See how Innovate Birmingham is closing the gender gap in tech in The Magic City

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Innovate Birmingham
Innovate Birmingham is doing their part to encourage women to start a career in tech. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

If you’ve ever heard people call the tech industry a boy’s club, they’re not wrong—historically, women make up a small portion of the tech industry. However, one local organization, Innovate Birmingham, is working hard to help women make an impact in the tech field in Birmingham and beyond.

We spoke with local entrepreneurs, current students, alumni and staff at Innovate Birmingham to learn more.

Understanding the Gender Gap in Tech.

Elizabeth Anderson is Founder & Chief Executive Officer of LunarLab. Originally from Childersburg, AL, Elizabeth moved to Birmingham after graduating from the University of Alabama.

Kelli Lucas is Founder & Chief Design Officer for LunarLab. Born & raised in Prattville, AL, Kelli moved to Tennessee for two years before returning to Birmingham, which felt like home.

To understand the need to encourage women in the tech workforce, it is important to understand why there is a gender gap to begin with. In Birmingham, no one understands that better than Elizabeth Anderson and Kelli Lucas, co-founders of LunarLab—a woman-led UX design and product strategy firm that, “empowers dreamers to create meaningful, impactful products through collaboration and innovation.”

Have you noticed a lack of women in the tech industry, specifically in Birmingham? If so, why do you think that is?

Elizabeth: “I have absolutely noticed a lack of women in the tech industry, including in Birmingham. There’s an irony to it, because women have been part of tech since the very beginning. The first computer programmers were women! We’re seeing a resurgence of women in the tech space, but we still have a long way to go.”

Kelli: “There are a lot of hurdles preventing women from entering this field to begin with, but there’s also a huge rate of burn out. 38% of women said they plan to leave their tech jobs within the next two years. The largest tech companies, on average, only have a workforce of about 34% women. The stats are even worse when you consider some specific fields, such as software engineering, which only has a workforce of 14% women. 50% of women have experienced gender discrimination at work. As a whole, women are hired less, promoted less, and paid less. On top of that, these stats are significantly worse for women of color. This problem isn’t specific to Birmingham—it’s a problem women across the globe face.”

Elizabeth: “Over my career, I have seen dismissiveness and even hostility towards women in the field. All of these things combined mean that unfortunately, women are also more likely to leave the field.”

What is it like to be a woman in tech in Birmingham?

Elizabeth: “I won’t sugar coat it: being a woman in tech definitely has some challenges, and I have even experienced gender-based discrimination. But the work itself is extraordinarily fulfilling; I love solving hard problems and working on exciting new software solutions. It’s really invigorating to work collaboratively with other people to create something new.”

Kelli: “When we launched LunarLab, our goal was to create a space where we could improve gender equity within tech. And we have definitely felt amazingly supported by the Birmingham tech community! The tech scene here is incredibly tight-knit, and everyone works hard to lift each other up. That spirit of collaboration and community support really sets Birmingham apart from other cities. People have your back here, and that creates an environment where innovation can thrive.”

Elizabeth: “Being a woman in the tech field has been a challenge at times. Some of these challenges are what led us to launch LunarLab. We decided we’d had enough, and chose to spend our time and energy building a company aligned with our vision rather than continuing pushing for change from the inside-out. In contrast, we’ve received overwhelming support from other women in the tech community, especially in Birmingham. We’ve had the good fortune to be surrounded by brilliant women who share a common goal of empowering others, and some of our biggest supporters have been other women in our field.”

Innovate Birmingham also works to empower women in tech.

Innovate Birmingham
Karma Tolliver, a Data Analytics Participant at Innovate Birmingham. (Nathan Watson / Bham Now)

When it comes to providing new opportunities to historically underserved demographics—like women and people of color—in tech, The Magic City is fortunate to have Innovate Birmingham. Founded in 2016, the local nonprofit organization is made possible by over 15 community partners and more than 30 employers in the Central Alabama region. Innovate Birmingham was designed to do two things:

  1. Meet the fast-growing demand for tech talent in the region.
  2. Harness the potential of under- and unemployed residents in Central Alabama.

By offering “boot-camp” style programs like Full-Stack Web Development and Data Analytics, Innovate Birmingham is able to equip their students with technical skills, foster personal and professional development and connect students with potential employers. In a nutshell, Innovate Birmingham offers students everything they need to succeed—for free.

Denita Bearden
Denita Bearden is dedicated to encouraging women to join the technology sector. (Denita Bearden)

As Director of Operations for Innovate Birmingham, Denita Bearden recognizes the need for the perspective of women in the tech industry. That’s why Innovate Birmingham encourages women interested in tech to consider their program.

Denita: “Innovate Birmingham has seen an increase in women participants in the last year. In past years, we’ve averaged about 30% women in our cohorts. In 2021, our participants who identified as women represented 45% of our cohorts. We’ve noticed a lack of women in the tech industry, which is why we have deliberately partnered with organizations like the National Center for Women in Technology to share and market the growing opportunities to women. It can be difficult to navigate a new working environment—especially a new environment with no one that looks like you.

At Innovate Birmingham, we are dedicated to changing the space in tech and creating a more inclusive environment for women and other underrepresented communities.”

What advice would you give to women considering a career in tech?

Denita: “Grab a mentor and use your voice! There are so many women who want to bring other women with them on their journey. Use groups, events and courses like ours to plug into the community, be active and deliberate about what you want. We have to keep showing up!”

Don’t take our word for it—here’s what Innovate Birmingham students & alumni have to say.

Eun-jin Jeong (정은진) is originally from Korea, and moved to Alabama in 2010 with her husband and two daughters. Eun-jin is studying web development with Innovate Birmingham.

Shan Smith is from right here in Birmingham, and studied Secondary Education and Mathematics at the University of Alabama. Shan is an alumni of Innovate Birmingham with expertise in data analytics.

Karla Gomez hails from Veracruz, Mexico, but has lived in The Magic City for the past 12 years. Currently, Karla is studying data analytics with Innovate Birmingham.

Although they come from different backgrounds—Korea, Mexico and Alabama—Eun-jin, Shan and Karla have something in common: they never pictured themselves working in the tech industry.

Eun-jin: “The tech industry didn’t seem accessible to me, because it was very hard to understand without background knowledge. I assumed that there was a barrier that I would never be able to overcome and gradually drifted away from it. However, I started to find more beginner-friendly online tutorials and easy-to-read articles written by experienced computer engineers.  On top of that, I discovered a number of supportive teams like Innovate Birmingham. Thanks to all those resources, I decided to give tech a try and I loved it.”

Shan: “Choosing to pursue a career in computing and information technology became of interest to me during the pandemic. I realized that the world was changing and if I wanted to be successful, I must also evolve. After some research and careful consideration, I concluded that Innovate Birmingham’s data analytics course would be a great way for me to break into the computing and information technology field.”

Karla: “I’ve always enjoyed figuring things out, taking them apart, and putting them back together. I didn’t connect that skill to anything in tech until I joined The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama ¡HICA! as the Office Coordinator. I learned about Innovate Birmingham through the organization’s collaboration last year. The CEO, Carlos Alemán and my supervisor, Operations Director Raquel Vasquez both encouraged me to apply for the Data Analytics Boot Camp as yet another opportunity for personal and professional growth.”

Have you enjoyed your experience at Innovate Birmingham? What advice would you give to women in a similar position?

Eun-jin: “Do not let the fear of the unknown turn you away from the tech industry. Wet your feet little by little. Each one of us has a potential to learn and grow. Nobody is born with tech skills, but we can learn from the beginning and will improve our understanding with patience and persistence.”

Shan: “My experience being a woman in tech has been positive and rewarding. Sharing my knowledge and doing work that makes an impact is an incredible feeling. Working in tech requires a lot of dedication, but it’s not different from many other fields, so do not be intimidated. Make friends with people in the industry so that you will have that network of support. And lastly, never stop learning; take advantage of all development opportunities so that you continue to rise within the industry.”

Karla: “Its been really exciting so far and I’m just at the starting line. What excites me the most about tech is being able to represent my community. I want my culture and background to influence our world and I know this is a really good way to reach many people and make meaningful impact. I’ve found myself becoming more creative because of tech! There are so many ways to get started. A career in tech can visualize many of the skills that we, as women, already have—so go for it!”

Help Alabama meet its tech needs, both now and in the future. Donate to Innovate Birmingham today.

Want to hear more about what it’s like to participate in a program at Innovate Birmingham? Check out some of Bham Now’s previous articles about the program:

Want to stay up-to-date on all things Innovate Birmingham? Check out their website and follow Innovate Birmingham on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest in tech in The Magic City.

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Nathan Watson
Nathan Watson

Senior Content Producer with Bham Now | Originally from Tennessee, Nathan moved to The Magic City after graduating from Birmingham-Southern College. Nathan is passionate about recognizing Birmingham's history and is thrilled to learn more about the big things planned for The Magic City's future.

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