“Your voice is just as important as everyone else’s. If you have something to say, say it and don’t be afraid of ‘not fitting in.’ It is okay to be different and people will listen if you speak with conviction.”
Aruna Prasad, 17, is the founder of not-for-profit Nerdina, a forum for girls interested in technology.
Years in tech?
6 years, since 7th grade. I attended online school in 8th grade and began building circuits, taught myself how to create websites and apps and wrote drivers, used to communicate between a smartphone and devices like lights and security systems.
Who or what inspired your career and education in tech? How so?
In elementary school, on most days, I spread my homework for the evening out on the floor of our living room as my parents finished putting things away after dinner. Everyday, my dad switched on some of our family’s favorite songs, classics like Don McLean’s American Pie and Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair. I would place my hand on top of the vibrating speaker and sway back and forth, eyes closed, enjoying the beat of the music. After we learned about sound waves in school, I imagined waves emanating from the speaker and wondered how music could be recorded electronically and transmitted so seamlessly to my ears. I thought about the invention of the speaker and how it had enabled the world to enjoy recorded music from the convenience of their home. My curiosity sparked my interest in science and engineering and I wondered if I could create a device as influential as the speaker. I began opening up electronic devices, examining the parts they were made from, how they were assembled, and most importantly tried to think like the creators of these products so I could become one myself.
What’s been your best hack ever?
My best hack has been realizing that it is not worth rushing through life to accomplish the next thing. In fact, I can learn more and feel happier if I spend more time focusing on the journey and what I am learning now.
What has been your greatest career/academic challenge and how have you handled it?
In September, AOL’s #BUILTBYGIRLS Challenge invited me as one of eight finalists to present my Nerdina initiative to investors at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. During the trip, three other finalists and I formed a team and participated in TechCrunch’s 24-hour hackathon along with 1,000 industry professionals. Our idea was to create a map with educational facts about malaria in different countries and link these locations on the map to different levels in a Tetris-like game, Mapsquito, where users “save the life” of a character at risk of developing malaria by avoiding harmful objects and securing helpful ones.
After 12 hours of work, we were exhausted and losing heart as we repeatedly failed to connect locations on the map to levels in the game. I was determined to complete the project and stepped up to motivate my team. I set hourly goals for each of us and we even found some mosquito jokes to re-energize ourselves. I began explaining our situation to other developers and asking if they could assist us. I was rejected many times but was eventually able to piece together the advice we did receive to successfully complete and submit our project. Hours later, we proudly presented our game in front of accomplished judges. We ended up winning tickets to TechCrunch’s conference where we met US CTO Megan Smith and NBA MVP and malaria prevention advocate, Steph Curry. The experience taught me the power of perseverance, persuasion and collaboration.
What is your biggest career/academic success to date?
At the end of eighth grade, I started Nerdina (www.nerdina.org), a collaborative forum for girls to learn technology fundamentals hands-on in preparation for technology leadership. At first, only a few girls were interested in becoming Nerdinas. Hoping show-¬and-¬tell would be effective, I started the YouTube Channel Nerdinas (www.youtube.com/Nerdinas) and began filming myself making simple gadgets as inspiration for future innovations, making 25 videos over 18 months. Each video took hours to plan, research, film and edit and I still feared a tepid reception. Thankfully, the videos were effective and more people were interested in Nerdina. In addition, hoping to meet female role models and like-minded girls, I created and organized Interschool Young Innovators Meet-ups headlined by women technologists to connect girls with influential women. Nerdina’s reach expanded, impacting peer institutions in the broader community as area schools hosted subsequent speakers. Since then, I have had the opportunity to present Nerdina at teacher conferences and educators have expressed interest in incorporating Nerdina into their curriculums. To enable students, regardless of prior experience, to perform experiments in the videos and make connected products, I developed beginner, intermediate and advanced Nerdina Kits and registered Nerdina as a not-for-profit so we could accept donations and fund kits for deserving students. Most recently, I presented the Nerdina Kit as part of AOL’s #BUILTBYGIRLS Challenge, a collaboration with Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, looking at ways to help 62 million girls around the world who currently have no access to an education. Since its launch, Nerdina has developed into a vibrant community. I am glad to have found what I love and am happy to be sharing my learnings and interest with other girls.
What are the top 3 pieces of advice you would give to women who are starting out in the tech industry?
1. Just start: Don’t doubt your abilities. There is no reason that tech isn’t for you.
2. Know the fundamentals cold: Deep knowledge will allow you to contribute to conversations in a meaningful way.
3. Never give up: If one door closes, you just have to think hard and find another way. Embrace mistakes as a way to improve and learn.
Who are your role models?
Grace Hopper – the pioneer computer programmer on the Mark I, whose story never fails to inspire no matter how many times I hear it. I like her most for her innate curiosity in dismantling 7 alarm clocks in an effort to figure out how they worked as a child, her refusing to take “no” for an answer when she was told she weighed too little to join the Navy (the Navy gave in and she got an exemption), and berating people if they ever said that “this is how we have always done this task.” More recently, Emma Watson for using her celebrity to create and propagate HeForShe to promote equal treatment for girls and boys with her amazing speech at the UN General Assembly.
If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your younger self?
Your voice is just as important as everyone else’s. If you have something to say, say it and don’t be afraid of “not fitting in.” It is okay to be different and people will listen if you speak with conviction.
What do you do when you’re not kicking butt at work or school?
I play the piano and enjoy playing classical music as well as covers of pop, rock and country songs. I also play the Indian Classical violin and enjoy riding my bike. I love trying new things, whether it is Baskin Robbins’ newest ice cream flavor or zip-lining.
Flats, heels or kicks?
Kicks: I wear converse all-day, everyday.
Best career advice book? The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It is a data-first approach to how habits are formed, why they are difficult to reset once formed, and how they can be corrected with some effort. The book reminded me to constantly introspect and see how I can improve.
Who are the women in tech that you most admire and why?
I am inspired by the quiet strength of Professor Kathleen McKeown, an acclaimed Professor at Columbia University, the first head of its Computer Science Department, the current head of the Data Science Institute, winner of the Anita Borg Women of Vision Award, and more importantly a big supporter of women in computer science. She ignored all “no’s” (even her high school math teacher whose class she had topped did not encourage her to apply to science programs in college) and kindly shared her work and her story with Nerdinas as the inaugural speaker at Nerdina’s Young Innovators speaker series.
What’s next for you?
I was recently accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Management & Technology program. I will be earning degrees in both engineering and business along with 60 other admitted students and hope to focus on data science. I am particularly interested in the applications of real-time data to improve city living.