With Girls Who Code, Viacom Develops a Pipeline of Future Tech Leaders
In the summer of 2016, Sabrina Bergsten was a recent high school graduate preparing for her freshman year at Marist College. Rather than hang out at the beach, Bergsten spent her weekdays trekking in and out of Times Square for a highly selective tech internship at Viacom’s headquarters.
And she was able to take advantage of some uniquely Viacom perks: attending the MTV VMAs, watching engineers test new augmented reality (AR) software, assisting with the launch of BET’s mobile app, and going to networking events on the company’s cafe terrace overlooking Times Square.
Bergsten’s story is a small piece of a larger partnership between Viacom and Girls Who Code (GWC), a national nonprofit organization focused on increasing the number of women in tech. For four years, Viacom has hosted a GWC summer immersion program for 20 high school women.
In 2016, Viacom expanded the initiative, becoming the only GWC corporate sponsor to develop a four-year college internship for select graduates of its summer program. Bergsten and two fellow students, Ana Leon and Zahraa Lopez, make up this inaugural GWC intern class, learning on-the-job at Viacom as they progress through college. After four years, they’ll have the opportunity to become full-time Viacom employees.
“Ultimately, our goal is to establish a pipeline of talent and help develop the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] skills that are vital to pursuing careers in tech,” says Viacom Chief Technology Officer Dave Kline. “We’re focused on crafting opportunities for the Girls Who Code alumni where they can explore, learn, and thrive in an all-encompassing environment surrounded by top-tier talent.”
Learning New Skills, Providing Fresh Perspective
Maitri Manojkumar is among the most recent class of interns; her first day on the job was just after her high school graduation. Although she had no experience with tech before attending Viacom’s summer immersion program last summer, Manojkumar is now pursuing a degree in STEM-related fields at John Jay University in Manhattan.
Manojkumar recalls what she told Kline in her interview prior to landing the internship: “I’m willing to learn a lot. What I can give back in terms of skill is probably not going to be that valuable. But I can give you a new perspective.”
She was hired on the spot.
For Bergsten, Viacom and GWC represent empowerment, equality and diversity of thought—a stark contrast to her first experience with the male-dominated tech world.
“I took my first computer science class in high school,” said Bergsten. “For three years, I was the only girl in my entire class—consistently, the only girl. It was discouraging. I would feel like I was representing all women in technology with my success or failure. At the time, I really wasn’t great at computer science. It was never something that came naturally to me.”
At Viacom—first as a summer immersion student, then as an intern—Bergsten has been surrounded by female engineers, willing to answer questions and teach the basics to new and inexperienced coders.
“There is something so special about a company investing so much time and effort into your future,” said Bergsten, speaking to the 2018 GWC summer immersion program graduates at last August. “I’ve been able to do and learn more than I’d ever imagined.”
Coders Who Will Power Viacom Forward
For these interns, Viacom exemplifies the ideal juncture of tech, media and audience engagement. Young coders aren’t just looking for a salary at any top tech company, they are seeking a place where they can work with purpose and contribute to its culture.
The intern program is evolving with its students, each year building more depth and momentum as its original graduates develop skills, discover new areas of interest and begin to make considerable contributions to the teams they had shadowed during previous summers. The program is also deliberate in exposing participants to different teams so that they can identify their strengths. Bergsten, for example, found that she had talents for project management and software engineering, two areas that align with her skill-set and passion.
Meanwhile, Leon, one of Bergsten’s fellow third-year interns and a junior at Barnard College, has developed a keen sense of UX design, a sector she knew little about before the program. Now, she’s built her own website (independent from the internship), which is dedicated to K-Pop, the popular South Korean musical genre.
As Viacom President and CEO Bob Bakish stressed to the graduating summer immersion class of 2018, Viacom’s goal is to help build a strong community of female leaders in computer science who “will create the next generation of technology that will power us forward.”