Women of Our Future: Women in STEM With Tolulope Ogunremi
Interviewee: Tolulope Ogunremi
Interviewer, Editor, Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul
I am Tolulope Ogunremi, Founder of Coders of Colour. I am 23 years old, and I am passionate about democratising education. I did an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, a Master's in Speech and Language Processing, and I'm doing a PhD in Computer Science.
What was your story growing up, and how did that lead you to coding?
I have loved the ways computers work from a young age. I distinctly remember being fascinated by how the 'Settings' part of my parents' phones worked at the age of 4. I've always wanted to know how computers exactly work, but was encouraged to pursue Mathematics. At 13, I took it upon myself to find out how applications are created and stumbled upon the words “coding” and “programming” for the first time. A quick Google of “How to learn programming?” led me to Codecademy, where I started to teach myself to code every day after school.
What inspired you to study this particular STEM field?
I currently do research in Natural Language Processing, a field of Artificial Intelligence research I had no idea about until recently. I was told that my interest in learning spoken languages and my ability in Computer Science paired well in such a field. My experience in a module I took on Natural Language Processing during my Erasmus semester inspired me to pursue it further.
What exactly is coding and what do you find most exciting about it?
Personally, I get excited about the endless possibilities that come with coding. I compare it to how words in a language could be used to write an endless number of books -- the syntax of a programming language can be used to write an endless number of applications.
Tell us about Coders of Colour!
Coders of Colour is an award-winning Community Interest Company aimed at "Empowering and enabling young underrepresented people of colour to pursue a career in tech by providing them with a safe space for them to learn, explore and grow". We do this primarily by running free coding workshops for young people. We have been running workshops and programmes for about 5 years.
This includes summer workshops, one-off events, CV tailoring and more. We have a hands-on approach, allowing all attendees to leave with the ability to achieve something new. From late 2020, we have committed to tackling the Digital Divide by donating laptops to those in need.
Why did you choose to start workshops for young people?
As a young person myself without much representation, I knew what I would have appreciated when I was a bit younger. My own experience also had an impact on how exactly to carry them out. As someone who didn’t have access to Computer Science education through the traditional route, I wanted to make sure the workshops were both educational and fun. To do this, I modularise delivery, ensuring we focus on one aspect of tech or software development, but enough to create something tangible.
What do you do in these workshops and what workshops have you held so far?
What do you hope young people take away from these workshops?
Actual technical products! Young people have made websites, mobile apps and several machine learning models during our programmes. That’s the main thing we want them to take away. Through making these tangible products, we help them to improve their communication and public speaking skills, as well as a sense of pride in what they managed to achieve in such a short space of time.
What have you learned from your experiences working directly with young people and how has this impacted you?
It’s great to work directly with young people. It gives us an opportunity to find out exactly what they need and forces us to think outside the box to engage them in something that is widely perceived as difficult (coding). I’m still in the age range of people we support, so it has helped me sympathise with those that were not as interested in tech as I was and taught me to effectively communicate with them.
What successes have Coders of Colour achieved so far?
We have reached almost 1000 young people since we started running workshops, and we have helped young people get almost £100 000 in pay rises by either getting their first role in tech or a new role in tech. We have managed to inspire people to switch careers and even pick Computer Science as their degree subject. This couldn’t have been possible without the generosity of the volunteers that help make our workshops and programmes happen.
What challenges have you faced in the making and running of Coders of Colour?
I could write a whole blog post on this! At the very beginning and sometimes in the present day, I find myself being patronised quite a lot due to my age. This has had a knock on effect on various aspects of the organisation. In terms of running it, the shift to online delivery was difficult.
How do you think we could reduce gender and racial bias within STEM?
Pay Black women!
Whenever I am asked questions along these lines, I give that three word answer. Whether that is paying people the same amount for the same role or consulting expertise to help reduce bias, it is important to put your money where your mouth is.
Pay Black Women!
Whether that is paying people the same amount for the same role or consulting expertise to help reduce bias, it is important to put your money where your mouth is.
- Tolulope Ogunremi
Why is it important that we have young women participating in STEM, and why is it important that we have representations of women of colour?
I will repeat what many others have said before me: "You can't be what you can't see". Role models are especially important for those who don't have examples of women of colour in STEM in their schools or local communities.
You can't be what you can't see
What do you think prevents young girls from participating in STEM and how do we encourage them to get involved?
I think girls may be discouraged from pursuing STEM at a young age as opposed to being outright prevented. That being said, Stemettes does an amazing job at working on tackling this through school outreach, Hackathons, provide young women and non-binary people with technical certifications and much more.
What advice would you give to young girls starting out?
If you enjoy anything STEM-related, keep doing it! If you think there's a part of STEM that you'd enjoy that isn't covered at school, reach out to organisations such as Coders of Colour and Stemettes that provide insight into it.
Get involved with Coders of Colour!