This tech activist is on a mission to teach 1 million girls to code - The World Economic Forum .

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  • Technologist and educational pioneer LadyMariéme Jamme aims to get 1 million marginalized girls coding by 2030.
  • Born in Senegal, West Africa, Lady Mariéme came to live in the UK as a young woman where she learned to code in her local library in Surrey.
  • She’s since become a powerful global advocate for girls’ and women’s educational rights.
  • Her foundation, iamtheCODE, has already trained and mentored thousands of girls from under-privileged areas in Africa, South America and the Middle East.
  • This International Women’s Day, iamtheCODE announces plans to create a new coding platform.

How do you get 1 million girls into coding?

Lady Mariéme Jamme, the award-winning technologist and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, is the founder of iamtheCODE.org, which aims to get 1 million girls coding by 2030. It is the first African-led initiative to advance girls’ education in the STEAMD (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and design) subjects through collaboration with governments and the public and private sectors.

Born in Senegal, West Africa, Lady Mariéme came to live in the UK as a young woman where she learned to code seven programming languages from her local library in Surrey. She’s since become a powerful global advocate for girls’ and women’s educational rights through the STEAMD framework, and as a Goalkeeper for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Since 2017, the iamtheCODE Foundation has trained and mentored thousands of girls each year from under-privileged areas in Africa, South America and the Middle East. Here, Lady Mariéme talks to the World Economic Forum about her past and future projects.

Educating girls on a global scale

“The scale of digital illiteracy is so massive, we can’t even talk about it now … I wear two hats. I'm a software developer. I run a company that focuses on AI, machine learning and big data in cybersecurity. That's my day-to-day job. And the iamtheCODE Foundation is really a frustrated way of telling the world we need to do something differently for these girls I meet all the time. I really feel that if we don't do something about it now, it's going to be very, very late for them.

And so I travel and give them the iamtheCODE programme, which is a 12-week mentoring programme that includes coding skills, STEM subjects - understanding what they are. They look into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which is an agenda, a blueprint for people, the planet and humanity.

Then they listen to the podcast … I invite high-level people who have something to say … share their expertise and experiences with these girls who will never otherwise hear them or meet them in a normal setting … And then the girls really look into mental health and wellbeing. We talk about: how do you become a strong person, a strong woman? What is your purpose? You don't need to be a weak person in this world, even if you come from a difficult background like I did, you can really make it, if you’ve got support and love and kindness and compassion.

It's really based on my background. I didn't go to school. I struggled a lot as a child. My mother comes from an aristocratic family in Senegal, West Africa … I was taken away from the country at 13 to go and become a young prostitute in France, which didn't work very well because I ran away from the ladies’ house … I ended up in the UK here, where I was a cleaner, working bars and hotels, making beds. Just fighting for my life, really.

I live by excellence. I don't like mediocrity. I don't like people taking advantage of other people. I believe that we have enough money, enough connections in the world. We are privileged people.

Lady Mariéme Jamme, founder of iamtheCODE.

Lady Mariéme Jamme is a technologist teaching marginalized girls across the world to code.

Image: iamtheCODE

So I'm using my power and my influence to just go out there and make a difference and educate people. Every day when I wake up, I think about three things: how do you educate people? How do you inform them? How do you transform them?

I meet world leaders who are probably not connected with their soul, are not kind enough, or compassionate enough. They probably just think about money and profit. But business can be a force for good, you know, especially if you have money, you can really help people so they don't end up like me wandering around the streets of France or the streets of Liverpool, saying to themselves: ‘What's going to happen to me?’. So that's my job.

A coding-first skills approach

Coding is the future. When I was growing up in the UK, I couldn't find a job, because I didn't have any credentials under my name and I couldn't speak English, so I was struggling a lot. But I used to go to the local library where I lived, in the south-east of England in Guildford.

And so I used to … just read and understand, and take some books. And then one day, I just started looking at the Excel books and things like that. At that time, I was very curious why I was in the UK. My identity issues always caused me a problem. Why is my mum wealthy? Why am I living here? I always had this contradiction in my heart and I couldn't understand why everyone else was wearing a suit. I couldn’t wear a suit. Why is this happening to me, why am I here? I was incognito. Nobody really cared. Nobody knew what I was coming from.

We didn't really have Google then, but it was just born. And so I started writing a blog. I saw that, in Google, you can actually go in, write something in text and embed, then it can be converted into a blog. And then I looked at the sources of the page by accident and I saw it was actually HTML. You can open the bracket and close the bracket and it becomes a text. And that fascinated me. I love symbols and things like that.

And I just started blogging - my first blog was [addressed] to Bono and Bob Geldof to tell them off. I was so angry as a young woman. I just wanted to know, why are you doing what you're doing? And that blog got picked up by many organizations, including The Guardian.

I just loved coding in the end. So I started improving my HTML, which was really easy because a couple of lines can actually give you a blog. And then I started improving it with tables and colours. And then I went on to start doing CSS, Java, Python.

Within two years, I learnt seven coding languages. And I started calling companies, telling them, I can do that, I can sell software. I really got interested in the software and hardware industries… But, as I travelled, as I grew as a woman understanding the world … I started to realize that many young women like me, of colour of course, wouldn't have the opportunities I had.

So I started to really teach girls how to code basic HTML. And then there was a company I was working with where they had Raspberry PIs. Inside the Raspberry Pi you have nine applications in there - the backend is based on Linux, the operating system. And I just started putting content in there and teaching girls, basically to create an app, how to get a website … It was really fun.

And in 2016, I realized that we are going to talk about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, but no one has a plan. Everyone is just talking. There's no action. I realized that I'm going to create a foundation called iamtheCODE because I believe I am the code … because I can give a key to girls, which is the code to go and unlock their potential. And so now girls are learning how to code because it's really important that they get the skills they need. The world is moving fast. If you know four coding languages by 2030, you can build an app or a website, you can get a job, you can become a designer, you can pick up whatever you like.

When you know how to code, you don't need to be discriminated against because you can sit in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya with refugees where you can actually code an app. No one will know if you're from South Sudan or you’re from Senegal. So that's the whole idea of teaching girls how to code because then they can get their identity back ... They can be part of the conversation.

By 2030, we need to get one million women and girls to learn how to code, proper coding - not copying, pasting, but really coding well.

Working with all communities

Well, I work with everyone. I feel that I have a mission to talk to a variety of people, but mainly marginalized girls who don't have access. So, if I'm going to a public school or a community that doesn't have access to connectivity, infrastructure, or content, then that's a different conversation. I talk to policymakers to make sure that girls have space like I did in Guilford. They have content so they can know how to read and write. They can code. They have access to computers, or at least access to software, where they can learn basic coding skills, which is HTML.

If I'm talking to private-school girls who have access to many computers in their schools, I try to educate them to become more compassionate, empathetic, to understand that with privilege comes responsibility. They need to make sure they're responsible for their actions in the next 10 to 20 years - if they are leading this country, or whatever they are in the world. I immerse them in a sense of accountability … get them to understand that actually, you know, you are a White, privileged person, you can get a job anytime you want because your colour doesn't matter - even if you are mediocre in what you do.

So I educate them to understand, you can be a good person, a kind person, a compassionate person, and tomorrow, when you're making decisions for the world - policy around girls’ education or gender equality - you will always think about that Black woman who empowered you.

iamtheCODE in 2022

There's a 12-week mentoring programme - 70% is technical and then we have softer skills and leadership skills … We want them to go on to learn how to code, but we also want them to get digital skills, understand science, technology, engineering and mathematics, art and design.

So our blended curriculum is really holistic. They need to learn all of those skills. That's our mandate. That's what I want to do for them. And I believe, personally, that that will get them jobs. And then we go through the softer skills, the life skills for example, how to speak well, how to stand up for yourself and your human rights. But also having compassion, kindness and empathy, collaborating with people, listening to people, making sure that you understand diversity, you understand your responsibility in society.

I'm like a mentor-in-chief - digging deep to make people understand what they are. Sometimes it's not their fault. They haven't been exposed to anything, they don't understand. So we don't blame anyone. We don't do diversity inclusion sessions … we have very comfortable conversations … One of the things we do is we create content for people who want to do better and be better. That's my job.

International Women's Day (IWD) is a very, very important day … in March 2020, I was in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya to meet the girls before the pandemic, and I was there with 17 people. We were there to celebrate these young women and girls. Every single year, I choose to go to hard places to celebrate the young women and girls because on March 9 [the day after IWD] I get very upset that nothing has been done. You know, we talk, talk about girls’ education, women’s rights, and then just nothing happens.

And so I travel to meet these young women and we celebrate and we talk about different things, and I bring people to teach them leadership skills, how to speak, and storytelling. And so, when I came in March [2020], I had to create a podcast [with the girls] because I was worried something would happen to them. And so what is really important this year - two, nearly three years down the line - as we celebrate this important moment, we are going to do a massive collaboration with an organization called Skillsoft.

We're going to be launching the partnership between Skillsoft and iamtheCODE [on March 8]. It's going to be the first time in history this is happening, that iamtheCODE content will be digitalized. I met the Skillsoft CEO via the World Economic Forum. We both sit on the upskilling and reskilling platform of the Forum and, through our partnership, we have now decided we're going to launch a platform where girls will go and learn how to code, so easily, offline and online.

Tweet promoting an iamtheCODE live event.

Live event on International Women's Day.

Image: Twitter/iamthecode

I'm going to visit [UK] schools, including Tormead School [in Surrey], where I will help girls launch their podcasts. I think that if young girls have the podcast, they can really express their voices, they can learn about so many, many topics. They can be exposed to many, many things. And so that's what I'm going to be doing on this International Women's Day.

And this is part of the partnership we have in sitting together on the Global Future Council for Education. So it's really amazing that we are using this moment together to celebrate International Women's Day. It means that thousands of marginalized girls from all across the world will now have access to how to code HTML, CSS, JavaScript. It’s an amazing library that I wish I had had when I was growing up.”

Along with the podcast launch at 12:20pm today, iamtheCODE plans to teach audiences about the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And to connect them with the work of women leaders, as well as with girls from Kakuma Refugee Camp. There will be a global announcement at 4pm from the CEO.

This interview has been edited from an original transcript.

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.