Junior Geek of the Month: Heven Ambachew uses tech to pursue her passion around social justice

When Heven Ambachew was unsure how she could integrate technology with her other interests, she found direction through Geeking Out Kids of Color (GOKiC). Three years later, the high school graduate is doing her own teaching for the nonprofit.

Ambachew, of SeaTac, Wash., is an 18-year-old graduate of Mount Rainier High School. In the spring she completed her associate degree in computer science through the Running Start program at Highline College. This fall she’ll be attending Pacific Lutheran University on a full Act Six scholarship.

Ambachew is GeekWire’s Junior Geek of the Month for July, a monthly honor presented by Northern Trust, which recognizes talented young innovators, creators and entrepreneurs in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s kind of been interesting and amazing at the same time,” Ambachew said about her first foray into teaching elementary school kids. “I’m running a class with a little less help than usual.”

Ambachew and other instructors created a game on Roblox and they’re holding classes virtually during the ongoing pandemic. Their game is used to spotlight women of color who have been influential in society. It’s a path Ambachew appears to be headed down herself.

“Growing up, I never had anyone in my family or anyone within my circle that was in the tech field,” said Ambachew, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia when she was 10. “Even though I thought tech was a cool field to be in I’d never seen that happen in real life.”

Heven Ambachew will be studying computer science at Pacific Lutheran University. (Photo courtesy of Heven Ambachew)

That changed when she met Pedro Perez, executive director and co-founder of GOKiC, whose mission is to empower kids of color, especially girls, with an education in computer science, programming and robotics through an anti-sexist and anti-racist lens.

GOKiC’s work is especially vital during the coronavirus pandemic, in which it’s had to shift much of its curricula to a virtual format and address the challenges that kids of color have when it comes to access to computer tech, the internet, and the skill sets required to navigate both.

“Never before have we seen the disparity of this access laid bare as through the litmus test forced upon everyone by the pandemic,” Perez said.

It’s another lesson for a young woman intent on working in social justice and tech.

“I consider myself a community organizer. My passion was to do a lot of social justice work,” Ambachew said. “I didn’t see the vision of connecting that with tech until I encountered GOKiC and how their mission is using tech and social justice as education for younger students. That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t have to choose between these two.’”

Ambachew started at GOKiC in a Data Science Bootcamp with Priscila Angulo, a Microsoft data scientist. She’s also been involved with GOKiC’s sister initiative, Womxn of Color (WoC) in Tech, she did an internship at Adobe through Girls Who Code and she works with the King County Youth Advisory Council.

When she’s not doing schoolwork or working for her community she’s seeking out inspiration related to computer science, looking at websites and user experiences online to improve her own CSS and HTML skills.

An image from the virtual class that Heven Ambachew is teaching with Geeking Out Kids of Color using Roblox, a game platform and creation system. (GOKiC screen grab)

Perez said that Ambachew has learned that by combining her deeply-held passions and interests she could fuse different career disciplines and create something new. And now she’s nurturing the minds of young students who were just like her a few years ago.

“While Heven originally wanted to pursue a career in medicine — which was an idea as much hers as it was influencers around her — she’s concluded that she could still create a meaningful impact to her community through her love of technology,” Perez said, adding that Ambachew could “later switch to a different career path” because technology pervades every aspect of our lives “and its transferable benefits would be significant.”

Ambachew said she’s definitely aware what she’ll face as a woman and as a person of color pursuing a career in tech, where underrepresentation is rampant. As a teenager, she’s already surrounding herself with the right people to help her address the challenges with confidence.

“I’m always seeking women of color in the tech field as mentors, to guide me through what’s coming in the future,” Ambachew said.

Nominate a Junior Geek

GeekWire will feature a new Junior Geek of the Month in profiles meant to capture how they are looking to make a positive impact on the world through their geeky pursuits. In addition, they’ll receive special recognition from our project partner, Northern Trust.

Do you know an exceptional Junior Geek between the ages of 12 to 20 who is going to change the world? Submit a nomination.

Nominees must be residents of the Pacific Northwest, and parental information must be included for those nominees under the age of 18. Jr. Geeks may nominate themselves but please be sure to include your parent or guardian’s contact information.

Read about our previous Junior Geek of the Month winners.

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