RALEIGH, N.C. – Raised in rural eastern North Carolina by her grandmother, Denise Tawwab knows first-hand the challenges and roadblocks that young girls face.
She was able to climb up and out, and now is offering that same ladder to success to girls from rural areas through NC Connected, a nonprofit she founded in 2003 that teaches web-development skills.
“I’m from Pender County,” she says. “I was given a lot of opportunities because I was one of the smart kids. I saw the difference those opportunities made in the direction of my life.”
Tawwab majored in business in college, then began a career in software development, providing training for companies including SAS, Nortel and GlaxoSmithKline, never forgetting her roots.
“I always said some day I wanted to give back to kids the way people gave back to me,” she says. “One day I realized I had the skill sets and no more excuses not to give back.”
Almost a decade ago, Tawwab and her husband, a computer hardware expert, crafted a business plan to launch NC Connected.
During that planning process, her husband was diagnosed with and ultimately died from end-stage colon cancer.
Faced with the need to care for her then nine-year-old daughter and the desire to follow her dream of starting NC Connected, Tawwab spent about six months doing consulting work, then began working full-time on the nonprofit.
“I’d seen my grandmother do leaps of faith all my life,” she says. “I didn’t have the sense to be scared.”
So she earned a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University, wrote the curriculum for the NC Connected program, bought eight computers with her own money and began holding classes for middle-school girls, including her daughter, in her dining room.
The goal of the organization is to empower girls through technology training, mentoring and service.
“We want to teach them they’re as smart as any other kid out there,” says Tawwab. “It doesn’t matter that they’re from a poor community or that they’re a girl.”
Over the past seven years, she predicts her nonprofit has touched about 300 youth ages 10 to 17, mainly girls.
The organization’s flagship program, Boondocks Media School, travels to rural parts of the state to set up computer labs “wherever we find the kids,” says Tawwab, whether that’s a church basement, a local 4-H Club or a United Way office.
The weeklong camps, which last year set up shop in eight communities including Oxford and Enfield, each teaches up to 20 kids the ins and outs of web design and computer programming.
In addition to imparting skills, the program provides participants with positive role models.
“I want them to learn how to be successful women,” says Tawwab, who invites professional women in to talk to the campers. “That way, success becomes the norm. Not only do they know people, people know them.”
And she looks for community-service opportunities for the girls to participate in, like Meals-on-Wheels or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Night Walk.
“They need to see that they are not problems – they are part of the solution,” she says of the girls. “So service is important.”
Tawwab’s latest push is to take 10 girls from Rocky Mount and Raleigh from “zero to proficiency” in web design through intensive twice-weekly training sessions this spring and next fall, plus weekly sessions over the summer.
And in October, the goal is to have the girls build fully functioning websites for five local nonprofits that otherwise couldn’t afford a website, and to learn how to teach web design and programming.
Part of the cost of the new effort is covered by a grant from the Morgan Creek Foundation, one of the first funders NC Connected has had.
Additional support is coming from the Southeast Raleigh Assembly, United Way of the Greater Triangle, and Greater Joy Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, which will provide transportation for a group of girls to attend weekly trainings in Raleigh.
To date, Tawwab has run the organization on a tight budget, keeping expenses to a minimum and taking on sporadic consulting projects.
“We keep it simple, do a whole lot of praying and I’m a really good cook,” she says.
But she plans to ramp up the fundraising this fall when her 17-year old daughter Jamillah, heads off to the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
“Now that my daughter is going to college, I can go out and be big and bad and corporate,” she says. “My focus has been on making sure she’s ok.”
In addition to completing her senior year of high school, Jamillah helps her mother run NC Connected by teaching summer camps.
She also runs her own web-development company called J Media Studios, which has developed websites for a handful of clients.
Tawwab hopes other NC Connected campers will follow Jamillah’s lead, staying involved with the nonprofit and perhaps even starting their own income-generating efforts.
She’ll need that extra help to achieve her ultimate goal of getting camps into all 100 North Carolina counties, with training organized locally.
“I’m just an old black woman who learned something about computers,” she says. “If I can use that to save some girls, that’s a good thing. I get up happy every day.”