How do we cultivate more women CEOs, especially women of color? How do we show them the path to becoming a woman in STEAM? I have been making strides in male-dominated territory for most of my career, and my daughters are better off because of it. They've watched me take my seat at the table. When it comes to STEAM fields, keeping young girls interested is rare, and at higher levels of expertise, this becomes incredibly obvious. When it comes to women of color, this is even more true. We could have an entire conversation about poverty, education, and who is affected the most, but rather than hit the same talking points, I want to focus on solutions.
Seek The Anomalies
Jessie Woolley-Wilson is the CEO of Dreambox Learning, an adaptive, online K-8 math program designed to complement classroom instruction and deliver results. Her path to CEO had less to do with a focus on becoming a CEO, and more to do with making an impact, a narrative more children regardless of race or gender should hear, more often. With that in mind, it begs the question: what else do female African American students need to build a foundation that will support their career in STEAM? Between Jessie Woolley-Wilson and I, we narrowed this down to 5 defining things young girls of color need to be able to succeed on their own terms.
5 Keys to Clearing the Path for African American Women in STEAM
Excellent Parenting: Discipline, structure and diverse exposure are key components to any child's success. Jessie Woolley-Wilson recognizes her parents as being an integral piece of her success puzzle. I am grateful for mine as well.
Challenge: There should be a strong emphasis on failure: learning how to fail, without it costing a student everything, so they can also learn to iterate, and try again, until they find what works. In order for this to happen, you have to challenge the mind of the student, so they learn that dealing with challenge isn't the sign that it's time to give in. This resilience and persistence comes from being challenged, being allowed to fail, and eventually overcoming.
Safe Failure: More than that, failure in a safe environment. Capitalizing on mistakes, as a woman, means you have to see, share, and understand where you fumble. There is so much power in failing forward, and using those lessons, and stories to propel yourself, and those around you forward. The goal should be to cultivate curiosity, and failure as an exploration, to change the way students interact with material. This is inherently motivational, and helps to hold the confidence and attention of students.
Community Support: Whether this be in the form of mentorship, or just refusing to feed the same stereotypes and narratives, these young girls need their village to step up and stand behind them as they navigate unknown territory and chart new courses into, what will undoubtedly be, the future of tech, design, mathematics, science, engineering, and even business. "Great leaders help people see past impediments, to possibilities." Woolley-Wilson recalls her mother telling her this from a young age, and laughs about not really listening back then, not realizing the true wisdom is what her mother was trying to teach her.
Education, Education, Education: Perhaps that's why she ended up where she did, in the tech sector with a passion for helping kids learn, but whatever the reason, Woolley-Wilson says the biggest resource a child has is an education. And maybe not the education we are seeing right now, but something that elicits learning how to learn, and a strong ability to grow.
Growth Mindset Drivers
Right now, our educational approach tells us that success is measured by getting an answer right, rather than trial and error, and iterating toward something that works.
This growth mindset is lost on an entire generation, where they are more focused on having the right answer versus focusing on how they are thinking. They have to learn how to learn, to remake their skill sets over and over again, so that they can adapt, as the world around them evolves. As Woolley-Wilson aptly noted, "So they aren't defined by what they learned in grade school or high school or college, they are defined by their capacity, and their enthusiasm for growth and learning new skills. These will not be the survivors or thrivers of the next century, they will be the drivers."
An Opportunity For Leadership Is Made
There is genius, right now, in places neither you nor I would ever go looking for genius, because we aren't used to genius coming from those places. That genius is the potential leader for our future, and it could be resting in the young hands of an African American girl who loves Math and tech, or uses design and 3D printing to change the way the world poops. It is up to us to cultivate the mindset of these young leaders so whatever path to impact they feel drawn to, is also a clear path to success and a better world.
We have to start young, educating and challenging, encouraging, and supporting. And if we get this right, the next generation of African American females in STEAM will not think about their limitations, they will only see opportunity.