These Six Students Built Life-Changing Apps in the Middle of a Pandemic
With these women at the helm, the future is undeniably female.
When faced with a global pandemic, quick-thinking disrupters responded by building apps and websites that provide essential goods and mental-health resources — including six young women who find themselves in an industry that is traditionally white and male.
InStyle spoke with the emerging tech stars about their projects, their experiences in the world of computer science, and their plans to continue disrupting the industry. With these women at the helm, the future is undeniably female.
Gianna (15) and Shannon Yan (20)
Inspired by grandparents who have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, these Oakland, Calif.-based sisters created Feed Fleet, a free app that pairs at-risk individuals with volunteers willing to pick up and deliver their groceries. Gianna also taught herself how to 3D-print and persuaded her high school administrators to let her borrow a classroom printer to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for Bay Area hospitals. She says, “All this has shown me the power that we have as individuals to effect change and to teach ourselves whatever we put our minds to.”
A Family Affair: Shannon first got into studying STEM in high school after watching a documentary by She++, a student-run nonprofit at Stanford University (where she now studies) that encourages underrepresented minorities and women to explore computer science. She then went on to learn more about tech outside of school. “I wanted to have access to a tool that I could use to better my own community,” she says. Her efforts eventually landed her a spot in Apple’s prestigious Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where she honed her app skills, connected with peer developers, and met mentors like Apple CEO Tim Cook. “Technology is our present, and it is going to have an even bigger role in our future,” Shannon says. “It’s essential that we learn more about it.” Gianna says her big sister’s ambition inspired her to take on the field too. In 2018 Gianna, who is also part of supermodel Karlie Kloss’s Kode With Klossy coding program, earned her own spot in a WWDC conference.
Cultivating Courage: “Our society definitely has an idea of what coders should look like: white and male,” says Gianna, noting the struggles she and her sister face in pursuing their passion. “A lot of young women buy into that stereotype.” But not these two. “Walking into a classroom where no one looks like you can be daunting,” Shannon says. “Trusting that I am smart and capable enough to do this is the most badass thing I’ve done.” The duo are planning to share what they’ve learned from building their app so that it can be scaled for use across the country. “Computer science can be a tool for social good,” Gianna says. “We want to be part of that movement.”
Amanda Southworth (18)
Southworth has spent the past five years building apps that help marginalized communities overcome systemic barriers. In 2015 she released Anxiety Helper, a free app that provides mental-health information, resources, and tools. Two years later the teen, based in Orange County, Calif., launched Verena, a personal-security app designed to protect users who suffer from hate crimes, abuse, and bullying. Then, in 2018, she started a youth-run nonprofit called Astra Labs to further her mission. And most recently Southworth built Isolated Not Alone, a website that supports people grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19 and that has already offered free mental-health care to 500 frontline medical workers. “I went into this industry with no idea what to expect and no connections,” Southworth says. “I had to fight my way through with a bunch of odds stacked against me. But I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Standing Tall: Southworth’s tough experiences when she was younger propelled her to pursue tech-based solutions to social issues. “I struggle with mental illnesses, including PTSD from growing up in an abusive home,” she says. “Around 2013 I was looking for a meditation app to help me cope. But all the apps I found wanted me to pay, like, $100 a year to hear birds chirping. That was crushing.” Now tech giants — including Google — want to advertise on Southworth’s platforms. But the successful app builder and WWDC scholarship winner refuses to accept their money. “I think there is a hard line between monetizing your apps and profiting off your users’ suffering,” she says. “I really didn’t want my users to become just another cog in the advertising machine.”
Jumping In: Southworth is nothing if not determined. “We have one go at life,” she says. “I would rather spend it being sad about my failed company than not trying and never having had the chance to fail.” She now looks forward to accomplishing more tech-based feats in the future. “TikTok is cool, but I also want flying cars,” she says with a laugh. “We know where we want to go. We just have to build the products to get us there.”
Crystal An (22), Amy Guan (22), and Rine Uhm (21)
“This idea started as a text message between me and Amy,” says Uhm, who, with Guan, built a website called Give Essential in just 36 hours to match essential workers with people able to donate supplies ranging from PPE to wet wipes. “Since then we’ve reached over 10,000 essential workers and 10,000 donors across 50 states and raised the equivalent of more than $600,000 in donations,” says An, a high school friend of Guan’s and an incoming medical student who quickly joined the crew to help coordinate all operations. “We’re excited to expand what we’ve built and help communities move toward recovery.” Adds Guan: “Nobody should ever have to choose between buying cleaning supplies and feeding their families.”
Keeping Up the Fight: “I taught myself how to code and design websites in middle school,” says Guan when asked about her start in STEM. Now she and her fellow Dartmouth College classmate Uhm are excited to continue using technology to solve global problems. “As we learned more about social issues, we got really interested in how ethical tech can be used to create solutions,” Guan says. An also plans to study subjects related to systemic inequality as she embarks on her career in medicine. “Medicine is a field of heroes,” she says. “I feel honored to be able to pursue it.”
Going the Distance: The response to their site has inspired the three young students from New Jersey to dig even deeper. “We paired one nurse who was working 12-hour days with a donor who bought her groceries for the week,” Uhm says. “She wrote back to us recently saying she hadn’t eaten fresh food in weeks and that just being able to eat strawberries had made her cry.” It’s also taught them how a little bit of kindness can go a long way. “Making an impact doesn’t always have to involve a grand gesture,” Guan says. An agrees. “The collective efforts of a community working to help each other — that is incredibly powerful,” she says. “That is how stuff gets done.”
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.