Opinion: Future of STEM Needs Collaboration and Diverse Voices
Why it’s important to empower all girls to innovate through media and technology
By Laura Donnelly, Fri., March 25, 2022
An estimated 400,000 people made their way to the Texas capital for the first in-person South by Southwest Conference since 2019. With high-profile tech executives, political thought leaders, and influencers in attendance, the Conference has outlined five key themes, including "the power of inclusivity."
It's important to commend SXSW's stance on "incorporating diverse viewpoints [that] will help lead us to a better society." However, we must ask ourselves the following: What can Texans do to ensure that we are truly tapping into the next generation's full potential in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related fields to foster a long-term environment that embraces diverse perspectives and experiences?
The World Economic Forum's "Future of Jobs" report found that "STEM subjects and soft skills like analytical thinking will be key for the jobs of tomorrow." However, the U.S. currently ranks 22nd among developed countries for mean science, reading, and math scores. Further, on average, 60% of U.S. employers take more than four months to fill STEM career openings.
That could change if businesses and local leaders continue to invest in STEM-related education for Gen Z and young girls. Locally, there are too few programs that exist to empower young women and girls – specifically women of color – in STEM fields.
To help bridge the gap and to offer accessible and affordable education, I founded Latinitas, a nonprofit that empowers all girls to innovate through media and technology with a vision to create courageous leaders.
We offer girl-oriented camps, afterschool programs, one-day conferences focused on innovation, coding, and journalism certification programs for teens and Texas' only all-Latina robotics team – all focused on fostering positive self-esteem. With a variety of enriching experiences, girls discover their voice and use media and technology skills, skill sets that transcend all industries, to explore culture, identity, social justice, and more.
Even though 1 out of 6 American children are Latinx, to this day, our organization is the only bilingual STEM education program in Travis County and one of only a few nationally. As we tell our students, you can't be what you can't see. They need role models and mentors because we want them to be creators – not just consumers.
To effectively change the narrative, businesses and local leaders should collaborate to break through existing economic gaps and cultural stigmas so these young women can see their role models in action.
While the pandemic made in-person learning difficult for many throughout the country, social media played a crucial role in sustaining and furthering our mission of building community allies and connections. We were able to utilize Meta's Ads for Local Impact program to amplify fundraising efforts on Facebook and promote local events. And we built out our virtual events, allowing Latinitas to reach thousands of young women in more than 25 states and five countries – far beyond our traditional reach in Central Texas.
For our city and state to meet the demand of fulfilling STEM jobs in the years to come, it will take all of us working together to ensure that students – regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender – are not forgotten.
It's personal for me. Whether it's through Latinitas or another organization that supports underrepresented communities, I implore business leaders and local officials to invest in the next generation of our workforce to create a sustainable and equitable future.
Laura Donnelly is the founder and CEO of Latinitas, an Austin-based, technology-focused nonprofit that has served more than 40,000 girls, predominantly in Central Texas, since 2002.