Alumni Spotlight: Baskin Engineering computer science alumna Lehua Sparrow helps bridge the diversity gap in STEM

Date
Lehua Sparrow
Melissa Weckerle

The thing Baskin Engineering computer science alumna Lehua Sparrow enjoys most about the math and science fields is the ability to come to a concrete answer. 

“In a world without many answers, science and math bring me comfort because we can always come to some definite conclusion,” said Sparrow. 

Even though Sparrow grew up enjoying STEM courses, she didn’t immediately know what she wanted to study. After spending some time in Tahoe after high school, she then decided to move to Santa Cruz to live with her aunt and pursue an undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz. Her interest in computer science piqued during a UC Santa Cruz study abroad trip where she got the opportunity to work at a network security firm in Sydney.

During her undergrad, she spent a lot of her time in the labs at Baskin Engineering and then at her internship downtown with LightSurf. 

“It was at LightSurf that I got my first taste of what it would be like to work at a tech company,” said Sparrow. “The product we were developing was one of the first mobile phone cameras. The images taken on this small camera would then be uploaded into an image processing center. It was a really cool company to be a part of and I learned a lot, but the biggest reward was gaining the confidence in what I was doing. ”

The three aspects Sparrow enjoyed most about the Baskin Engineering computer science undergraduate program were getting to develop working programs; using MIPS Assembly, which is a low level of coding that allows you to interact with hardware; and learning about computer science theory.

Advancing diversity in tech

Leaving UC Santa Cruz and entering the engineering industry workforce as a woman was rewarding and daunting at the same time. Sparrow explained finding a community of women technologists to lean on and learn from is important when maneuvering through this primarily male industry. 

Oftentimes, Sparrow said she navigated these uncharted waters by herself and felt isolated. It took some time, but now Sparrow has found a field in tech she is passionate about and a community of support. 

Sparrow credits the leaders who believed in her and gave her the opportunity to get into the business and product side of tech. She is now a Director of Product Management at the Bay Area startup Jyve. Although her role is not specifically in engineering, she incorporates her engineering and computer science skills to better understand her company’s products.

“Having a deeper understanding of how things work helps me in my day-to-day responsibilities and sets me apart in my field,” said Sparrow.

Participation with Code 2040 

Recognizing the obstacles she faced to establish herself in the engineering world, Sparrow wanted to find ways to support and give other women and underrepresented communities a stronger voice in the tech industry. 

One way she has done that is by volunteering with the organization Code 2040, the largest racial equity community in tech. 

“I was really moved by Code2040's approach to making system-level changes to increase representation of underrepresented groups in the technology industry. The organization does this in two ways: 1) by providing programs that help Black and Latinx computer science and engineering students transition from academics to engineers and 2) helping tech companies build up a more diverse pipeline of candidates,” said Sparrow. 

Sparrow is a member on the interviewing board for Code 2040’s fellowship programs.

“One thing I really enjoy about being on the interviewing team is getting the chance to hear students tell their stories. The amount of compassion these individuals have as college students gives me so much hope for the future of tech. Anyone can learn to code and be great at it, but compassion for people comes from life experiences,” Sparrow said.

Last year, in addition to Sparrow’s interviewing role, she got the opportunity to mentor a student in one of the fellowship programs. Her mentee was a female, New York-based engineering undergraduate student.

Sparrow was able to talk through difficult work situations with the mentee and provide advice and tips on time management and building work relationships, which was especially important for her mentee who was navigating the workforce fully remote due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

"'By making a workforce more equal and diverse, you are improving the business.’ These powerful words were spoken by one of Code 2040’s founders at a conference I attended, and they have stuck with me ever since,” stated Sparrow. 

Sparrow hopes to increase her engagement with Code 2040 to continue the effort of bridging the women and minority gap in tech. 

“Being a part of Code 2040 is not only helping the cause to expand diversity in the workforce but has also given me the tools to be able to navigate these types of conversations in my own workplace and advocate for more equality,” noted Sparrow. 

Through the work by dedicated volunteers like Sparrow and programs such as Code 2040 that provides opportunities and programs to support marginalized communities in STEM education and careers, a path for a more equal, supportive, and diverse workforce is being forged.