Delve Talks is a podcast that digs into the challenges around design, product development, leadership and innovation. Our third season continues to explore how leaders help create a culture that supports innovation, especially with the stressors and new opportunities that businesses face during the pandemic.
Dave Franchino and I had the opportunity to talk with Winnie Karanja, Founder and Executive Director of Maydm, a Madison-based organization which provides girls and youth of color in grades six to 12 skill- based training in the technology sector. We were interested in talking with her about the need for diversity in tech and how her organization is breaking down barriers.
Winnie shared some great insights on the social structures that hold far too many kids back and how concerned whites can play a role in moving the cause of racial justice forward. Below are a few highlights:
Don’t let others talk you out of doing the tough stuff that matters to you.
As a high school student, Winnie had a passion for both math and the social sciences. Her teachers pushed her into the “easier” path of social sciences rather than encourage her interest in STEM subjects. During her undergraduate years, she learned how to code as part of a job she had with an NGO and it ignited her passion for combining both interests into a career and later, a vocation to teach kids from under-represented communities how to code.
Be willing to take a hard look at what works and what doesn’t and adjust.
Maydm originally held classes for kids from third to 12th grade and the younger kids loved what they called “STEM Club.” But Winnie realized that to make the impact on the technology industry that she was seeking and gain funding from businesses (who were looking for a hiring pipeline), she needed to focus on skills-based training for older kids.
Paint the picture
People can only picture what they’ve been exposed to, so help them see what’s possible.
There’s a need to create environments where children can see that STEM fields are for them, no matter their race or sex. They need people in the industry to show them how they work and the potential careers available. They need to see people like them succeeding in those fields. They need mentors and educators who encourage them to pursue the harder subjects and more ambitious careers.
Winnie said she’s asked why there aren’t more people of color in STEM fields and it’s a cultural and systemic problem. There’s a culture and norms around STEM that traditionally have been overwhelmingly white and male. It’s difficult to navigate for people outside that group. Changing the approach to teaching STEM classes and creating a more inclusive tech environment are part of what’s needed. Waiting to make those changes at the college-level is too late.
Start with yourself, listen, and then partner
When asked how white people can help support social justice, Winnie suggested that people continue to work on themselves, understand their biases, and to listen when interacting with communities of color rather than coming in with a preordained solution. From there, it’s about partnering with other organizations to pilot new ideas and help them do the work they’re already doing.
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