Beckman High School junior Sara Du doesn't look like a tech phenom. The soft-spoken 16-year-old admits she never got the best grades growing up. And UC Irvine's app-development camp for high schoolers rejected her when she applied in 2015.
"After I got rejected, I was like, 'I might as well try on my own,'" Du says.
Two years later, Du went from not knowing how to permanently delete files on a computer to earning a Young Innovators to Watch award—part of the Mobile Apps Showdown at the Consumer Electronics Show, the largest tech trade show in the world. The self-taught techie won the award for Bluejay, its name a play on the word Bluetooth and the
Bluejay helps emergency responders find people stranded in natural-disaster areas by collecting data from victim's phones via drone. The data is then used to create a map. She got the inspiration after getting stranded one night at Irvine Regional Park in an area with no wireless signal. "It was scary," the teen says. "I remember it was getting dark, lights were turning on, and it was quiet."
She worked on the app nearly every day for half a year before stumbling upon the Young Innovators to Watch contest. Du submitted Bluejay minutes before the deadline, without even testing its software and hardware components. To Du's surprise, she won.
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Prior to her victory, Du's background in tech consisted of studying Beginning iPhone Development With Swift, spending an hour or two every day learning to write code for a year, then launching her first app, Flappy Nation, a spin on Angry Birds with birds depicting presidential candidates. Soon after Flappy Nation, Du joined Meetup groups such as OC iOS, where she noticed a low female representation in tech and age discrimination, the latter of which she says she encounters far more often than that of gender. "Once I can prove to people who are older that I'm capable of doing things, then they have a lot of respect," she says. "But at first it's like, 'I'm just a kid.'"
Du has proven herself quickly. OC iOS' youngest member is already an assistant organizer; she speaks at panels, recruits student members and is even contracted by her peers to help with projects. "I think I'm less of a black sheep now," Du says, laughing as she explains that her parents, who are originally from China, initially didn't like her tech hobby because it distracted her from doing homework. After winning the award, Du's parents are now more encouraging of her interests.
"I'm actually not as intense as people think I am," she says, adding that she also dabbles in film and photography. "I think you should let kids relax while they're young . . . figure out what you're interested in."