The kick-off of the first Young Women’s Initiative (YWI) Dream STEM Lead cohort was September 21, hosted by WFMN and longtime girlsBEST grantee-partner uCodeGirl, based in the Fargo/Moorhead region. The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Best Buy, and uCodeGirl are working in partnership to host YWI Dream STEM Lead, a six-week virtual and tech-centered entrepreneurial experience for young women of color, ages 16 to 24. Through YWI Dream STEM Lead, a program initiated by young women for young women, participants will build leadership skills through relationships and mentorships, receive support to increase pathways to STEM careers resulting in a BestBuy participant certification, and increase awareness of their own potential to advance STEM solutions.

During the program, participants will generate ideas to solve socioeconomic problems in their communities using technology. With the assistance of women in STEM as professional mentors, participants will work in teams to design, prototype, and test solutions for the problems they identify that are relevant to them and their communities. The program combines the foundational concepts of software design, leadership traits, entrepreneurship, and the important work of social justice. Participants will gain 21st century skills such as critical thinking, communication, creative problem solving, and collaboration, all important skills in today’s digital workforce.

The new cohort includes 38 participants who will receive direct mentorship in small groups with software professionals, particularly young women of color. The YWI Dream STEM Lead collaborative was designed to increase young women in STEM and mid- to high-wage fields and to harness the power of young women who are already leading in social justice. YWI Dream STEM Lead was designed with the input of WFMN’s Young Women’s Cabinet to meet the immediate and long-term needs of youth participants in increasing pathways to STEM careers.

Bethlehem Gronneberg, founder of uCodeGirl grounded participants to unlock their potential and engineer their world. She shared a quote from Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Participants are grouped together based on their age range that puts them in the same sphere of lived experiences, such as high school, college and out of school. “Their diversity of interests makes for great brainstorming and ideation,” she said.

She shared, “uCodeGirl is excited to kick off the YWI Dream STEM Lead program design for young women of color in partnership with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and Best Buy. This initiative aligns with uCodeGirl’s vision of helping young women become the driving force of innovation in technology. As software changes the way we live, work, and interact with each other, we at uCodeGirl are dedicated to helping see a world where the people who create and build technology products and services mirror the people and societies for which they create and build. That means diversity of thoughts starting from product idea generation, research, design, development, prototype, and up to testing and support.”

In the YWI Dream STEM Lead program, participants will get to explore the various ways computer science can solve complex real-world problems to make the world more healthy, more safe, and more just. “By connecting young women with relatable women mentors who are also software professionals, we hope to help enhance the self-efficacy of young women to explore possibilities in the tech industry so that they can bridge the gap between them and their full potential,” Bethlehem said.

At the kickoff, new cohort participants were joined by Andrea Riehl, associate director of Social Impact at Best Buy, who spoke about the need for women and women of color representation in STEM fields.

Gary Bolles, author of The Next Rules of Work and chair in the Future of Work at Singularity University, addressed the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset. The most pressing question for the future is not the lack of work, he said, but the need for individuals to acquire new skills and capabilities to constantly adapt in an ever-changing environment. He challenged the young women in the Dream STEM Lead cohort to fall in love with addressing important problems in their communities, and addressed making an impact using what he calls the three legged stool: the Mindset, Toolset, Skillset.

Participants also heard from Helen Woldesenebetw, a software engineer at Twitter and a mentor at uCodeGirl, who shared her journey to becoming a software engineer. She described how belonging to a supportive community on campus has helped her persist in the challenging college experiences as an immigrant and black woman in technology. Helen said insights from rejection experiences, focused grit, and multiple internships built her confidence to hone her professional skills and decide where she wants to take her career. She suggests young women start exploring possibilities in tech by choosing a programming language and not being afraid to dive into it.

Finally, mentor, technologist, inventor and CEO Tishauna Wilson spoke about her tech entrepreneurship journey. She was named The “Black Female Mark Zuckerberg” by Black Enterprise in 2018 and one of the Top 10 Women in Tech by Essence Magazine. Currently, she is working on a startup named Tasckq, an extremely fast, automated online appointment scheduling software for enterprises and consumers. Tishauna talked about the importance of integrating social justice, technology, and lived-in experiences as she did with her work as an A.I. Research Intern at Google. Her 2019 summer was spent at Google as a researcher working on algorithms that aim to decrease bias in Google’s Automatic Speech Recognizer (ASR) as it relates to African American Vernacular English (AAVE). She was able to positively impact the racial disparities in automated speech recognition.

Dream STEM Lead will begin a second cohort in the spring.

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