“There’s no greater pleasure in life than doing something people say you can’t do.”
That’s the mantra of Cassidy Williams, one of the stars of “Big Dream,” a documentary about young women breaking barriers to pursue their passions in science and technology. The film is showing tomorrow in Washington, D.C., as part of Computer Science Education Week, which takes place Dec. 8-14.
“I think a lot of people still have that stereotype in their minds that people who work in computer science work in a basement all day and all they see is 1s and 0s. That’s not what it’s about,” says Williams, 22, a software engineer and developer evangelist for secure payments app Venmo. “You work on apps, websites; you build for the next generation of consumers. There are so many exciting opportunities.”
The producers of the film, along with Microsoft, the documentary’s underwriter, and a who’s who of organizations that support women in technology hope that “Big Dream” will illustrate those opportunities for the next generation of technologists worldwide.
The film follows seven young women, ages 18-22, from the U.S., Oman, Costa Rica, Brussels and Africa, who each have a unique perspective, and in some cases, heartbreaking challenges, to overcome to follow their dreams. It’s a story of strength and also of debunking stereotypes.
“The research shows that there’s a time in middle school where girls lose confidence in certain subjects. A lot of this comes from the influence of others,” says “Big Dream” Director Kelly Cox. “I was a middle school girl once, too. I remember the influence girls can have on each other. I decided to tell the stories of real girls who were succeeding in computer science — and approach these stories like you would that of an athlete, or a rock star.”
The film premiered last month at the Napa Valley Film Festival. The response from the students in the audience went well beyond what the film’s cast and creators had envisioned. “We were mobbed,” says Williams.
“I was shocked,” adds Cox. “They went crazy when it ended. They were cheering, screaming. During the Q and A hundreds of hands went up. Afterwards, they all wanted selfies with girls. One girl hugged Cassidy and said: ‘I want to do what you do.’”
The hope behind “Big Dream” is that it will influence those who see it long after the credits roll. In the past, no one’s connected these types of projects with actual resources, explains Rane Johnson, director at Microsoft Research Outreach. “The idea is to use this film as an anchor to start a movement, and give it the oomph for action,” she says.
“I am going to start a female revolution in computer science and have us making the next wave of innovations,” says “Big Dream” cast member Ashana “Bella” Davenport. “I am black and a girl, and that is like a purple unicorn [in the tech industry].”
Davenport, who was homeless in Philadelphia, moved to San Francisco at age 17 after her big sister from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America helped her get an internship. She earned her GED certificate and is studying computer science at the University of San Francisco.
The film will eventually be available to any educator, community leader or parent who wants to share it. There’s also a website, complete with a toolkit of online resources and a database, to connect interested educators and students with groups near them who offer instruction and support.
Cox, who shopped the idea around for a year before connecting with Johnson, says the film wouldn’t have been made if not for the help from Microsoft. “I’m so grateful for the partnership,” she says. “Microsoft has been very strategic in bringing together all the great programs and organizations that are already out there. What we needed was to have a banner to attract the girls’ attention.”
The power of “Big Dream” is that it shows young women other girls “who are just like them, who are successful” in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Johnson adds “It shows that STEM is creative, collaborative, impactful and fun! Ingredients that girls today want to pursue in a career.”
Williams has already been an inspiration to her younger sister, Camryn, who, following in her sister’s footsteps, is now studying computer science at Iowa State University. Williams says she’s continuing to work on her friends and younger cousins too.
“I always tell them to just try it. If you don’t like it after trying it, that’s ok. Chances are you’ll like it,” Williams says. “We live in such a technical society, it’s almost necessary to know a little bit of code. You can do anything with it. You can work in fashion. You can work in science. You can make it anything you want. Technology gives you creative freedom — and it’s super fun.”
“It’s an exciting time,” adds Cox. “There are more stories about women in technology, positive stories coming out. Now is a golden opportunity to get those role models out there.”
Register today to host a screening in your local area in the new year.
Photo credits: Lucas Longacre