Oct. 23, 2023
Learning to code transformed Grade 12 student’s life
There are some people you meet in life who are wise beyond their years. Seventeen-year-old Rumeza Fatima is one of them.
Fatima has now independently developed two mobile apps, one to combat eating disorders and a second to make the fashion ecosystem more sustainable and local. But she hasn’t always been into technology. Fatima considered herself a shy teenager who was looking for somewhere to put her energy. She wanted to do something beyond her homework and helping at home.
When she took a computer science course at her online high school and registered for Technovation Girls — a global tech education non-profit that empowers girls to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers — everything changed.
UCalgary’s Faculty of Science has been working with local area schools and community groups since 2014 to support Technovation Girls, which equips young women ages 10 to 18 with the skills to become tech entrepreneurs and leaders. With the support of volunteer mentors, girls work in teams to code mobile apps that address real-world problems.
How it all started
Fatima hasn’t taken her hands off the keyboard ever since she wrote her first line of code in her Grade 10 computer science class. She attends CBe-learn, Calgary Board of Education’s online school.
"To be honest, it changed my life. Who knew writing lines of code could have that much impact? I realized I didn’t need to be 30 years old to wait to make an impact, I could start doing it right then.”
The first app Fatima developed through Technovation Girls aimed to help girls with eating disorders. Fatima was struggling with one herself and was surprised how her own app helped her recover. It features a built-in recipe search engine, a goal-setting section and even a functionality where users can track their mood using Natural Language Processing — a type of artificial intelligence that gives a computer that ability to understand human language as it is spoken and written.
Most people who take part in Technovation Girls join a team to develop an app, but Fatima decided to do it alone. She finds herself fueled by her own, singular passions.
“Honestly, I use Technovation as motivation for myself to build something personal every year. By participating alone, it’s a way for me to reflect on my growth. It gives me more autonomy.”
Getting clothes to the people who need them most
After completing an internship at the software company Pixeltree Inc, where she grew “completely out of her comfort zone,” Fatima started Grade 11, dreaming of building her next app. When the Technovation program rolled around again, she had an idea: an app that helps reduce fashion waste exported to developing countries.
As someone who cares about fashion, she couldn’t believe that only 20 per cent of clothes donated to second-hand stores end up on display or donated to charitable organizations.
“When I heard that number, I was like, that’s not a good ratio,” says Fatima.
So where does it all go? In the U.S. alone, over 700,000 tonnes of clothes a year get exported to developing countries — clogging up landfills and disrupting the local textile industries.
Fatima, born in Pakistan, still has strong ties to the country.
“If we keep exporting our goods to countries like Pakistan where it’s just going to end up as waste, we’re really missing out on the opportunity to improve our own ecosystem and economy,” she says.
Her app, Renew, is a donation-matching platform that connects second-hand stores that have an excess of donations to charitable organizations that need the clothes for their clients. The overall goal is to reduce the amount of donated clothing that is exported overseas, as well as to create a more effective way to get clothing into the hands of local people who need it most.
Marrying your problem
The biggest thing Fatima learned from this experience was how important it is to define your problem.
“If you’re passionate about your problem, you’re going to have an even better solution. And for the project I made for Technovation this year, I was really married to my problem.
“I’m passionate about fashion. I come from a developing country. I know that there’s so much overstocked fashion that gets exported to those countries. It just stays there as waste — that’s the end destination.”
Because Fatima spent so much time digging into her problem and how she was going to solve it, she ended up developing the app in just one week.
“It was a lot of sitting at the computer for like 12 hours, like, OK, c’mon, let’s pick up the pace,” she says, laughing. “It was a lot of grinding, but I still think it was easier because I knew exactly what I needed. I did the planning, went through the whole design process and it just came together.”
A mentor to look up to
Luckily, during those long days working on her computer, Fatima had a mentor to support her. Every Technovation team works with a mentor to help guide them through the development of their project.
For both years, Fatima’s mentor was Sherry Yang, an engineering team lead with the tech company ScriptRunner. Fatima described Yang as a person of support; someone who kept her stable during the most intense periods of creation. Yang also helped Fatima stay true to her vision.
“Sherry would say, you know what? You have a firm idea. You don’t need to change course every time you hear people say something else,” says Fatima. “That was important to hear. It taught me if you want to develop a product, you can’t keep reiterating after every little piece of feedback you get.”
Yang emphasized that Fatima is a person who believes deeply in the power of the personal story.
“Working with Rumeza is very fun,” says Yang. “She is someone who has creative ideas and at the same time she brings in a lot of connection with her own story. When she is thinking of an idea, her process is through her own story.”
Yang stressed the importance of being a mentor in Technovation Girls. She knows how important it is to keep “moving the dial” to increase intersectionality in the tech world. Growing up, Yang never had an opportunity like this program.
“There’s still a gap in education. There’s still a gap in those early opportunities to engage young girls about this topic, girls who might not see themselves in this role.”
Girls rule the world
Fatima understands, now, that Technovation not only built her confidence, but also gave her more authority over herself and her time. After learning to code, life wasn’t just about homework, friends and helping her parents at home. Suddenly, she has this rich meaning and direction in life.
Fatima wants this same thing for other young women.
“The landscape for females in tech is bumpy right now. But we’re a part of that change. Participating in Technovation and understanding that I was helping that cause, that was really big. Who knows, maybe in a decade we’ll have 10-year-old girls in Pakistan developing solutions to brain cancer.”
One of the biggest things Fatima has learned from her journey?
That her dreams don’t have to stop when she wakes up.
“I have these incredible skills now. My dreams are my reality.”