Joco 913

Johnson County teens breaks the tech barriers

Olivia Mark
Olivia Mark

Singer James Brown had a hit recording in 1966 with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and the song’s sentiment remains true in many fields 50 years later, not least high technology.

That’s why the Colorado-based National Center for Women & Information Technology exists, and why it sponsors an annual Aspirations in Computing Awards competition for high schoolers. Five Johnson County high school students received 2016 awards from the Western Missouri and Kansas chapter of NCWIT at a recent ceremony at Garmin International in Olathe.

Program chairwoman Abbey Trotta, a software engineer for Overland Park-based Firemon, a network-security company, explained the need for such a program.

“It’s really to support and encourage the younger generation to be interested in technology,” Trotta said. “A lot of them still find themselves the only girl in class or the only one interested in going to a hackathon. It can be somewhat isolating for younger girls. This program is designed to help them build a bigger network and recognize their interest and aspirations in technology.”

One of the winners, Olivia Mark, 17, is just a junior, but she has already taken her passion for technology and used it to mentor even younger girls. She has also established a website-development business, Made with Love.

It all started for Olivia two years ago with Code Day, a nationwide series of programming events where elementary and secondary school students of all ability levels get together for 24 hours to design games and applications. She won an award for the Kansas City session and gained an opportunity to job shadow at Think Big Partners, a business-management consulting firm headquartered in the Crossroads district in Kansas City. That, in turn, led to an internship with the Four Lights Web Development company.

Meanwhile, Olivia continued to expand her knowledge of coding, learning the JavaScript, HTML and C programming languages. She also began to mentor other students, volunteering at subsequent Code Day events, at a series for middle-school girls called Tech sHeroes and at a one-off event called Coding and Cupcakes, sponsored by Kansas City Women in Technology.

She did this even as she maintained a spot on the Honor Roll at Shawnee Mission South High School, led the percussion section in its marching band and held down at job at a Hy-Vee grocery store.

No wonder, then, that Trotta encouraged Olivia to apply for this year’s Aspirations in Computing Award.

“Olivia has been very involved in technology,” Trotta said. “She really fit the model of what the award was designed for. She showed initiative in setting up a business. She volunteered to help mentor. She goes to hackathons. She exhibits a lot of achievements in technology, plus she is really passionate about it.”

Olivia knows she wants to continue developing her knowledge of computer programming, either at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh or perhaps the University of San Francisco.

“I plan to major in computer science with a minor in biology,” she said in a recent interview. She loves animals, particularly koala bears.

That figures in to her post-graduate career plans, she said. Google recently opened an office in Auckland, New Zealand, and Olivia would love to work there.

“It’s my dream company and dream country,” she said, in part because New Zealand is close to Australia, the home of koalas.

“I aspire to be a koala bear,” she joked.

The details

Recipients of the Aspirations in Computing awards

  • Ellie Bodker, Blue Valley North High School, Overland Park
  • Olivia Mark, Shawnee Mission South High School, Overland Park
  • Paulina Olivas, Olathe East Senior High School, Olathe
  • Erin Smith, Shawnee Mission West High School, Lenexa
  • Laney Zabroske, St.Thomas Aquinas High School, Overland Park