Khalia Braswell was in fourth grade when her family got their first home computer.
“I got hooked into programming, and I literally was like, ‘All right, this is what I want to do,’” she said.
From there, Braswell took off. She went to college at North Carolina State University, majoring in computer science, and got her master’s degree in information technology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. While getting her education, Braswell also started a nonprofit organization, INTech, whose mission is to get more girls involved in technology through hands-on learning at camps. An internship at Apple Inc. during her master’s program solidified her path, and after graduating she accepted a job at the technology giant’s headquarters and moved to California.
Braswell, who is now 28, worked as a user experience engineer, joining the less than 3 percent of black women who make up the tech workforce. She was the only black woman she knew of in her building at Apple’s headquarters, but says her team specifically was diverse in gender and ethnicity.
“We’re here, it’s just a small number when you look at the larger scale, especially globally,” she said.
And yet, something was missing. Braswell started thinking that there was more she could be doing to make a change in the industry and to ensure that there were other women and girls of color following the same path that she did. In the summer of 2017, Braswell went back to North Carolina to attend a camp with INTech. It proved to be a pivotal moment.
“The girls had created something, the volunteers felt rewarded, and the parents were proud,” she said. “You can’t deny all the energy in the room.”
So she quit her job at Apple and moved home to North Carolina to focus on INTech full-time.
“I felt crazy for a long time,” she said “I stopped making six figures, but I’ve never been happier. I thought of this the other day. No one tells me to wake up and go do things, but I do them because I’m passionate about what I’m doing.”
Her passion is paying off. Since its inception, INTech has given more than 500 girls exposure to women of color in the field and access to develop the professional skills they’ll need to thrive in the technology industry. One of the first girls who attended her camp in 2014 is now applying to engineering programs for college. The girl's first exposure to engineering was at an INTech camp.
“I was able to see the impact,” Braswell said. “Now, I talk about her all the time and she’s still with it.”
Braswell is continuing to make an impact. Her dream is to create an agency in which high school students get paid internships. Corporations could hire the agency to create websites or other products, and her interns — or scholars as she calls them — would get hands-on experience and compensation.
“What I know about the industry is that while college is important, the skills are important,” she said. “You need to be able to do something.”
For Braswell, doing something has amounted to more than she could have imagined while sitting behind that first family computer.
“I’ve always said I wanted to live a ‘purpose-driven life’ and me taking that leap showed myself and others that it’s possible to follow your dreams and make a living and be happy,” she says. “I don’t regret it at all.”
Braswell is one of 20 engineers featured on NBC News Learn’s “Discovering You: Engineering Your World” video series. To watch her story and more, visit NBCLearn.com/Engineering.