It’s Saturday morning and a group of middle schoolers are fidgeting with gadgets that look like missing parts of a gutted computer. Carefully examining the unfamiliar pieces, apprehensiveness slowly turned into surreal confidence as participants of the Maydm’s Maker’s Epic Experience program discovered there is space for them in the world of developing technology.
That confidence was acutely evident especially in the eyes of the girls and students of color who attended the day’s event at Epic Systems Deep Space Building in Verona on Dec. 7. The group is learning how to code, develop wearable technology, and program their own animation and story characters.
“I made this watch,” said Bakari Dillard, an 11-year-old from Patrick Marsh Middle School. “It’s a rock-paper-scissors watch. It’s been fun. I’ve already told my mom that I want to be a game developer when I grow up.”
Bakari is one of many students fulfilling Maydm’s mission of teaching marginalized students the importance of learning how they can impact positive change in their communities by helping them gain access to technology and digital skills.
Winnie Karanja, Maydm’s founder and executive director, is the brainchild behind the event that she dubbed as an “exposure event” which gives over 100 youngsters the opportunity to enter a realm not readily available to them in their schools or communities. Innovations resulting from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields have positively touched nearly every aspect of human life. Karanja has made it her personal mission of making diversity a culture, not a buzzword.
“In the beginning we focused on third through twelfth-grade students,” Karanja said. “In 2018 we refined our mission to serve sixth through twelfth-grade students in immersive programs to gain skills to prepare them for employment.”
It’s no wonder Karanja was inducted in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list Class of 2020. Since the list’s inception nine years ago, Forbes has grown the 30 Under 30 alumni network to include more than 5,000 individuals throughout the world. Being named a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree carries a lifelong reputation of embodying the innovative, revolutionary, and entrepreneurial spirit that the organization represents.
Humbled by the recognition, the Kenya-born Karanja has a razor-sharp focus on bringing diversity to the technical and STEM fields, which are substantially underrecruiting minority groups. That trend begins long before college and career — it starts at home and in schools. Low-income students who may not be able to afford a home computer or home WiFi are less likely to develop skills like coding.
Karanja is fighting to close that gap by training girls and youth of color on the skills needed to work in the technology sector.
“When I started Maydm five years ago, I knew the importance of getting students engaged early on and introducing them to coding, software, computer programing, along with logical and analytical thinking and creative problem solving,” said Karanja, who started the company from her apartment on Madison’s west side. “Maydm is empowering young people to become makers of technology.”
The company’s goal is to offer innovative quality STEM/Technology programming to solve real educational, socio-economic and workforce development challenges in our community. By 2030, African Americans could experience the disruptive forces of automation from a distinctly disadvantaged position, partially because they are often overrepresented in the “support roles” that are most likely to be affected by automation, such as truck drivers, food service workers and office clerks, according to Laura Ford-Harris, Maydm’s director of development.
In 2017, Wisconsin had only 1,190 computer science graduates. Of those, 17% were female available to fill 6,712 open computing jobs. In 2018, 1,498 AP computer science exams were taken by high school students across the state; only 20% were taken by female students; and, less than 1% by Black, Hispanic, and Native students, according to Code.org.
“If we don’t include a more diverse group in the STEM design process, we risk losing out on vital innovation and competitive advantage,” Ford-Harris stressed.
A Huffington Post article points out that excluding women from the design of car airbags, for instance, had a deadly effect, because women were generally shorter and sat closer to the steering wheel. The same goes for the tech industry – without a range of perspectives, it limits the ability to understand and design for customers, and undermine the continued relevance and growth as an industry. Not only is including a more diverse group in the design process the right thing to do, it’s just good business.
Additionally, the representation of women, and people of color holds pocketbook implications for workers. STEM jobs have relatively high earnings compared with many non-STEM jobs, and the earnings gap persists even after controlling for educational attainment.
For instance, the average salary for a computing occupation in Wisconsin is $75,912, which is significantly higher than the average salary in the state of $45,240. The existing open jobs alone represent a $516,277,512 opportunity in terms of annual salaries, studies have shown.
“A diverse and inclusive workforce helps businesses avoid employee turnover costs,” Ford-Harris said. “Diversity fosters a more creative and innovative workforce. … Diversity in the workplace is necessary to create a competitive economy in a globalized world.”
Olubukola “Bukky” Leonard, who earned an engineering degree and works in education, worked as a volunteer and chaperone for Maydm’s Makers Epic Experience. Learning programming languages to create and design their own websites, Android apps, programmable hardware and 3D CAD modeling in 2020 were all important skills taught during the event.
“I wanted to do more community service work outside of my job and when I saw that Maydm is led by a Black woman, I thought how cool is this?” Leonard said. “Seeing these kids access programming at a kid-friendly level was really cool because I know it’s something that can spark interest in wanting to learn more. The kid-friendly programming will help them build on really good skills that they learned here today.”