Passing on a passion for programming
Genevieve L’Esperance rushes across the snowy campus of McGill University on her first day of Physics lab like someone who is late. In fact, she is 40 minutes early. She arrives to find an empty room and quickly swipes through a schedule on her tablet to double check the time.
McGill is a nerdy school so I’m surprised no one is here,” she says with a smile. “I figured there would be 30 people waiting to get in.” While waiting, Genevieve reviews the notes on tomato genomes she just took during the lecture in her Genetics class. With just 10 minutes before the lab, she discovers it has been moved. Though it’s the first week of school and she hasn’t missed anything, the mistake has cost her precious study time and she is not a fan of unnecessary distractions.
A studnet at McGill, a public research university in Montreal, Canada, Genevieve has a joint major of computer science and molecular biology.
It's a small exclusive program made up of about 30 people. In the little spare time she has on campus, she works as a Windows ambassador for Microsoft. She also serves as an advisor for YouthSpark, our global initiative to create opportunities through programs and partnerships that strengthen education, expand digital inclusion, and give young people the tools they need to change their world.
Genevieve sees herself as a model of what girls can accomplish with an ignited passion and the drive to succeed. She learned to program as a teen and quickly recognized that she was a minority in the male-dominated field. Her goal is to break down the perception barrier so that girls look at the computer science profession more objectively as a career choice.
In the United States alone, there are projections of 1.5 million computer science-related jobs by 2018. And US college graduates are expected to fill less than a third of those jobs. The numbers are even more grim for women. Closing the CS learning gap is imperative for the success of today’s youth and one of the focal points of Genevieve’s work. I have access to resources that other young girls don’t so I want to pass on to them the skills they need to be more technically advanced and employable,” she says. “There are so many people that don’t have access to technology and teachers. I want to give girls these skills so they can be the breadwinners.”
Genevieve decided to become Microsoft certified after hearing a woman speak about a tech school she wanted to create for young women in Bangladesh with the help of Genevieve’s mom. Genevieve was only 14 at the time and jokes that she only agreed to attend the Texas conference so she could buy new cowboy boots. But when she listened to the woman and heard her express such heartfelt desire to teach girls in an area with extreme poverty, she was inspired to further pursue technology and teaching.
Spreading the love for computer science
Since she unleashed her love for computer science and her desire to spread it, Genevieve has devoted countless hours to teaching programming to girls. She works not only to show them the skills but to convince them that the field is a viable option. She learned that in part from her mom, who worked as a model at tech trade shows before becoming a successful entrepreneur. She attempts to show girls how technology is opening doors for her with the hope she can convince them it’s not just for boys.
Before her next class begins, Genevieve rushes to the school cafeteria to heat up her lunch. And then she’s off to start a Windows demonstration for a fellow McGill student. She sits with the girl and starts by pointing out some of the cool things that Surface can do--the double screen feature, how to find songs on Xbox Music, the Picture Password feature, the hands off tool, and the Fresh Paint app.
“Let me try it,” says Alyssa, the student Genevieve is instructing. “That’s so cool.” Genevieve smiles. When her demonstration is successful, it’s an added personal bonus. In addition to that work, Genevieve volunteers teaching programming. Her CV is an impressive three pages which includes a list of a dozen speaking engagements at conferences around the world. She also worked as a reporter at the Imagine Cup US finals, was a member of the Microsoft Student Partners program, and did an internship at Microsoft Research in Seattle where she worked on the Worldwide Telescope project.
Curtis Wong, principal researcher at Microsoft Research eScience, worked with Genevieve when she was an intern. He hired her because of her passion for teaching girls and her interest in global health. “It’s unusual for someone in high school to believe they can make a difference in the world–—many don’t even try. But somehow that escaped Genevieve, she knew she could do whatever she wanted,” he says. “People who change the world do it because they think they can. That’s the attribute about her that I admired.”
Garfield Public High School, Seattle, WA
Double major in computer science
Bioinformatics, artificial intelligence and programming
Proud to be a nerd
Genevieve is intense and extremely serious, but also finds time to laugh. She’s an articulate storyteller and often talks about her past but genuinely looks forward to her future. She embraces the title of nerd and proudly states her passion is bioinformatics, but she’s also interested in artificial intelligence and programming theory. She often talks about the moment she realized that computer science could help address some of the world’s toughest problems and how that convinced her that she was on the right path.
“I may not be the coolest kid on the block but I can use my abilities to save lives,” she says. “I can use my programming to help eradicate disease or create medical devices. I can combine my love for technology with saving the world. Genevieve is also an actress, a black belt in karate, a foodie, an avid reader, and a super fan of Game of Thrones. She’s hard to keep up with. She credits some of her early confidence to her participation in martial arts and hockey, when she realized that gender was irrelevant in activities dominated by boys.
She created a number of projects to spread her message, like the Tech Diva and IT Girl websites she made as a teen. She also had a YouTube channel, a blog called GenINC, and a Facebook page to share ideas. Through all her work, she attempts to show that being smart is something that should be celebrated, that a young girl can be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg by excelling in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). She wants to make it cool to be smart, give girls role models in the tech industry, and show them they have the ability to change the world.
“I think it’s cool to be nerdy, I just think of it as being obsessed with something,” she says. “It takes dedication to be obsessed. If you’re good at computer science, your options are limitless. Whether you want to start your own company, or be a doctor or a lawyer or a psychologist, you have a background that can be applied to any of those fields. You can do it all well and have a different perspective.”
Her obsession is rewarded by what she gets back from the girls. She taught a class for 218 local high school girls at McGill in an event sponsored by Microsoft. When it was over, many of the girls were so excited that they didn’t want to leave.
“They were asking for my autograph,” she says. “That’s like comparing a smart person to Justin Bieber. It was incredible. There is nothing more thrilling than seeing girls discover their love of programming.” Genevieve shares an apartment near campus with her high school best friend. It looks like a college dorm full of puzzles, books, and mismatched coffee mugs. She says their DVD collection only contains shows with strong female leads, like Charmed, Buffy and the Gilmore Girls. In her free time, which is rare, she likes to go skiing. She is also developing a phone game app based on a series of television shows. But her main priority right now is school, and her role as a mentor.
“YouthSpark helped me recognize my passion for computer science, and now I’m using my skills to help other girls discover theirs,” she says. “We are half the world’s population and need to be successful and then use that success to do good in the world.