Interview with Akshara Anand by Inspirational Women Series
Akshara Anand is a junior at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas with a passion for computer science, education, and women’s empowerment. She is the captain of her school’s Science Olympiad team and Founder and President of the Women in Computer Science Club at her high school. She founded the STEMInnovation program at Burnet Middle School to teach 20 young girls computer science through robotics and Scratch. She is the founder of an upcoming nonprofit, LetsCode, that promotes computer science in various formats from hosting #unplugged workshops at libraries through Central Texas to teach kids computer science for free to hackathons. She is very involved in the needs of the central Texas community as an avid promoter of computer science education and secretary and vice-chair of Girls Giving Grants. Akshara also enjoys computational epidemiology research and has won numerous awards for her work on mitigating pandemic spread through computational modeling.
What is your background?
I am a junior at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, Texas. I have been involved in STEM activities from a young age, participating in science olympiad and other competitions and always enthusiastically seeking opportunities to learn more about science. As a freshman, I became really interested in computer science when I started self-learning Python and designing websites. I’m an analytics team member at Givology, a non-profit organization and a captain of my school’s Science Olympiad team. I’m also really enthusiastic about my computational epidemiology research and the various women in CS activities I participate in. In the future, I plan on attending college and studying computer science and economics with the hopes of a career in social entrepreneurship that uses technology to benefit the global population.
You are the Founder and President of Women in Computer Science Club at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, TX. What motivated you to found this student organization and what has been its impact so far?
Last year, I had frequented the computer science room often as a student in AP Computer Science, and always found it to be packed with boys. I knew that there were other girls taking computer science classes but I noticed a definite lack of them in the computer science room outside of class. I wanted to foster an environment that made the computer science classroom less intimidating for women in computer science of all levels of experience. I founded WICS with the intentions on introducing my classmates and friends to the multitude of benefits of a career in computer science while creating a community of driven and fun young women.
Our club meets every Wednesday during lunch. We have had TechTalks with guest speakers talking to us about careers in computer science and pursuing a computer science education in college. Each member has their own individual project ranging from learning Java to programming websites and as a club we work on learning Python together. Last year we were successful at raising awareness for computer science education through our booth at the Austin Computer Science Fair. We are currently participating in an app-development competition and look forward to collaborating with the University of Texas at Austin’s Women in Computer Science Club.
You are also a member of Girls Giving Grants, an organization with the mission of teaching the next generation of women the values of philanthropic giving. Can you tell us more about your involvement with Girls Giving Grants and some of your main takeaways?
I joined Girls Giving Grants my freshman year of high school and have been involved with them ever since. To start each year we spend a few days on training – learning how to read and evaluate grants, along with leadership training and presentation skills. Then we break up into our committees of 9-10 women and read numerous grants. After evaluating the grants, we choose our top two grants that we believe could utilize our $7000 most effectively and impactfully and present them to the entire group of 70 girls. At the end, the entire organization votes and chooses one nonprofit to donate our money towards.
Through taking part in this experience for three years, I’ve gained insight into the multitude of nonprofits in the central Texas area, some of which I had no idea existed! I have read grants ranging from organizations that provide Americanization lessons for refugee students to organizations that promote water conservation and each grant has taught me something new about philanthropy. As an aspiring social entrepreneur, I have learned the value of a well-organized and efficient nonprofit with a clear purpose and mission through reading exceptional grants, as well as the sheer impact one organization can have on an entire community. Most importantly, Girls Giving Grants has really opened me up to the immense needs of the Central Texas community, taught me the importance of valuing what I have, and helped me work with other young leaders.
What are some of the biggest challenges and failures you’ve encountered in your leadership experiences and how did you aim to overcome them?
I have experienced quite a lot of challenges this year to my leadership experiences. There’s always the issue of making sure I’m taken seriously and respected as the main leader in the organizations I lead that are dominated by guys who, for the most part, are older than me. Beyond that, one specific issue that I’ll delve into deals with the STEMInnovation program, a NCWIT funded program I founded at a Title 1 middle school here in Austin, Texas. At the first few meetings, there were only about three girls! It was disappointing to me that I wasn’t reaching a larger population, so I spoke with the teacher I collaborate with about advertising and recruitment strategies. After rehauling the program, we ended up with 15-17 additional girls who attend every meeting. By focusing on these girls, I believe our impact has been larger. I’ve watched each girl’s computer science and problem-solving knowledge increase rapidly and their curiosity grow. It’s truly rewarding watching the girls have the spark of love for computer science at such a young age and I look forward to teaching them every week!
On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
As a woman, I have experienced pushback in leadership roles and have had firsthand experience with feeling undermined because of my gender. I personally know the frustrating and upsetting feeling that many other women in STEM face as a minority group in an area dominated by men. We are constantly silenced, treaded on, and underrepresented. I believe that every woman should have the right to feel empowered and determined that they are self-capable, independent, and can achieve their goals without having to worry about how their gender plays a role into their opportunities. Women are smart, strong, and extremely capable – we deserve to have our voice heard!
In your opinion, what are some major challenges women face that differ between STEM fields?
I believe that the fields of engineering and mathematics are where women are most underrepresented. This is partly a result of history- women weren’t allowed to contribute to the field of mathematics for a long time, but is also a manifestation of a concentration of women in the fields of biology and chemistry instead of engineering and mathematics. Women receive over half of the bachelor’s degrees in biology, but only around 17% of the degrees in computer science. Only 11.1% of astronomers and physicists are women. Men have traditionally dominated the fields of computer science and engineering and I think it’s important to continue to push for women’s representation and encouraging young girls to pursue fields in computer science and engineering. The gender gap is slowly starting to decrease, and I firmly believe that progress is on it’s way as long as we continue to advocate and push for change.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
I’ve had several women impact my life – inspiring teachers, family members, my best friends, and countless other mentors throughout my high school journey. I would have to say that the woman who has really impacted my life so far would be my mother. My mother is a hardware engineer – a field completely dominated by men. From a very young age, she has taught me the importance of advocating for myself and the importance of grit and having the right mindset. I have learned to realize that grit plays such a huge role into our everyday lives, from learning to pull ourselves back up after defeat to dealing with difficult people. Without grit, we fail to take risks and improve ourselves as human beings. Understanding the importance of advocating for myself has come to help me greatly in the classroom and in my extracurricular activities.
What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s empowerment, STEM and/or social impact?
Some books I would highly recommend include: See Jane Win, I Am Malala, and We Should All Be Feminists. See Jane Win by Dr. Sylvia Rimm is chockful of statistics and numbers, but is a very informational book about how we can continue to empower girls to pursue their dreams and achieve their careers. I Am Malala speaks for itself. It’s one of those books you can’t put down, and leaves you just staring into space for a few minutes in awe when you finish it. As for We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie actually gave a TED Talk about this exact topic that is a must-watch for all.
Some websites I really enjoy include Global Tech Women’s blog, Givology’s blog, Steminist, and Stem Women. Each of these blogs have a lot of really interesting reads about the gender gap in STEM, inspirational posts, career advice, and more.
As for films, I really enjoyed Girl Rising. After watching the film, I immediately went to Girl Rising’s website and looked up the stories of all the girls featured and was floored by the achievement and stories of all these amazing young women. A film of mine that always makes me smile is Matilda. It’s a classic, but a good reminder of the brilliance and independence that young girls can have.