Women are underrepresented in STEM fields – that’s hardly news as the issue has gained notable traction in the media and within organizations in recent years.
At Ladies Learning Code, we’re committed to closing the gender gap in technology by teaching women through beginner friendly programs that provide practical tech skills and arguably something even more important — confidence.
Whether it’s building something you wish existed, tackling a big project successfully, overcoming a personal obstacle or learning a new skill you never thought you could (like coding) – we believe the confidence you gain from trying new things and problem solving is a critical component of ensuring women thrive.
And, we’re not alone.
We asked our friends in the STEM community about challenges they’ve faced or problems they’ve solved that have contributed to the success they have achieved today.
Here’s what they said:
Dana James Mwangi
A few years ago I was a print designer struggling to learn web design. I felt it was essential for me to learn it because it would be a way for me to further protect the brand aesthetics that I created for business owners.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how to code one line of html or write css. I didn’t know anything about content management systems or best web design/development practices in general. I started subscribing to web design blogs and examining the code on every website I visited. I paid for one-one tutoring. But nothing was clicking for me.
When I look back, I realize that major mental blocks and self doubt prevented me from absorbing new information. I didn’t have a learning problem. I had a confidence problem!
I knew that I needed to take on a real-world project to put everything I was reading to good use. The first website I ever built was a one-page portfolio site for myself. Then, I designed a website for a photographer. I kept going and I got better. Then I started getting recognized for my work.
In a 5 year span, I went from being a print designer to being a brand and web strategist who’s built over 40 websites. I’ve built online directories, eCommerce sites, blogs, you name it. I’ve partnered with a best-selling WordPress theme to provide customizations to their customers, given WordPress Tutorials, been interviewed on web design blogs & podcasts, and had work featured in website showcases. I never dreamed these things would happen to me!
I encourage women to see themselves at the finish line before they get there. It doesn’t matter how many books you read or how many classes you take if you don’t see yourself as a person worthy of success.
If you’ve been buying into the stereotypes that we face as women, you may have some unlearning to do before you re-learn.
A challenge that I once faced, which has contributed to the success I have achieved today is persevering to land my first internship at NASA. The opportunity came through a Space Exploration Scholarship, whereby the Canadian Space Agency sent one Canadian student to a NASA academy to intern for the summer. I actually applied for this scholarship four times, and was not selected all four times.
After the fourth rejection I had the idea to call the Chief of NASA’s Office of Higher Education simply to get feedback on my application. And he offered me an internship position over the phone. That perseverance paved the way for my career in aerospace engineering and to now helping build and design a Mars rover!
Alicia V Carr
My biggest challenge in my career as a coder, as a women in tech, was finding a school to learn to be an iOS developer—this was back in 2012.
How did I know that this was what I wanted to do? It was when in 2011 I was standing in line at the Apple store, buying my 2nd generation iPad, and I met this 16-year-old about to buy his own $800 iPad. I asked him how he got the money—assuming he was going to say washing windows, mowing lawns, you know, chores. Instead he said he built an app and now has people working for him—a 16 year old. I asked how he learned to code and he told me YouTube. I turned to my husband and told him that’s what I wanted to do too.
It took me 1 1/2 years of learning Objective C but still it felt that just wasn’t enough and then I got an email from one of the meetup groups looking for students for an online bootcamp learning Objective C. Once I started the bootcamp I understood what I was doing. I was in shock. I was excited. I didn’t feel stupid and that’s when I knew that I had the skills. Over that time (1 1/2 years) I didn’t believe in myself. I really beat myself up really bad, many tears but I just couldn’t give up on myself.
In January 2014 after finishing my bootcamp I started building my first app—The Purple Pocketbook. It was the first domestic violence app for the state of Georgia. It took 3 months to complete the domestic violence app and now it’s a national app, called PEVO, which now I’m trying to add more states.
I joined Women Who Code in January 2014 and became Director of Women Who Code, Atlanta, in October 2015. I love working with amazing ladies that I know that can change the world.
I’m probably best known as an author and speaker on technical topics. I always think that the main reason I’m good at explaining stuff is due to not having a technical background. I left school to study dance at age 16, so have no computer science degree and am old enough not to have had computers at school. I had to teach myself everything I know, and it didn’t come easily. Due to that I know what it is to be a beginner, and as I’ve been through that process of learning I think it better helps me to teach others.
Vinita Marwaha Madill
One of the biggest challenges was early on in my education where I didn’t have access to the information to know how to achieve my goals in the space industry and also the lack of role models that I saw working in STEM. It’s a large contributor to why girls decide to leave STEM by the age of 11.
As Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women, is to try and reverse this trend by inspiring girls globally to consider a career in STEM.
During my career I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. I think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be.
I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice. I’m interviewing women around the world in STEM, particularly in space, and posting the interviews on Rocket Women, along with advice to encourage girls to be involved in STEM.
Co-founding CoderDojo NYC, a non-profit that provides out-of-school STEM/STEAM learning for youth without a formal education is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. We bring access to 1,200 youth annually to free workshops on web, game and app development with mentorship in a fun, creative and collaborative environment.
If I had waited for the “right” moment to be ready or the “right” resources, I wouldn’t have learned how you can be a part of a bigger social movement, in this case the CoderDojo movement; where it doesn’t take money it takes passion to create impact.
One of my biggest challenges in the last decade was to figure out what to focus on for my PhD thesis. I explored topics in augmented reality, computer science education, and educational games before finally settling on storytelling in video games. (I’m currently about three-quarters done my PhD, and while it’s temporarily on hold, I have plans of picking it up again in the new year.)
Although it took a long time to settle on my thesis topic, the explorations themselves turned out to be rather useful. I ended up with a paper about the power of augmented reality in learning contexts that I still reference today. I started a research project with international colleagues exploring the use of games to engage middle school girls in computer science; this summer, we’re wrapping up our first NSF Pathways grant. And my experience with CS education in general has led me to my current position at Shopify, where I’m building a team that works to make learning computer science better for everyone.
And, of course, I have a great thesis topic that I still find fascinating and that will eventually earn me my PhD. How cool will it be to become a Doctor?! 😉
I had a problem that didn’t seem that big of a deal, but was quite a surprise: I had to choose between two honors programs.
When I applied to university, there were two great honors programs that I had gotten into, but due to their nature, I could not do both. One was a fellowship focusing on service and helping the community, the other focused on information technology.
Maybe I’m not a great person for this, but I picked computers.
I’d only applied to that program because I’d been called by the university and encouraged to apply; I was surprised when I got in. Being in the program meant that I had paid internships in IT all through university, ranging from being the college newspaper webmaster to being a “data specialist” for the economics department (which basically involved getting really good at the statistical software).
I’ve loved the Internet since we got an AOL CD and I was constantly scolded for tying up the phone line; getting paid to do things on computers wasn’t something I thought was possible, until that program.
I’ve been fortunate to work in the technology industry for over 23 years. I’ve spent half of that time as an employee and half as a serial entrepreneur starting and growing companies such as Websmith Group and Time Study.
I’ve often stated that the first half of my career was spent trying to master tech and the last half trying to master people. My biggest career challenges were rarely technical and often required developing a better understanding of people. This includes the people working as a team to execute ideas as well as the people that are most impacted by the execution of those ideas.
What I’ve learned over the past two decades is that my most successful projects are those that allowed more time for thinking, discovery and learning than time spent executing, building and reacting. I’ve learned that one of the biggest failure points for projects is due to a lack of clarity regarding “why” it is important and a clear understanding of the purpose of that should ultimately be served.
My most challenging work has taught me that all great ideas begin with a requirement to learn more about the people that would be most impacted by the idea so that ultimately we could build something that matters.
I continuously face a variety challenges, both personally and professionally, and while I overcome most of them with the help of my family, friends and colleagues, there are some that I continue to struggle with. I like challenges though; challenges force me to step outside of my comfort zone, and challenges help me learn and progress. Every challenge I ever faced has in some way contributed to whatever success I have achieved today.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face so far in my life was my discomfort to speaking in public. Having to get up in front of a crowd to deliver a presentation was something I used to dread, and as a consequence I did terrible at it.
The thing is, I don’t like being uncomfortable so in high school I decided to face the challenge and try to become a better public speaker. I took improve speaking classes, and at university I sought out classes that involved oral presentations. Initially my speaker skills didn’t really improve, but I started getting comfortable in the speaker role, which in turn eventually helped me improve as a speaker.
Now I love public speaking and welcome every opportunity to address an audience. Being comfortable speaking in public, and being reasonably good at it, has of course been extremely useful in my career and has contributed to me getting to where I am today.
The more important lesson that I learnt though was that practice might not make perfect, but it certainly makes you a lot better. I think of myself as a good speaker today, and I often get very positive feedback when I deliver a presentation, but…I have been training dedicatedly for over twenty years. That’s more than two decades throughout which I’ve been trying to, and I am still trying to, improve my speaker skills.
It sounds rather obvious that the more you train and practice, the better you get, but to me it was an amazing realization. You don’t have to – you can’t – excel at something from the get-go, you have to learn, make mistakes, and learn some more.
When I see other people be fantastically good at something I don’t see the amount of time and effort they’ve dedicated to honing their skills. Don’t be intimidated by other people’s skills – be inspired by their commitment to continuous learning.
Probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced is in my own self confidence. As a person who is naturally introverted, I never really considered doing things that would bring attention to myself or my work. I think this is something that a lot of people, particularly women in this industry, face.
But the best thing I have done for my career is to put myself out there, for example through writing on my blog, in spite of any reservations I have. Doing this has been remarkable for myself personally, and my career.
Leah Kim Buchholz
Technical Recruiter, GuruLink
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A challenge I faced was growing my second non-profit organization. Unlike the first, I had recently relocated to a new city and was unfamiliar with the community and lacked an established breadth and depth within my social network. It was a unique challenge to learn the new landscape while concurrently growing the organization.
Through this process, I learned how to ask the right questions and met an incredibly diverse and richly interesting group of people. The experience provided a broader understanding of how to bring disparate groups together and was incredibly rewarding to be able to create new opportunities for those within the growing organization.
Initially Little Kickers was set up in the UK and started franchising there. By the end of the second year of operation, we had over 50 franchises up-and-running in the UK. I was really keen to expand the business overseas (and we had received interest from a number of people) but when I spoke to industry experts they all advised me against doing so – citing a variety of reasons, including legal risks, the challenges associated with managing overseas franchisees etc.
I decided to bite the bullet and set up Little Kickers in the English-speaking countries first as I assumed that culturally they were probably quite similar to the UK. I focused on building excellent relationships with my overseas franchisees providing them with as much help as I could to ensure their businesses were successful.
Since we launched overseas in 2006, we’ve had the odd challenge, but certainly nothing insurmountable. In fact, I emigrated to Canada in 2009 with a view to focusing on the international expansion of the programme. We now operate in 20 countries through a network of over 250 franchisees and our overseas business looks set to continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future and is a critical component to the success of the brand.
I used to work full time as a manager of a gas station in the same time as a wedding photographer, in the first 3 years of my career. Every night I was editing pictures and on weekends, I was shooting weddings. I was a workaholic! I didn’t have any choice because I wanted to build the most profitable career. I was a passionate! I have been working full time as a wedding photographer since January 2013 🙂
It’s in my DNA to approach challenges as opportunities. I take great pride and joy in leaving my comfort zone, especially, if it’s for the greater good and results in a positive impact for others. That natural tendency to confront and conquer challenges head-on has driven me to succeed as a leader in a fast-paced, ever-changing, male-dominated sector.
As Albert Einstein once said, “the woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.” I have no fear of the unknown – in fact, I welcome it…as long as it’s a “calculated risk” and reasonable adventure that doesn’t put my family’s or my own safety or health at stake. Safety and health above all!
Being a married mother of two, life-long student and having lived and worked in over six countries, I’ve also learned that the easiest, most effective way to overcome difficult situations or unfamiliar environments is to approach them with an open mind, curiosity, a positive outlook and good sense of humour, while remaining highly adaptive and flexible, and self-assess and reflect often.
One particular challenge that stands out as a pivotal point in my career was the experience of working in a small company that was being acquired by a much larger, international business. The acquisition was a cause for concern for many of the employees who were afraid of losing their seniority, positions and titles, but I personally felt that the acquisition was an amazing opportunity to embrace, and – as always – decided to approach the new situation with a very positive attitude and an openness to the many possibilities ahead.
That approach stood out in an office environment that had become rather hostile due to the vocal discontent from many of the employees. As such, I was thanked by one of the new managers for both my professionalism and positive attitude throughout the transition, and was then offered a promotion to their European Headquarters (via a very demanding, lengthy and incredibly competitive journey, which included travels abroad as part of the selection process). I took the offer, embraced this new adventure with lots of enthusiasm, and was successful in getting the job!
That experience fostered a sense of self and confidence in my abilities to take on challenges early on in my career, and I’ve never stopped learning from it, and encouraging others to try and do the same: always take that extra step, exceed expectations and challenge yourself. Be proactive. Be resilient. It’ll take you to new, unexplored places, and opens doors to often unknown, unexpected and rewarding growth opportunities personally and professionally.
Being a sole-proprietor, I’ve always been one of those people who has done everything on my own and loved every bit of it. I wore it like a badge of honour. No matter how much work or how full my schedule, I could always get things done.
A few years ago, I became a mother. Although running a full-time business and being a full-time mother was a lot to manage, my first born was a great eater and sleeper (yes, dream baby) and I somehow got through those early years with a sleepy smile on my face. And then we had our second child. Though we were overjoyed with our newest arrival, she was colic and did not sleep well at all for her first year of life.
For the first time in real terms, my growing business and my growing family was more than I could bear and was a huge source of stress. I was sleep deprived, burned out and had basically lost my joy. My clients were still pleased with my work but I felt myself wearing thinner and thinner with very little inspiration left. My husband, who has his own career, has always been sacrificially supportive but even his help was no longer enough.
This is when I finally realized that “doing it on my own” wasn’t possible anymore, nor should it have ever been. It was really hard admit I needed help – for me, it felt like admitting defeat. However, learning to let go and share the workload is what my business (and sanity) needs most.
Learning that I don’t have to be everything has been the biggest challenge but has been the most freeing. I’m still figuring out what this means and how to live it out yet just knowing that asking for help isn’t shameful and has allowed me to heal and come back to enjoy my life and business once again.
I went in to nutrition because I wanted to learn how to cook. There was one program that fit the bill but it was way out of my budget and in another country. This inspired me to start teaching myself to cook, and in turn, teaching own classes. As the demand grew from people beyond the reaches of Toronto, we took it all online. My own desire to learn how to make healing and delicious food was the spark for what is now the Academy of Culinary Nutrition– a 100% online school that has graduated students in over 30 countries.
I once took on a project that involved me signing a contract. Back then I took on projects without providing a contract or terms and conditions of my own. The client was so friendly. I was eager to work for them. I reviewed the contract and signed it, thinking everything would go well- that is until, it didn’t.
I started realizing their idea of how things worked, did not align with the industry. The more instances came up, the more I thought, I should walk away. But I don’t like leaving projects midway and so I kept going.
I finally hit rock bottom and decided I needed to cut my losses and move on. I let the client know I would not be able to finish the project due to our differences. At this point, friendly client turned to ugly menacing client very quickly. I was threatened that I would be taken to court as this action of mine was breaching the contract. Keep in mind I did not get paid a single penny.
One of the clauses in the contract involved getting paid 50 days after project was completed, IF the client thought I completed the project to their satisfaction. I consulted a lawyer, because I was beyond stressed about going to court, and possibly losing and having to pay for the client’s lawyer fees as well. Yes, this was part of the contract.
How did I miss all these flags? Why did I not have a contract with terms etc to communicate my process to the client? The whole experience almost broke me. I almost gave up freelancing. But something in me also shifted.
I decided, I needed to communicate better with potential clients. I need to have a contract. I need to have an official estimate outlining all the deliverables, plus terms and such, leaving no room for assumptions.
This made me realize the importance of communication in my work relations. It gave me the gumption to address things that I originally shied away from, before starting a project. Lastly, it taught me how to look for warning signs with new potential clients.
As harrowing an experience this was, it was the best conditioning I could’ve asked for to help conduct projects successfully.
Before starting my own photography company, I was an art director at a marketing agency. It was a job that allowed me to be creative and challenged me in many ways.
However a few years in, I realized that my passion for photography was meant to be more than just a hobby and I was faced with the decision to either stay at my stable job or pursue a new career with a lot of uncertainty. It was a big risk but I knew I had to take it, I decided to quit my job and commit fully to photography.
That was the biggest challenge I have faced so far in my photography career and if I didn’t take the risk I wouldn’t be where I am today, owning my own business, supporting my family and doing something I love everyday for “work”.
My challenge was getting enough high-paying, fun, hard-working clients in the beginning of my business consistently so that it could grow. I experimented and refined my method and now offer it as an online program so smart developers, designers, and smart ladies can be booked out 6 months in advance with clients.
That period of time is now my most profitable experience, I wish I could go back and tell myself it’d get easier instead I tell others that.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career has been my struggle with depression. I suffered for many years on and off, before a particularly bad episode at the end of 2012.
As a way to combat the horror of what I was going through I started my blog, The Gratitude Project, in January 2013. The project gained so much momentum and publicity that it eventually turned into my first book, and kick-started my whole career as a professional artist and writer. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that awful dark period in my life.
In 2010, on the anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer, I was diagnosed with the same disease. It was a wake-up call like no other. While undergoing treatment, I had plenty of time to reflect on the fragility of life (as well as everything I’d taken for granted) and I determined that I would start to do all of the things that I’d put off “for another day”.
One of those things was to live out my purpose of releasing true potential in leaders, teams, and organisations. I also felt driven to show others how to face the changes that arise in life with grace and resilience.
Interestingly enough, it took dealing with cancer to make me realize how important this work truly was to me, and, as only fate would have it, my journey overcoming cancer armed and equipped me with valuable insights and lessons that would contribute to that work, endowing me with an enhanced perception of how change can really shake a person to their core—but how even then, we can thrive and move forward.
So it was at the beginning of 2012 that I left my corporate role to start Shaping Change, a consulting practice in the field of Organisational Development and Human Resources, where we help leaders and managers leverage the talents and skills of their people. Within a year, I created a 6-figure profit.
I eventually went on to also launch a Leaders Mastermind Group, The Shaping Change Inner Circle, for driven leaders around the world who are passionate about making a difference and building successful businesses, and most recently, I’ve written a new book: The Resilient Employee. It’s an essential guide to coping with change.
It took facing one of the greatest challenges in my own life (a cancer diagnosis and all that resulted from it) to realize my true calling, and it took overcoming that challenge to create Shaping Change and all the difference-making work the company has made over the years.
When I moved to Vancouver in 2008 I was extremely passionate about print design and branding projects. The web – never mind code – I saw as something impossible to grasp and to be honest as a somewhat inferior field of design. I had never touched a web design project in my life and I certainly had no plan of ever doing so.
However, arriving in Canada quickly made me realize two things: 1. There were no agency jobs and 2. the freelance clients I started to work with all wanted web designs. It was like a wake-up call to reality. I realized I had to make the choice between sticking to my guns and going for the very few projects that required what I knew best and loved, or embrace a new field and make an effort to wrap my head around what happened in digital design.
I chose the latter and never looked back.
I taught myself the basics of html and CSS (thanks to lynda.com!) and endured blood, sweat and tears building my first sites. But while I was hustling along, cursing my decision more often than not, I noticed that I started to not only become interested in the art of digital design but also began to get excited about its possibilities.
Now, 8 years later, I don’t directly deal with code anymore (I leave that to the experts) but the basic understanding of code I acquired back then is an indispensable base for me when working with developers on digital projects. And while my heart still beats faster when I encounter a beautiful print piece or a well-thought-out branding project my main focus now lies in digital design.
And whenever I am facing an opportunity that requires a venture into the unknown I will make sure to go after it – a new perspective might wait just around the corner.
Challenges are what always propel us to greater heights so there have been many as I’ve built my business. One of the more recent challenges that stands out in my mind is an issue with our payment processor in which a large chunk of revenue from the annual launch of our incubator was held.
There were no grounds for holding such a large amount of money although the payment processor is legally allowed to do this. This meant that revenue we had earned was held by the payment process for about 9 months and we had no access to that money, yet we still had to deliver what customers had paid for! It was a very challenging time where we needed to be extremely resourceful.
It taught me a lot about cash flow management and preparing for the unexpected in business. I have since talked to several entrepreneurs who lost businesses due to a similar circumstance, and not every company could have figured out how to continue delivering an exceptional customer experience without having received the funds paid by those customers.
I feel much of my personal and professional success has been a product of my own patience and perseverance. Day by day, I chose to consciously take steps (often baby ones) to move towards my goals. And while I may have felt I was a patient and focused person before starting my business, it is only now, years later, that I truly understand what it means to embody these qualities (to the best of my ability).
Having shared this, one big challenge I’ve faced from the get-go of becoming an entrepreneur, is learning to truly trust that in the long run my patience and my perseverance will pay off in service of my goals. I still continue to work in this space, aware of my conflicting tendencies to want to push things forward and/or to resist moving them, and my tendency to want to try and hurry things up, as well as slow things down completely.
Time and experience have made me aware that when I am doing this, what I am truly doing is resisting reality and what is present for me now. I am fighting against my natural flow, which ultimately does not serve me, my business, or anyone. It removes me from the present, and from what is truly going on, in a vain attempt to will something different into being.
To overcome this mental challenge, I’ve needed to work to resolve my ego’s belief that I am in control of everything, in order for me to let go and allow my success to come. Reaching this place internally, where I no longer feel so attached to the outcomes I am manifesting, I now have the ability to trust the process of creation more fully, freeing me to realize and achieve the success I desire.
I created my business book for entrepreneurs in the software, Scrivener. I took a Udemy course on the Scrivener software to figure out how to use it. Once the book was translated into a pdf document, I was able to go on Amazon and download the Kindle software in order to create a kindle version of Fabulous Fempreneurship. Next I figured out how to create a store on my website using a Woo Commerce plugin for WordPress, where I was able to sell both the printed and digital version of my book.
I always had ambitions of travelling the world, climbing mountains and going to remote places. The biggest challenge I ever faced was deciding to forgo the familiar and travel to remote and unfamiliar terrain and live with nomadic herder families in Mongolia. Plucking up enough courage to do that has been fundamental to many of the successes I’ve experienced today.
Photography is not just my choice of income, it’s a lifestyle, and through it, I have been able to travel to places around the world and in my head that I never thought possible. It has connected me to people and given me purpose in how my work can affect others, and it’s allowed me to create my own destiny. If something is not filled with setbacks and hard lessons then it’s not worth doing. It’s like avoiding love for fear of heartbreak.
The most important light bulb lesson I have learned from all of my setbacks is that it’s so important to count your blessings. Your perseverance will come straight from your willpower to make more mistakes and the strength of your support system. I wouldn’t be able to learn anything without the guidance of my relationships with other photographers, family, friends and clients.
Bottom line, things can be hard. It’s not easy to run a creative, reliable successful business. It’s not easy balancing a healthy lifestyle, to raise good kids, to make time for your favourite people. No one really tells you that, so accepting this is kind of a relief really. Luckily, life is a just employer (one of my favourite poems) and will gladly pay you any wage.
Stay thirsty my friends.