Real Representation

How Erika Hairston created an app to connect women in tech.


Career opportunities & stories


Erika Hairston has made a lot of professional connections in her young career. Now she’s created an app to help others network too.

Hairston is the founder and designer of Zimela, an app that encourages underrepresented groups to enter tech by connecting women—particularly Black women—with mentors, career placement opportunities, and internships.

“You never know whose life you could change by sharing an opportunity,” says Hairston. “Every day I try to create an opportunity for someone to reach their goals.”

Zimela is all about helping women find professional connections.

The youngest of five siblings, Hairston grew up in a family that wasn’t particularly tech-savvy (except for a brother who introduced her to Grand Theft Auto). But shortly before heading off to Yale, she saw the short documentary she++, about the dearth of women in tech. It was produced by a nonprofit of the same name that works to empower underrepresented groups in the industry.

“I was like, you know what? I love this math tech stuff. Why should I not do it?”

So Hairston enrolled in a college course in computer science. She was not great at it.

I was like, you know what? I love this math tech stuff. Why should I not do it?

“I definitely wanted it to be easier!” she says. “But part of the beauty was seeing something that you built from scratch, something you struggled with, come to life. That’s what kept me in it.”

The idea for Zimela took root during her senior year. Having taught herself the coding skills she needed, Hairston created the inaugural version of the app as part of her thesis. 

“I realized that the most powerful way to get more women and underrepresented groups into tech was to have more role models and mentors, to let people see themselves in those roles,” she says.

A chance encounter with a documentary changed Hairston’s worldview—and career path.

After graduating with degrees in computer science and African American Studies, Hairston moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and settled into a full-time tech job. But Zimela tugged at her. She kept working on it, and explored resources like the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp.

Zimela launched on the App Store the week of WWDC 2019. “I think it was meant to be,” she says.

Every day I try to create an opportunity for someone to reach their goals.

That November, she quit her job to work full-time on Zimela and continue the plan of paying it forward. Today she’s taking things further: Zimela is now part of a startup called EdLyft that Hairston founded with Arnelle Ansong. EdLyft is a paid support program that helps college students with STEM classes by providing mentorship, group tutoring, and personalized tools—like Zimela. She remembers a first-generation college student who wrote to say how the app enabled her to find the resources she needed to go to school. “That was the first message that made me cry,” Hairston says.

And she++, whose documentary introduced her to coding in the first place? You can connect with the organization in Zimela.


    Career opportunities & stories