Hey Silicon Valley, make way for these teenage Indian “witches” and their app

Not alone.
Not alone.
Image: Reuters/Adeel Halim
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Five Indian high school girls are ready to take Silicon Valley by storm.

The “Tech Witches” team from Amity International School, Noida, are among the finalists at Technovation Girls, an annual competition inviting girls aged between 10 and 18 to identify a problem in their community and create a mobile app to solve it.

The Indian team comprising five girls—Ananya Grover (17), Anushka Sharma (18), Arefa (17), Vanshika Yadav (16), and Vasudha Sudhinder (17)—created an app, Maitri, that connects children at orphanages to senior citizens in old-age homes, allowing them to spend time together. The goal is to fight loneliness and depression in both groups, thereby improving their social and mental well-being.

The name of the group plays on the more commonly-used “tech-wizards.” “We flipped the gender of the term to break the status quo, separate the term ‘witches’ from the negative connotations it carries, and make an empowering statement that even girls can be technologically adept,” said Grover, the 17-year-old CEO of the group.

This year, over 19,000 kids participated in the tech competition and 170 teams from across 38 countries made it to the semifinals. Now, the top 12 will present their pitches to companies like Google, Adobe, and Uber, and pitch their mobile app solution to a panel of judges, who will then assess social impact, business viability and creativity. The winning team will receive a grant of $15,000 and second-highest scorers will be awarded $10,000.

It’s app-ening

Two years ago, Grover discovered the Technovation Challenge online but for one reason or another couldn’t participate. Finally, everything fell together—a great team, a problem they wanted to solve, and the motivation.

This particular project was also deeply personal to Grover, a class 12 student. “I lost my grandmother to cancer last year in January. Following her demise, my grandfather who was perfectly healthy and had been fully devoted to taking care of her, lost his will and purpose in life,” she said. “The feeling of loneliness, despite living at home, and purposelessness affected his well-being drastically. This January, I lost him too. I have seen first hand how feeling lonely and empty can affect people.”

Grover’s teammate, Sudhinder—chief design and communication officer for the app—suggested linking old age homes with orphanages since the children go through similar emotions.

The team conducted a survey of 145 people to understand their target market. They also interviewed the administrators of old-age homes and orphanages who would be the direct users of the app. Arefa, the chief technical officer of the group, used her Java knowledge from school and the coding curriculum shared by Technovation to build the code for the Android app.

Thus, Maitri—friendship in Sanskrit—was born.

The app has been active on Google Play Store for a few weeks now and two meetings between old age homes and orphanages have already been facilitated, the girls told Quartz.

Maitri also offers need-based donations where old-age homes and orphanages can specify their needs, be it of an item like a blanket or a specific sum of money for a clear purpose. Users can view their profiles, their contact details, and directly donate to the organisation.

According to the creators, the app is unique. Vanshika Yadav (16), the chief marketing and analytical officer, identified two indirect competitors—DonateKart and Justdial—but doesn’t see them servicing the same needs. “While DonateKart provides a platform in general for donations for all types of organizations, relief funds, and campaigns, Maitri is extremely focused on old-age homes and orphanages,” Yadav said. “Similarly, Justdial only provides the contact information while Maitri acts as a go-between individual, old age homes, and orphanages.”

Operating as a non-profit, the app is free and intends to stay that way. So, to raise capital, the girls are turning to corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds, crowdfunding, and advertisement revenues. They plan to be listed on India’s Social Stock Exchange as proposed in the 2019 union budget.

Leaders of tomorrow

Technovation Girls, formerly known as the Technovation Challenge, began in 2010 as a small pilot programme to tackle the STEM gender gap by helping young girls become more confident, curious, and creative problem-solvers.

Tech witches
The tech witches at work.
Image: Screenshot/Techwitches Instagram

“Tech Witches stood out for its immediate social impact as well as the neatly ingenuous nature of its solution,” Tara Chklovski, CEO and founder of Technovation, told Quartz. “It seems obvious in retrospect to help kids in
orphanages spend time with people in senior living facilities—they both suffer from isolation and a lack of a support network, why not connect them? Their idea is powerful and implementable.”

However, the idea isn’t to simply fund successful apps but to create a long-tail effect of getting more girls into STEM fields. A quarter of Technovation Girls’ alumni go on to major in computer science in college, Chklovski said.

Some of the Tech Witches are already on that path. For instance, CEO Grover is working on improving a fake news detection AI (artificial intelligence) model she has developed using Python. “It currently has a test accuracy of 87.39%,” she said. “My friend and I have come up with a plan to ethically implement this model as a WhatsApp-integrated feature that would detect and alert users of fake news links in their messages.”

Meanwhile, Arefa wants to use her passion for coding in the field of design; Yadav wants to combine her love for computer science with economics, studying them as a major-minor combination; and Sudhindher is leaning towards entrepreneurship and business.

And they’re not the only ones. Last year’s team from India—”The Cantavits,” which created a mobile app called Eedo that connected e-waste producers and authorised recyclers—has since launched its app and the team members are pursuing careers in STEM and business.

“Closing the STEM gender gap will need many people working on different projects and I’m proud to say that Technovation has found a model that works,” said Chklovski.