HIGH SCHOOL: Harvard-Westlake School
GOING TO: Cornell University
As an 8-year-old, Serena Davis already was infatuated with computers. Fooling around on the home desktop, she quickly mastered email, even sending in story pitches to her favorite online publication, K9 magazine.
“I thought you could feed puppies steak and tilapia,” she recalled in a recent interview.
Davis, who lives in Encino and attends Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue, has studied computer science since she was in middle school. Her love of computers has evolved steadily into a mission — to get other young women involved.
Now an 18-year-old senior at the Harvard-Westlake School in Bel Air, Davis is an aspiring tech pioneer. In 2016, she earned the National Center for Women & Information Technology Award for Aspirations in Computing. She also runs the campus Girls Who Code club. Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology.
“I’ve never felt like I couldn’t be in the tech world because I’m a girl,” she said. “But being in the club, talking to members, you see it’s definitely a thing that exists.”
Davis takes the role seriously, frequenting Los Angeles-area Girls Who Code events. She brings in speakers such as female engineers and Caltech professors and organizes field trips. During a recent weekend visit to the Hawthorne headquarters of Elon Musk’s aerospace outfit, SpaceX, Davis was delighted to introduce club members to female tech workers on the job.
“We had a lot of women engineers talk to us. The experience made it seem very real,” she said. “For me, that’s the best thing we can do: Allow young girls to see how it really is in the real world instead of just talking about it.”
Under Davis’ leadership, the club is forging a tech startup vibe. Earlier this school year, Davis and several club members set out to create a phone app for the Harvard-Westlake cafeteria to facilitate online ordering to stagger the overflow lunch crowd.
“Harvard-Westlake is notorious for having a compact cafeteria,” she said. “It prevents students from being able to get food sometimes. It takes too much time. This app would help make efficient use of the space.”
Her team launched an online survey earlier this school year that revealed overwhelming student support. The team is awaiting approval to begin working with cafeteria staff.
“I’m really excited to set it up,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll still be here when it’s up and running.”
When she’s not using her computer skills, Davis is involved in a variety of communal causes. She is on the Mayor’s Youth Council, participating in leadership programming with other high school students. She tutors privately and as a volunteer at the Salvation Army of Westwood, and she has been actively involved with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, taking part in and running interfaith programming.
Since the summer before sophomore year, she has volunteered with Teen Line, a crisis hotline at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, fielding calls and returning emails of troubled, often suicidal teens.
“It has opened up my eyes, to be able to be with strangers for a lot of these moments, and it has also changed the way that I am around my friends and peers because I’m a lot more aware of all that could be going on beneath the surface,” she said.
Davis plans to study computer science at Cornell University, but like that overzealous 8-year-old contacting K9 magazine, the plan isn’t all figured out — and she’s fine with that.
“I don’t want to be a coder. I’m more focused on the analytical side of things,” she said. “So it’ll be computer science in combination with something else. But there’s still plenty of time to figure all that out.”