She believes in girls who code, so much that she left Apple to come home and help them

As a child Khalia Braswell, now 27, moved to Charlotte with her mother for a better life and...
As a child Khalia Braswell, now 27, moved to Charlotte with her mother for a better life and better schools. Braswell, a former Apple engineer, founded INTech. (John D Simmons/Charlotte Observer)
Updated: Jul. 28, 2018 at 12:48 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Sherrell Dorsey/Charlotte Observer) - Inside a classroom at Johnson C. Smith University on a hot July day last summer, 25 middle-school girls gathered to launch what would be their first technology product: a website, built from scratch, that would help visitors learn more about a social issue like homelessness or youth unemployment.

Over the course of a five-day camp, the aspiring technologists had huddled around computer screens learning HTML programming and mobile app development. They had shared lunch with women in tech who told tales of their academic pursuits and how they landed jobs in the field. And they had gotten a glimpse of a day in the life of a technologist as they took tours of big-brand tech companies like Microsoft and Google Fiber.

By the second day, several students approached Khalia Braswell in earnest, asking: When can we sign up for the next camp?

"That moment is what keeps me going," said Braswell, 27, a former Apple engineer who quit her job at the tech giant in January. She came home to Charlotte to expand the technology boot camps she organizes through her nonprofit, INTech, to inspire young girls of color to get into tech.

The camp plays a small but significant role in its attempt to bridge a stark divide when it comes to advocating for the advancement of women and women of color in technology and computing fields. A 2018 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology showed that just 27 percent of computing jobs were held by women. In North Carolina, the numbers of women represented in tech match the nation's. For women of color in the industry, the numbers are even more grim, with black women making up just 3 percent and Latinas just 1 percent of women in tech jobs.

Since launching INTech in 2014, Braswell has introduced more than 550 middle-school girls of color to a variety of technical skills and has paired them with professional female mentors who work in the field. INTech got its start offering two-hour mini-camps in partnership with more than 14 schools throughout Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. It now operates weeklong summer camps held in computer rooms and classrooms at universities and schools across the three cities.

Before INTech Camp, hands-on tech learning programs targeted to young girls of color in North Carolina were limited. Notable organizations such as Black Girls Code and Girls Who Code had yet to be established. So Braswell built up such an experience while working in California, using vacation days to travel to Charlotte and Raleigh to host camps.

Amia Rice, 13, was among the students of last summer's cohort. At the behest of her mother, Lisa — Braswell's chemistry teacher in high school — Amia joined the camp without much enthusiasm for spending a week of her summer cooped up indoors.

Amia, who self-describes as terribly shy, formed a circle of friends and took the lead as her group's front-end developer for their website on stopping bullying in schools. "The project hit close to home for me," she said.

Amia left the camp with a certificate of completion. At the dinner table, she talked about other programming languages she might be interested in learning.

"Now," Lisa Rice said, "my daughter says, 'I want to do what Ms. Khalia does.'"

Jordans or a computer?

Braswell said she wished a program like INTech existed when she was growing up.

Her mother, Danielle Braswell, always knew Khalia was smart. They lived in Rocky Mount in eastern North Carolina back then, a town of fewer than 60,000 where Danielle knew that there were few options for challenging curriculum or extracurricular activities for children like Khalia.

Before Khalia was to enter first grade, Danielle moved in with her uncle in Charlotte — a three-and-a-half hour drive southwest of the only life she knew. Danielle left Khalia behind with her mother until she could build a new life for her and her daughter in a school district she believed would offer more opportunities.

By summer of 1998, that new life started in a trailer park tucked inside a brown single-wide trailer off Hovis Road in West Charlotte — a predominantly black community with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.

Danielle was working in a call center when Khalia was headed into second grade. The year of transition into a new life in a new city with few resources wasn't easy. Khalia got in trouble often for talking too much in class — a behavioral issue teachers attributed to her being bored after completing her work faster than her classmates. She had tested well for the gifted program before being moved to an advanced reading and math curriculum, but it still took hopping to a few different schools throughout the duration of the school year before Khalia and her mother found the right fit.

Tax refunds the next year offered Danielle a little extra cash to splurge. Khalia had a choice to make. She could have a pair of Jordans or a computer.

Without hesitation, Khalia asked for a computer.

Her own direction

Khalia Braswell didn't know that asking for a computer instead of sneakers, or begging her mom in 2003 to let her attend the city's new magnet high school, Phillip O. Berry Technology Academy, were decisions that would put her on the pathway to becoming part of the quarter percent of women employed in STEM jobs in Charlotte.

Nor did she realize, after completing college internships at Deloitte and then at Apple while working on her bachelor's and a master's in computer science at N.C. State and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte respectively, that she'd join the less than 30 percent of women working in tech. Braswell just knew that she really liked to code. So much so that she covered the walls of the trailer she shared with her mom with sticky notes filled with HTML tags she wanted to memorize.

The only women in tech she knew she'd met in high school.

There was Jermel Byrd, her Advanced Placement computer teacher, and Louise Suggs, who managed the school's IT systems.

Ms. Suggs, Braswell remembers, was the one you called when servers in the computer lab went awry.

"I wanted to be just like her," Braswell said. "A black woman working with technology and getting paid for it."

Compounding dreams

Braswell's early college years as an undergrad at N.C. State made room for ongoing development and mentorship. She'd latched on to mentoring programs with organizations like the National Black Data Processors Association and the National Society of Black Engineers, which gave her access to a wider network of mentors who helped her land internships at Deloitte and Fidelity.

She'd discovered deeper connections with women in tech upon pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., developing a friendship with Shekinah Smith, a sorority sister who had recently landed a role as a developer at Apple following her work as a front-end developer for Red Ventures. Smith would eventually become a longtime mentor and instructor at INTech camps.

INTech Camp was birthed as Braswell wrapped up grad school in 2014. Somehow, she managed to sustain both, while figuring out her next steps, beyond what she'd accomplished in Charlotte and Raleigh.

The allure of Silicon Valley for an early 20-something fresh out of grad school did not evade Braswell. Despite having a shot at turning an internship into a full-time job opportunity within Bank of America's IT department, she knew that a fast-paced startup environment was more her speed.

She kissed her mother goodbye and headed to Cupertino, Calif. — where she was, as her mother proudly told her friends, "a black girl engineer at Apple."

While she adjusted to her new job as a UX design engineer for the iPhone, Braswell ran INTech remotely for nearly four years, expanding partnerships with nonprofits and leading tech companies, and relying on friends and instructors like Shekinah to continue the implementation of INTech's mission to inspire and expose young girls to the possibilities of technology.

But vacations and short trips home to manage the program weren't enough for Braswell. While she enjoyed living in Oakland, building friendships and networks with other techies sprinkled across Silicon Valley's hottest tech companies, her heart remained in Charlotte. She missed home. She missed her family. She craved the opportunity to be the visible presence of a black woman in tech for the young women she was getting to know through her camps.

In January of this year, Braswell gave Apple two weeks' notice, packed up her apartment, and returned home to work on INTech full-time.

Today, she is working toward making the organization sustainable through its mix of grants, partnerships with larger companies, and individual contributions. Her goal is to increase student exposure year-round.

"When girls leave us, they want more," Braswell said.

Reshaping the local narrative

Roughly three months after her return to Charlotte, Braswell applied and was accepted into a coaching program and pitch competition called SEED20, which is sponsored by the local chapter of Social Venture Partners — an international philanthropic network providing investment funding to social-mission-driven nonprofits.

The three-minute pitch competition was scheduled for April 16. Of the 20 selected finalists, only 10 would take the stage to pitch their organizations in hope of winning a chance at more than $45,000 in prize money.

Braswell used her three minutes to tell her own story as a homegrown talent who returned to pay it forward by ensuring that more of Charlotte's young women were represented in tech jobs.

"This theater is filled with [just over] 1,000 seats," she began. "Take just the three front rows and that's representative of the number of women working in tech nationwide. Now take half of the bottom left row — that's how many women of color are in this industry. Something has to change."

That evening, Braswell won the people's choice vote and an oversized check made out to INTech for a $1,000 donation. Her mother stood next to Khalia with pride.

"When I didn't know the answer to something, my mom would say, 'What would you do if I wasn't here'?" Khalia Braswell recalled. She hadn't known that her mom just didn't know the answer back then. But having to solve her own problems gave Braswell much of the confidence she has today — the same confidence she hopes to instill in the young INTech students.

Students like 13-year-old Nevaeh Macon.

Braswell met Nevaeh and her mother, Marquita, last summer when Nevaeh attended INTech's summer camp at N.C. State.

"I figured it would be a good thing because my daughter had never taken any sort of computer classes or coding classes before," Marquita said.

Like Braswell and her mother, Nevaeh and Marquita are from Rocky Mount.

On the first day of camp, Nevaeh said she was learning how to code and working with her group of four other girls to create a website about homelessness among veterans.

"I had to get the pictures and work with fonts and make sure the layout worked and was put together," Nevaeh said. She also learned how to inspect websites to borrow code as she learned to build her group's site. "When I came back to school to show my friends, I told them about INTech and showed them the website and they said they were going to ask their moms if they could go."

Nevaeh's success at the camp, and the lack of similar opportunities in Rocky Mount, helped her mother make what she called an easy decision: She moved to Concord, near Charlotte, in February, just as Braswell's mother had once moved to provide greater opportunities for her daughter.

"I feel like," Marquita said, "that I came across [Khalia] for a reason."

Sherrell Dorsey wrote a version of this story in April for a narrative writing class while getting a master's of science degree in data journalism at Columbia University in New York City. Since then, Dorsey has contracted with Khalia Braswell to provide training for a city-funded project for high school students. Dorsey is president and CEO of BLKTECH Interactive, a statewide hub for entrepreneurs and technologists of color to launch and grow innovative businesses and careers.