How Teen Coders Are Actually Changing the World
It's not news that teens and young kids have surpassed their parents, and even most millennials, when it comes to internet usage and tech savvy. While we're slowly coming around to the idea of workout apps or online therapy, they're coding a whole new world for themselves to grow up into. Meet Sofia Ongele and Ari Sokolov, two such 19-year-olds who are using their coding skills to provide people across the globe with meaningful mental health and sexual assault and harassment resources through their latest apps. They may be young, but these badass female coders refuse to let anything stand in the way of refining their craft and, more importantly, using it to make important change IRL.
“We are focusing on the tougher social problems of the world and addressing them with technology, which I think is really incredible,” Sokolov says. “I think that is what I’m most excited about seeing from my generation.” Ongele agrees. “I've always been interested in STEM, but I've also always been interested in helping people,” she says. “With technology you can do both. Which is like the biggest Hannah Montana 'Best of Both Worlds' situation I could’ve hoped for.”
Ongele had an early introduction to coding as a sophomore in high school after applying to and attending supermodel Karlie Kloss’s Kode With Klossy program, a free coding camp that has reached 2,400 young girls since its launch in 2015. Sokolov also developed her love for computer science and for entrepreneurship early on. Her parents even helped her launch an LLC, Logical Nonsense, when she was just 13. Both young women have also attended and continue to be heavily involved in Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) where the tech giant announces innovations in software and technologies geared toward the future. Since 2011, the conference has also offered scholarships for bright students to attend and flex their coding muscles in exchange for recognition, support, and perhaps most importantly mentorship. “The Super Bowl for our most sophisticated developers really is this meeting every year at WWDC,” says Esther Hare, Apple’s senior director of developer marketing. “And we absolutely love the energy that the students bring.”
This year’s WWDC conference, beginning this Monday, will be entirely virtual for the first time. And, as announced earlier this week, Ongele has already taken home a top prize as winner of the latest Swift Student Challenge, which encourages the next generation of coders to show off their creativity. Ongele, now a Fordham University junior, has been lauded for her app, ReDawn, which she created after one of her close friends was sexually assaulted. “While I was [watching her] process everything, I was also in a Women and Gender studies class learning about sexual harassment law. Around the same time the [Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh hearings had started,” explains Ongele. “All of these things were happening at the same time, and it was so horrible to see.” Ongele, also an avid activist and feminist, decided to take a stand in her own way building an app that connects survivors to relevant resources including local health centers, hotlines, and more. “I literally spent 10 hours every single day coding this out," she says. "And then a month later, I launched on the app store.”
During quarantine, Ongele has been using her time to not only perfect her app, but also to stand up for what she knows is right. Again using her tech skills, the teen is advocating for the removal of a Santa Clarita, California, city councilmember who called himself a “proud racist.” She developed a website with an email template that allows users to quickly and easily voice their concerns. “We have been able to mobilize people which has been really great,” she says, adding that 45 minutes after her call with InStyle, she had an appointment to speak directly with her city's mayor about how best to affect change in the area. “This town is crazy, but it is my hometown and I would like to see it change,” she says. “I will do anything in my power to see that happen.”
Sokolov, a four-time WWDC scholarship winner who is currently finishing up her second year at the University of Southern California, was also inspired by her peers to create her app, Trill. When a classmate revealed to her that she was having trouble coming out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, Sokolov and her co-founder Georgia Messinger set out to build an app that promotes mental health awareness with a special focus on creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ teens. “We found out that surprisingly 40% of transgender teens attempt suicide along with many LGBTQ+ teens,” says Sokolov. “We wanted to create a community where everyone [wouldn’t feel] isolated or alone.” The app, which acts as an anonymous social network, has been applauded for its ability to detect posts from users who are experiencing abuse or potentially considering harming themselves or others. The app sends such users hotline information and other resources.
Both students acknowledge that the mentorship they have found through events like WWDC has been a huge driver of their success, especially as they continue to dismantle a notoriously male-dominated field. “My computer science classes in college are all male — that’s just how it is,” says Ongele. “But you can’t be what you can’t see at the end of the day. And knowing that there are other people like you, having that community, I think that makes journey all the more worth it.” Hare would have to agree.
The 15-year Apple veteran has had a major role in encouraging women to enter STEM since her start at the company. She has helped manage WWDC’s scholarship program, develop and lead Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp to support various female-led companies, and she serves as executive sponsor for Women at Apple to promote the importance of a diverse workforce. “I would like to see representation in tech mirror representation in the world. There is no reason it shouldn’t,” Hare says, adding that she is hopeful issues like this one will be solved, if students like Sokolov and Ongele have anything to say about it. “We are seeing more and more that kids don’t view technology as a subject, like geography or history, as we may have when we learned about it in school,” she says. “They see a problem and they figure out how to use technology to fix it. And that’s really cool.”
Ongele and Sokolov both say their best advice for aspiring young female coders is essentially get your head in the game. “I feel like it seems like this secret kid’s club or something, like no one knows about it, unless you are in it,” says Ongele. “But the information is out there and it needs to be spread and shared more often. I think everyone should learn how to code.”
For more information on Apple's WWDC, beginning Monday, visit: developer.apple.com/wwdc20.