Breaking gender barriers in tech: How I started a nonprofit as a 15-year-old Filipina

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Audrey is presenting WiTech at the ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Carnival in Bangkok to entrepreneurs from across the region
Audrey is presenting WiTech at the ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Carnival in Bangkok to entrepreneurs from across the region.

I haven’t always known for sure what I wanted to do with my life.

When I was 15, I founded a (now registered) nonprofit called WiTech (Women in Technology). It initially began as a blog that reported on and shared my interviews with women who held jobs in technology in various industries. I used to find them online via hashtags on Instagram, LinkedIn, etc., and wanted to share their stories to hopefully redefine what it meant to be a person in the booming tech industry. In all honesty, it also had the additional benefit of meeting great female mentors and role models in an industry that is traditionally dominated by men, and to which I had never been much exposed.

Though I enjoyed writing the articles and e-meeting women from around the world, I still felt stuck and like I wasn’t doing enough. I didn’t know if young girls were actually inspired by the articles I wrote, or if they felt anything when they read my interviews. What I also started to feel (though I couldn’t quite describe it yet at that time) was the desire to form a community in the Philippines that celebrated diversity and inclusivity in technology -- two things that I had always stood for. Not only did I want to meet other young people who believed in tech and who shared my values and interests, but I also wanted to make it easier for them to meet like-minded youth.

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This is a part of the WiTech Core Team (Filipino high school and college students).
This is a part of the WiTech Core Team (Filipino high school and college students).

At a hackathon with my friend Marla Abao (who also felt the lack of female representation in the Philippine tech industry), I found myself joking that we should just organize our own tech conference to specifically celebrate the achievements of women in the field of tech. I was quite surprised when she agreed. After all, we were only high school students at that time. Once the feeling of shock wore off, we got to planning and formally pivoted WiTech from a blog to a community organization. Very early-on, we recruited other girls interested in tech, which we knew from student competitions and networking events. We sent what felt like thousands of emails and held numerous team calls online to prepare for our event. Somehow -- after all the hard work, and despite bouts of self-doubt and a couple of ‘wow can we actually do this’ moments -- we managed to organize the very first women in tech conference in the Philippines, by students for students. But in fact, that was only the beginning.

It’s been three years since WiTech was founded. Since then, we’ve held 7 events that have impacted over 190 students/fresh graduates, and given 60+ students an introduction to programming. We’ve also been able to bring our blog to 22,000+ readers from over 100 countries. It also feels crazy to say that from a team of one back in 2016, we’ve grown the team to 72 high school, college students, and fresh graduates from 3 countries (PH, US, and UK). With all that being said, we are still not stopping there.

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Audrey smiling and standing with a poster that says "Love has no gender"
My activism isn't exclusive to promoting gender equality in tech. I also support other movements like the Pride March!

According to the Philippine Startup Survey, only approximately 18 per cent of startups are founded by women. If that wasn’t problematic enough, the rate of women resigning in the high-tech industry is very high, at roughly 47 per cent. While our country needs more initiatives to encourage girls to go into tech, the question of how to provide tech resources to marginalized communities needs to be addressed first.

At its very core, WiTech stands for equality. As a nonprofit that lives by that value every day, we launched an initiative called Wi-Teach (Women in Tech Teach), with the aim to bring introductory programming lessons as well as hardware to communities that need it. Because how could we possibly encourage girls in these communities to explore what tech has to offer, if tech isn’t available in the first place?

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Aubrey is shaking hands with teachers and laughing.
Meeting teachers from Mindanao State University High School Training Center for the 2018 Marawi Wi-Teach (Women in Tech Teach) Program.

In today’s world, technology should no longer be a privilege. It should be a basic right and a means to creative innovative solutions that will hopefully make our world better. As of September 2019, WiTech has brought programming modules and tutorials to public schools in Marawi and Bohol. We are slated to reach at least 9 more communities by the end of 2020.

While I admittedly have no idea where I will be in 5 or 10 years from now, I do know what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. It feels like a bold statement to be saying that at 18, but I truly feel that I mean it. While I can’t draw out a roadmap or detail the concrete milestones that I want to reach, I know what future I want to work towards: one where every single Filipino youth, regardless of gender and socioeconomic status, can use technology to make a difference in society. It sounds like a far-away goal to many – maybe a dream even -- but with the work my team and I do every day, I feel like that future gets closer every day to being a reality.

...I know what future I want to work towards: one where every single Filipino youth, regardless of gender and socioeconomic status, can use technology to make a difference in society.

If you want to learn more about WiTech, check out https://wi-tech.org and connect with them @witechorg on Twitter and Instagram! For updates on Audrey’s work and gap year adventures before heading to Stanford, follow her on Instagram (@audreype14) and Twitter (@audrey__pe).

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