Damilola Awofisayo hasn’t always been a fan of STEM. As a matter of fact, she thought it was useless at one point in her life. She was born in America but moved to Nigeria from ages 7 to 11, the technology was not dependable. “Nigeria had a society where we didn’t have stable electricity, we didn’t have a lot of computer science exposure, anything like that,” she says. “So I really saw technology as something that was not really needed because I didn’t really see it in my day-to-day life.”
She didn’t find that love for tech until moving to the United States, where she attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia. There, computer science classes were mandatory. She learned that technology could be used as a tool to solve problems in society by applying her own unique experiences and background.
Now a Duke University freshman, Damilola Awofisayo, 18, is the founder of TecHacks, an all-female and non-binary student virtual hackathon. It is a weekend to a weeklong event where groups of people come together with multiple levels of computer science skills to solve problems by creating apps, software, websites, and other programs.
One of the issues in the tech industry that Awofisayo observed was the lack of cultural and female representation. TecHacks was created as a virtual hackathon with over 800 participants and 60 countries represented in the effort to bring women and non-binary students interested in tech together. The event allows participants to learn through workshops how to advance their tech skills and create new programs. “I really focus on entrepreneurial, innovative ventures that focus on women’s empowerment and empowerment of marginalized communities, whether that’s Black individuals, low income, people in rural areas, anything like that,” she explains.
As a result of her hard work, she won Apple’s WWDC21 Swift Student Challenge where she was recognized for creating TecHacks. But Awofisayo also knows there’s a long way to go to make sure she can expand the hackathons and give more young people all over the world the opportunity to showcase their work too.
Creating and running TecHacks wasn’t and isn’t easy, she admits. There have been more failures than successes, she says, in making the hackathons happen. Hackathons aren’t successful without support, sponsors, and funding. Oftentimes as a young organizer, companies do not have faith in her because she’s not backed by an advanced education degree or a large company; she’s just a student trying to make her vision come to life.
Awofisayo is pushing to give women and non-binary students space in the tech industry because of the diversity needed. She knows firsthand after living in a country where tech was not advanced that there have to be all kinds of people developing the systems that we will be using in the future. Tech needs to be adaptable to multiple cultures, she says, “And therefore when it translates to other societies that have very different cultures and very different values, it can really be used in a way that’s detrimental. I hope that there are going to be more communities that are mobilized in computer science in ways that they can make their own technology that will benefit them, while also preserving their culture and the society that they have built and really what makes them special.” Even as a student, she is still working to build tech connections so that the industry develops into a multi-cultural, multi-gender space.