To find Gianna Yan seven or eight years from now, head to the White House. Yes, that White House, the one in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to be working in the White House Office of Science and Technology,” says Piedmont High School student Yan, 16, who is already planning her career and its footprint that she hopes to leave for future generations.
“I got to meet Representative Barbara Lee a few years ago and realized we can make social change just through changing legislative policies. I want to further the movement of computer science education throughout K-12 schooling. I had tech resources, but there are inadequate resources overall in the Oakland Unified School District. If we’re going to have a more just future, we need to teach the next generation of girls and people of color computer science skills.”
Yan’s bold statement is more than a mouthful of hot air spouted by an intelligent, creative, confident young woman of tomorrow. In 2019, she won U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier’s, D-Hillsborough, Congressional App Challenge with @bay, an app that streamlines the voting process for millennials and increases civic engagement in youth communities.
Yan is also a NASA intern and a 2021 scholarship winner in Apple’s 10th annual Student Swift Challenge, in which students submit code written in Apple’s Swift programming language. Her app, Feed Fleet, was submitted and featured in a presentation Yan gave at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference this year. The app paired seniors and at-risk individuals, especially people in communities suffering severe food insecurity, with volunteers who delivered food and other essential goods during the pandemic.
Swift Challenge scholarship winners receive a one-year membership in the Apple Developer Program, which supports and transforms students’ code-based ideas and projects into real apps. “Graduates” have built successful careers in technology, founded venture-backed startups and created nonprofits focused on using technology.
After meeting Lee and during the months since winning the scholarship, Yan led workshops to teach basic coding skills to elementary school students from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and joined The Farmland Project, a student-created nonprofit that connects farms with surplus produce to nearby food banks. She is working on two apps in addition to releasing Feed Fleet, one that helps people conduct breast cancer self-examinations and detects heart disease in women and another that assists students reporting incidents of sexual assault on school campuses.
Asked about the most important instruction along with coding skills that young people interested in technology should receive, Yan says, “There are courses that teach about ethical technology, ethical AI (artificial intelligence), so it’s not just coding. It’s teaching about privacy issues with social media or how computer science can go wrong if users aren’t educated on ethics or humanity.”
Yan’s mother, Renee Liu, teaches math at a Bay Area community college, and her father, Jim Yan, is a property manager. She says her earliest memory of marrying her passion for social justice with technology was a TED-style speech she gave about intersectional feminism.
“I was in sixth grade. It’s about how your race, age, gender and sexual orientation intersect. It’s not about oppression; it’s talking about navigating the life that your identity gives you. For example, an Asian American woman and an African American woman are not the same; their experiences are different. … Because of those stereotypes, things that happen and their reactions to them are seen differently. There’s less understating of racial targeting and weaknesses in the justice system.”
In addition to her parents as role models and the people who “always told me my identity as an Asian American doesn’t stop me,” Yan says her older sister, Shannon Yan, is her greatest mentor. “We talk about how courage is in our blood,” she says.
Every tech entrepreneur has a failure story, and Yan is no exception. In eighth grade as one of two girls on a robotics team, Yan was intimidated by boys on the team — despite being treated as an equal. She quit the club.
“I let myself down,” she says. “I made my own limits. There was no reason I had to do that. I felt I wasn’t a good coder and didn’t know the hardware. I thought as a girl maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
Determined to prevent another young girl from similarly tripping herself up and for women and people of color to “rise through the ranks of technology” to positions of power, she insists “leaving the door open behind you” and enacting opportunities through legislative changes are essential.
“Tons and tons of conversations about social justice don’t mean change happens, but actual changes in policy do because everyone has to abide by the law. It’s more effective in the long term.”
Part of leaving the door open for girls and young women in technology is not only instruction but increased awareness. If research on heart disease is conducted only on men and the information erroneously disseminated as gender-neutral by male-centric organizations, misconceptions and even serious health ramifications can occur.
“Women have entirely different lived experiences and symptoms with heart disease. It’s just one example where a woman or person of color in science could raise concerns before it’s too late.”
Likewise, resumés reviewed using algorithms with gender-biased language preferences might cull girls or young women and make them less likely to earn college scholarships or be hired for jobs.
“If it says “girls soccer club” as an extracurricular or “fashion designer,” the algorithm might cut their opportunities,” she suggests.
Two statements that Yan often hears from young girls and hopes will be eliminated in the near future are “I’m not good enough for this” and “science is not for me.” If disinterest in coding is genuine and not the result of negative comments made by peers, teachers or family, she enthusiastically supports alternative career choices.
“If they don’t like science, that’s OK, but if technology isn’t made accessible or they have misconceptions about how hard science is, they can’t have a true opinion. If they love the arts, one way to connect the arts to tech and make pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineerng and math) more appealing is to show intersecting fields that require both science and English or technology and design.”
Yan pauses speaking, and in the brief silence it’s easy to picture the gears in her mind revving up and imagine the future sound of her footsteps echoing in the hallways of the White House.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com.