Last week, we talked about how Marlene Mhangami became the first African woman to be a director on the Python Software Foundation board. The article ended with a promise that we would hear from Marlene herself about her journey and how she got to where she is. So here it is in her own words.
A few days ago I was voted onto the Python Software Foundation board of directors. For friends who knew me from high school or college I’m sure this came as quite a shock, considering that during those periods of my life I didn’t show any passion for programming at all. In university I took on a molecular biology and pre-medicine major with plans of becoming a doctor. To be completely honest I can’t tell you exactly why I wanted to be one. In high school I had excelled in both the sciences and the arts and loved them equally. I had no idea I could fuse the two and so ended up taking the path that I thought seemed most secure and attractive by society’s standards.
Fortunately, I went to a liberal arts college and throughout my time there I got to take classes in politics, theology and sociology. I began to discover how much I enjoyed analyzing how we as a society were lacking and then figuring out ways to implement strategies based off of an artistic idea I’d read in a book or maybe a scientific concept that I found interesting.
As the years went by I kept trying to picture myself as a physician or a biologist in a lab but couldn’t do it. At a time when I otherwise should have been putting all my energy into applying to medical schools, I decided to send in applications to only two and gave myself a year to explore what I can now identify as a passion for developing and building communities.
The first thing I did after making that decision was to start looking at some of the injustices in my community, I then meditated on the good I had seen and prayed about where to begin. After a few weeks I remember having the most vivid dream I’ve ever had in my life and woke up from it knowing I needed to focus on empowering young women. I convinced my twin brother and good friend to join me in my pursuit and we started going around to high schools and speaking to young women on decision making, self-esteem issues and relationships.
In the process of doing this we ended up co-founding an organization, called Purple Lipstick whose goal was to lift young women up through conversation, community and opportunity. At the end of that year we’d opened up several branches of the trust and although there was a lot of risk involved, I decided that I loved what I was doing more than I desired the security of pursuing a career in medicine.
I now knew I was on the right path but I still felt like I wasn’t completely implementing some of the ideas I had to help girls reach their full potential. I was also very frustrated by the gender gap that I saw in several fields that seemed to just be growing. During a brainstorming session with my team and some partners we decided that technology would be a great industry to focus on, and specifically coding.
I’ve always been interested in tech, people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates fascinated me however their worlds always seemed very far off, almost unreachable. In all my twenty something years of living I had never once met or heard about an African, female programmer. Not only did I feel that any work we did in this sector would be relevant and meaningful but I had finally found the sweet spot between my love for science and my passion for developing communities. I quickly began to feel urgency to not only equip the girls around me with this skill but to create communities that facilitated ease of access to it. Thus Code Purple was born, an events based program getting girls excited about programming.
It was during one of our events that I met Ronald Maravanyika, a fantastic Python enthusiast who had come on board as a volunteer with such a strong love for programming. His passion for Python led me on the path to learn the language myself and become just as excited about it and now I tell everyone I know to try it! Ronald also had the same mandate I did to use coding as a way to empower young women. Together we started trying to find a way to create an organization (ZimboPy) focused entirely on bringing Python to girls in underserved areas. We wanted to make sure that these girls would have easy access to laptops, relevant software and support from teachers.
During PyCon 2016 we met Mike Place, an amazing person and python developer from the United States, and told him all about our hopes to bring this organization to life. Mike was just as enthusiastic and came on board immediately with, solid expertise and ideas on how to make the program relevant to young women already in computer science or tech related college programs. With his help we were able to accelerate a lot of our plans at ZimboPy and put them into action.
ZimboPy currently runs coding clubs and mentorship week program to help girls learn to code. Most recently I partnered with an educational organization to launch ESB Kids Coding Club in Borrowdale where Ronald and I will be teaching a select group of children from the ages 9-11 how to code, as well as hosting several robotics camps for teenagers. The club officially launches in early July so there is still time to apply if you would like your children to attend. My hope with this is to make sure we are giving the next generation of Zimbabweans a shot at being the next leaders of technology a few years down the line.
My own role in leadership in the Python Software Foundation comes as a genuine surprise. As a director I’m looking forward to combining my love for the language with my passion for building and connecting communities. Something that I have come to realize is that you will do best at what you feel passionate about, also success will follow wherever you can identify a need and serve the community around you by addressing it.
I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs and follow their passions, but I am saying we should all think deeply about what we are doing and whether it is truly a reflection of our potential and societies best interests. My story is not very conventional but then again, when has any good one been.