Good Life

Penn State grad works to crack the code for girls and tech

Through her startup, The Coding Space, Penn State grad Nicole Kelner, left, works to get kids interested in coding.
Through her startup, The Coding Space, Penn State grad Nicole Kelner, left, works to get kids interested in coding. Photo provided

“Forget how to master the dinner table, learn how to master the command line.”

While written as advice, it may as well be Nicole Kelner’s creed. Two summers ago while working as an intern in San Francisco’s startup scene, she loved the people she worked with, she said. Most of them, though, just happened to be dudes.

“When I worked in San Francisco I was definitely a minority as a woman in tech, and I was always going to these women-in-tech meetups and complaining to others that there aren’t enough women in technology,” she said. “And I realized that’s not how to change anything.”

Kelner — who at 23 has traveled to Thailand, Vietnam and France, written a thesis on viral marketing, founded three startups and is the chief operating officer of another — is more of a doer, anyway. While she’s blogged about the issue for The Huffington Post, the Penn State grad has also gotten other young women into technology with the work she does everyday.

As COO of The Coding Space, a New York startup that helps kids learn how to code, she has helped build The Girl Code program, an all-girls education initiative that lets its participants feel less like ciphers and more like leaders in the field.

“I think that educating young girls is how we’re going to change the gender gap,” she said. “Because getting them excited about coding at this age is going to carry with them through college, and increase the space where they don’t realize they’re a minority.”

Kelner is setting a different kind of table, one equipped with a computer, a keyboard and a more equitable future. Technology dominates our lives insofar as we now spend about half of our waking hours staring at a screen, according to industry analysts. For millennials, nearly 4 of those hours are spent on social media, while many of their parents put in a solid 3 hours daily liking, posting and sharing.

Technology continues to connect us in startling — and sometimes unsettling — ways. Gallup reported that smartphone users whip out their devices hourly, while experts have found that users check their phones up to 150 times a day.

We have a love affair with our devices. But like “The Bachelor,” someone is pulling the strings. And as Kelner and companies themselves have noticed, Silicon Valley is the nerdiest fraternity in America.

The numbers bear that out: Women make up 15 percent of tech roles at Facebook, and 17 percent of those positions at Google. At Twitter, nine out of 10 tech jobs are filled by men.

So Silicon Valley, the Nest-controlled home to the geniuses who influence they way we think, behave and live our lives, is less like “The Bachelor” and more like “The Bachelorette.” Except it’s not a show, just reality.

“It’s the reason I’m particularly passionate about changing that,” Kelner said.

The young entrepreneur is hitting ctrl-alt-delete and tapping in her own code, one keystroke at a time. Speaking from New York, she spoke with the Centre Daily Times about tech education, balancing her many ventures and why lemon puns are helping us toward equality.

Q: In 23 short years, you’ve done a lot. What are you most proud of?

A: Oh man, well, The Coding Space has been wonderful, especially The Girl Code program. I also am really proud of this space called Lemonaid, which is an online support community for women around the world to talk about mental health, human rights, basically all sorts of things that are hard to talk about.

Q: That seems like using the internet to connect people, whereas we often hear it being used for the opposite. It sounds like a modern recourse for a modern problem — is that right?

A: Yeah, so it uses (professional communication app) Slack. There are about 200 women on it right now. There are women from Australia, India, the Philippines, Hungary, South America, Canada, Russia — all over the place.

It’s been really positive. It’s semi-anonymous, so all the women create user names that are lemon puns. So I’m like “Big Squeeze,” then there’s like “Miley Citrus.” I like combining very hard-to-talk-about topics with a lighthearted theme, so it becomes more comfortable and a space that is open and fun. There have been people who have posted about really hard times in their life — about abuse or relationship troubles or sexism in the office — and it’s crowdsourced advice and the feedback after that is like “thank you so much for this space, this has gotten me through (a lot).”

Q: Women in tech remain underrepresented; the percentage of women receiving degrees in computer science has actually dropped since 1991. What are some experiences where you’ve found mentors in a male-dominated field?

A: I was actually at an event last week that was really wonderful, a women in STEM event, and I was with two other friends and we were actually the youngest in the room. There were some older women who have been through different career fields and technology. One was the VP of technology at Verizon. Meeting women who were at the forefront was really inspiring. I often don’t have a lot of mentors who are women, so that event was an eye-opener.

Q: How have you filled that mentor role for students at The Coding Space?

A: The Girl Code program started this summer, and we have three weeks of an all-girl coding program. It’s amazing to see what they do. One of them has her own dog walking and baby-sitting business online and she was really excited about it. She’s 12 years old. I helped her make her website and portfolio for this business; she had never done HTML/CSS and she was so excited to customize her website exactly like she wanted to, she was like screaming, she was so excited.

I started my first business when I was 17, and it’s just exciting seeing girls starting younger and younger. And having the opportunity to work with them on a basis like that has been awesome.

Q: You’ve founded multiple startups, been around the world and work and live in New York. Do you sleep?

A: (laughs) I have a great work-life balance right now. We take care of each other. Like I was sick yesterday and they made me go home.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy