Inspiring Young Girls To Pursue STEM Careers: The Story of Non-Profit Startup SheHeroes

Verna GibbsDina Yuen was lucky enough to catch up with SheHeroes co-founder Dr. Sophia Yen and Director Pia Guerrero to get more insight into how this non-profit startup functions and vitally, encourages young women to enter traditionally "male" careers.

We've come a long, long way since only decades ago when in America, women could not vote and where in most parts of the world, our lives' worth was pinned to the man we married. Our predecessors fought hard for the rights we have today - the right to a life we want, to fair salaries and fair opportunities, rights we are inherently born with but did not always have (and in some cases, still do not).

As far as we've come, there is still a long journey ahead for women to have true equality across all industries.

Equalizing the professional field begins as young as in elementary school, where young girls with bright, untainted minds could be encouraged and guided to dream whatever their young minds are capable of. That's exactly why a group of phenomenal women decided to co-found a non-profit startup called SheHeroes.

SheHeroes focuses on encouraging young girls aged 8 to 14 to pursue careers in "non-traditionally female" paths, particularly careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through their web series featuring interviews with successful professional women.

SheHeroes believes that reinforcing the right mentality in girls from a young age has profound long term effects. Instead of telling girls that they should aim to become flight attendants, teachers or marketing specialists, (not that those aren't valuable professions), SheHeroes wants to broaden girls' horizons into pursuing what are still male-dominated industries.

I recently had a chat with SheHeroes co-founder Dr. Sophia Yen and Director Pia Guerrero.

DY: When was SheHeroes founded?

SY & PG: In October 2009, SheHeroes became an official 501(c) non-profit organization.

DY: How did the idea of SheHeroes come about?

SY & PG: “Mommy, where are the girls?” This question, asked by Sue Nagle’s then four-year-old daughter, was the genesis for SheHeroes, where we educate and empower young girls by sharing the stories of extraordinary female role models in diverse careers. Shocked that her daughter was noticing gender issues at such a young age, Sue shared pictures of successful women in male-dominated roles such as chefs, CEOs and police officers. The mother-daughter conversations that followed revealed to Sue the need for young girls and boys to engage with women role models, particularly those who have overcome challenges and faced adversity in their lives.

DY: How was the SheHeroes team assembled?

SY & PG: In September 2008, Sue Nagle began exploring the concept of SheHeroes with MIT classmates Cynthia Closkey, a web developer, and Dr. Sophia Yen. In October 2009, SheHeroes became an official 501(c) non-profit organization.

DY: What have been some of the bigger obstacles in getting a non-profit startup off the ground?

SY & PG: Fundraising is the biggest obstacle. Since the recession, a lot of funders and foundations switched their priorities to fund basic needs instead of youth development programs like ours. Like everything else, funders go through fads and right now what we do is not “in” despite the clear need for engaging youth in sustainable careers. As a result, we have relied 99% on individual donors and are very grateful for that support. But it is difficult to expand when we are constantly looking for new funders to fund our day-to-day work.

We have minimal staff that wear a lot of hats and rely on volunteers to help out, but that comes with its own set of challenges. 

DY: How and why did the team decide on the particular age range that SheHeroes targets?

SY & PG: Youths aged 8 - 14 are at a very precarious time in their lives. They are susceptible to bullying, peer pressure, and unhealthy behaviors associated with low-self esteem. The media has a huge impact on how youths at this age view themselves.

Girls in particular are the target of a multi-billion dollar pink marketing machine that includes everything from dolls to clothes, products that tell girls they should aspire to be princesses, that math is hard for girls and that boys are the priority.

Also between 8 -11 girls start losing interest in math and science; it’s no coincidence that women represented realistically in the media from diverse fields are a rarity.

Because of this impressionable time, both girls and boys need to see women represented in many non-traditional fields so that reality becomes the norm when they grow up.

DY: Are there particular fields where women still face a tremendous amount of obstacles in entering or succeeding? If so, why do you think these obstacles still exist in these particular fields?

SY & PG: There are obstacles in every non-traditional field, but the ones suffering the most right now are science, engineering, math and technology (STEM), especially computer science. Only 18% of computer science degrees go to women. That's a big decrease from 37% in the 1980s). Many reasons, especially a lack of role models, exposure to these fields at a young age, and stereotypes perpetuated about women and girls in marketing and media contribute to this decline and the over representation of men in STEM fields in general.

According to a recent study by Google, girls have little exposure to technology and computer sciences, which doesn't mean they aren’t interested (a previous misconception). It’s believed if parents, friends and teachers encourage their daughters to pursue computer sciences, then the demand will increase, schools will offer more courses, and there will be more role models available.

Leadership positions in medicine and surgical fields are also still lacking women.

Although about 70% or more of the pediatric workforce are now women, most of the department and division heads are still men.

DY: What fields do you feel that there needs to be far greater numbers of women in and why?

SY & PG: All fields in STEM, business and politics. The traditional "female" careers in nursing, teaching, veterinary, dental and marine biology are saturated with women.

DY: What has been one of the more successful methods of fundraising for SheHeroes?

SY & PG: Partnering with women entrepreneurs and good corporate citizens. For example, Eileen Fisher has a day each year where each store chooses a non-profit they want to benefit. We were honored when our Executive Director was able to secure 3 stores in LA to commit to SheHeroes. House parties have also been successful and are where we have been introduced to most of our donors.

DY: How does SheHeroes reach out to the parents of the young girls you hope to inspire?

SY & PG: We partner with other youth serving non-profits and groups that have a large social media presence with parents and their children. We are also building our presence through school presentations, Facebook presence and through Girl Scout troops, PTA groups and parent email list. 

DY: What is the ultimate goal of SheHeroes?

SY & PG: We hope to be the “School House Rock of our time" in that we want people to say "I became X, because I saw a SheHeroes video about it" either through their school, with their parent, or their after-school program e.g. Girls on the Run, Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts, etc.

We want a world where young people can envision women working in and succeeding in every field and where men and women are equally represented in all professions.

Of Chinese and Russian heritage, Dina Yuen is an entrepreneur, published author, journalist, musician, chef and CEO of multimedia company AsianFusion. She was the youngest to ever graduate from the Nila Chandra Culinary Academy at 12 years old before going on to study Industrial Engineering and Classical Piano. She has traveled extensively throughout Asia working with orphans and rescuing young girls forced into prostitution- issues she continues to support as a voice for women’s and children’s rights.

She is currently developing several product lines under the AsianFusion and AsianFusionGirl brands, creating her first television series and writing her third and fourth books. Dina is based in San Francisco. Her websites are Asian-Fusion.com and AsianFusionGirl.com.

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