Brianna Fugate is only 19-years-old but her stellar resume puts many twice her age to shame. Her long list of achievements makes it clear she is destined for a brilliant career as an innovative technology leader.
It is her first day back at Spelman College. The self-proclaimed geek is reading a computer science major and just spent the previous day driving down to Atlanta from Washington D.C. with her mom. She’d been knee-deep in a sought-after internship at the White House working directly with Megan Smith, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, and a former highflying Google executive.
Still, you’d never believe the willowy teen was functioning on five hours sleep. Fugate is calm, composed, and measured. She says she sees studying computer science as an equalizer that gives freedom and flexibility to drive real change in the lives of others.
“I want to be a social entrepreneur and I want to be a software engineer,” says Fugate. “I’m a heavy believer in diversity and opportunities for all. I want to do something where I know I’m giving back to my community and making sure I’m lifting up those who are behind me to have the same opportunities, if not better than the opportunities I have.”
In many ways, Fugate is a Black Girls CODE (BGC) poster child. But her journey into tech was by happenstance. On a whim, she volunteered for the New York chapter of BGC, a nationwide non-profit that hosts workshops and programs for girls of color, ages 7-17, in all aspects of technology, from robotics to programming languages.
It was a non-technical support role because Fugate had never been exposed to computer programming. But after sitting in on BGC’s “Build a Website In A Day” workshop with a group of precocious eight-year-olds, she was completely hooked.
“I was sitting in the classroom and I was so excited to the see the girls just grasp the concept so easily and so excited to be coding,” says the Spelman sophomore. “It was just a room full of energy and they were so excited they were understanding what was being taught. The things they were producing were so beautiful. They were talented and so I was very inspired by them.”
“Even thought I was nine years older than those girls, I have never felt so inspired in my life by seeing young girls learn how to code. Before that, the image of computer science was white men.”
“It was the moment when I realized that I should learn about computers. I attribute all my success to date to BGC because had it not been for that one workshop I would not be on the path where I am today.”
A few months later, Kimberly Bryant, founder and executive director of BGC, encouraged Fugate to serve as a technical volunteer in a youth-guided hackathon focused on teen domestic violence and told her that she’d pick up a lot as a mentor. Fugate led her team to second place in the hackathon with a mobile app development and pitch that was judged by industry professionals.
“Black Girls CODE has transformed my life,” she says. “It’s revolutionized the image of coding and technology for girls, especially girls of color. The organization helps girls get exposed to tech early in an effective and transformative way.”
Fugate, who was raised in the Staten Island borough of New York City, says as early as she could remember she had wanted to work in the medical field but her experience with BGC unlocked a newfound passion. She began to actively seek additional opportunities to develop and advance her programming skills.
“I always wanted to be a radiologist but I never was into computers or nerdy stuff like that. I applied to college as a biology major, even up until last August I was a biology major at Spelman. I switched to computer science as soon as I got to Spelman.”
In fact, the summer before Fugate entered Spelman, she was one of 30 high school students selected in a highly competitive program to attend Google’s immersive Computer Science Summer Institute. During an intensive month of training at Googleplex in Mountain View, California, Fugate developed skills in creating web apps, programming in Python, mastering HTML5, and learning how to use the Google AppEngine. That experience was “the final push to pursue computing.”
Earlier in the year, Fugate was presented with another coveted opportunity. She was selected from a pool of 300 applicants to participate in Square’s College Code Camp with 22 other women engineering students from all over North America. The five-day, in-house immersion program is for highflying young women studying computer science.
She says BGC is a much-needed community that helps girls and young women gain exposure, mentorship, community, and confidence in the digital tech space. “They — BGC mentors and volunteers — are people of color to whom young black girls can easily relate. Black Girls CODE is the filler of that imagination gap. These kids are going to be the future of technology.”
“On a personal level, BGC inspired me to change my (college) major and explore opportunities hosted by companies such as Square and Google,” says Fugate. “If it weren’t for BGC and Ms. Bryant I wouldn’t have interned at the White House.”
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter@Kunbiti