Brianne Caplan is a serious force to be reckoned with. Unsatisfied with feeling like coding wasn’t ‘for her’, she persevered and made technology – and all the world-changing power it stands for – her life’s mission. In addition to acting as the program director of Careers in Computer Science at the University of Chicago, she is also the Executive Director and Founder at tech education organization Code Your Dreams and most recently, she launched CoderHeroes to help underserved children access the amazing power of code.

Read on for how she built up her confidence, her tips for finding and working with a mentor, and the number one question she wishes people would ask her.

Brianne Caplan - CoderHeroes and Code Your Dreams
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan and ChicagoLX.org.

Tell us about your background and how you got to where you are now.

It was my junior year of high school. Computer science was announced as a new class offered for the first time. I was amped. I had this idea in my head of a website I wanted to code… when my excitement swiftly vanished from my being. A group of boys grabbed the sign-up sheet, passing it along to their friends and chattering about how cool “their class” was going to be. They chattered about a game I didn’t know, using words from this game that I wasn’t familiar with. I know, in reality, “their class” did not equate to “not yours.” But to me, I suddenly felt that this class was not for me. It felt like a boy’s club that I couldn’t join. I still wonder to this day if any other girls were feeling the same way, wanting to join but afraid that it wasn’t “for them.”

When I got to college, this feeling didn’t disappear. When I entered my first computer science class, I saw mostly men, already coding intently on their computers. I felt like I didn’t belong. Although this was an intro class, I also felt like my classmates were at a level that I could not compete with. I now know of this as “imposter syndrome.”

My mission is to give every child the confidence that coding is “for them,” regardless of gender, race, financial status or otherwise. I love working with kids and I started by tutoring in my free time, teaching kids how to code their own apps. Eventually, it created a buzz around their friend groups. They showed their friends that coding was “for them” and that they could create real, world-changing inventions with code.

I know, in reality, “their class” did not equate to “not yours.” But to me, I suddenly felt that this class was not for me. It felt like a boy’s club that I couldn’t join. I still wonder to this day if any other girls were feeling the same way, wanting to join but afraid that it wasn’t “for them.”

Being just one person, I didn’t have the capacity to teach all of my students’ friends how to code. But the unfortunate reality was that there weren’t any attainable programs for those students to learn coding at their schools or in their neighborhoods.

Global initiatives advocate for every child to learn to code. But, in the US, only 45% of high schools teach it and 91% of parents want their children to learn it. It’s often touted as the #1 skill for the future economy and parents are fighting for their kids to learn at a younger and younger age. I knew these statistics, and I also knew that too many of my students were missing out just because of their financial status. Now, it was in my control. I could do something to ensure that these students wouldn’t have to experience coding as something not “for them.”

Code Your Dreams - Chicago Coding Company
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan.

That is when I founded Code Your Dreams, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We provide culturally relevant coding programs to underserved youth in our neighborhoods. Too often, technology is built at communities. Instead, Code Your Dreams empowers students to build community solutions with code.

When COVID-19 hit, I started CoderHeroes, the kid-centered “learn-to-code” program where kids team up with other aspiring and brave coders to build world-changing apps. Its buy-one-give-one model means that families who pay for classes are helping to fund programs for students in underserved neighborhoods.

Coding is often touted as the #1 skill for the future economy and parents are fighting for their kids to learn at a younger and younger age. I knew these statistics, and I also knew that too many of my students were missing out just because of their financial status. Now, it was in my control. I could do something to ensure that these students wouldn’t have to experience coding as something not “for them.”

What made you want to pursue your profession/area of focus?

My energy comes from the kids that I teach. Kids are so creative and imaginative. They’re fearlessly driven to make an impact on our world. The absolute best part of my day has always been working with students. It became clear to me early on that my calling is to empower kids to chase their dreams and make an impact.

At the same time, I drew on my own experiences as a child with so much energy and passion. I encountered obstacles as a girl wanting to be a coder. For a long time, I didn’t think that coding was “for me.” I didn’t see myself in the image of a computer scientist. I’m driven to remove these obstacles for our youth. Coding is a powerful tool for change. Coding is modern-day literacy. I always say that coding is a superpower for my students. I want to give this superpower to all kids, so that they can conquer the problems of today and tomorrow with code.

CoderHeroes Chicago start up women in tech
Photo credited to Terrence Antonio James & the Chicago Tribune.

What gets you excited to wake up every day?

The 3 Cs: coffee, coding and children! I get to work with kids every day and see their confidence grow with code. I get to inspire them to think big and impact the world, and I also have an incredibly passionate team working alongside me. Impact is our #1 goal. Students always come first. Having such a kind, supportive and driven team makes every day just one amazing step closer to achieving our mission.

I love the Italian proverb that begins “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day…” For me, that particular idiom ends, “teach them how to code, and you empower them for a lifetime.”

What’s the best/most important thing you’ve learned or taught yourself? Why?

Confidence is the most important thing I’ve learned. It’s not something that has come naturally to me. A lot of people say that confidence is innate, but to me, it’s taken a lot of practice. It took some work for me to become confident as a woman in the world of coding and technology. Truthfully, I cried after my first day walking into my college’s intro to computer science class, feeling uncomfortable in a room of majority more competent male coders.

I have a lot of passion and energy. I want to change the world. In order to do this, I knew I needed more confidence in myself. Over the years, I forced myself to step outside my comfort zone, stay resilient and persevere. Eventually, this place “outside my comfort zone” has become my comfort zone. What I’ve come to realize is that being different doesn’t have to be a barrier. And actually, being different is usually my greatest asset.

I’ve learned how to take criticism or skepticism and stay confident in myself and my mission. For me, I can remain secure in knowing that impact is my #1 priority. Knowing what my mission is and the “why” behind my decisions, my confidence cannot easily be shaken.  

I’ll give an example. I was recently a guest in a Q&A event. The host started the event asking me, “You’re a woman in computer science…that is rare, so tell us, how have you come this far?”

I know…I can feel your eyes rolling. But, without learning confidence, I may have felt that the host was correct in his suggestion. Perhaps, I’d start feeling imposter syndrome. Instead, I took this as an opportunity to stand up for myself, and to stand up for women in computer science. I took this as an opportunity to advocate for my mission of exposing every child to coding, regardless of gender, race, financial status, or otherwise.

After learning to be confident, I’m determined to instill confidence in all of my students. With confidence, there’s nothing that you cannot try. It’s important for kids to learn and practice this early. When I think about seeing confidence grow, I think about one of my 3rd grade students. You can check out her pitch of her amazing app called “How to Be Balm” that teaches mindfulness for young learners in this YouTube video. When you give children the skills, resources, and the confidence, they really can change the world at any age.

I’ve learned how to take criticism or skepticism and stay confident in myself and my mission. For me, I can remain secure in knowing that impact is my #1 priority. Knowing what my mission is and the “why” behind my decisions, my confidence cannot easily be shaken.

What’s the next thing you’re going to learn or teach yourself? Why? 

I want to learn how to meditate. We sometimes bring mindfulness practices into our coding programs. Learning anything new can bring frustration, and coding definitely requires resilience.

Brianne Caplan hiking in Olympic National Park in US
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan.

Do you have advice for finding a strong mentor/ building a relationship with one?

Be open, honest and vulnerable. Be yourself. Connect to as many people as you can. I might send a message like “You inspire me because [x,y,z]. Can we hop on a 30 minute call and chat about [for me, usually something to do with one the 3 Cs: coffee, coding, or children]?”

Finding a strong mentor is like dating. The more dates you go on, the more likely you are to find your person. Not every conversation will lead to a mentor relationship, but it will teach you something and it will help grow your network. It might also surprise you, so be open to new connections.

I’ll give an example, and I hope that it’s okay that I call her out. A couple months ago, I was at a virtual Women in Tech event. I saw this phenomenal advocate in education and technology, Colleen Egan, in the messaging channel. I sent a connection request to her on LinkedIn and asked her to set up a video chat. Not only did she give me incredible advice, but she also gave me the idea of using the Tom’s “buy a pair, give a pair” model for CoderHeroes. If I didn’t reach out and ask for a meeting, my ability to make an impact would not be what it is today.

I feel so grateful for the amazing community of women who are so generous with their time and resources. In my younger years, being a girl often made me feel less strong. In my (relatively) older years, being a woman makes me feel empowered and linked to a strong network of awe-inspiring women driven to impact the world.

Finding a strong mentor is like dating. The more dates you go on, the more likely you are to find your person. Not every conversation will lead to a mentor relationship, but it will teach you something and it will help grow your network. It might also surprise you, so be open to new connections.

Bri Caplan Chicago
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan.

Favorite resources for ongoing learning?

My favorite book about entrepreneurship and leadership is The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Ben spoke at the University of Chicago during my undergrad years and I still hold my signed copy close to my heart. Hearing him speak, his passion and story, motivated me to want to be an entrepreneur.

Some of my other favorite books are: Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Start with Why by Simon Sinek, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol and I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai.

Another resource are communities, both virtual and in-person, such as Elpha, The Wing and the Chicago Learning Exchange (CLX).

What’s your favorite spot where you currently live & why?

I live for nature, and the Garfield Park Conservatory tricks you into thinking you’re right in the middle of a tropical paradise. It’s on Chicago’s west side and when life gets really hectic, it’s the perfect hideout for an afternoon.

Brianne Caplan - traveling in Georgia - women in tech
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan.

Out of all the places you’ve been, which has been your favorite and why?

It’s hard to pick just one! In the US, I loved traveling to Olympic National Park. It is so lush and peaceful. You can hike the entire park for a week and encounter rainforests, mountains and water – it’s absolutely breathtaking! I did get chased by some mountain goats on a backcountry trail – so you do need to be careful!

Outside of the US, my favorite hiking has been in Georgia (the country!).

Bonus: What’s the one thing you wish people would ask you?

Want to grab a virtual coffee? 🙂

Learn more about Brianne Caplan Here:

Hiking in Washington - Brianne Caplan
Photo courtesy of Brianne Caplan.