Saying yes really can rock your world. Like over two hundred middle school girls from the community who were invited to join St. Catherine’s School‘s Middle and Upper School students last Friday, I accepted an invitation from a Gracious Posse follower to attend an event called Girls Innovate. None of us invitees could have possibly imagined the positive energy and excitement that we would encounter in the school’s draped-black athletic center’s gymnasium. Filled with more than a 1,000 mostly female voices, together we experienced the joy of awakening creativity through STEM, that new buzz acronym for science, technology, engineering, math, as these dynamic speakers shared their stories and captured our imaginations.
From out of the darkness, the wonders of iLuminate officially kicked-off the program. Three dancers performed as their costumes illuminated wirelessly with the help of a computer engineer hidden in the wings. The on- and off-stage talents in this extraordinary performance were shining examples of confident young women who have embraced technology as a way to innovate an art form. At a school where dance is a beloved part of the fitness curriculum, iLuminate proved a fitting introduction to the day’s events.
As moderator of Girls Innovate, St. Catherine’s ’92 graduate Courtney Ferrell used each of the program’s headliners to inspire the audience members and awaken their creativity. She noted the iLuminate dancers’ confidence and gave the girls a formula for finding their own.
This 20-year old founder of Yellowberry, the bra company for tweens, shared her compelling story. Frustrated at the lack of choices when the she went to help her younger sister buy her first bra, Megan was told that only sex sells in the foundation industry and this is just the way things are.
Too young to know better, Megan set off to design an appropriate bra style for her sister and her friends. After persistence, cold-emailing blogger moms and raising $25,000 on Kickstarter, Megan launched Yellowberry to produce bras for tweens that makes them feel supported literally and figuratively. Currently the company is expanding its offerings, even while its intrepid founder is in her first year at Middlebury College.
As Courtney summed up, Megan followed her uncommon sense.
How incredible and inspiring that a young woman acted on her uncommon sense and managed to innovate a whole industry.
Governor Terry McAuliffe
The Governor of Virginia popped in to inform the girls that northern Virginia businesses currently have 30,000 technology jobs that need filling. While encouraging them to consider seeking careers in the field, he also exhorted them to be positive, especially when things get tough. He left them with this gem: People want to be with winners, not whiners.
All of the participants at Girls Innovate would agree that Megan Grassell is a winner.
Co-founder and Global Ambassador of the Malala Fund, Pakistan-born Shiza Shahid relayed the most remarkable story of the day. You may recall Malala Yousafzai, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. Serendipitously, Shiza met Malala when Malala was only 12 years old. Shiza had returned home to Pakistan from Stanford for the summer, enraged at the stories she had heard about the Taliban pulling girls out of school.
She and several other young women organized a summer camp to encourage these girls as they doggedly pursued their education. Malala was among her summer campers and was featured in a CNN story about the camp. In the piece, Malala announced that one day she would be president of Pakistan.
When Shiza received a text message that Malala had been shot by the Taliban, she left her job to be at Malala’s bedside in England. There Malala told her family and Shiza to tell the world that she was okay and that the world must help the other girls. Shiza decided to follow her heart and leave a job that she loved to help run the Malala Fund with Malala’s father.
As Shiza recounted her story, she asked her audience to make the following promises to themselves. It seems only appropriate to call them the Malala Promises.
I wonder if any of the girls in St. Catherine’s had considered any such promises. Now that they have, I am looking forward to seeing how they change the world.
Dr. Rosalyn H. Hargraves
Though Shiza was a tough act to follow, Dr. Hargraves jumped on stage to tell the girls her story of how she grew up to become an engineer. Wanting to make the world better, she intended to become a doctor when she matriculated at the University of Virginia but along the way became fascinated by the workings of the human brain. This passion led her to engineering and medical technology.
A rare female in the field, she serves as a role model as she spreads the word that Engineering makes it better. She appealed to the girls by describing the true role of engineers:observe, imagine, create, innovate.
Sounds like a pretty appealing field, right?
Danielle Feinberg then took the stage to prove that computer engineering can be cool. Working as a lighting director for Pixar Studios, Danielle has helped to tell the stories of such computer-generated heroes as WALL•E and Merida. Danielle shared her own story of how being true to her passions landed her in her dream job.
When you follow your heart, you create your own story. Her story began with an 8th grade class on lawn mower repair. As Danielle has lived her story, she suffered failures and, in doing so, has learned that fear of failure is part of success. She left the girls with the message, “When you are scared, remember how brave you are.”
The founder of Girls Who Code was eager to tell the girls of her high-level failures, including a bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The failures are all a part of your story. They make you who you are.
Now Reshma oversees Girls Who Code, which she founded when she saw how under-represented woman were in Silicon Valley. Coding is becoming a basic skill to be learned like math or a foreign language. The earlier a person begins to learn to code, the easier it is.
According to Ayah Bdeir, the CEO of littleBits who popped in by video, coding allows you to create. With this skill inbred, a girl will be ready when her uncommon sense tells her that she can solve a problem or find an innovative solution. And who knows, maybe then she just might change the world.
As the middle school girls teamed up with new friends from different parts of the city to create technological masterpieces with littleBits components, I left Girls Innovate determined to learn coding myself. I had made a brief attempt a few years back, but from the resources provided at the program, I jumped into Khan Academy and am enjoying the process. No one wants to be left behind in the technology revolution; certainly not I.
Girls Innovate no doubt left each member of its target audience filled with confidence about her role in the future and inspired to continue to learn. The program was an ingenious gift from St. Catherine’s to the girls of RVA in celebration of the school’s 125th anniversary, as well as the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl. I am blessed to have been invited to share in the excitement of the future and hope that some of the nuggets shared here from the amazing speakers might inspire you, our gracious readers, or a young person whom you know.
Alison & Ellen