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Northwestern University

What did you do with your arts and sciences degree?

Brenda Darden Wilkerson ’85 works to expand opportunities for women and minorities in the technology field

Wilkerson smiling in a blue suit

Brenda Darden Wilkerson’s ears still ring with the words of history professor Henry Binford, who opined that the work we do contributes to the environment in which we live.

“That was the moment I realized I wanted to see the broader perspectives in the world so that I could add to people’s lives,” says Wilkerson, a computer studies major.

Since then, Wilkerson has sought to understand both technology and people, applying both left- and right-brain thinking to her study of each realm. She has also reflected on her own status as a relative rarity — an African-American woman working in technology — and has emerged as a champion for underrepresented populations in the tech field.

“I found tech to be increasingly sidelining different perspectives, and that didn’t sit well with me,” Wilkerson says.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1985, Wilkerson worked as a programmer and then as a software developer before entering the education field. Serving as director of IT training in continuing education at one of Chicago’s City Colleges, Wilkerson grew con­cerned as she saw many students — particularly women, minorities and low-income students — dissuaded from entering the tech arena.

“There was no reason why many of these folks couldn’t find their way into technology,” she says.

Recognizing an opportunity to address the root of the prob­lem, Wilkerson assumed a leadership role with Chicago Public Schools, where the IT curriculum was languishing, she says, and the misconceptions about which students could handle technol­ogy ran deep.

Wilkerson soon became a “one-woman advocacy machine” for democratizing computer science education at CPS. She persuaded the district to invest more in technology education and marshalled an army of allies — teachers, administrators and external part­ners — to infuse IT into the curriculum. She also pushed to make computer science a high school graduation requirement at CPS, which became the first school district in the nation to do so.

“I saw too many people missing out on amazing opportunities, and I saw the tech field missing out on what these same people could bring,” Wilkerson says.

Now, the Kansas City native and mother of four is embracing a new adventure.

In 2017, Wilkerson was named president and CEO of, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that advocates for women technologists. In her new position, Wilkerson is working to empower women to assume roles in technology and to guide companies to cultivate a more diverse culture.

It’s her latest effort to foster a world in which the people who create technology mirror those who use it.

“The whole purpose of tech isn’t to make cool gadgets but to solve problems for people,” she says. “So the more opportunities there are for all types of people in tech, the more opportunities there are for problems to get solved.”

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