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For one night, a glimpse into a Silicon Valley run by women

Women make up a small minority of engineers and senior managers in Silicon Valley. But a recent event showed how girls are trying to break that mold.

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    Members of Team Pentechan discuss their project at the Technovation Challenge in San Francisco Thursday.
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The effort to bring some measure of gender balance to Silicon Valley took a decidedly trashy turn last week.

The event was the awards ceremony for the Technovation Challenge, a global afterschool program, funded by the nonprofit Iridescent, which promotes and encourages girls ages 10 to 18 to pursue an interest in technology. On Thursday, the finalists gathered in San Francisco to present applications they developed to solve problems in their communities.

The winners for both the high school and middle school competitions each designed apps that make it easier for people to dispose of waste – in Nigeria and India, respectively.

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For the winners, the victory came with $10,000 in prize money. But more broadly, the hope is that the winner will eventually be Silicon Valley itself, where women make up only about one-quarter of the work sector – and that percentage drops dramatically when you drill down to specific positions such as engineers and roles in senior management.

Technovation is just one of many girl-focused, technology-centered programs that has sprung up to get more girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields ­–and in due time, careers. And nights like the Technovation Challenge show that this push is about more than employment numbers – but about what women can bring to the technological problem-solving that fuels Silicon Valley.

In the high school bracket, Team Chalis won for its app, Discardious, which allows users to request waste pickup from a mobile cart and to report environmental hazards. In 2013, Nigeria produced about 350 metric tons of waste, and just over half was disposed of properly, according to Team Chalis. The girls said trash collection in Nigeria, run by the state government, is unreliable. People get tired of waiting for the pickup trucks and inevitably throw the trash in the street.

Middle school Team Pentechan won for its app Sellixo, an online marketplace to sell and buy dry waste. According to Team Pentechan, India dumps about 5.6 million tons of dry waste a year. The idea is that small business owners and residents can post their dry waste for sale and make a profit, rather than throwing away readily recyclable trash.

“We got to know how it is to work on a team,” said Anupama Nhavalore, one of six 14-year-olds on her team. “It did get stressful, but we never lost interest.”

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Technovation launched about six years ago with just 45 participants. Since then approximately 5,000 girls from around the world have created more than 1,000 apps. This year, more than 60 countries participated. The program starts off as a 12-week course and ends with a pitch competition for finalists to present their apps to judges in front of an audience.

In all, ten teams, roughly 50 girls, made it to San Francisco. In addition to India and Nigeria, teams hailed from Brazil and Mexico, as well as California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York. The apps addressed a wide range of problems. One of the apps could evaluate a suspected concussion based on a series of symptom questions, while another tackled the issue of impaired driving by providing cognitive tests. One team built a mobile game that encouraged water and energy conservation and another developed a healthy lifestyle app that provided recipes and exercise plans geared toward teen girls.

Much of Technovation’s success can be attributed to its vast global network of mentors and ambassadors. These are women who work in the tech industry and volunteer their time to guide the girls through the app building process. Not only do mentors meet weekly, but they often give up their week nights and even weekends, especially as the spring deadline to submit the apps looms.

“It’s a lot of time an effort, but I didn’t mind,” said Pratheeksha K.S, a mentor to Team Pentechan. “I will definitely do it again.”

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