Bethlehem Gronneberg was born in Addis Ababa, a beautiful city nestled in the foothills of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. A first-generation college student, her family nurtured in Bethlehem a passion for learning. “Growing up, although books were scarce, I read everything I could get my hands on,” she remembers. “I was intensely passionate about learning and seeing everyone else in my family read and write, I was in a hurry to get there.”
Because there were no libraries nearby, the Bible and chapter books captured her imagination at home. “The stories spoke to me and enlightened me,” she says. Books started her on a lifelong journey of blazing trails, breaking down barriers and bringing digital worlds into being.
Decades later, Gronneberg brings the same imagination and creativity to girls in North Dakota. In 2016, Gronneberg celebrated twin milestones: she was awarded a Bush Fellowship and founded uCodeGirl, a Fargo-based nonprofit that aims to bridge the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Her mission is to empower girls with mastery of computer science, which transformed her from a shy young girl in Ethiopia into an influential global leader.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS, BLAZING NEW TRAILS
In 1991, Gronneberg was a second-year student studying statistics at Addis Ababa University when she became one of two women invited to pursue the just-launched computer science minor — Ethiopia’s first. Gronneberg’s math professors thought her proficiency with numbers and logic would make her a good fit.
“I was curious, but also terrified,” she says. “I had never touched a computer before this, let alone programmed one. However, assurance from my professor gave me the boost I needed to persist. It was the beginning of a long, fulfilling journey.” On her first day in the lab, she sat down at a big, boxy IBM computer that ran a programming language called BASIC and wrote her first instruction. “Hello!” the machine responded. Gronneberg was intrigued, and never looked back.
FROM ADDIS ABABA TO THE UN
Against many odds, Gronneberg became one of the first two women to graduate with a computer science minor in Ethiopia in 1993. Dr. Nancy Hafkin, who pioneered the development of electronic communication in Africa in the ’80s and ’90s, explains that while Ethiopia now has 64 universities, there was only one in the early ’90s, and tens of thousands of students tried to get in every year
“For a young girl like Bethlehem to get through 12th grade and compete with all the boys in the country just to gain entrance to the university was amazing,” she says. “Women made up no more than 10% of the student body, and they were mostly clustered in the social and health sciences. But when Bethlehem sees something she wants to accomplish, she goes for it, even when she’s got no role model.”
After graduating, Gronneberg worked at the university as a research assistant until 1995, when Hafkin recruited her to work for the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). She was hired as a system administrator, and later became a web developer.
“I told her the UNECA needed a website and asked her if she could build one for us,” says Hafkin. “She didn’t have any experience designing websites, since the computer science lab at the university wasn’t well-equipped, but she read everything in sight and developed a prototype. I invited the Assistant Secretary General of the UN to see a demo of it, and he was blown away.”
At the time, Ethiopia still had very few libraries, let alone access to the burgeoning world wide web. Hafkin made it a priority for the UNECA to lead the development of electronic communication networks throughout Africa, and she tapped Gronneberg to be the organization’s webmaster, sending her to Canada and the U.S. for more web development training.
“I had never traveled outside of Ethiopia, so it was really exciting,” says Gronneberg. “Our server was located at the UN in New York City, so I went there to learn how to update the website. I had never been on the 38th floor of anything!”
Her tech and coding peers’ passion proved contagious, and she returned to Addis Ababa eager to train her UNECA coworkers. “I’d run mini-workshops on what the internet is,” says Gronneberg. “I explained that ‘It’s like an information superhighway.’ A few people asked, ‘What’s a highway?’” Gronneberg traveled throughout the continent to train and empower peers in Botswana and Cameroon to launch their own websites.
Hafkin watched with pride as Gronneberg shared her knowledge and passion. “Having your first job out of university be designing a website for the UN is quite remarkable,” says Hafkin. “But Bethlehem immediately had such professionalism that it disarmed anyone who might have been skeptical about her abilities.”
A TIME OF CHANGE
In 2000, Bethlehem married North Dakotan Ron Gronneberg, who had worked as a consultant for the UNECA. The two moved to Fargo together, and now have three sons. “When I arrived two decades ago, Fargo wasn’t as diverse as it is now,” remembers Gronneberg. “Leaving behind everything I knew and loved, only carrying what was in my heart, coming to a place with a different culture that was unfamiliar was not an easy endeavor. I built my new community one relationship at a time.”
Gronneberg became a programmer/analyst for a Fargo-based software development company and continued her professional and technological development. In 2012, she graduated with a master’s degree in software engineering from North Dakota State University (NDSU) while working full-time as a software engineer at a company building automation and software solutions for healthcare. Senior and management roles within software engineering followed.
“I associate a feeling of isolation with my time working in, and managing, software development teams,” says Gronneberg. “You feel like a novelty — an immigrant, Black and female developer. There is a certain level of weight with that. As a hiring manager, I wondered why more women who are computer science graduates in the U.S. are not part of the applicant pool.”
She saw plenty of women working as testers, business analysts and quality analysts, but a severe shortage of developers. “I later learned it’s a pipeline issue. There simply aren’t many women choosing that career path.”
It turns out that the underrepresentation of women developers in the workforce can be traced all the way back to their formative tween years. “Research points to middle school as a critical time period for engaging girls in STEM and helping them see and chart a pathway in it for themselves,” says Gronneberg.
This revelation inspired her life’s “third phase” — a phase of bold vision and powerful leadership to enact systemic change for the advancement of women in technology.
BREAKING THE PARADIGM
Women currently make up only 18% of computer science graduates nationally, according to National Science Foundation data, despite huge (and growing) demand. In 2017, there were more than 500,000 job openings in the U.S. that required a four-year computer science degree, yet according to the National Center for Education Statistics the nation produced only about 71,000 computer science graduates. According to the Computer Science Education Coalition, new graduates are estimated to only fill half of the more than 900,000 open computing jobs by the end of 2020.
Not only are women missing out on promising and potentially lucrative tech careers, but this has also left the field with a “sameness of thought,” according to David Batcheller, CEO of Fargo-based Appareo Systems. Batcheller’s product development and technology company works with uCodeGirl to provide mentors and sponsorships. “We need to do a lot of paradigm breaking upstream to create the diversity of thought and capability the industry needs,” he says. “[The technology field] could be more successful, creative and fun if we weren’t so homogenous.”
Changing the culture of tech will go a long way toward eliminating some of the most challenging barriers to women in the field. As more girls and women embrace STEM, they will be able to reshape the field’s reputation, perceived and real, as a “boys’ club.”
Breaking the paradigm also includes showcasing STEM’s creative potential, and pairing girls with role models and mentors who reflect their interests and identities. “I wanted to create a STEM-powered community of girls and their supportive mentors. A creative and enriching space where girls can micro-experiment and discover their inner ‘nerdess,’” says Gronneberg. “Girls already have the natural curiosity, creativity, focus and intellect to succeed in the ‘T’ of STEM. It’s about helping them explore how tech can make the world more kind, healthy and fun, while solving real-world problems.”
UCODEGIRL IS BORN
In 2016, Kathy Cochran, a 1995 Bush Fellow and co-worker of Gronneberg’s, convinced her to apply for a Bush Fellowship, noting that her dedication to creating big, systemic change for girls in STEM was a great fit for the program. “I didn’t think it was for me,” remembers Gronneberg. “It seemed very high up and out of reach. But after attending the Bush Foundation’s webinar on the program I realized it is for people like me who are filled with dreams and know what they want.”
The application process forced her to clarify how she could increase her impact and think bigger. “They have a great set of questions that make you think about what you really want to do,” she notes. By the time she was awarded a Bush Fellowship after the nine-month selection and interview process, she had also launched uCodeGirl — a nonprofit dedicated to filling the technology sandbox with diverse voices globally. Its programs are designed to inspire and enrich young girls with leadership traits, computational skills and an entrepreneurial mindset through real-world projects, mentorship and immersion into the world of tech.
“We launched uCodeGirl when the Fargo-Moorhead tech entrepreneurial ecosystem was growing and thriving,” says Gronneberg. “It became a fertile ground for uCodeGirl to impact the community. The Bush Fellowship was an extraordinary opportunity for personal growth and reflection. It is a great platform to amplify my passion and vision.”
Bree Langemo, a law professor at Concordia College and former president of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative (an organization that advocates for entrepreneurial mindset education), was drawn to Gronneberg’s vision because of its holistic approach. “uCodeGirl offers enrichment and mentorship, and even more importantly, community,” says Langemo. “It’s more than a program. It’s an ecosystem. When a middle school girl sees a high school girl choose tech as a pathway and then come back and serve as a mentor, that creates a community of support.”
A founding board member of uCodeGirl, Langemo also appreciates the organization’s three-fold mission to train girls to be leaders, programmers and entrepreneurs. “If you only provide the computational and technical skills, they may not see themselves launching, creating or innovating something new in the field,” she notes. “There are plenty of coding camps out there, but what’s special about uCodeGirl is that holistic approach of equipping girls to have entrepreneurship and leadership skills as well.”
“We want young women to be the authors of their lives and the creators of solutions to real-world problems,” says Gronneberg. “To be the driving force of innovation and leadership in tech rather than just consumers of it.” At uCodeGirl’s summer camp in 2017, one team of girls designed and coded T-shirts to light up in tandem with the wearer’s beating heart. Some went on to participate in a national STEM design competition, prototyping an organizer-based app to help alleviate stress in teenagers.
Dr. Kendall Nygard, chair of NDSU’s Department of Computer Science, served as Gronneberg’s advisor for her master’s degree and her Ph.D. in the same field. He also leads cybersecurity instruction at uCodeGirl camps.
According to Nygard, the percentage of women majoring in computer science at NDSU is between 10-15%. “Where’s the lever to change that?” he asks. “We really need to step it up. When we consider emerging areas like cybersecurity, the need for more bright computer science graduates is even more extreme. What Bethlehem is doing with uCodeGirl is one example of a lever.”
GROWING AS A LEADER
In order to enact her vision for uCodeGirl, Gronneberg knew there were a few areas in which she needed to grow. In her application for the Bush Fellowship, she wrote about wanting to improve her public speaking skills, learn more about managing a nonprofit and conquer the voice in her head whispering about the risk of failure. She wrote, “I need to keep reminding myself, ‘What is the worst that can happen if this doesn’t work, and can I live with that?’”
The Fellowship allowed her to travel to California for training on social entrepreneurship at Stanford University and to attend a women’s leadership retreat. “It took me out of my little circle into the bigger world and let me see myself as part of the bigger sum,” says Gronneberg. “It opened my eyes to possibilities on a larger scale — what can I do in my community and in the world to move this needle forward?”
While building her nonprofit, she employed the same mindset she’d learned in the tech and startup world. “Bethlehem takes the lessons of tech into the work of nonprofits,” says Lulete Mola, vice president of community impact for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, a funding partner of uCodeGirl. “She translates that idea of innovation to social innovation, saying it’s OK to try, to fail fast and fail forward.”
“She’s relentless in her passion and pursuit,” says Langemo. “She has a quiet, commanding presence so when she talks, people listen. And the Fellowship has helped her improve her speaking skills even more and infect others with her passion. People want to see her succeed because Bethlehem succeeding means all these young girls are succeeding as well.”
COLLABORATING ACROSS SECTORS
Gronneberg knew her vision would require collaboration between schools, businesses, families, nonprofits and funding organizations. “I didn’t want to create a transactional coding camp,” she says. “I wanted to build an ecosystem that sustainably engages young women and helps our community to thrive.” In addition to uCodeGirl’s partnerships with local schools and universities such as NDSU, the organization also calls upon area businesses for mentors, sponsorships and job shadowing opportunities.
Many of the mentors and business leaders say they get more out of their support of uCodeGirl than they give. “From an enterprise perspective, it’s difficult to invest the time and energy to promote STEM to an audience of young women,” says Appareo Systems CEO David Batcheller. “uCodeGirl is a bite-size way for a business like ours to support events and activities with schools and students. It’s all packaged up for us and makes it easy for professionals to engage and have a real impact.”
And many of the women tech professionals who serve as uCodeGirl mentors express gratitude for the opportunity to give back, saying they wish something like uCodeGirl had existed when they were in school.
There’s no doubt that Gronneberg herself has stitched together this ecosystem of support. “She’s a connector,” says Batcheller. “But she’s also a brilliant, educated scientist and engineer — she’s an inspiring example of what the program is intended to achieve.”
It’s the role modeling that lies at the heart of uCodeGirl’s mission that will continue to multiply the organization’s impact. Since uCodeGirl’s founding in 2016, two of its participants have already gone on to realize their passion in programming at area colleges, and three high school seniors continued to do the same in fall 2020.
“Even when they’re in college, we won’t leave them alone,” says Gronneberg. “When they graduate, we want them to come back and be mentors. The multiplying is just beginning.”
ENLARGING THE CIRCLE
uCodeGirl emphasizes inclusivity not just in terms of gender, but also in engaging girls from diverse backgrounds, including immigrants, Native Americans and those from disadvantaged communities throughout the upper Midwest. As Gronneberg pursued her Bush Fellowship and was challenged to think bigger, she expanded uCodeGirl’s mission to Africa. In her travels to visit family (a crucial element of her self-care), she hosts international coding camps and workshops to introduce STEM to young girls in Ethiopia. She envisions a world where the people who create and build software mirror the societies for which they create and build.
In the summer of 2019, Gronneberg hosted a coding camp for 130 high school girls in Ethiopia and facilitated a Skype call between uCodeGirl participants in Addis Ababa and Fargo. “They had so much fun, just giggling and being teenagers, asking questions about each other’s cultures,” says Gronneberg. At one point, a Fargo girl asked an Ethiopian girl about her favorite part of coding. The Ethiopian girl said she had no answer because she didn’t know what coding was. “Everyone was quiet for a second,” says Gronneberg, “and then the Fargo girl said, ‘Oh you will love it; you’ll be so good at it.’ Right there, across the world, she gave that girl permission to explore and be empowered.”
Gronneberg’s work with uCodeGirl in Ethiopia led to a private meeting with President Sahle-Work Zewde, the country’s first female president. The efforts to engage young girls in STEM align with the president’s vision of girl empowerment through education. Also in 2019, Gronneberg was the guest of honor of North Dakota Senator John Hoeven at the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C. “She’s a North Dakota ambassador to the world in a lot of ways,” says her Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Nygard. “She sends me selfies with the senator and the Ethiopian president. All these people buy into what she’s trying to do.”
“As a partner in her work and as a fellow Ethiopian, I’m so inspired by her,” says Mola of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “She connects what’s happening in greater Minnesota to the Twin Cities to East Africa. She’s a global leader.” Hafkin, Gronneberg’s first boss and lifelong friend and mentor, says, “It’s been amazing to see her grow from the young woman I first knew who was so shy and soft-spoken to someone who can speak with the Ethiopian president and promote the program she developed globally. She’s a model for so many others. She shows young women that her story can be their story, too.
Author: Mo Perry
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