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Northeast Ohio Microgrant Recipient: Riya Hegde

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The NEO High School Microgrant allows student businesses to apply for funding for existing businesses or business ideas. A senior from Western Reserve Academy applied for the grant to fund her program Python Pals, a local and international coding program for middle school girls with the goal to decrease the gender gap in computer science careers. We spoke with the student Riya Hegde about starting her business, plans to expand the program, and working with John Carroll University to utilize the grant funding.

Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell us about Python Pals? How did you start the program?

I started Python Pals at the end of my sophomore year. When I first started my goal was, and still is, to help decrease the gender gap in computer science. I decided to start with girls from an early age when they were in middle school. I started offering free programming lessons to middle school girls.

What does the program look like? What can potential students look forward to learning about?

What my in-person sessions look like currently is during the school year they’re at Western Reserve Academy, they’re three hours total split over two days. On the first day, I teach the girls basic Python skills. We work through example problems as a class and individually. On the second day, they start with a friendly group project. We go over all the basics on the first day and then they apply those basics on the second day on the group project. The reason why I included that is I wanted to show them that coding can be collaborative and it’s not an isolated field like a lot of stereotypes indicate. I wanted to show them programming can mean working as a team and working on a project together. Then after the group project we have a friendly competition where they have a certain amount of time to complete as many problems as possible. I think that keeps them motivated and then I also award the winner with a small gift card to a local business. I found that that’s a way to keep them excited and engaged throughout the course.

Python Pals doesn’t just offer programs to local girls, it’s offered internationally. Tell us how you expanded classes? Were there any challenges along the way?

Once I started offering a few of the local sessions, I was wondering how can I take this program even further. What I’ve done so far is I’ve partnered with a school in India, in my grandma’s hometown, and I started offering sessions to the girls that were there. I offered virtual sessions for them. It’s still under Python Pals, but they’re very different curriculums because when it’s virtual, I’ve found it’s a lot harder to teach Python so I show them a game in Scratch. I’ve found that a lot of them don’t have their own devices at home like a computer and a lot of them are on phones when they’re on these Zoom lessons so I ask them questions and they answer in the Zoom chat. I try to keep it interactive, and I’ve found that a lot of girls enjoy it and it’s a good introduction to coding because a lot of them come in with no introduction to coding. It’s just a way to show them what computer science is, what coding is, and what they can do beyond the session.

What does planning each program entail? What is that process like?

Every time I’m planning a session, that planning starts as soon as I’m done with the current session. First, I have to pick a date. Usually during the school year, that’s weekday evenings. Over the summer, that’s during the day. I pick those dates so I have something to tell people when I’m advertising. Then, my biggest thing, I have to immediately start finding students because that takes a while and it’s a pretty long process. I already have signs hung up in downtown Hudson. Sometimes I have people who scan those, go to the website and sign up. I also start posting on local middle school Facebook groups. I keep a spreadsheet of all my students and I’ll go back to my last session and look at who was interested but not available for that session and I’ll reach out to those kids. That’s the biggest thing is recruiting. That takes the longest amount of time. Once I have the students recruited, I send out an email to parents with information. Where they should go, what they need to bring, and when I’m offering my sessions. By now, it’s kind of routine because I have my curriculum set. I have to make sure I have everything down so when girls are actually in the classroom and we’re coding, we can just focus on the coding.

How did you find out about the NEO Microgrant? Why did you apply?

I think I saw a social media post about it. This is when I first started Python Pals so I was already looking for funding. When I started it, I wasn’t really thinking of it as a business because it was free programming lessons. It wasn’t something I was trying to do for a profit but when I started it, I found there were a lot of aspects that reminded me of a business. There was a lot of hidden expenses that I didn’t think about when I first started because I just went out there and said, ‘I want to teach girls how to code.’ Then when I started doing it in practice, I realized it would be nice to get some funding to do this, so I was looking out for funding and then I came across this on social media. I looked through it and filled out the application real quick and I heard back pretty quickly. I was really excited because the grant really got me started with Python Pals and it was very early on. I was surprised because I really hadn’t done much at that point but that’s what funded me throughout the entire year and got me to where I am today.

After applying for the NEO High School Microgrant, what was the mentorship like?

After I applied for the grant, I heard back from someone at John Carroll University, and he was the one who helped me. The reason I applied for the microgrant was I was doing my sessions at the Hudson Library for the summer because WRA was not open at that time and I needed a projector. I was thinking of buying a projector. I emailed back and forth a few times and he kind of helped me. He researched some projectors for me and sent them back and gave me some other suggestions of what I could do with the funding. I found that super helpful. Later, we realized that once I started offering it at WRA the projector wouldn’t be the best use of the money so we started looking at other options and he guided me as I went through other resources and people I could go to. Later I realized that the biggest problem I was facing was marketing and that is where a lot of my funding went. After that I went to the marketing department at my school, and I went to other places where I could get that mentorship as well.

Has applying for and receiving the NEO Microgrant helped you start Python Pals? Would you recommend other student business owners to apply for it?

I would definitely recommend using the microgrant because again, I started very early on, so that was what really kind of got Python Pals going. And I feel it’s very important for anyone who’s making a business. I didn’t really think of Python Pals as a business as I was doing it but once you start, you’ll find there’s a lot of decisions you’ll need to make, and a lot of those decisions will involve money. Having the grant gave me the opportunity to have a cushion to fall back on and not be as afraid to try different methods of advertising. For example, I tried things like Google Ads, Facebook Ads and other marketing which I really didn’t know anything about marketing before I started Python Pals. The NEO High School Microgrant gave me the freedom to explore those different options because I knew I had that money with me. I also found that having the grant gave me more credibility. When I reached out to other people for other resources the fact that I had funding with me and I had the grant gave me more leverage. Parents were more willing to trust the program and send their kids. I was also able to use that funding to help my advertising and get more kids for the program. I definitely think it was very useful and I’m very grateful that they gave it so early.

Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you or Python Pals?

I think the most important thing is a lot of people come in thinking they need prior coding experience or they need to know something about coding or they need to be interested in coding but you really don’t and that’s kind of the point of my program. I want to show girls that coding isn’t as hard people may thing it is and it’s not something they need to be afraid of. Even if you don’t like coding at all, I feel like technology is such a rapidly growing field and it is something a lot of women are not learning or they’re not interested in. However, it really touches every single field and it definitely is going to keep growing so no matter what you do I think it’s important to learn to code. Even if it’s something you think you’re not interested in, I think it’s important for a lot of girls to come to these sessions.

What are your future plans? Do they include entrepreneurship?

I just finished my junior year; I’m starting to look at colleges and apply. I have to see where I get in but I’m thinking of doing a mixture of computer science and biology.

Do you have any plans of what you will do with Python Pals after graduating?

What I do with Python Pals is definitely something I want to continue. I was hoping to pass it off to someone at WRA so it can continue here. Once I’m in college I would like to continue offering sessions, but I think it also depends on the location and how it’s going. I’ve started working on a few other ways to expand this summer. I think it really depends on where I end up in college and if I can continue doing in-person sessions. I plan to continue doing them while I’m here and have someone else running it too. Maybe trying to expand it to other schools and try to get more people involved because right now it’s mainly me running everything.

Do you have any plans to increase the age range or target market for your programs?

I want to increase my age range because I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me with younger kids and younger girls. I think that would also be helpful because a lot of computer science stereotypes are enforced by the time girls get to middle school – so maybe starting in elementary school with a more basic coding. A Girl Scout troop leader reached out to me and she wanted me to offer sessions for a group and they’re all going into fourth grade. I was thinking of doing something like that. I also want to give coding lessons to people who may not have the opportunity to access things like that otherwise. I’m planning to do lessons at a youth shelter next week and I’m offering sessions to all the kids there. I think it’s important because they may not have the opportunity to learn about computer science and programming otherwise. I’m offering it for free, so it makes it more accessible. I’m thinking of starting a podcast because I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me, like adults, who have already been successful in the field and have said, ‘I love what you’re doing but I would like to help out somehow if there’s any way I could’. I was thinking of interviewing people and have that on a podcast which is something I could do easily, even in college. I feel that could show girls what opportunities there are for them beyond the sessions and what could happen if they decide to pursue computer science as their career.