While most teenagers go through their first day of high school concerned about impressing new teachers, signing up for extracurriculars and finding someone to sit with at lunch, Pooja Chandrashekar was more concerned about the gender gap in her AP Computer Science class. Just a year later, she created ProjectCSGirls, inviting middle school students to generate major changes with technological innovation. Through this organization, girls have created technology that can treat illnesses, translate languages and increase safety. The rising Harvard sophomore is making huge strides to make sure there is plenty of girl power in the HTML world—and to prove how successful women who code can be!
Name: Pooja Chandrashekar
College: Harvard University
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Minors: Global Health and Health Policy
Graduation Year: 2019
Her Campus: What do you consider your greatest achievement to date?
Pooja Chandrashekar: The impact I’ve been able to have on young girls through my work with ProjectCSGIRLS is what I would consider my greatest achievement. My first exposure to the tech gender gap was on my very first day of high school, when I walked into my AP Computer Science class and was shocked to discover I was one of three girls in a class of around 30 students. Additionally, during high school, I saw many girls turn away from pursuing computer science because of the negative stereotypes surrounding the field and because of the lack of female role models. These personal experiences motivated me to found ProjectCSGIRLS during my sophomore year of high school, marking the beginning of my commitment to empowering women and girls.
The chief goal of ProjectCSGIRLS is to show girls that they can use technology for social impact and to make a difference in their communities, because girls tend to gravitate towards careers or projects through which they can bring about a positive change. For that reason, the core of our program is a national computer science competition that challenges middle school girls to use technology to build, code and prototype a solution to a social problem that matters to them and their communities. The projects our girls have come up with are absolutely mind-blowing! I can’t express how unbelievably proud I feel to see our girls talking about their apps to help Alzheimer’s patients, wearable technologies to help non-verbal children express themselves and explosive-sensing paint – just to name a few! It’s so amazing to see these girls develop into confident young women excelling in STEM and even more rewarding to see these same girls pay it forward by going back to their local middle schools and holding computer science workshops and info sessions about ProjectCSGIRLS. To have people at all levels reach out to you about wanting to increase the scale of something you started simply because they understand the impact and your mission resonates with them – it’s such an incredible feeling.
HC: What was the hardest part of founding and developing ProjectCSGIRLS?
PC: The challenge that stands out is figuring out how to get the word out about the program nationally to middle school girls around the country. Our first year we were a regional program restricted to girls in Virginia, Maryland and DC but after that year it was challenging to develop a solid strategy for helping the program reach girls on a national level. What I ended up doing was building a team of around 50 high school and college students spread out across the country who work to spread the word in their states and local communities as well as host computer science workshops for girls in their states. Additionally, we also formed several partnerships with local, national, and global organizations dedicated to supporting women in technology who helped distribute information about ProjectCSGIRLS through their own networks. Teamwork and working with other organizations have been so critical to the development and success of ProjectCSGIRLS.
HC: Why has your participation with ProjectCSGIRLS been so instrumental in your life?
PC: Founding and building ProjectCSGIRLS helped me find my voice. It was through ProjectCSGIRLS that I realized that I could truly make a difference in the lives of others and that my voice was powerful. It was also how I realized that I feel most confident on stage speaking about my ideas in front of an enthusiastic crowd. In addition, ProjectCSGIRLS also marked the start of my love for empowering women and girls. In college, I’ve continued this passion by serving as a director for Harvard Women Engineers Code (WECode), the largest undergrad-run conference for women in computing, as well as being heavily involved with Harvard Women in Computer Science. I’m also on the Board for She Rocks the World, a non-profit dedicated to empowering teen girls, and am working on the organization’s national expansion by organizing the first Massachusetts Girls Summit! ProjectCSGIRLS has pushed me to dream bigger, stay dedicated to pursuing what I love to do, and has taught me so much about myself over the past three and a half years.
HC: Who in your life most inspires you?
PC: The person who most inspires me without doubt is my mom. She is the most resilient, supportive and hardworking person I know and her being there for me every step of the way means the world to me. She taught me the value of hard work, education and – as an engineer herself – was my first, and continues to be my biggest, role model.
HC: What advice do you have for other ambitious collegiettes with a goal or dream?
PC: Go for it! If you have a goal or dream that you’re passionate about, make the time and find the resources you need to pursue it. Be proactive and reach out to mentors (professionals, professors, researchers etc.) who can help you make you reach your goal. It’s so important to ask for help and find mentors who can give you advice and feedback on your idea. Also finding time in college to work on a side project that matters to you can seem daunting, but it’s so necessary. And don’t be afraid to start small! Starting small also lets you get a better handle on what you can improve on so I highly recommend this approach. And finally just remember that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. If you have the courage to pursue your goal/dream, you will make it happen.
HC: What are your top goals and priorities post-graduation?
PC: I hope to continue and expand my work on advocating for gender equality and diversity in tech, work on bringing assistive technology to those who need it the most, and continue to build on my research to use technology to improve healthcare outcomes. During my time in college I’ve also become increasingly interested in how insights from public health and health policy can help us improve healthcare delivery and reach so after graduation I hope to explore those interests further by pursuing interdisciplinary public health research abroad. Then my goal is to pursue an MD/MBA towards a career integrating medicine, technology and business!
HC: What is your favorite inspirational quote?
PC: “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful." – Malala Yousafzai
HC: How would you describe yourself in five words?
PC: Passionate, ambitious, hardworking, optimistic, compassionate
Elana is a sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, majoring in magazine journalism and economics. She currently works as an editorial intern for Her Campus, as well as a writer for her school's chapter, Her Campus Northwestern. She'll be going abroad in the fall to study journalism in Prague, working at a local media outlet in addition to her classes. In her free time, she captains her Dance Marathon team and teaches local public high schoolers through Peer Health Exchange. She loves spinning, hates nutella, and is totally indifferent towards baby animals. After graduation, she hopes to work for a high-profile lifestyle publication.