“I grew up in a very computer-loving, digital environment,” said Marie Peña. “Computers and STEM have always piqued my interest. Some of my fondest memories are fixing computers with my dad and feeling so cool walking around trying to read the CSS Web Design for Dummies book when I was younger. I honestly suggest picking up one of those books and looking at yourself in the mirror. As a 4 year old, it was super empowering. It weighed a ton, but it was empowering nonetheless.”

All throughout high school, Peña found ways to pursue her passion for STEM. She participated in Apple Valley’s E3 STEM program, was a member of the First Tech Challenge Robotics team, and in 2016, she was an Aspirations Awards honoree. It was in 2016 that Peña gained her first exposure to Women Leading in Technology (WLiT), when she attended her first event and was a guest speaker on stage highlighting her experience with Aspirations and the impact of coaches, mentors and role models in tech.

“Since then I applied every year I could while in high school and networked through that program,” Peña recalled. “Through the Aspirations program, I met with Denise [Morelock] who is an absolute rock star and became someone who inspired me to look more into the outreach and public advocacy of STEM and women in technology.”

Denise Morelock, a Client Engagement Director at ThreeBridge Solutions, is also a WLiT Board Member and a champion for all WLiT stands for. “As a board, we believe educating and reaching back includes our WLiT, MnTech and broader Twin Cities’ tech communities,” Morelock said. “It extends to those aspiring young women (and men) looking to build careers in technology and STEM.”

Peña carried her aspiration with her to college, taking classes online at one of her dream schools, the University of Wisconsin-Stout. For two years she balanced her studies with a part-time job that helped support her education. Unfortunately, this spring her ambitions were put on hold. COVID-19 affected everyone, and Peña was not exempt.

“Back in early April I lost a position in a department that I loved truly with a fantastic team, after having been with that company for almost 5 years,” Peña said reflectively. “With my loss in income and the current situation, I unfortunately have not been able to continue attending classes this year.”

For Peña, all was not lost. In the span of two months she went from losing her job due to COVID-19 and having to suspend her classes, to becoming the recipient of the WLiT/TSG Scholarship and receiving $5,470 that would allow her to enroll in The Software Guild coding boot camp.

A Prosperous Partnership
This incredible change of events all started with Jen Simon, WLiT Board Member and Modern Workplace Solution Specialist at Microsoft. Simon was a longtime friend of The Software Guild (TSG) and knew about their standing scholarship for women in technology. When she learned of Peña’s situation, she reached out to her contacts at TSG with a proposition to partner.

“Which The Software Guild agreed to immediately,” said Kipp Graham, the Director of Career Success at TSG. “Both WLiT and The Software Guild are focused on creating an IT talent pool more representative of our community, and we are proud to have partnered with them on this initiative.”

TSG’s standard scholarship supplies $2,000 toward their tuition. For this special partnership with WLiT, TSG agreed to donate an additional $500 and a new laptop for Peña’s enrollment in the boot camp. Now the ball was in WLiT’s court and, with their next quarterly event approaching in June, the board devised the perfect approach to support a woman impacted by COVID-19.

Twin Cities Tech Gives Back
On June 16, WLiT hosted its first ever virtual event. Corie Barry, the CEO of Best Buy, would deliver the evening’s keynote and close to 1,000 people had registered to hear her speak. Ticket prices were waved that night and in exchange, everyone in attendance was asked to help donate toward the WLiT/TSG boot camp scholarship fund. By the end of the evening, the WLiT community had raised an additional $2,970.

What began as a tragedy turned into an inspiring example of what the Twin Cities tech community can achieve when they support one another.

“The fact that WLiT was able to raise such a substantial amount, all from individual contributors at a single event, speaks to the generosity of the WLiT community as well as the hunger for a more diverse IT workforce within the Twin Cities,” Graham said. “If a single virtual event can generate this much enthusiasm there is no telling how much the Minneapolis tech community could change in the near future!”

At the close of the WLiT/TSG Scholarship application process, Marie Peña was delighted to learn she would be the 2020 WLiT/TSG Scholarship recipient. To the WLiT attendees who donated, Peña shared this sentiment: “Thank you so much to everyone who donated, I am beyond grateful. It’s really something special to see the amount donated and know that it’s all for helping someone get to a stronger place in her life.”

A Creative Future
With her scholarship secured, Peña will soon embark on the next chapter of her STEM career. TSG’s program is 10 months long, divided into 4 units –or “badges”– that will equip her with the tools, knowledge, and expertise she needs to secure a coding position after the program’s completion.

What comes next, Peña said, “would be to apply what I’ve learned to build my portfolio, continue learning and start creating. I want to create platforms for the programs and communities that I am passionate about; these include local education, entertainment and health-focused initiatives.”

The Next Great Thing
Peña’s story is amazing, but the truly inspiring thing is that hers is not an exclusive experience. Through similar scholarships and events, TSG and WLiT’s support of women in technology continues on.

“The Software Guild is thrilled to not only be a part of this scholarship with WLiT, but also continue to offer scholarships to all women who decide to go through the program,” Graham said proudly. “We currently offer a $2,000 scholarship to all women who take our online C#/.NET or Java programs, and we hope to produce completely tuition-free classes for underrepresented groups in the future!”

Incredible things happen through WLiT every year. Sometimes it starts as something small, like a high schooler brave enough to network with tech leaders and board members at her first event and sometimes it grows to inspiring acts of generosity, like an entire community coming together to help fund a young woman’s journey into a coding career.

The next WLiT event is October 20 and will cover how to utilize storytelling to engage, motivate and influence your audience. Get your tickets now and be part of the next great moment in WLiT history.