Local organizations and role models hope to put Michigan on the map for women in tech careers

The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) has a mighty mission: to make Michigan the No. 1 state for women in technology. Their goal is to engage and retain female professionals to transform the tech workforce into a more diverse one. They provide women with mentoring, leadership development, networking and technology experiences for varying levels throughout all levels of careers. 

MCWT began in 2000 when a group of women in the IT sector wanted to create a networking and resource group for women. Today, the 501(c)(3) awards scholarships, hosts professional development programs and collaborates with high schools and colleges to provide mentoring programs.
As part of its mission to make Michigan the No. 1 state for women in tech, Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) awards annual academic scholarships.
Orletta Caldwell, executive director of MCWT has a long history of working with nonprofits, workforce development and uplifting women. She also has experience in leadership and education during her time teaching at Grand Rapids Community College.

Caldwell says MCWT’s mission aligns perfectly with all her previous work and she’s proud to advocate for diversity, pushing women to reach higher. Although the organization has roots in Southeast Michigan, they expanded to West Michigan in 2017 to further extend their mission.

MCWT hosts programming for current employees looking to level up or switch industries. Last year, they held a two-day Leadership Clinic in Grand Rapids for women seeking to be at top-levels or COOs in corporations. The annual clinic invites mid to senior-level managers to develop managerial skills and interact with senior tech leaders from all over the state. They also regularly host Connect Nets, which are discussions on IT-related topics.

“We’re piloting a program now, called Reignite,” Caldwell says. “We found 30 currently unemployed women who may want to consider pivoting into the technology field. We’re offering six months of soft skill classes, resumes, headshot photos and we’re providing them with a technology certification. With that, we couple it with an IT mentor. One of the participants told me just the ability to talk to somebody in the field and help them understand what options there are is such a big deal.”

By enabling that open, honest, approachable conversation, Caldwell hopes women who might otherwise feel intimidated can feel inspired and prepared for their new roles in tech.

“In our state, we have a high demand for good IT people and companies can’t fill those roles,” she says. “We have all these women here in Michigan and that’s why I’m so proud to be executive director of MCWT, because we have the pathway and roadmap to change women’s lives. We have the programs, stats and research to show we can change your life.”

“A lot of us are in our careers and we’ve overcome a lot, but we need to be seen by more women and get to know them so we can tell them, ‘it’s not as bad as you think and you have what it takes to do it,’” she adds.

In order to attract and retain talent, many experts look toward attracting students at a younger age to various industries, including tech. Hoping to ‘hook’ the next generation of IT career women, their programming includes opportunities centered towards the youth, too.

MCWT hosts the Girls Rock IT program with the Girl Scouts. Students learn about cyber security and their parents learn about technology and how to help their daughters in their career pathways. They also teach an interactive tech camp at different college campuses for fifth graders to high school seniors. 

“One of our signature programs with the girls is Camp Infinity, it’s a day camp where girls learn robotics, website design and anything related to technology during five days,” Caldwell says. “We teach 45 to 50 girls during the entire week.”
Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) conducts Camp Infinity as part of its efforts to encourage girls' interest in tech.
Caldwell says the goal is to both inspire and educate. 

“Girls can learn about technology, but they also learn about being a woman in technology,” she says, “We show them that they have everything they need to go into any career endeavor that they would like to do.”

Caldwell says many barriers exist for adult women in technology too, a few of which are self-inflicted, starting at younger ages.

“The world outside has told women that this field isn’t for us, or we’ve had so many myths regarding women in technology,” she says. “Something I’ve seen in my workforce development experience is that we tell girls at the middle school age that they can’t do technology. Another thing that happens is the girls that do want to pursue technology and go to these classes, they're in a room full of boys. Research has shown that girls and women thrive in IT when they’re in a single-sex environment, because it cuts out that societal noise.”

MCWT provides participants, whether they’re young girls, high school students, college students or graduates with mentors along the way. That support and representation is crucial, says Caldwell. 

“There’s one story I love to share,” Caldwell says. “The CIO at Dow was at one of our girls programs and one of the participants came up to her and said, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up.’ That’s impactful, because I see women technologists all day, but we don’t typically see that in society.”

Preparing students of color for the rigor of STEM careers

Keli Christopher, founder and CEO of STEM Greenhouse, growing up in Grand Rapids, she was a good math and science student in high school. She was a good student, but didn’t have confidence in math or science until her middle school teacher encouraged her to take an advanced math class, which changed her life forever.

“I didn’t particularly have an interest in engineering though, until I met another female who was in engineering,” she says. “I decided to go into agricultural engineering because of the environmental solutions. That was the benefit that you could use science and engineering to solve the environmental problems that were related to agriculture.”

Christopher attended North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black university that produces more Black engineers than any other college in the world. After a supportive experience obtaining her undergraduate degree there, she went on to get a PhD in agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois.

“It was a completely different environment, definitely not as supportive,” she says. “I experienced my share of racism there, but fortunately, I was a strong student.”

While there have been strides in representation of both women in executive levels and high-demand fields such as tech, for people of color, the barriers still exist, says Christopher.

“When I got my PhD at University of Illinois, it was another 15 years before another Black person got a PhD there,” she says. “I was the third Black woman in the world to get a PhD in agricultural engineering. The lack of diversity is staggering, but a lot of that is due to the fact that children of color don’t get adequate education to prepare them for the rigor of STEM careers.”

By providing intensive STEM programming to middle schoolers all the way through high school students, Christopher hopes her organization, STEM Greenhouse, can act as a catalyst for change. Rather than doing one-off, hourly activities such as coding, making slime or playing with a robot in a makerspace, the organization helps prepare students for the rigor that is a tech career. 

Preparing students to be proficient in math and science is crucial not only to their individual success, but also vital for a competitive industry and sustainable economy, says Christopher. Preparing students of color for this world is especially vital to the organization’s mission.

“Some of our society’s ideas on what STEM is are not really helpful and people don’t understand what it takes to go into engineering as a person of color because socially, it is very different, especially as a Black woman,” she says. “It is not as welcoming of a field to go into, so you have to be even stronger in your academic preparation.”

STEM Greenhouse has a variety of programming for all ages, including Sankofa STEM Academy and STEM Scholars, STEM Scholars 2.0. They work with students at Dickinson Academy, Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Alger Middle School, Southwest Middle School and Innovation Central High School and provide summer academies at Aquinas College and Grand Rapids Community College.

Christopher says that her career path was not traditional, but it was important for her, as an engineer, to return to teach math and science at her former middle school. 

“It was important to me from a justice and equity standpoint to sow into children of color,” she says.”I did want them to see me, that’s one of the reasons I was working in a school that I went to, so they could see I went to the same community, the same school as they did.”

She hopes her STEM Greenhouse can expand programming across the state, creating an incubator for that talent pipeline and help break cycles of poverty.

“I think we have a long way to go, but I have seen in my time doing this work, there is more of a willingness to solve the root problems that are causing a lot of the issues that we’re facing,” she says. “People are ready to do the hard work and make some changes.”

Working to increase number of Latin women in cyber

Angela Bergsma, president and founder of Latinas in Cyber (LAIC), has more than 21 years of experience in national security and counterterrorism.

Using those skills from her time in the intelligence industry, she entered into the world of cyber security.

“Initially, I worked as a competitive intelligence analyst and a data analyst locally here in Grand Rapids and then after working in that industry, I ended up running my own business and selling technology solutions. I ended up expanding our services to include cyber security services. I ran my business for about three years and then I ended up going back to the public sector.”

Today, Bergsma works for one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the world, at Palo Alto Networks, working in the federal sector. The biracial Grand Rapids resident didn’t see people similar to her in the roles she’s been a part of throughout her career. 

“I’m Mexican American and Irish, so growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people like myself at all. I was always the minority,” she says. “I noticed it even more — especially after I left D.C., which is very multicultural and moved back to Michigan to sell cyber security solutions — I was often the only woman in the room, let alone a woman of color.”

Bergsma says she didn’t see anyone who identified as Latina in cyber security in West Michigan and that’s one of the reasons she started her organization, Latinas in Cyber. After speaking at a local Grand Rapids high school about her background in intelligence, one of the teachers expressed their gratitude for Bergsma’s visit with the class. 

“It wasn’t often that they would have women come talk about technology or cybersecurity, let alone a woman of color,” Bergsma says. “For them, I was that visibility and that representation of someone of color talking about her experience in cybersecurity. It was an opportunity to provide hope and let these young women see themselves in a more technical career field that wasn’t traditional.”

She also longed for a community for Latin women to meet each other and network. 

“I read a statistic that stated that there was only 7% of Latinos in the STEM space in the United States and of that, there was only 4% that were specifically dedicated to cybersecurity,” Bergsma says. “I realized that maybe half of that was Latina women and it’s estimated that it’s probably more likely only one to 2% Latina women.”

Bergsma was alarmed and appalled at the low statistics, given that the technology field has a low barrier for entry, in that degrees aren’t always necessary in cybersecurity.

“There are a lot of transferable skills that allow you to get into cybersecurity,” she says. She put a video on Linkedin, calling for other Latina women to connect with her to start her organization.

Latinas in Cyber started in spring of 2022 with 10 women and today, the 501(c)(3) has more than 6,000 members throughout all their social media platforms. 

The team of dedicated women help curate custom programming and lead certification cohorts. Their mission is to build a cybersecurity pathway for Latinas and the next generation of Latina leaders in the United States. They provide education, community and resources for entry-level to executive-level women in their careers. 

“We have an education program to build an advanced cybersecurity certification. We have an annual mentorship academy, partnered with Google, to offer everything from branding to networking to going over the major cybersecurity domains, mock interviews and being paired with a mentor,” Bergsma says.

Latinas in Cyber has a Discord channel, providing a digital community to all their members for communication and networking. They also hosted an awards ceremony highlighting Latina leaders.

Bergsma says the major goal of the 501(c)(3) is education and to increase the number of Latina women in these roles. She hopes their collaborative partnerships can amplify the voice and role of women in the sector.

“We want to raise that metric,” she says. “It would be amazing if in the next five years, we could raise that 2% to 10% of Latin women and that our organization is one leading that change and providing those opportunities.”

Traditionally, men are the primary breadwinners in a lot of Latin homes and it’s a very male-dominated culture, she says. 

“Women in the Latin space don’t typically see themselves in that role, so we need to change that narrative of what the roles are,” she says. “A lot of women do have applicable, transferable skills in the cybersecurity space.”

Roles including sales, program management, governance and risk don’t necessarily require years of schooling, but rather those day-to-day skills. 

“I would advise women to not be intimidated by approaching it as a career,” Bergsma says. “Any woman can really find her niche in cybersecurity, depending on her interest.”

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone - just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected].
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