Q&A with Mary Ellen Sullivan, Director of The Community Corps at NPower
By Sarah Boison, Marketing Manager, Points of Light

Katherine Johnson was enamored with numbers at a young age. Her passion for math helped her graduate high school early with a desire of becoming a math teacher because those were the options for women in the 1930’s, to become a teacher or a nurse. While attending West Virginia State University, Katherine’s talent was recognized by mathematician, W.W. Schiefflin Clayor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. He encouraged Katherine to pursue more advanced math courses. 

Katherine took W.W. Schiefflin’s advice and was often the only student in her classes. It even took her seven years to find a mathematics job. But when she did, Katherine found herself at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the agency that preceded NASA. She worked with women performing math calculations until she was temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team, and ended up staying there. At the newly formed NASA, Katherine calculated the flight path for the first mission in space. By the time she retired in the 80’s, her calculations impacted all facets of NASA.

Katherine’s story would be different if she did not have a mentor, someone who recognized her talent and passion for mathematics and pushed her to pursue her dream. 

Enter – A Billion + Change collaborative member, NPower.  Their mission is to energize and empower the tech community to help nonprofits, schools and individuals reach their potential in STEM. Last year, NPower partnered with Million Women Mentors (MWM), an organization dedicated to supporting the engagement of one million STEM mentors (male and female) to increase the interest and confidence of girls and young women to persist and succeed in STEM programs and careers. We sat down with Mary Ellen Sullivan, Director of The Community Corps at NPower to discuss their partnership with Million Women Mentors and why more young girls and women should get involved in STEM.

Q: NPower is a founding member of Million Women Mentors. What is the level of your involvement and how does it tie back to NPower’s mission of energizing and empowering the tech community to help nonprofits, schools and individuals reach their potential in STEM?

A: NPower attended Million Women Mentors’ announcement in DC last January and we made it a point to provide feedback at many of the quarterly meetings. Our CEO, Stephanie Cuskley is involved as well. We helped MWM with their content development so that they can be an organization that volunteers can connect with.  After individuals and corporations join the MWM movement and make a commitment, we want The Community Corps to be a resource for people who want to find mentoring opportunities.

Our partnership with MWM is a great fit with NPower’s mission because we’re focused on closing the STEM/tech skills gap. 

Q: Tell us about a girl or young woman who has been directly impacted by Million Women Mentors or NPower? What kind of challenges did this person face and what was the outcome?

A: In cities like NYC, Dallas and Florida, The Community Corps has conducted tech focused volunteer activities at schools where women have shared their experiences working in STEM.  Many of these women talked about being the first in their family to go to college – and then they went on to having a successful STEM career in corporate America. One female student was so surprised.  She said, “I thought that I couldn’t do [STEM] because there were too many obstacles. But after hearing other women talk about their struggles, it is possible for me too.”

Girls may avoid STEM because of push back from their family or even because a class has too many guys in it. There’s research that shows when girls are 20% or less of the class that they start self-selecting out. But the interest is there and the career opportunities are there. Organizations like NPower and MWM connect professional women to young girls so that girls feel like they have the support system they need to keep pursuing STEM.

Q: How does NPower and Million Women Mentors empower STEM professionals to give back by using their time and talent? How do professionals feel after working with nonprofits, schools or individuals?

A: Female STEM professionals have a strong desire to give back and change the percentages that exist in the field. MWM has established partnerships with nonprofits that support all age groups.  The Community Corps focuses mostly on middle and high school girls.  

The challenge we face is that 18% of female college graduates earn a computer science degrees. In the late 80’s that number was 37% - it has gone in the wrong direction just as the tech sector has been experiencing dramatic growth. MWM and NPower seek to increase that number and help current STEM professionals find ways to volunteer and mentor young girls. We partner with schools and nonprofits to identify and publicize mentoring opportunities and to provide mentors with best practices.  To give you an example, New York Life and The Community Corps partnered with the NYC Department of Education to host a girl-focused career day.  During the event, women talked with young girls and made a connection.  The girls realized how similar their initial experiences were and the STEM professionals were able to encourage them to “follow what you like and what you are good at.”

Q: STEM is a challenging, male dominated field (or so people think). Why is it important that more women get involved and what are the top 3 things you would say to girls and young women who aspire to break into the STEM field?

A: There are many female pioneers that have persevered in the face of stereotypes. So much of the economy is going to be dominated by tech and big data, that if the numbers don’t change, women will not be taking part in explosive growth.  Great innovations and ideas are coming, and if women don’t take part in forming and executing those ideas, we as a country and a society are not going to be able to realize the true potential of technology. We need to have women there so that their voices are heard and they are shaping the tech revolution.  Imagine, if women were not involved in the medical field – would women’s health issues be fully addressed? Probably not.  So much research has been done that demonstrates in the developing world, on corporate boards, when women are among the decision makers, different solutions are developed and once persistent problems begin to recede.

For girls and young women who aspire to go into STEM, focus on what you like and what makes you happy. Don’t focus too much on the stats and challenges because it may detour women from being able to impact the solutions and products that will come out of the field. Focus on your impact – we can make the change happen.

Does your company focus on STEM mentorship? Share your story with A Billion + Change and get featured on our stories page! For more information on NPower or Million Women Mentors, visit http://www.npower.org/ and http://www.millionwomenmentors.org/.

Sarah Boison March 24, 2015