Both on the court and off, former Duke basketball player Sue Harnett has always uplifted her teammates and her friends.
Now, as President and Founder of the non-profit Rewriting the Code, she and her only employee, Jade Baricelli, are helping to uplift more than 2,000 women studying computer science at 180 colleges and universities. Rewriting The Code helps them to form a community, matching them with mentors and helping them find internships at companies such as Facebook, Google and IBM.
But if you had told Harnett in college that she would be working with computer science on a day-to-day basis, she probably wouldn’t have believed you.
“I stayed as far away from that part of campus as possible,” she said. “I’m like, Oh my god, that is not my talent.”
Harnett studied economics as an undergraduate and received her master’s degree in healthcare administration from Duke, all while playing Division I basketball.
After a year of professional basketball in Belgium, several years of working in the healthcare industry and even starting her own successful venture, Replay Photos, Harnett eventually discovered a problem that would become the basis for Rewriting the Code.
Despite the fact that women make up 40 to 50 percent of the students in introductory computer science and engineering courses at universities, the graduation rate for women in computer science has been 18 percent for the past 14 years.
It’s not that women can’t handle the course load, but instead, Harnett said it often comes down to a lack of support systems.
“Never ever did a student say they couldn’t do their work from an academic perspective,” she said. “Probably the number one issue that they talked about was not having a community.”
Joining Rewriting the Code is free and gives a student access to webinars, an online community of like-minded women and tech professionals willing to mentor them.
As a member, students also have the opportunity to apply for the fellows program. That includes them in Rewriting the Code’s talent database, where they can find jobs and internships more easily with the partner companies in the organization’s network.
For RTC fellow Jillian Troftgruben, a senior at UNC and member of the organization’s student leadership council—a board that guides its programming—Rewriting the Code helped her find her community.
“This summer I went to New York knowing really nobody,” she said. “I found my roommate through Rewriting the Code, so it was great to go in knowing somebody and having something in common with people.”
But, much more than community, Troftgruben credits Harnett and Rewriting the Code with helping her build confidence in her coding ability, something she said she never really had before.
“In high school I took computer science classes and absolutely hated it,” she said. “Mostly because I was the only girl and was constantly told by my professor that I should drop it.”
When Troftgruben was applying for an internship at Raleigh-based communications company Bandwidth as a sophomore, she said she pulled her name from consideration because she felt she was unqualified.
Soon after, Troftgruben received an email from Harnett that said she was coming to Chapel Hill to see her, and the next day Bandwidth reached out.
“That morning I got a call from Bandwidth saying, you were one of our top candidates, why’d you withdraw?” she said.
Bandwidth offered Troftgruben the internship position that day. While that story had a happy ending, Harnett said she wants to help other women in computer science suffering from “imposter syndrome” avoid this all-too-common situation.
“If a woman who never thought she would work at her dream company gets to work at her dream company because we were a conduit to match-make that opportunity,” says Harnett, “then I’ll know we did something right.”