Nakeema Stefflbauer had only lived in Berlin for a couple of years when refugees from countries such as Syria and Iraq began arriving in Germany in great numbers in 2015. A native New Yorker who was familiar with Arabic and Middle Eastern culture from her travels in the area, Stefflbauer decided to volunteer to support the new arrivals. She says that the people she interacted with were grateful to speak with someone who “understood their societies, as opposed to the wider German perspective that they were backward and barely up to speed with modern technology.”
Stefflbauer, who had held a variety of tech positions before moving to Berlin in 2013, quickly grew irritated by what she was observing. She had been working with an organization aimed at connecting refugees with the tech community, but she felt the group was overlooking female refugees in its outreach efforts. “I got frustrated,” she says. “The people leading the effort didn’t care about the gender imbalance in tech or in their program, so long as they had refugees to stand in the front of their photos.”
She decided to take matters into her own hands. Stefflbauer began visiting refugee hostels across the city to find women keen to learn tech skills. With a small initial cohort of women, she launched a new nongovernmental organization—one that she hoped would help women from underrepresented backgrounds enter Berlin’s tech industry.
Like many other tech hubs, Germany’s have challenges around race and diversity. According to a national study, more than half of first-generation immigrant startup founders who were surveyed reported experiences of racism. In Germany’s information technology and communications sector, the proportion of women in management positions in software development and programming is just 9%. “Companies are talking about diversity, competitiveness, and innovation,” Stefflbauer says. “But how and what are they innovating when everybody looks and talks the same?”
The grassroots-led initiative, called FrauenLoop (“women’s loop,” referencing the idea that women are being left out of the loop in the tech world), has been growing steadily ever since its founding in 2016. Stefflbauer serves as the organization’s CEO and has forged relationships with a variety of companies, including GitHub, EcoVadis, and Taxfix, which donate funds and host workshops. FrauenLoop now has a core group of around 30 mentors, and each year some 150 female participants take courses in areas such as full-stack web development, data science, and software test automation. The organization also offers job search support—and advice on navigating and thriving in what Stefflbauer calls the “non-utopian” environment of tech employment.
Women from nearly 40 nationalities have participated in the program. Stefflbauer cites examples of participants who have gone on to find well-paid jobs in the industry, including seven former trainees who joined SAP. On average, she says, of the 50 women each year who complete the organization’s extended 12-month program, 10 to 15 get hired into full-time roles. “Keeping track of women after the training is key for me,” she says.
FrauenLoop’s numbers might seem small compared with the scale of Berlin’s tech diversity challenges. But Sarah Chander, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based group European Digital Rights, says the organization has been doing valuable work. “FrauenLoop has been one of the few tech inclusion initiatives centering racialized and marginalized women,” she says. “This has been vital in a world in which tech companies have systematically excluded and even harmed women of color.” Chander says she expects the influence of FrauenLoop to extend more widely in Europe.
Stefflbauer does work for the German Startups Association and is working on a book featuring the first-person accounts of Black women in prominent positions in international tech industries. This is all part of her wider goal to push for change. “As globally important and impactful as the sector is,” she says, “it should be a place for all of us to see ourselves reflected, accepted, and our aspirations met.”
Gouri Sharma is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berlin.