Dr. Laine Bledsoe,
Tech Sassy Girlz,
– Women hold only 25% of technology career roles, according to a report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Asian women make up 5% of that number, African American women make up 3% and Hispanic women account for 1%
I thought it would take ‘Bill Gates amounts’ of money, but what it really took was passion, drive and a village who can lend its unwavering support for our mission.
Dr. Laine Powell, the founder and executive director of Tech Sassy Girlz, sees a different future. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t be what you don’t see. Representation matters. Diversity and inclusion are important not only as it relates to race and gender, but also in varied thoughts and perspectives. It allows for creative solution development to whatever problem you’re trying to solve. When perspectives of women and minorities are not included, you miss a big piece of the innovation puzzle.”
When she founded the nonprofit in 2012, she set out to complete that puzzle by bringing young women to the table to explore their vast potential and widen the world of STEM.
When Powell needed a computer for her freshman year at the University of Florida, her brother built her one. “I was fascinated by the process of how he built it. And the fact that it actually worked!” Around the same time, she was spending her date nights with her now-husband, Courtney, a double major in electrical engineering and computer science, in the engineering library.
“Lucky me, right?” she laughed. Powell was drawn to the field and excited to attend conferences and tech events with him — and it was at those events that something became apparent to her. “The one theme that was consistent was that there were hardly any women who attended, especially any women who looked like me.”
Powell knew she wanted to change that. “I really wanted to address the lack of representation in STEM, to make a difference in diversifying the tech pipeline. How can girls develop that curiosity if they are never given that opportunity?” She set out to give them one.
Tech Sassy Girlz started at the National Entrepreneur Center in Orlando with 40 students in 2012. At the annual Tech Sassy Girlz Day Conference in October 2019, the number had jumped to 500. “We couldn’t do that without partners who are genuinely interested in not only the success of the girls, but in ensuring that they have a wide range of opportunities within STEM,” Powell said.
The University of Central Florida College of Engineering and Computer Science and UCF CREATE donate space for Powell and her team to hold the conference and to host their summer camp programs.
At the conference, partners show up in droves. “NASA does an engineering design challenge, Oracle Academy conducts a coding class for first-timers, and there’s a financial literacy workshop. Our partnership with the Ford Motor Company helped us introduce the automotive industry to the girls in a significant way. In 2017, Ford brought a brand new Ford Mustang from Michigan. The car wasn’t even on any lots yet! Ford’s vehicle operations launch engineer, a woman who actually worked on the vehicle, discussed the engineering and technology behind it. We literally went under the hood. She also discussed how she became interested in cars.”
Women in unique jobs hold court on a “Cool Careers in STEM” panel, where roles like gamers, instructional designers and other nontraditional fields are spotlighted. “Every year, we work hard to organize a compelling conference that will challenge and stimulate our girls to have the courage, enthusiasm and interest to pursue STEM careers.”
Working with Amazon, Tech Sassy Girlz was able to introduce the Sassy STEM lab. The mobile lab can go into spaces that otherwise do not have the connectivity or computer systems necessary to allow access to these programs, bringing opportunity to more students.
In another program, Tech Treks, the girls can visit companies across industries to see what STEM careers at each look like. Hosts for the groups have included Orlando International Airport, Lockheed Martin, the City of Orlando, the University of Florida and woman-owned tech company Simetri. Orlando City Soccer invited the girls out to Exploria Stadium, walking them through the behind-the-scenes technology that goes into producing a game.
Powell and her partners are changing how girls understand STEM and their role in it, and in that way they are changing the world. By encouraging girls to work together, embrace their passions, break stereotypes and lead the pack, Powell believes a more diverse, innovative and exciting future is possible.
“Sometimes all it takes is showing an interest and encouraging the girls,” she said. “We try to be positive reinforcement. When you’re in a room full of people who care about you and are interested in your development, if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s OK. We can figure it out together.”