A local video game company is going from developing video games to developing the computer science careers of those not traditionally represented in tech and gaming.

Riot Games is teaming up with nonprofit Girls Who Code this summer to give 20 young women from historically underserved communities a series of STEM-related activities and one-on-one mentorship via a summer immersion program.

The summer immersion program — in its first year hosted by Riot Games and currently underway until August 1 — was created in an effort to diversify access into a traditionally male-dominated career field.

Riot Games’ Head of Karma (corporate social responsibility) Jeffrey Burrell said Riot specifically seeks young women from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Tech the is fastest growing industry with high paying jobs but a systemic issue is getting an underrepresented population in tech,” Burrell said. “Access and learning help to lift these people into this industry.”

A study from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms this, showing that in 2015, women earned only 18% of all computer science degrees in the nation, a number that worsened when it came to women of color.

Burrell has hopes that the summer immersion program — with lessons ranging from production for Riot’s esports broadcasting to creating artificial intelligence — will nurture young women’s’ careers.

Stephanie Casteneda, a teacher with Girls Who Code, says that’s already taking effect.

Casteneda, a recent Middlebury College grad and with a love of helping youth and a love of computer science, found an intersection of those two loves at Girls Who Code. There, she teaches younger versions of herself programs such as Python, Javascript and HTML, all in the name of helping young women succeed in tech.

“My mission is to help close the gender gap,” Casteneda said. “What I’m doing is helping create a community so girls know they can be in the tech industry. We say ‘hashtag sisterhood’ to each other so all students know we have a community that supports one another, especially if they choose to go into the tech field.”

Soon-to-be 11th grader Celine Boudaie is a current student of the immersion program, wowed by what she’s learned thus far and due to little experience with tech education.

“I was really intrigued by computer science, just seeing websites and wondering how they work, thinking, ‘This is cool but I want to learn more,” Boudaie said, “But my school wasn’t offering a class.”

Luckily enough, Boudaie’s brother was a software engineer. When she asked him about the program, he jokingly told her she shouldn’t waste her summer on programming. After some nudging, he showed her how to make her own website, igniting a fire in the young Boudaie.

“After I made it, I was so stoked,” she said. “I was sharing my page with friends. It wasn’t anything special but I made it from scratch. Most people were like, ‘Oh, is this from Wix?’ I was like, no! I made it myself! I ran it, went through all the errors, everything!”

Boudaie says she’s since learned a lot during her time at the program, especially during her Riot mentor-mentee sessions.

“We talk about the job, where she studied in college, and it helps me to see her path,” Boudaie said. “It makes me feel like I could do this.”

Burrell says he hopes to one day see students from the summer immersion program working at Riot, in any and all capacities.

“That’s the dream,” Burrell said. “To have this program help evolve [the young women’s] talent and do that would be the dream. They’re young and it takes time, but hopefully, we spark some interest to join games.”

Riot faced negative press this past year for gender discrimination, an issue that prompted over 150 employees to walk out of the Riot work site. Furthermore, Riot is in the midst of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing investigation concerning gender discrimination.

Burrell is keenly aware of this, noting that the company has had this program in place for three years now, but notes that winning back employee and public approval will be a long road, a road he says Riot is focused on making more inclusive. 

“What I think this does is reinforce steps: internally, in terms of process, inclusion, and management bias,” Burrell said. “There’s something magical about having these young women with bright lanyards around, learning. It grounds you and reminds you that it’s a long process, a long journey, but if there are things we can do to support them, we have a moral imperative to.”

For more information, visit https://girlswhocode.com/ and https://www.riotgames.com/en/who-we-are/social-impact/girls-who-code

Corrections: A previous version of this story said Riot Games was in its third season of the immersion program; it’s in its first. 

angel@smdp.com

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