Singer Janay Woodruff became interested in virtual reality technology for performances, and it prompted her to start a nonprofit aimed at helping women of color explore tech career opportunities. Photo by Nate Katsiaficas

What began as a fun addition to her stage act has turned into a serious mission for Portland singer Janay Woodruff.

Woodruff, who performs under the name JanaeSound, first became involved with virtual reality technology in 2019 during a concert at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. She wore motion-activated wrist bands that caused light to flash on a screen behind her as she moved, among other things. Woodruff, who is Black, began getting more interested in virtual reality technology and learned that very few of the people who work in the field are women of color. So she has decided to form a nonprofit called Coded by Young Women of Color to help change that.

She’s in the process of trying to raise $50,000 to put on a pilot program in Portland this summer that would provide some 350 hours of training in computer coding and other skills for 10 women of color between the ages of 18 and 30. As part of her effort to raise money and awareness, she is streaming a free concert Saturday at 8 p.m. on the State Theatre’s Facebook page, where she and three other acts will be seen performing. People watching can donate to Coded by Young Women of Color and have their donations matched by local businesses, including Martin’s Point Healthcare, Hannaford supermarkets and Bangor Savings Bank, Woodruff said.

Portland singer Janay Woodruff has started a non-profit organization called Coded by Young Women of Color, to help start women on tech careers. Photo courtesy of Janay Woodruff

Teaming with Yarn Corporation – a Portland company that builds social platforms for creating interactive experiences and stories – Woodruff is also offering virtual reality demonstration concerts as fundraisers. For those performances, people pay $300 and get VR headsets delivered to their homes that allow them to watch Woodruff and the other performers in an immersive, interactive virtual reality show. Tickets for a virtual reality show Saturday are sold out, but others are scheduled for April 3 and 10. Five headsets are available for each show.

“When I realized I didn’t see people who looked like me doing this work, I started to think about what barriers I could see and what I could do about them. I knew the barriers weren’t intelligence or drive,” said Woodruff, 31.

Woodruff says the pilot program of Coded by Young Women of Color will feature a training boot camp this summer with lessons taught by local people who work in technology. That will be followed by resume-building and opportunities with local tech partners, such as paid internships and job placements, Woodruff said. At this point, everyone involved with the program is a volunteer, but Woodruff said she’d like to hire instructors as well. The pilot program is currently accepting applicants, and priority will be given to those from Maine, though people who can commit to moving to and living in Maine will also be considered.


The free concert Saturday will feature Woodruff performing her mix of rock, soul and pop as part of a duo. Other local performers will include female hip-hop and R&B duo New Fame, poet Maya Williams and Veeva Banga, a dancer from South Sudan. The concert was recorded at the Halo at the Point studio in Portland.

The same performers appear in the 360-degree virtual reality performances, but in very different ways. When Woodruff performs her original song “Diamonds,” for instance, people using headsets can pick up diamonds floating on the screen and toss them or play with them during the song.

Woodruff’s partner in the virtual reality demonstration shows, Yarn Corporation, was also the company that spurred Woodruff’s interest in virtual reality. Her husband is a web developer for Big Room Studios, a company co-founded by Yarn’s chief executive officer, Sam Mateosian.

Woodruff and Mateosian at some point began talking about ways to combine music and VR and collaborated on the performance Woodruff did in 2019, which was part of a show organized by Creative Portland to showcase local artists, called “Hear Here.”

Woodruff was later invited to go with the staff of Yarn Corporation to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where she saw demonstrations of virtual reality technology and met VR professionals. It was there Woodruff said that she first realized there were very few women of color developing virtual reality technology or working in related fields. She did some research and found studies that proved what she thought, that women of color make up roughly 5 percent of the overall tech workforce, according to various reports.

Mateosian’s company is developing a virtual reality experience publishing platform, so working with Woodruff has been a way to test things out. Mateosian also likes being part of Woodruff’s effort to get a more diverse group of people working in tech.


“I think it’s always good to find more ways to lift people up,” said Mateosian.

Janay Woodruff – performing under the name JanaeSound – using virtual reality technology as part of her stage show at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium in 2019. Photo by Nate Katsiaficas

In addition to the businesses that have pledged to match donations, Coded by Young Women of Color is being supported in various ways by other local groups and businesses, including the State Theatre and the Portland-based Indigo Arts Alliance, a group aimed at cultivating the artistic development of people of African descent. Alliance co-founder and executive director Marcia Minter said Woodruff’s program will meet a dire need.

“The need for young women of color to have mentors, particularly other women of color as mentors, to help train in the tech field is just enormous,” said Minter. “Our mission (at Indigo Arts Alliance) is to amplify the voice and vision of Black and brown artists and creators. This work she’s doing hits right in our sweet spot.”

Woodruff said that the $300 price of viewing a virtual reality concert will not only go toward the pilot program to train young women this summer, it will pay for three women of color to be able to watch the demonstration themselves, possibly sparking their interest in technology.

“It’s a really intense experience,” Woodruff said of the virtual reality performances.

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