Empowered Girlz Power the World: Tech Sassy Girlz Aims to Close the Tech Gender Gap and Solve the Leaky Pipeline

What is the common denominator between Sheryl Sandberg and Laine Powell, M.Ed., MSM, founder and executive director of Tech Sassy Girlz? Both are graduates of North Miami Beach Senior High School and advocates working to close the gender gap in STEM industries. Inspired by the career success of Sandberg, Powell has embarked upon an endeavor combining her passion and desire to make a positive impact in the lives of adolescent girls while changing the face of high tech.

Igniting a Passion 

During her freshman year at the University of Florida, Powell developed an initial love for computers as a self-taught techie. It began when her eldest brother, Israel Mathias, a management information systems graduate, built his first computer. She was fascinated by the process and intrigued by how he assembled the components. While at UF, Powell met her future husband, Courtney. He was a computer and electrical engineering major. Her passion for computing ignited as she read his computer science books and magazines, along with attending technical-engineering events together. At these events, Powell quickly noticed few were women, let alone diverse. Although Powell’s interest piqued in computer science, she did not have the confidence to pursue a computer science or engineering degree because she did not know any women working in these fields to serve as mentors or role models.

Transforming into a Butterfly  

Motivated to change this high-tech gender gap, Powell created a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering middle and high school girls to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields through college preparation, career readiness, and mentoring. Thus, Tech Sassy Girlz was born under the original charter of Collegiate Pathways in 2012. Capturing the symbolism of the butterfly as its mascot, TSG would come to represent the embodiment of growth and transcendence, as it does from caterpillar to butterfly. While equally elegant and beautiful, the butterfly transforms to embrace a new way of ascending to a higher self.

Tapping into her higher education background of more than 20 years working with students at UF, Pennsylvania State University, University of Central Florida and Valencia College, coupled with the lack of women in STEM fields, Powell became passionate about helping girls become makers and content creators instead of consumers.

Over the years, Powell’s efforts with TSG have been recognized by her three nominations as a White House Champion of Change for Young Women Empowering Communities; Computer Science Education and Extracurricular Enrichment for Marginalized Girls; Community Champion by the Orlando Magic; and, several other community and professional awards.

Moving the Needle

Powell credits her work ethic to her father.

“Growing up, I watched my parents work excessive hours to ensure that my siblings and I had what we needed,” Powell said. “My recollection of my mother is very vague as she died when I was seven. After this happened, my father went into overdrive. He ensured we were never left without anything, even if it meant he had to work overtime.”

Although she is currently pursuing her doctorate in instructional technology and distance education, she does not skip a beat and sees TSG as her way of moving the needle to close the gender gap in tech and solve the leaky pipeline in the STEM crisis. TSG provides access for girls to develop 21st century computing skills that will help them embrace their passion and recognize their potential in STEM fields.

Decreasing the Tech Gender Gap

According to national research, in 2018, eight million STEM jobs will be available in the United States, but the vast majority of students will be unprepared to fill the need. Fifty-one percent of all STEM jobs are projected to be in computer science-related fields. The federal government alone requires an additional 10,000 IT and Cyber-Security professionals, and the private sector needs many more. STEM fields are at the core of the nation’s innovation.

The shortage of female skilled workers and students within STEM is alarming. Stats vary by country and discipline, but generally speaking, women make up only 15 to 25 percent of the current STEM workforce; and, the gap is broadening. The future growth of STEM jobs is expected to skyrocket; yet, a lack of women in these fields means fewer female role models, both for current female STEM employees and young girls still forming career choices. Additionally, the tendency for STEM jobs to pay higher wages means the lack of women in these roles contributes to the gender salary gap.

“Growing up, I have always been extremely inquisitive about the world around me,” Kharis Hughes, TSG alumni and Americorp VISTA Marketing Coordinator for TSG, said. “This curiosity led me to a love of science, and eventually to Tech Sassy Girlz. What initially drew me to the program was its interest in developing young minds of girls, like myself, who seldom saw people that looked like us, advancing in STEM fields. Being able to develop meaningful business relationships with minority women making strides in STEM has given me, among numerous other young ladies, the confidence to pursue any dream.”

Impacting the Lives of Girls 

Under Powell’s leadership, TSG has evolved to impact the lives of more than 700 girls, awarding ten scholarships and performing 1,000 hours of community service with programs in South Florida and Central Florida. The program offers informative, educational and hands-on workshops, such as Tech Sassy Girlz Code, after-school programs, summer camps, college tours, hack-a-thons, pitch competitions, career development conferences, the annual Tea & “bytes” scholarship award luncheon, and a chance to attend Tech Treks to various STEM-related companies throughout the year. By introducing young girls to successful women within STEM careers, TSG encourages the transformation of thinking due to stereotyping girls as “less capable” in these fields.

“Through this amazing program, I have access to informative events, educational experiences and entrepreneurial opportunities that have contributed to my knowledge, growth, and maturity,” said Aneesa LeJiste, TSG member since 2012. “In a mostly male-dominated field, I realize as a female, if I put my mind to it, I can work hard and thrive in a STEM career. As a 9th grader, I already know what I want to accomplish, where I plan on attending college and my major of study. Without a caring, compassionate and considerate person like Mrs. Laine, who ensures girls receive opportunities not always easily available to most, and who guides us in a positive path, I do not know what path I would be traveling. I appreciate her commitment, dedication, and support to helping girls like me follow our dreams and receive an education.”

Improving Awareness with Ford 

Recently, TSG hosted the sixth annual Tech Sassy Girlz Day Conference at UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. The goal of the conference was to improve awareness of education, career opportunities and services for middle and high school girls by increasing participation, retention and advancement of girls and women in STEM fields. Presented by Oracle Academy and powered by Ford, the conference opened with a proclamation from City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and included hands-on tech demonstrations, coding workshops, engineering design challenges by NASA, a UCF maker lab and campus tour.

The girls had the chance to network with women business leaders to learn more about STEM careers. This year’s program also included informative sessions geared toward parents along with a special Ford Tech Trek talk and vehicle immersion featuring the new 2018 Ford Mustang. The pinnacle moment of the conference was a $20K presentation from Ford awarding four $5K STEM scholarships.

“Ford was proud to partner with TSG and inspire young girls to Go Further in Tech, while also exploring different possibilities for a future in the world of STEM,” Ford Manager of Brand Strategy and Growth Audiences Raj Register said. “As an African-American woman and engineer, I am proud to be part of a life-changing program that not only mentors and motivates our youth, but encourages them to believe they can achieve their dreams.”

TSG’s newest initiative, Pearls in Tech is geared toward girls in grades 11 and 12 to address the need for a comprehensive program to equip students with 21st century technological skills, ensuring the sustainability of STEM careers. The program focuses on five areas including digital literacy, professional development, internships, college readiness, and entrepreneurship.

Encouraging Women to Pursue STEM

Programs like TSG are vital to encourage more women to go into STEM fields. In a country where the average woman still earns 77 cents for every dollar a man nets, getting more women into STEM could reduce the gender wage gap.

“Learning to code, solving analytical problems and building technical skills is the crux of TSG,” said Powell. “Technology is a great equalizer.”

Currently there are more jobs within STEM than any other industry, but equally important is these occupations are high paying. According to the National Council for Women and Information Technology, by 2020, the United States is expected to retain around 1.4 million computer specialist job openings. Women have the capability to hold 50 percent of those jobs. Yet, to reach the point where women earn 50 percent of STEM degrees and hold 50 percent of STEM jobs, action needs to start at the beginning. This is where TSG plans to fill the gap by empowering girls to power their world as makers and creators in tech.

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