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November 27, 2023 2023 INNOVATORS ISSUE

2023 Innovator: Tucker-Barrett’s growing Hartford nonprofit helps women of color pursue careers in technology and engineering

PHOTOS | STEVE LASCHEVER Sabrina Tucker-Barrett moved her nonprofit, Girls For Technology, into an 8,000-square-foot office space in downtown Hartford’s central business district, giving it close access to key employers.
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On a Saturday in summer 2015, Sabrina Tucker-Barrett convened her first class at the Hartford Public Library, where about 30 middle-school girls learned about coding, robotics and other aspects of technology from volunteers recruited from Aetna, ESPN and other companies in the Hartford region.

It was the birth of Girls For Technology, a nonprofit Tucker-Barrett first conceived as part of a college grant-writing class, but that fills a gap she has experienced throughout her life: a dearth of women of color pursuing careers in technology and engineering.

“I saw women who were (certified nursing assistants) and nurses that looked like me,” said Tucker-Barrett, who grew up in New London and Waterford. “But I didn’t see anyone that I could say was a mentor or a role model that had an engineering or an IT background.”

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Eight years after it began, Girls For Technology has grown into a million-dollar nonprofit with an 8,000-square-foot headquarters in downtown Hartford’s central business district.

Tucker-Barrett, meanwhile, can say she is helping to create the next generation of mentors.

Some of her first students have gone on to high-paying tech jobs — and come back to Hartford to help inspire the girls now taking classes through the nonprofit.

One of her earliest students wanted to be a math teacher and did not understand why her mother was pushing her to take classes about technology, Tucker-Barrett said. The class ended up going on a field trip to Google’s New York City offices, which inspired the student to study computer science.

She went onto Emory University in Atlanta and is now pursuing a doctorate at UCLA, Tucker-Barrett said. She also mentors current Girls For Technology students.

“I’m super, super proud of her, and I can’t wait to see all the things that she accomplishes,” Tucker-Barrett said.

Leaving corporate America

Tucker-Barrett grew up with an example of how to build.

Her late father owned a construction company that did bridge work up and down the East Coast.

Her older brother, meanwhile, pursued a degree in computer science after graduating from high school.

Her brother’s studies piqued her curiosity. But when Tucker-Barrett enrolled at Mitchell College in New London, she opted for child psychology. After two years, she transferred to the University of Hartford, but had to drop out due to economic circumstances.

She landed a job at UnitedHealthcare, where she began working toward a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration at Charter Oak State College, an online school based in New Britain.

That’s where she took the grant-writing course. For an assignment, she considered two nonprofit ideas: one focused on childhood obesity and another on girls and technology.

Tucker-Barrett chose the latter. In her workplace, as in her childhood, she saw few examples of women of color in tech roles.

“I wanted to create space for women and girls that look like me,” she said.

She did not put the plan into action, however, until she left corporate America in 2012, after giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl.

Drawing from personal resources, including the help of her husband, Anthony Barrett, she formed Girls For Technology. Soon after it began offering classes in 2015, the nonprofit caught the attention of the Hartford Public Schools system, which gave the nonprofit its first grant, Tucker-Barrett said.

Since that beginning, Girls For Technology has reached more than 3,000 girls and women, and broadened its scope in ways Tucker-Barrett never imagined.

“I thought when it started, it would just be on a much smaller scale,” she said.

In addition to programs for K-12 students, the nonprofit now provides assistance to entrepreneurs and tech-oriented career training to young adults. And it has drawn corporate support, Tucker-Barrett said, from New Britain’s Stanley Black & Decker, Travelers Cos., aerospace company Kaman Corp. in Bloomfield and Tolland-based CNC Software, among others.

The career training program, known as Pipeline 4.0, reaches people between the ages of 18 and 29. They receive instruction in areas such as IT support, project management, cybersecurity and user-interface design, Tucker-Barrett said.

Following 10-week courses in the program, participants earn certifications that help them find higher-paying jobs, even with just a high-school education.

Employers drawing on the program include GalaxE.Solutions, an IT firm that pledged last year to hire 60 Pipeline 4.0 graduates as part of a broader expansion in Hartford. The partnership between GalaxE and Girls For Technology is supported by a $600,000 grant from the city of Hartford, which drew on American Rescue Plan funding.

The entrepreneurship program, called Building for Equity, focuses on startups owned by women of color. In October 2022, the program secured a five-year, $5 million grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.

After being selected by Girls For Technology, startups go through a six-week education program that culminates in a pitch competition. Most of the participants so far have been focused on e-commerce, Tucker-Barrett said.

Events that represent

Girls For Technology hired its first full-time employee in 2018, and now has a staff of five, Tucker-Barrett said. The nonprofit also moved from its original 250-square-foot office, to an 8,000-square-foot space in the Stilts Building, at 20 Church St., in downtown Hartford.

The nonprofit also plans to hire its first-ever development director in the first quarter of 2024, as it ramps up efforts to raise private donations.

Girls For Technology, for example, is hoping to bring in $400,000 at its annual gala, scheduled for Dec. 8 at the Connecticut Convention Center. It will feature a keynote address by Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut.

Last year, the gala raised $150,000.

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Tucker-Barrett estimates the nonprofit now brings in about $1 million a year in grants. Recent awards include a $300,000 grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to give Girls For Technology the flexibility to pursue its mission as it sees fit, said Joel Hicks-Rivera, the foundation’s senior community impact officer.

He described it as trust-based philanthropy.

“Trust-based philanthropy really calls on our grantees, that being Girls For Technology to really be the experts, to allow them to do the work, to no longer prescribe, ‘these are the things that we’re interested in,’” Hicks-Rivera said.

It also depends on a shared mission between the foundation and its grantees. For Girls For Technology, the shared focus is on employment, as well as on dismantling structural racism and advancing economic mobility for Black and Latinx girls and women, Hicks-Rivera said.

“The fact that they’re focusing on young girls in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — you just don’t see that niche and that level of programming for young girls,” he said.

The entrepreneurship piece is also important, he said, adding that he was impressed by a recent pitch event held by Girls For Technology.

“For the first time ever, I felt I arrived at an event that represented me, from the music to the food to the people,” Hicks-Rivera said.

‘A work in progress’

As Girls For Technology has branched into new areas, Tucker-Barrett said she is often asked whether the nonprofit will change its name.

“I would say that it’s a work in progress,” she said. “So many people know who we are already as Girls For Technology, but it is a broader mission.”

Regardless of what happens to the name, Tucker-Barrett said she would like to see the organization achieve a national presence over the next five years.

“These needs and challenges are kind of universal across the U.S.,” she said.

Tucker-Barrett said she also aspires to become more of an advocate for workforce and economic development in minority communities, and spend more time mentoring startup companies.

“I love working with small startups, tech-focused or tech-enabled businesses,” she said.

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