The teenage changemaker conquering the tech industry on a global scale
Fiercely brilliant and hopeful, 18-year-old Audrey Pe believes that regardless of one's gender and socioeconomic status, technology should be available for all. The incoming Stanford freshman, along with her peers, created Women in Technology (WiTech) in 2016 upon their shared frustrations on the lack of youth representation and gender gap in the extensive industry.
The growing community of “STEMinists” now includes more than 70 members from three countries. Through their workshops, conferences and mentorship programs, they equip members of the Filipino youth, including marginalized groups, to be able to have the resources to create their own solutions for the future as fellow changemakers. She argues, “Right now, the tech communities in the Philippines are overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities and geared towards those with the privilege of tech itself at home. Access to tech should be a right [but] in our country, it is, unfortunately, currently a privilege.”
There is nothing predictable about the course Audrey's taken. She taught herself programming using online resources at an early age and has spoken at ASEAN, UN and has even conducted a TEDx talk. (She also updates her LinkedIn on a regular basis!) We caught up with the WiTech founder and director to learn about how she launched the nonprofit organization and how she destresses when she's not trying to change the world.
Wonder: You started WiTech in 2016. What was the landscape then, which made you create this groundbreaking movement for the youth?
I started WiTech when I was a 15-year-old that experienced little-to-no support in entering the tech industry. Back then, peers told me I was “brave” for going into a field where I’d “be the only girl” while a teacher said that I wasn’t bagay (suited) to tech. Upon reflection, I realized that I, too, couldn’t imagine being successful in the industry because I couldn’t name any women—much less Filipina or women of color—in tech. Stories like that of middle-aged Caucasian men like Gates and Zuckerberg didn’t resonate with me so I decided to go online and connect with potential role models via LinkedIn and Instagram (I seriously found them via #womenintech) and compile their stories in what became the WiTech blog.
W: Have there been instances when your initiatives weren't taken seriously because you were female and/or young? How did you respond to it?
Definitely, age and gender were two factors that got me a lot of pushback during the early stages of WiTech (and honestly still at times to this day). I’d walk into mostly male networking events and conferences wherein I didn’t see anyone that looked my age, only to have my attempts at conversation brushed off or told “How old are you? Shouldn’t you be in school?.” Very early on, as a tenth grader, I had to develop thick skin and choose to—in a very Taylor Swift fashion—shake it off. I’d keep going to events and create opportunities to be heard by asking insightful questions during talks and not be afraid to approach strangers to elevator pitch WiTech. I brushed off every rejection while every successful connection I made led to opportunities like my first speaking gig at an ASEAN conference with 4,000+ people.
W: Do you believe that the STEM community given enough attention in the Philippines? What changes do you hope for in the near future?
According to the latest PISA report (an educational benchmark test administered around the world), the Philippines ranks as the second to the last in terms of science and math scores. Given that and my experiences going to public schools around the country where programming and startups are practically unheard of, I would say that STEM as a whole isn’t given enough attention—specifically the ’T’ for technology. Until we have a national computer science curriculum, computer labs and WiFi access available to all students regardless of their location or socioeconomic status, we can’t expect to keep up with international standards of STEM education (especially since the PISA found a positive relationship between tech resources and STEM scores at schools). With that, the STEM community in our country—the startup scenes specifically—can only really thrive once tech is accessible to all.
W: What are the tangible steps you and your peers are taking to make technology education more accessible to the youth and marginalized?
To tackle the lack of tech education in public schools and marginalized areas in the country, WiTech sends representatives to teach introductory CS, Microsoft Office skills and careers in STEM sessions based on modules we created as a team. As of 2019, we’ve taught 100+ youth to code for the first time and most recently mentored mothers and kids (who have barely any access to tech besides their phones) from a community center in QC on how to use Microsoft Word. We’re just getting started and working towards a future where all the youth—regardless of gender and socioeconomic status—have access to tech and the potential to use it to make our country better!
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W: Care to share females—local and international—in technology you look up to?
Locally, I really respect the work of Stephanie Sy who is the founder and CEO of Thinking Machines (a startup here in the Philippines that uses data science for social good). Stephanie spoke at the first tech competition I joined back in 2016 and inspired me to continue my self-taught coding journey as she was the first woman in tech that I’d ever met in real life. Internationally, Alison Falk from the US was also one of my first role models in tech. She’s a cybersecurity master’s student, model and previously a software engineer that taught me to never downplay my femininity just to fit into the male-dominated “bro culture” of the tech industry.
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W: For you, what is the youth's role given the global pandemic at present?
Personally, I believe that the youth with access to tech should use it to responsibly share news (no to fake news!) and be critical about the world around us. We should use our access to the internet to learn not just about the virus but other issues as well. For those of us with the privilege of tech access, there’s no excuse for us to be complacent. We need to use our platforms to kindly educate ourselves and each other while spreading a couple of wholesome memes or positive news in between.
W: Lastly, when you're not busy taking over the world of tech, how do you spend your free time? Any Netflix or book recommendations we should know about?
Exercise is my number one stress reliever! There’s no better way for me to stop thinking about work than going for a quick run or a cycling class. (My current obsession is indoor cycling to pop hits.)
I’m more of a YouTube > Netflix girl and recommend Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act (current events in the least boring way possible), Buzzfeed’s Worth It series (my inner foodie loves all their episodes) and Unjaded Jade (really into her travel vlogs and study inspiration videos).
Some books I’m currently in love with are Women Who Don’t Wait in Line by Reshma Saujani (a.k.a. how to break the glass ceiling), Becoming by Michelle Obama (calling her story inspiring feels like an understatement) and Existential Courage by Arriane Serafico (tips and tricks on how to find your “why”).
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Audrey and the rest of her contemporaries continue to work towards a future where members of the youth have easy access to technology. This generation refuses to be apathetic—regardless of how much their elders have mistakenly generalized them—and chooses to create solutions to longstanding problems (most caused by those before them). These activists are changing norms and they have only just begun.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver