One of ICA's Technovation teams pose with mentors from Double Dutch. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

In the offices of the Mission start-up DoubleDutch a fairly typical Silicon Valley scene unfolded last week: people were pitching ideas for mobile apps. But conducting these marketing presentations were a not-so-typical contingent: teenage girls.

As part of Technovation, a global entrepreneurship program dedicated to getting more young women inspired to pursue careers in computer science, five student teams from Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA) worked with mentors from DoubleDutch, a business conference tech company with offices in the US Bank Building, to develop mobile app prototypes. On Thursday, three of the teams, all with students in either in 11th or 12th grade, pitched their apps to a room full of DoubleDutch employees.

“In these tech companies, all you see is man, man, man,” said Valeria Varela Romo, an 11th grader at ICA and one of the students participating in Technovation. “Women have the same right and can do just as good work… This made me feel more powerful.”

The event was the capstone to Technovation’s 12-week curriculum in which the teens were tasked with coming up with an app idea that addressed a particular issue in their community. The ideas included an urban discovery app called Culture Connect, an organizational tool for students applying to college called College Path, and an event app called InTouch that aimed to increase and diversify attendance at extracurricular high school events.

In addition to creating a concept, the teams had to code a functioning prototype and produce an enticing pitch presentation. The marketing skills were in full effect as the students easily slipped into the tech-speak of VC meeting. Words like “target audience,” “freemium model,” and “gamification” pervaded the presentations.

“Markets, revenue models, work flows, it’s all completely at a level I couldn’t imagine for first time developers,” said Shardul Shah of the venture capital firm Index Ventures, who unbeknownst to the teams was invited to attend the presentations. “These women are much more mature and thoughtful than I was in high school.”

For the adult women in the room, seeing the young women have the opportunity to practice entrepreneurial skills struck a personal and political note.

“I’ve tried to start my own companies, and it has been a completely male-dominated world… when you look at the raw numbers they really speak for themselves,” said DoubleDutch director of marketing Jen Hawkins. “Anything we can do to attract more women, the better.”

A recent study published by Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest, found that in a sample of 84 tech companies, only 12.4 percent of engineers were female. Similar studies show even smaller percentages of female decision makers at venture capital firms.

“Once you go into workplace, it’s easy to feel outnumbered and that it’s very much a boys club… it just pushes a lot of women out, who think, ‘This just isn’t for me,’” said Judy Ho, Technovation’s Bay Area director. “The idea is to help young women see themselves as producers not just consumers. If you lack diversity within companies, the products produced lack diversity.”

Founded in 2009, Technovation provides schools around the world with a curriculum to get teams of girls to design and pitch an app, teams then submit their app to Technovation for a Global Pitch Day and a winning team receives $10,000. Ho explained that this is Technovation’s biggest year with 2,500 girls participating across 32 countries, which is double the combined totals of previous years.

For the young women at ICA, their pitch day at DoubleDutch was a practice round that included bouts of questions from DoubleDutch staffers, a handful of whom worked closely with the teams over the 12 week program. The room of software engineers and seasoned tech employees didn’t hold any punches, asking the team pointed questions about how they’d define success metrics, what their marketing strategies were, and what plans they had for developing a user base. For the most part, the team of teenagers fended off the questions confidently.

At one point a DoubleDutch employee said he was particularly interested in the event listing app InTouch, because he went to an all boys high-school and it was a challenge to get girls to come to their events.

“It could be useful in getting a prom date,” the employee said.

“Yeah, exactly,” said a member of team behind the app, noting ICA is an all-girls school with the same problem.

“Couldn’t you take advantage of Facebook or another platform for the same use case?” asked another DoubleDutch employee.

“I don’t want some random boy I don’t know from another high school friending me,” said the teen developer who explained her app’s specific, targeted use would eliminate such a creep factor.

After the presentations, audience members voted to award the best overall presentation of the day to College Path, the app that provides students a checklist and resources for applying to college.

“It’s surprising, that this doesn’t already exist,” said Eric Di Benedetto, an angel investor invited to the event. “Simple ideas are always the best… there’s real value there.”

Would he be ready to hand over some seed funding to the team behind College Path?

“We’ll see,” said Di Benedetto with a laugh.

For the young women behind the pitches, the opportunity proved valuable regardless of any potential VC cash infusion.

“It was a ton of work, but I thought it was totally worth it,” said 11th grader Jam Magaling from the College Path team. “An app like the one we designed would have actually been really useful…It would have helped me remember to finish my SAT practice test on time.”

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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