Is 2016 the Year of the Woman? That’s the question a number of notable media outlets, including The Huffington Post, MSNBC and Variety have asked. It’s a recycled phrase: other years have been bestowed the title—most notably 1992, which saw a record number of women in the Senate—but one that may have increasing merit this year in particular. From the entertainment industry (Taylor Swift using social media to promote feminism, her #girlsquad dancing across millions of Instagram feeds; the release of Beyoncé’s fearlessly feminist record Lemonade) to the political sphere, one thing is clear: women are in the spotlight. In Sarasota, the Year of the Woman in theory alone is of little consequence to female-focused organizations with boots on the ground; by taking the motto and applying it to the real world, they show the importance of doing the work, and doing it well. Three organizations—Girls Inc. of Sarasota County, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County and SRQ MEDIA’s Women in Business Initiative—are making enormous strides in the realm of women’s (and girls’) empowerment every day.

Girls Inc.

On a sweltering, late July day, 12 girls file into a computer lab. It’s the post-lunch hustle, a 30-minute period of frenetic activity at Girls Inc. of Sarasota County’s South Tuttle campus when 250 summer campers transition from eating healthy fare in the cafeteria to their afternoon “specials.” Entering the computer lab, some of the Coding Club members—who range in age from third to eighth grade—are a bit restless. A few of their friends playing outside peek into one of the windows, their curious faces visible in between the slats of the blinds.

Once all of the girls have settled in front of their desktops, it’s time for coding to begin. “All right, girls,” says Jessie Wingar, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) facilitator and lead instructor for the Coding Club. “You’re going to get 10 minutes to make your own world.” For the past week and a half, the girls have been using Kodu—a free software developed by Microsoft’s FUSE Labs that allows them to learn coding in a highly visual, interactive and ultimately accessible manner. They are fast learners, says Wingar, and the girls are already at the stage where they’re teaching each other. “They’ve figured out how to use Kodu very quickly,” she says. “When one figures something out, it’s like, ‘Look what I did!’”

What the girls are doing might not look like coding—the blinking lines of text against a black screen that have become synonymous with “coding” are nowhere to be seen—but just wait. A casual observer might think that the girls were whiling away the hot afternoon playing computer games in the air-conditioned lab; each computer screen contains different outdoor environment, not unlike the “world” within a video game. Look closer and you’ll see that after creating her own world—adding flowing rivers, towering mountains and sprawling expanses of verdant grass using Kodu’s interactive tools—each girl begins issuing a set of commands to the computer.

“Kodu” is both the name of the software and the star of the game—a bright-eyed, smiling robot who looks like the Iron Giant’s cuddlier younger brother that the girls program to run, jump and eat apples. It’s all about getting the girls to think about coding in concrete, visual terms—not just as lines of code abstracted from their true meaning by virtue of their text-only presentation. In fact, the girls’ initial introduction to coding doesn’t begin with sitting in front of a computer; they’re given an activity whose aim is to get them to think about coding in physical, spatial terms.

A ten-by-ten grid made of tape is laid on the floor and then each girl is tasked with moving from one point on the grid to another point. The catch? Girls can’t exit the grid from the same box they entered through, and must reach the ending point in a certain number of movements. “They’re learning [in] full motion with their bodies so they’ll have a full understanding of what they’re doing before they move to the computer,” says Girls Inc. Executive Director Angie Stringer. “It was fun, but challenging,” says Kylie, a Girls Inc. camper, of the grid-hopping activity. “It’s like a haunted house. You can’t get out the way you came in.”

Girls Inc. isn’t doing their coding in isolation. Rather, this Sarasota computer lab is a single line of code in a national program called Girls Who Code. Founded in 2012, Girls Who Code is a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the technology gender gap, encouraging young women to explore post-secondary education and careers in computer science and other STEM fields. What began as a pilot program of 20 girls and young women learning to code in New York City has grown into a nationwide movement over 13,000 girls strong.

Despite major advancements in the workplace, women still remain largely underrepresented in STEM fields—particularly computer science. In the past 30 years, the number of female computer science graduates has more than halved—from 37 percent in 1984 to just 18 percent today—while the number of tech jobs has skyrocketed. Although 1.4 million computer jobs are expected to be open in 2020, Girls Who Code estimates that if current trends continue, women will fill only 3 percent of those positions. By giving girls exposure to coding in a fun, low-pressure (but highly informative) environment, organizations like Girls Who Code aim to increase the presence of female computer programmers in Silicon Valley and beyond.

“The overarching theme that both Girls Who Code and Girls Inc. have is that we’re dedicated to closing the gender gap and to alleviating and reducing some of those barriers that girls face around computer sciences and areas of STEM,” says Jamie Minton, director of K–8 initiatives at Girls Inc. of Sarasota County. Stringer agrees. “Girls Inc. is ahead of a lot of national initiatives for STEM programming,” she says. “[STEM fields] can be a more challenging career for women to get into, so we’re thrilled that we’re giving girls the head start to do that.”

The coding program here, which has been in place since March 2016, expanded in the fall, and this summer marked an important development towards this goal: in June of this year, Girls Inc. of Sarasota County became an official Girls Who Code site. This past spring, Minton came across a TED Talk by Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani and saw that the organization was accepting applications for new club sites. She applied and was accepted shortly after. “We’re so excited to further implement coding and make it one of the core pieces of what we’re doing because it’s such a good skill to learn,” says Minton. “Even if girls don’t go into coding for a career, there are still so many skills around it that will help to build them up for whatever career path they choose.”

Alongside administering summer immersion programs, seven-week experiences in which 10th- and 11th-grade girls explore coding’s various applications in art, video games, robotics, apps and websites, Girls Who Code’s signature program is the free after-school clubs housed in schools and community organizations across the country—just like the one at Sarasota’s Girls Inc. With the addition of 1,500 new after-school clubs this year, Girls Who Code hopes to more than triple its reach—to 40,000 girls involved in its coding programs—by the end of 2016. With the backing of corporate partners like Microsoft, Adobe, Facebook, Twitter and Goldman Sachs, it’s more than likely that this goal will be met.

In addition to the support of Girls Who Code—which provides resources, training and connects clubs with local coding instructors who volunteer their time with Girls Who Code—Girls Inc. also has a partnership with the University Town Center Microsoft store. Microsoft donates computer equipment as well as hosts monthly coding events and two-week summer coding camps for Girls Inc. participants. Right now, the coding program at Girls Inc. of Sarasota County is in “pilot mode,” but according to Minton, the timing of the new partnership with Girls Who Code—specifically that it coincided with the start of camp—created the perfect opportunity to try out new curricular models over the summer. Over the summer, Coding Club members received at least two hours of coding instruction a week—a stipulation of being an official Girls Who Code site—and the same will be true during the school year.

In the fall, Girls Inc. rolled out an expanded version of its coding program for school-year participants, and every girl who cycles through the school-year programs will be exposed to coding. In addition, Girls Inc. participants will continue to benefit from Operation SMART: STEM-focused programming developed by Girls Inc.’s national headquarters.

Back in the classroom, the girls are finishing up with their world-building and are ready for the next step: programming Kodu to move. Wingar circulates the classroom, helping girls put the finishing touches on their lush game environments and open the coding interface. “I love working with them,” Wingar says of her students. “I see that bulb that goes on when they figure something out.” One of the girls pipes up to say that she has finished creating her world—what should she program next? Wingar crouches behind the girl’s desktop, saying, “Can you make ten red apples and ten green apples and make it only eat the red ones for me?”

Boys & Girls Clubs

Just around the corner from Girls Inc.—a mere two-minute drive in fact—another female-focused movement prepares to take the stage. Best known for providing more than 4,500 area youth with valuable after-school programming at five club locations and four ancillary school programs, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County (BGCSC) is also home to another signature, life-changing event: Women in a Changing World.

For the past four years, BGCSC’s Women in a Changing World event has brought together a group of established, dynamic women on a single stage for a one-night panel discussion. The list of Women in a Changing World speaker alumnae runs the gamut from Olympic athletes, best-selling authors and actresses to prominent businesswomen, film industry mavens and nonprofit leaders; past panelists include Lucille O’Neal (mother of basketball great Shaquille O’Neal), film producer Amy Robinson (Julie and Julia), Global IBM Vice President Julia Arnette and two-term Tampa mayor Pam Iorio.

At this year’s October event at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, close to 500 audience members listened to inspirational stories of career success, perseverance, life challenges and humanitarianism from the six female panelists. The all-female docket included Olympic track and field champion Gail Devers, New York Times writer Gail Fabrikant Metz, two top female executives at Fortune 500 companies (Elinor Steele of Tupperware and Disney’s Kristi Breen) and Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year—and North Port native—Whitney Stewart among others. “This is not a press conference for these women,” says Tamara Chapman, former director of marketing and special events at BGCSC. “It’s about their contribution to society, the steps that we have made and how women communicate. That is really what women talk about: success, inspiration, confidence, pursuing your dreams and the like.” Women in a Changing World is the brainchild of the Women Ambassadors, an all-female committee whose multifaceted role at BGCSC combines advocacy, volunteering and “telling our story about how we are impacting the community,” says Chapman. One of the earliest programs organized by the Women Ambassadors was a speaker series that gave local female leaders the opportunity to share their experiences with attendees. Held four times a year at various locations, the events were one-speaker one-offs, and although they were well-received in the community, the Women Ambassadors knew they could further BGCA’s mission through a reformulated program.

“We needed to streamline our efforts,” says Chapman, who worked closely with the Women Ambassadors, deciding to combine the single-speaker events into one multi-speaker event, thus bringing to life the Women in a Changing World Panel. When choosing speakers each year, a primary consideration lies in selecting women whose work and accomplishments reflect the values of BGCA, “which is to serve kids who need a Boys & Girls Club most,” says Chapman, “and the vision: to achieve academic success, have all kids living healthy lifestyles and promote leadership development. We ask ourselves, ‘Who’s going to serve on the panel and how do they fit into these three areas?’”

Just as important as choosing panelists that will align with the organization’s values is crafting an event that will not only appeal to a wide audience with a diverse set of life experiences but also spur on attendees to make a difference in their own communities. “A big takeaway from the event is: ‘How can I make a positive impact?’” says Chapman. “The audience hears from a multigenerational, diversified panel and they’re going to be engaged. We want them, whether they’re embarking on a new career or whether they’re in a new chapter of their own life, to become empowered, inspired and be inspiring.”

SRQ | Women in Business

Women sit across from each other, sometimes four to a table, engaged in deep, one-on-one conversation. The topics? Career transitions, work/life balance and entering into the entrepreneurial ring, just to name a few. A living plant wall serves as the backdrop, a visual reminder of the connections seeding and blossoming in the room. A timer sounds and—poof!—the spell is broken. It’s time to switch to the next mentor. It’s an intense experience—one that offers more of an opportunity for a deep dive than the speed dating-style networking events that it is modeled after—but an “inspiration room” stays open between sessions allowing women the opportunity to reflect and take it all in.

This isn’t a women’s networking group in New York or Los Angeles: it’s SkillSHARE, an intensive, one-night mentoring event designed to spark career-focused connections between women in the Sarasota community. SkillSHARE is just one program within the SRQ MEDIA Women in Business Initiative, a multiplatform movement founded in 2014 aimed at celebrating and fostering women’s career development. “We realized we had this resource, this brain tank of emotional and business intelligence—a central hub that could be a resource not only internally for each other but also in the community,” says Ashley Grant, SRQ MEDIA’s vice president of strategic partnerships and leader of the Women in Business Intiative.

Nearly three years ago, CEO/President and Editor in Chief Lisl Liang called upon the community to nominate outstanding women as part of the company’s inaugural Women in Business Competition, branded through the company’s flagship publication, SRQ magazine. “We asked the community to recognize exceptional women with whom they had worked—from the philanthropic, business, healthcare and education sectors,” says Liang. “The response was overwhelming—our virutal and traditional mailboxes were flooded with hundreds of responses and sincere notes on the women being nominated. By the time we received our 300th nomination, we knew we had opened the door on a real need and an opportunity for engagement.” 

“There were CEOs, entrepreneurs, small business owners, creative types, middle school principals, finance people, attorneys, bankers—no one industry was left out,” says Grant. “It’s a very inclusive program and it recognizes the fact that women have a lot to give. There’s a lot of human capital in our area and collectively we can make a positive impact.”

Nominees were asked to submit a thoughtful and thought-provoking application sharing their inner struggles, instances of overcoming challenges in their professional and personal lives and a letter to their younger self full of sage advice and ah-ha moments. After poring over the bevy of applications, SRQ MEDIA packaged these applications and shipped them to a panel of women judges from Tampa, Miami and Jackonville, FL. Twelve honorees—seven finalists and five winners—were chosen by a these out-of-market judges and honored in a special section of SRQ magazine. In its inaugural year, the competition was the initiative’s sole program, but seeds had been sown for a larger movement to take root. And Liang, the past chair of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and two-time Chairman’s Cup recipient, took the white space that emerged and worked with the SRQ team to build programming that would further realize the power of engagement with this dynamic group of leaders.

The following year, SRQ MEDIA expanded Women in Business to include a luncheon that would celebrate the new winners and finalists. Such an event would give honorees a chance to “lean in” and engage with successful women speakers outside the Sarasota-Bradenton community whose work exemplified the values of the Women in Business program. 2015 also marked the creation of the Leadership Circle, a group composed of all winners and finalists, both past and present. Part steering committee, part multi-industry think tank, the Leadership Circle allows for internal networking, inspiration and participation in external, community-facing projects. Members of the Leadership Circle meet for monthly breakfast salons that allow the women to connect, engage and network within an intimate, casual setting. At each salon, one woman is asked to lead the discussion and present to the group a personal and professional challenge that she has faced and overcome.

“Sometimes you will get a bunch of high-powered people in a room and they are hesitant to share,” says Grant. “But these salons are designed in such a way that women are able to actively discuss challenges and solutions in a very out-of-the-box type of way. Some of the most incredible revelations, partnerships and solutions to problems have come out of these salons.”  In the past year, the growth of Women in Business has caught on like “wildfire,” says Grant. “It really was a very natural and organic growth,” she says. “We’ve tried to grow in a responsible way and in response to the needs and the requests of the community.” New programs added in 2016—such as SkillSHARE—demonstrated ways in which Women in Business has transitioned from celebrating women’s excellence to actively fostering it far and wide.

So what’s next for SRQ | Women in Business? Expanding the program’s offerings to invite younger generations to lean in, says Grant. In 2017, SRQ MEDIA will roll out SMARTGirl (SRQ MEDIA Advancing Real Talent), a program designed with the goal of providing middle school girls with exposure to valuable career-development experiences, personal leadership and soft skills training through mentorship. SMARTGirl will provide opportunities for engagement and career development through interactive events, but with an added bonus: actual workforce experience. Taking a cue from SkillSHARE’s mentorship model, girls will be paired with local female business mentors, many of them ambassadors of the Women in Business Leadership Circle across different industries at the SMARTGirl Luncheon—Girls Inc. of Sarasota County, Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota County and the Sarasota YMCA have signed on to be participating partners. Dr. Sandra S. Stone, regional chancellor for USF Sarasota-Manatee—the luncheon’s Innovation and Education Sponsor—and a member of the Women in Business Leadership Circle, will be a keynote presenter, highlighting USFSM’s dedication to mentorship of the next generation. The Hyatt Regency, Sarasota’s General Manager Bruce McDonald has offered to provide the luncheon space for the SMARTGirl luncheon as well as mentors from his organization to participate.

Before the girls sit down to lunch, they’ll be engaged in interactive soft-skills training puzzles to bring them together with their mentor for the day. Girls will have the opportunity to spark initial career interest through mini-workshops over lunch. According to Grant, middle school is a crucial time that is largely left out of the career-development equation. “It’s such a formative time and if you can get good guidance and counsel, then, by the time you get to high school, you have the wherewithal to jump into things that will get you further,” she says.

The mentorship component of SMARTGirl ties into Sarasota’s status as a multigenerational center: in Sarasota, it is common for people of varying ages to work alongside each other, and programs like SMARTGirl have the added benefit of fostering cross-generational connections. “We want to make sure that the younger generation is aware of their opportunities—especially in this community—and to connect them with the people that can show them the way forward,” says Grant. “And that’s the whole mission of Women in Business. When people work together and collaborate, the result is so much better—it’s that kind of collective brilliance that comes about when people genuinely engage with each other.”  

Meet Whitney Stewart

Out of the 4 million youth that the Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA) serves, one is chosen each year to represent the organization on a national level as its official youth spokesperson. The Youth of the Year title—which recognizes excellence and achievement in academics, leadership and service and is the highest honor the organization can bestow—has a new home: Sarasota County. Last fall, 19 year-old North Port native Whitney Stewart brought home the title of 2015 National Youth of the Year. In addition to receiving $145,000 in scholarships, a brand-new Toyota and a trip to Disney World, Stewart’s win afforded her priceless experiences: she attended the Radio Disney Music Awards (where she received a Heroes for Change award), the 2016 Olympics in Rio and had the change to meet with major political players, including President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “I would describe this Youth of the Year journey as a humbling whirlwind,” says Stewart. “It’s brought me face-to-face with leaders like Loretta Lynch and I was able to meet with President Obama last May in the Oval Office. I’m a kid who’s coming from nothing, but I was able to stand face-to-face with the leader of the free world and have a conversation with him. For me, that was really transformative.” Raised by a single mother in a three-child family, Stewart began attending the Gene Matthews Club in North Port as an 11-year-old. Stewart recently entered her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is studying political science. Stewart credits the Gene Matthews Club—in particular, the mentors who supported and believed in her—with sparking her desire for excellence. “The staff members and mentors really believed in me and gave me opportunities to take on leadership roles,” Stewart says of her club experience.