When Nigerian-born software engineer Bukola Somide worked in corporate America, she would often be the only woman or Black person sitting in the board room during meetings; a common experience for women of color in the field as they make up a mere 3 percent of the tech workforce. The lack of representation fueled Somide to spark change. Now, the entrepreneur is exposing children of color to STEM careers through the creation of the Somi Doll; the first interactive computer science education doll.
Somide—a University of Maryland at College Park alum—moved to the U.S. from Africa when she was 12 years old. It was during her sophomore year of high school when she was introduced to STEM and began to explore the world of possibilities within the industry. “I knew that science and technology would be the way of the future,” she told NewsOne. “When I learned about coding, I ended up loving it. I got gratification from creating something and having it work. That kept me going in the field.”
Her experiences as a Black woman in the tech industry led her to her purpose. Working in an environment where there was no one whom she could identify with, the absence of mentors, and lack of support motivated her to change the narrative. “I’ve always had a desire to give back to my community and I wanted to do it in a way that would bring fulfillment to my life,” she said. “I wanted to help youth from underrepresented groups—especially Black girls like myself.”
After examining the gaps and barriers that people of color faced when stepping into the field, she decided the most effective approach to diversifying the industry was educating youth. She spoke with parents of color to get an idea of what would pique a child’s interest in STEM. Many of them cited boredom and the lack of representation deterred their children from wanting to learn more about the field, so she set out to create products that were both entertaining and educational. In 2018 she published a children’s book titled Somi, The Computer Scientist: Princess Can Code which follows the journey of a young Black girl named Somi who learns about computer programming concepts through life experiences and the guidance of her mother who is a software engineer. The book includes a computer science glossary and coding exercises. After the book generated positive responses, she decided to turn Somi’s character into a doll.
Somide has been a fierce advocate for STEM education. She founded a nonprofit called CompSci ABC™ (Computer Science Awareness in Black Communities) to educate and train youth through free workshops. The organization works in concert with her company Innovant Technologies LLC—which is producing the Somi doll—to provide computer science education in underserved communities. “In this digital age that we live in everyone, regardless of what your passion is, has to have some level of technical savviness,” she said. “We have to keep up with the times and we do not want to be left behind, especially in the STEM industry which is a booming market with a lot of jobs. Students from underserved communities need to be afforded the resources, guidance and encouragement so they know that they can step into the field.” She believes it’s important that young Black girls pursue STEM careers to help eliminate implicit bias that is found in existing software systems—such as facial recognition software—due to the lack of diversity of those developing them. The serial entrepreneur also has an empowerment brand dubbed Smarts Plus Swagg™ to inspire individuals to step into their greatness.
As far as what’s on the horizon for Somide and the Somi doll brand, she hopes to create more storybooks for youth and plans on developing a mobile application that would include e-books and tutorials. She also wants to work with school districts to have her activity books incorporated into their curriculums. She is using her ventures to illustrate the power of STEM. “STEM helps you change the way you think. I want to do that through my products,” said Somide. “I want to change the way young children address problems; beyond coding and in life in general.”