Richmond Magazine: Girl Power

Richmond Magazine

Be brave. Your only limit is you. Make it happen.
     These are the messages over 1,000 girls saw as they entered the Kenny Center at St. Catherine’s School on Friday during the Girls Innovate program as part of the school’s 125th anniversary celebration.
     St. Catherine’s School hosted the event with other Richmond schools, for elementary, middle and high school girls. Girls Innovate took place Oct. 9., just ahead of International Day of the Girl, created by the United Nations. On this day, various activist groups come together to discuss, challenge and advance the rights and growth opportunities for girls everywhere.
     St. Catherine’s is using Girls Innovate as a prototype program for other schools and organizations working to solve the problem of women being underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers. The school is hoping to attract more attention to STEM academics by focusing on technological areas of interest to the girls.
     As the program kicked off, the young ladies stood, clapped and sang along to Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.” Then Courtney Ferrell, event emcee and a 1992 graduate of St. Catherine’s School, took the stage.
     Ferrell immediately professed the importance of females having a strong support system with their peers. Her mission, according to a pamphlet distributed at the event, is to “provide girls with actions and language that will help them put common (and uncommon) sense into practice without compromising who they are.”
     Ferrell introduced iLuminate to the stage, an entertainment group created by Miral Kotb, that combines technology and dancing to create a fantastic audience experience. The performers came on stage in complete darkness. In the pitch black, the music began, and parts of the dancers' costumes were illuminated. The girls in the audience screamed in delight during the creatively choreographed show.
     Kotb concieved the concept for iLuminate while developing iPhone applications. As a dancer and choreographer, she envisioned performers wearing different costumes that illuminated wirelessly from the palm of someone’s hand. A member of the team, behind stage, controlled the shapes, lights and designs of the costumes seen by those in the audience. iLuminate helped Kotb combine her passion of dance with her field in technology.
     After the performance, Ferrell returned to the stage and spoke on how important it is for girls to have confidence, stressing that confidence is something you develop, not something you are necessarily born with. She began to chant a mantra for the girls to say that would help them achieve this confidence. At first, the girls were apprehensive, but soon they were chanting and yelling with Ferrell, “Chest out. Chin up. Eyes alive. Smile!”
     Next on stage was Megan Grassell, founder and CEO of girls undergarment company Yellowberry. Grassell told the story of how Yellowberry began: While shopping with her 13-year-old little sister to help find her first bra, Grassell came across the crude fact that tweens do not have many options when purchasing their first bra. Unfortunately, most of the bras offered to the ’tween age group are “too sexual,” Grassell said. She decided to change that, creating colorful, comfortable and supportive bras for ’tweens that could help reduce the stress of buying their first bra. Grassell informed the girls in the audience that the company name, Yellowberry, came from the idea that when fruit is developing, in the beginning it is yellow; as it grows it turns green. The time the fruit is yellow is an important and pivotal time for the fruit — just as it is for young girls. Grassell also stressed the importance of never giving up and believing in one’s dreams, giving the example of starting her company.    
     “It really didn’t matter who was listening, because I believed in it!” said Grassell.
     Gov. Terry McAuliffe spoke with the girls next. Pushing them to actively pursue a STEM related career. He concluded his time by stating, “Take chances while you are young. Your future is bright.”
     Shiza Shahid, co-founder and Global Ambassador of the Malala Fund, spoke to the girls on remembering the importance of looking outside the lives they live. “If we really want to change the world,” Shahid said, “the best thing we can do is educate our women.”
     Danielle Feinberg, Director of Photography and Lighting at Pixar Animation Studios, came on stage and displayed the steps it takes to make the various animated Pixar films realistic and human-like. She described how each character must have an emotional connection to the audience, which is achieved through technology. For example, different codes are used in the Pixar movie, “Wall-E” to make the main character, robot Wall-E, seem more human. Feinberg admitted that fear will probably manifest on everyone’s path as they try to achieve a dream. She encouraged the girls with this statement: “When you feel scared, remember just how brave you are.”
     Dr. Rosalyn H. Hargraves, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, spoke to the students about how easy it is for them to combine their future careers of media and technology. She pushed them to research and pursue a career that combines all of their interests.
     The final speaker was Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization pushing to close the gender gap in technology and prepare young women for future careers in the field. She made three points she wanted each girl to remember:
  • The Best opportunities come to those who fail.
  • Don’t worry about being liked.
  • Build a sisterhood.
     After Saujani’s presentation, groups of girls collaborated during ‘innovation time.’ This was their opportunity to work with littleBits, a platform designed by Ayah Bdeir, consisting of easy-to-use electronic building blocks that can help young men and women build their own electronic innovations.
     One girl in the audience, Isaiah James, a 12-year-old Franklin Military Academy student, was thankful she had the opportunity to come out to St. Catherine’s and experience the program. James is in the coding program at her school. Before attending Girls Innovate, James had an interest in nursing.
     After the program she stated, “I feel like I can do anything now. Nothing is stopping me!”
     A St. Catherine’s senior, Isabelle Andrews, professed her joy about her school’s program. She was happy to be afforded the opportunity to host one of her role models, Pixar's Feinberg.
     After speaking with Feinberg and attending the program she stated, “I will be attending college soon. I want to go into radio, TV, or film. But in order to make it more meaningful, I’m going to minor in a STEM field.”
     Through the Girls Innovate program, St. Catherine’s helped change the opinion of many young ladies about STEM related careers. James and Andrews, each at different stages in their academic lives, now want to pursue different career fields. Stressing the importance of STEM careers to the next generation of women is a movement that various schools, communities and organizations should take on.


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