyen's pitch because it addressed a need in a very specific part of the community and offered a simple and practical solution.

"Having Scarlet there, being the target market, and as well being able to reach out to her peers, they had a great targeted application to address the problem," said Close.

Alicia Close, CEO of Women in Tech World, organized October's Women in Tech Activation Hackathon, which asked competitors to design an app to break down barriers for women pursuing careers in tech. (CBC)

The contest topic hit home for Nguyen, who said she witnessed a lot of her male classmates excelling in programing at an early age, but saw that her female peers were intimidated by the tech world. 

"It's kind of scary and unfamiliar to get into that by ourselves. It feels lonely," she said.

Last summer she made a bit of history as the first female accepted to the Hootsuite internship, but she said the gender gap was noticeable — which made it difficult to connect with the culture of the industry.

"It was an honour but the pressure is still there … my team was pretty adult and only four to five women were there."

Scarlet Nguyen won the Women in Tech Activation Hackathon with an idea for an app that connects students with tech industry professionals to offer young women an entry point into the field. (CBC)

Nguyen's experience demonstrated a prominent problem in the industry that Close and her company are trying to address.

"A big piece is training the trainer in unconscious bias … both on the training and inclusion aspect. But then the other side is just technical training and getting that into the schools and exposure at a younger age," said Close.

Nguyen and her team were awarded $10,000 in in-kind resources to launch their app, which she said they'll use to create a prototype for testing.

"We can learn from our mistakes and gradually identify our customer, our market, as well as the business model," she said.

With files from On The Coast

To hear the full interview listen to media below: