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Behind The Scenes At Karlie Kloss's New Coding Camp For Girls

Kode With Klossy coding camp aims to give young women a jump-start toward careers that encompass computer science and STEM skills.

Behind The Scenes At Karlie Kloss's New Coding Camp For Girls
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

Two years ago, model Karlie Kloss enrolled in Flatiron School's two-week pre-college coding course and caught the programming bug. She started taking regular private coding classes with Flatiron dean and cofounder Avi Flombaum (who she already knew socially) and enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to underwrite 21 Kode with Karlie scholarships so other young women could take the same two-week pre-college coding course at Flatiron that had kicked off her own programming education.

This summer, Kloss is taking it up a notch by launching her own Kode with Klossy coding camps for young women aged 13-18 in Los Angeles, New York, and her hometown of St. Louis, using Flatiron's Learn.co curriculum and learning platform. Unlike last summer's Kode with Karlie program, this year's 80 scholarship recipients will participate in their own program, separate from other Flatiron School students. By the end of the camp, which is being taught by independent instructors, students will have learned the fundamentals of Ruby on Rails and built their own web app. Kloss is not underwriting this latest round of scholarships herself but instead, in partnership with Flatiron School and CSNYC, has pulled together a number of partner brands as fiscal sponsors for the program.

"I have big goals of continuing to build the community of these young women, to not only stay in touch and support and encourage and challenge each other, but also learn from one another," Kloss says, adding that she's going to try to take off as much time as possible from modeling to attend the camps in person "because selfishly, I really am so inspired and so excited by my experiences with the girls [last summer], watching them have these aha moments and this empowerment that comes from learning something new and hard."

The camp isn't confined to classroom walls. Since space in the program is limited, the Kode with Klossy team hopes to virtually teach as many unaccepted applicants as possible this summer via live-streaming video and Flatiron's online Learn.co platform (virtual students won't have to pay for the program).

So why is Flatiron the right partner for a coding camp aimed at girls? "I think the first thing we do really well [at Flatiron] and try to focus on is creating a supportive and engaging environment that isn't necessarily about great scores or how amazing you are as a programmer, but really a place to be curious, to feel inspired, to be engaged," says Flombaum.

Designing that kind of encouraging environment incorporates a number of different elements and approaches, he says, "from having music playing when you come in the class to showing and telling stories about other programmers and bringing in guest speakers, having [students] always work in groups and constantly changing those groups up so they're meeting each other and forging connections between them and not developing cliques, having really amazing and passionate teachers that want to see the students succeed emotionally and psychologically, having a bright, colorful classroom with desks arranged in circles so they can all sit next to each other and talk to each other."

Flombaum also points out that Flatiron's class enrollment has been equally split between male and female students for over three years. The tech industry itself, of course, struggles with a gender imbalance. "We're very big believers that a diversity of opinion through background creates the most engaging place for people to learn," he says. "The more perspectives there are, the more backgrounds people come from, the more life experiences that are different creates a really amazing environment for people to grow together in ways they would never be able to grow if they were surrounded by people just like them."

For Kloss, who interviewed this summer's Kode with Klossy camp instructors herself, the teaching environment is crucial. "Like anything you're learning, when you have a teacher that is excited and passionate about it, that is contagious and it makes it so much more fun for the students to learn, to continue to push forward and not to get stuck," Kloss says.

"Coding is such a collaborative thing anyway, especially the way that learning in these code camps is done. When you can't figure out how to scrape from a certain API or something is wrong with your code and you keep hitting a wall, you either ask the person next to you or you Google the answer. It's so funny, because that is so counter to most other things that you're learning," she laughs. "You're usually not allowed to Google the answer, but in coding it's almost encouraged."

Beyond the environment itself, Flombaum and Kloss think Flatiron's curriculum approach helps get people engaged with the lessons—even if students' primary aim isn't to become professional backend software engineers. For example, "instead of trying to teach the first year of computer science in college to high school kids, we try to show the creative and more artistic aspects of programming," Flombaum says, "whether it's teaching them how to fly drones or how to build apps for projects they're interested in, like poverty and disease."

Some of the Kode with Klossy camp curriculum is being generated by Kloss's own experiences as a coding student. "As Karlie has been learning to code and working with me, we always come up with new experiments, like the things we're doing with music and computer-generated art [in the camp] are really coming from the lessons Karlie and I have been doing over the past year," Flombaum says. "At some level, whatever Karlie enjoys, whatever lights her up, we tend to immediately lock on to that idea and develop a formal curriculum around it—that's one of the ways she's been contributing, simply learning and pushing me and pushing all of our faculty to create different kinds of experiments in code. We do research together, and then we say, 'Well, this would be a great lab, and we should formalize this and deliver this to students.'"

Flombaum believes that teaching students how to express themselves through code is key to keeping students—especially young people—engaged. "Showing them that they can generate music with code allows them to clone or copy their favorite artist, to put a little of their own personality and their own opinions to it," he says. "When they do actually build apps, we allow them to pick a project and pick a place where they want to improve the world and contribute ways in which they are expressing themselves, not us. We’re giving them the tool set or the vocabulary with which to model a phenomenon or project or concept. Code really becomes the medium, and the end result becomes what they are more interested in."

This year's expansion into multiple dedicated Kode with Klossy camps was very much inspired by last year's Kode with Karlie experience at Flatiron. "We had an incredible experience last summer. The girls that I got to take classes with and got to FaceTime with and got to know in person were just brilliant," Kloss says. "One girl, I sat in on a class with her for the two-week period last summer and she was amazing, she is probably going to run for president and I will very much be her campaign manager [laughs]. She was really bright but never had much of a focus on computer science, she was very socially and philanthropically minded, always has had this passion for social good and not really sure what she wants to do with her profession. It was amazing to me to watch her go from not being able to write any lines of code to being able to build her own web app," Kloss says. "She's applying to college and wants to focus on computer science now because she recognizes that the kind of social impact and social good she wants to make in the world, she can use technology to actually build tools, to build whatever she wants and very much use that for social good."

"One of the fun parts of working with these different young women is that they have amazing ideas and they're just totally uninhibited with what they think of or dream of or hope to build," Kloss says, pointing to another example from last year's program. "Do you remember the Clueless closet in that movie, where Cher's flipping through her shirts and her dresses and her pants? They built that! One group essentially built both the front end and the back end of it," she says. "Another student built a video game which was really impressive, depending on what positions you turned, it had different things that happened. This was just after the two weeks—these projects [students] could continue to be work on and probably work into successful companies, and it was just the first stab at it."

Despite all the successes, Kloss is the first to point out that learning how to code isn't easy. "The first few days are really challenging and then it all kind of starts to click, and then you all of a sudden are able to build things and write lines of code and it's all making sense," Kloss says. "It's really an exciting and empowering feeling, and it's really cool to watch these young women do it. It kind of totally changes their thought of what they think they're capable of within this space."

She likens the process of learning how to code to what she's observed in the fashion world. "Being a model in fashion, I get to work with designers and see them create couture gowns stitch by stitch and work with the team, an idea becomes a sketch, and then it becomes almost a first draft, and then they modify it. The creation process of creating a beautiful gown, it almost feels like it's the same kind of process when you're building an app: You initially have an idea, and then you can actually, line by line, build something and have a result that can be deployed to millions of people around the world," she points out.

Kloss says she started to learn how to code herself back in 2014 "because I wanted to understand how things worked, how they were built," she says. She was especially inspired by her friend Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram. Kloss, an avid Instagram user, says "I kind of had this moment—like, wait a minute, he actually built this, meaning he didn't just have the idea and like hire somebody else to do the heavy lifting, but he actually wrote the lines of code—that really changed the perspective for me, I was like, 'Oh wow, this is something that you can learn.'"

There's another reason why Kloss took coding classes: She likes a good challenge. "I think maybe the fact that coding was something, whenever I asked anyone about it, they were like, 'Oh no, I can't learn that, it's too hard' made me want to learn it more," she says. "If you can learn how to code, or if nothing else understand how things are built and understand the back end of technology even at a high level, it can be applied to any industry that you're interested in," she explains.

"No matter what industry you want to go into, what job you dream of having, with this skill set you really can create and bring more to the table in any industry. You don't have to just learn this skill set to get a job at a tech startup. You can apply this thinking, apply this skill set to anything you want to do in life," she says.

Her forays into the world of coding aren't Kloss's only major activity outside her modeling career. She's also an entrepreneur who sells her signature Karlie's Kookies at Momofuku Milk Bar, and hosts her own YouTube channel. The 23-year-old is also enrolled in her freshman year at NYU.

"Karlie is just an amazing voice to show young women they can be so many more things: They don’t have to make myopic or binary choices about being into fashion or being into science, or being a programmer or being an artist," Flombaum says. "Karlie Kloss could be doing a million other things with her time, but this is what she is choosing, this is a message she's communicating to the world: that women can do whatever they want, that they're capable, and all they need is a little inspiration to reach out and look for something more."

To apply for a Kode with Klossy camp scholarship, prospective candidates must submit both video and text applications to the selection committee, explaining why they should participate in the program. Applications are due on April 30th.

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