By Christa Santos
Inspiring young girls to become the innovators, entrepreneurs and pioneers of the future is the mission of Dr. Laine Powell, founder and executive director of Tech Sassy Girlz (TSG), a nonprofit organization that encourages middle and high school girls to explore and pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“More and more careers will require digital and technical skills, and getting girls curious about math and science at a young age gives them a base layer to build upon,” Powell said. “We are focused on helping these girls become the makers of our future.”
Women are vastly underrepresented in STEM, and bridging the gender gap has become a national priority. Studies reinforce that girls’ interest in STEM peaks in middle school but drops off in high school. Microsoft recently conducted a survey in Europe that found girls gain interest in STEM at age 11 but then lose that interest at age 15. Researchers say one reason is because of societal norms that steer them away from male-dominated fields.
Founded in 2012 under the original name of Collegiate Pathways, Tech Sassy Girlz was created to encourage young women to explore and pursue interests in STEM fields through college preparation, career readiness, mentoring and entrepreneurship. TSG provides free year-round programming for girls through its after-school programs TSG Code and Pearls in Tech as well as internships and mentoring opportunities that are helping prepare girls for high-paying STEM-focused jobs.
By encouraging girls in middle and high school to become interested in STEM, TSG has impacted the lives of more than 800 middle and high school girls and awarded more than $25,000 in STEM scholarships. TSG has successfully placed its Pearls in Tech students in six-week paid internships in the City of Orlando’s information technology department and Central Florida software company AceApplications LLC. Over the years, TSG has conducted hackathons and summer camps in computer science, graphic design, gaming and entrepreneurship. The organization has also organized visits to companies to introduce students to STEM.
Defining the Problem
STEM jobs are among the most in demand and highest paid. In the United States, engineering and computing careers earn almost twice as much as the national average. However, there is a significant shortage of women in STEM fields.
By 2026, it is expected that 3.5 million U.S. job openings will be in computing-related fields. However, the percentage of female graduates with core STEM degrees is still just 26%.
This figure carries into the STEM workforce, with women making up only 22%. In 2018, the computing workforce was only 3% African American women and 2% Hispanic women. This shows some work needs to be done to encourage young women to both study these subjects and transition into the workforce. Computer science, engineering and technology fields show the largest gender imbalances.
Gathering November 8 on National STEM Day at the Orlando Science Center, TSG hosted its annual signature fundraising event, Tea and Bytes, to build corporate support and awareness of its mission. The program is generating national attention. TSG announced a grant for more than $22,000 from the Nielsen Foundation, as well as a private matching gift of $10,000 from the CEO of a local woman-owned technology business.
Funds raised enable TSG to expand its footprint and encourage more girls throughout the region to get involved in STEM. Additional major corporate supporters include Ford, Best Buy, Oracle Academy and Wells Fargo.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer attended the event, praising TSG for its accomplishments and success since its inception. He offered his continued support of TSG’s career readiness program, Pearls in Tech, tailored for high school girls at select Central Florida high schools, with a curriculum focused on entrepreneurship, graphic design, software development and web design. TSG is a recipient of the mayor’s Matching Grants Program, which is awarded to schools and nonprofit organizations for projects that offer educational enhancement, academic enrichment, crime prevention and anti-violence for the city’s youth.
Capturing the symbolism of the butterfly as its mascot, TSG represents the embodiment of growth and transcendence. Equally elegant and beautiful, the butterfly symbolizes hope and a new way of ascending to a higher self. Tapping into her higher education and technology background of more than 20 years, Powell is passionate about empowering girls by leveraging technology to address the gender and diversity gap in STEM. TSG’s humble beginnings started with 40 girls in 2012 at the National Entrepreneur Center in Orlando. The organization recently reached more than 800 girls with its mobile STEM lab, bringing technology across Orlando. Additionally, the annual Tech Sassy Girlz Day Conference in October at the University of Central Florida attracted the interest of more than 500 girls and a waitlist of more than 100.
With the efforts of committed organizations like Tech Sassy Girlz, the faces of STEM are steadily changing. Working in partnership with parents and teachers to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers, TSG offers a path for women to become more equally represented in STEM fields. The support from grants and corporations make it possible to provide no-cost programming and outreach.