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Girl Develop It promotes women in tech through meet-ups 

A meeting of Rochester's Girl Develop It chapter looks a lot like a group of freelancers working in a coffee shop. Heads bent over laptops, brows furrowed in concentration, the click-clacking of computer keys creating a sort of musical orchestration.

According to the National Center for Women in Technology, women represent just 26 percent of professional computing occupations in the 2016 US workforce. Girl Develop It, a national, nonprofit organization, is trying to confront that statistic through affordable, judgement-free events and meet-ups for women interested in web and software development. In the Rochester area alone, nearly 700 people have taken advantage of the organization's resources in its three years of operation, making it one of the largest GDI chapters.

Rochester chapter co-leader Valentina Peric has been involved with the group for two years and credits her mother with telling her about it.

"This is my favorite story to tell," says Peric, who is 23. Peric's mother was working with GDI leader Kristen Seversky's fiancé, and "somehow, Girl Develop It came up, and she was like, 'My daughter is a computer science major, I bet there's some crossover there.'"

Peric's mother brought home a bunch of info, and soon Peric found herself convincing a friend to go with her to the next GDI meetup — which happened to be the group's one year anniversary celebration. At the time, Peric was attending SUNY Brockport and was president of the campus's Women in Technology Club, which she also founded. She and Seversky hit it off, and within months Peric was a GDI event organizer.

"I would have gone through college in an angrier way without (GDI). I look up to Kristen especially — when I met her, I thought, 'Wow, I could be her someday,'" Peric says. "There's such a wide gender gap in school and the industry — I'd go to tech events and be the only girl. Growing up, I never thought that computer science was even a thing for me, and I feel like women are not usually pushed toward degrees that are math and science related."

GDI Rochester events are held once a month or more, and are run entirely by volunteers. Attendees RSVP through Meetup.com, and there's also a Slack channel for GDI announcements. While the "girl" moniker is used, the events are targeted to ages 18 and over — and they're not just for females.

"We're working with people in their 20's through retirement, many of whom have decided they want a career change or to learn a new skill," Peric says. "We also draw a lot of guys from the Rochester Software Development group. The super awesome guys see the disparity problem and they want to fix it."

One of the most well attended events is the "Coworking Coffee" meetup, which usually takes place at Glen Edith Coffee on Somerton Street or the East Avenue Wegmans. Sometimes, events will feature complementary partner organizations.

Emily Hessney, digital marketing manager for High Tech Rochester, a startup incubator located in the Sibley Building downtown, worked with GDI last December to organize a "Holiday Code and Coffee" event at Makers Gallery on Elton Street.

GDI members learned a little bit about High Tech Rochester's programs and services, since working with the incubator could be a valid option for many of them once they hone their coding skills.

"Starting your own company is one of those possibilities, so it was a great partnership for both groups," Hessney says. "In the tech space, we often see a gender imbalance when it comes to the ratio of male to female entrepreneurs. The work Girl Develop It is doing can have a direct impact on giving more women the skills and confidence they need to pursue their own tech ventures."

GDI also "pays it back" with outside projects. One of the biggest undertakings in the last year was a new website for ImageOut, which several Girl Develop It members volunteered to produce after Terri Cvetan, an ImageOut publications volunteer team member, pitched the idea at a meetup.

"I'm also in the tech field, so I'd been going to GDI meetups already," Cvetan says. "When the team mentioned we needed a new site, I thought, 'Here's another volunteer organization that's trying to do something good, maybe we can work together.'"

From March 2016 until the festival launch that October, the group worked to create a mobile-friendly home for the festival's content.

"Everybody had moments where they made significant contributions to the project and got a bit of an experience," Cvetan says. "It took a little bit of pressure off the ImageOut team, having those extra resources to tackle technical items so they could focus on the creative aspects."

The website was well received by patrons, and overall, Cvetan credits the success of GDI to the chapter's leadership.

"They've pulled in people who are excited to share gifts and teach classes, and that enthusiasm for learning is contagious," Cvetan says.

Peric, who recently graduated and landed a job at ITX Corp. as a software developer, was just promoted to GDI co-leader in June.

"I want to be involved in the Rochester community making a positive impact, and Girl Develop It is the perfect thing for me to pour my energy into," she says. "Now, when my mom is like, 'You're always doing things with Girl Develop It,' I'm like, 'This is your fault.'"

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