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Uber and The Ellis School are driving girls toward tech careers

Christopher Keough
April19/ 2017

Computer science teacher Michele Lombardi is on a mission. Her goal is to offset the gender disparity within the tech industry, where women make up just 25 percent of workers.

“Women aren’t pursuing jobs in the tech industry, and then if they do get jobs, the statistics show they aren’t staying,” says Lombardi, who teaches in The Ellis School’s middle and upper classes. “I hope to see that change.”

So when an opportunity came up with a local Uber contact, she immediately capitalized on the good fortune. They made arrangements together for three women from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center to visit The Ellis School to encourage high school students to pursue tech careers.

Lombardi gathered five students who are studying robotics to meet with the Uber team. The three professionals gave a 45-minute presentation about self-driving technology and shared their personal career stories. Each of the women found their way to Uber through different pursuits, via the arts, business, and a more traditional tech route: engineering.

“It showed my girls that it takes a variety of different skill sets,” Lombardi says.

It’s a lesson the women are happy to share, and one they say they would have appreciated when they were in school.

“I’m really interested in talking to young women who are trying to make decisions about their careers,” says Lisa Weitekamp, technical program manager at Uber. As a student, she says, “I didn’t have the cool opportunities of learning about computer science in high school.”

As a student, Wietekamp, now 30, had planned to pursue engineering in college. With no professional model or guiding influence, she was intimidated when she found that nearly all the others in the major were young men. She pursued a business degree instead.

Out of school, with a degree in international business, she found herself on a foreign exchange trading floor in San Francisco. Then she joined tech company, Twilio, as the seventh employee in a non-technical role. Through hard work and observing others, she grew into a project management role. She accepted the job with Uber last March and moved to Pittsburgh.

“What I want to be for young girls is somebody they can look up to and say, ‘I could see myself being her,’ ” Weitekamp says. “There’s a lot of big decisions to make when you’re a young girl that have impacts on how your life will unfold that can be very empowering. I want to be a positive voice pushing young girls to do as much as they possibly can.”

Sophomore Becca Rust found Weitekamp’s story inspiring because she assumed you had to be trained in science to work in technology.

“Even if on paper you’re not qualified, you should always try things,” says Weitekamp. Her message boils down to building your confidence and being willing to take risks. “If you’re not failing once in a while you’re not pushing yourself enough.”

Becca says she got the message.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me was the advice they gave us,” she says. “If you want something you have to be dedicated to that passion and you have to believe in yourself. No one else can reach your goals for you.”

Christopher Keough

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