On course for change

Devina Dhawan

Devina Dhawan started Devi-Labs to see more women and nonbinary individuals pursue careers in tech. Read about what she believes will make the biggest difference in diversifying the field.

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Devina Dhawan
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by Devina Dhawan, UIC computer science BS ’14

Hello Everyone! I’m Devina Dhawan and I am the founder of Devi-Labs. Devi-Labs is a non-profit organization determined to empower women and nonbinary folks with the power of code. We want to see future technologies rich with diverse technologists, coming together to work on some of the world’s most difficult problems. We believe that women and nonbinary folks of any age can learn programming, and we are here to provide an educational service to fast-track our students. We do this by providing in-person classes at local community centers that cater to minority communities. Mentorship and apprenticeship are two of our major pillars. Mentorship from our instructors and TAs allows our students to navigate obstacles quickly. Apprenticeships from our partners allow our students to get real-world experience as quickly as possible, helping them to understand the real-world implications of their studies. 

In October 2021, Devi-Labs taught its first five-week class, introducing the Pilsen community to Python Programming! There were 11 students, nine of which successfully graduated from the program. The students learned about variables, lists, loops, and functions. All students were women over 30 trying their hand at a new skill. One piece of feedback from a student in the class: “I love your teaching style. You truly made us feel like we could do this and that the possibilities are endless. Devi-Labs strives to create safe spaces for women to learn new and difficult things and have fun while doing so.”

I would like to address the big question of ‘how can we increase the proportion of women in computer science and technology?’ 

I believe tackling this problem from multiple angles simultaneously will give us the best results. Engaging with minority communities, incentivizing folks with financial freedom, taking the fear out of STEM, encouraging parents, and offering mentorship, apprenticeship, child care, and safe spaces to work.

Engagement with minority communities is crucial. I got into computer science because I have a parent who worked in the field. That is not the case for every household. It’s important for us to create awareness about the different fields in technology so folks are aware of the possibilities. That will inspire them and their families to learn something new. The incentives for working in tech are what we need to raise awareness about. Technology careers are flexible, challenging, and lucrative. A career in technology will help folks become more financially free, and everyone deserves that chance. 

Taking the fear out of STEM includes supporting one another to learn difficult things. For example, we know mathematics can be a difficult subject for so many people. But it’s important for us to not perpetuate the idea that women are bad at mathematics or sciences. Even if we can’t take easily to a subject, we should try our best to be malleable and ask for help when we need it. That being said, we need to provide tutoring opportunities for students who might be having a difficult time with a single subject. Being bad at math isn’t going to preclude you from an engineering career, but that mentality will. 

While the tech field is flexible and many companies offer some form of parental leave, we need to do better. According to this article from the Center for American Progress and many others, women are having to make the very difficult choice between providing child care or spending time at work. This is far from being a solved problem for us and we have to start figuring out better ways of working. The ability to work from home, having flexible working hours, child-care assistance provided by employers, and paid time off are realistic expectations for a place where you spend a majority of your day. 

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can solve some of these difficult workflow problems and try to use Devi-Labs as a vehicle for change. Devi-Labs aims to create safe spaces where women and nonbinary folks can come to learn, teach, collaborate, and work. It is our goal to explore conditions that would lead to a healthier balance of women, nonbinary folks, and people of color at technology companies. 

Some fun facts about me! I have four pets: two rabbits named Ladoo and Kaju and two cats, Kishmish and Cachetes. I am a calligrapher and have been doing calligraphy since I graduated from UIC in 2014. I am an Indian American woman who grew up in Chicago, and it’s certainly my home.