Linda Kekelis: Winnovating Opportunities for Girls in STEM
“I am the mother of a son. Even though I’ve spent my life encouraging girls in STEM, I’ve done it in a way for a personal reason because I wanted my son to be around girls who are interested in things like building with Legos and tinkering and going to study engineering at a university.”
If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ve probably noticed a strange pattern. Despite claiming that I have very little interest and/or knowledge of the STEM fields, a good number of my posts have been on STEM Winnovators. There’s a reason. It’s really hard for me to share this, so please keep this between you, me and the internet.
Growing up, I wanted to be a…..scientist. That’s right folks, a scientist. And not just any kind of scientist…I wanted to be a paleontologist. There was a time in my life when I could name every dinosaur discovered and give an accurate description of it. My mother, bless her heart, took me to see Jurassic Park in the movie theaters in an effort to further encourage my interests.
I had never been, and to this day, have never been so afraid in my life.
Sure, T-Rex’s are cool when it’s all footprints and bones, but those little arms didn’t seem quite so little when they were waving in the air chasing after that Jeep. After that, I never looked at another dinosaur and abandoned my dreams of Paleontology. In fact, soon after, I wrote off pretty much all of the sciences and settled comfortably into writing creative stories.
And no one stopped me.
It’s no secret that girls and women are underrepresented in the STEM fields all across America. While this has become common knowledge in the recent past, there was a time when no one was really paying attention to these gender discrepancies. No one, of course, except Linda Kekelis.
Linda Kekelis is currently the Executive Director at Techbridge, an Oakland based organization whose mission is ‘to expand the academic and career options for girls in science, technology, and engineering’. Without a background in technology or engineering, one may want to ask, “How did Kekelis grow Techbridge from a small after school program in 1999 to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that spans over three Bay Area school districts, offers training to school districts on building STEM capacity and works with 17 Girls Scouts Councils today?”
Well, it’s a simple story really.
Growing up, Kekelis loved to play with dolls. She also loved to tinker with her brother’s erector set to build furniture for her inanimate playmates who were in need of shelter and comfort (The housing market in the 60s was extremely tough for doll houses. At the same time, furniture prices reached record highs due to a long lasting embargo on the plastics used in making doll furniture products ***). As she aged, Kekelis put her dolls, and the erector set, away. Meanwhile, her brother went on tinkering, and eventually became an engineer. Kekelis herself went on to receive a PhD in Special Education, studying the language and social development of kids who were blind or visually impaired.
This is where things got interesting.
Kekelis was in the midst of doing research for her doctoral work with visually impaired kids when she reached a conclusion: The development of these kids hinged more on the expectations and opportunities they received than on their visual impairments. Around the same time, Kekelis also found herself the mother of a preschool aged boy. An active mother in the preschool cooperative, Kekelis spent a good amount of time observing her son and his classmates. She began to notice how his experiences were already differing from his female peers, “I wanted to do something about it. I was seeing the boys working in the block area, building big cities and thinking about how they were going to grow the world. I would see the girls with the stuffed animals and the dolls and I thought, ‘Isn’t there a way that I could intervene and do something to get boys and girls playing together but also getting the girls to work with blocks and the boys to play with dolls and things?”. These were the initial seeds that would grow Techbridge into the Redwood that it is today (California reference anyone? Anyone? No? OK, Last pun, I promise)
I had the chance to catch up with Linda Kekelis this past week and hear more about her Winnovative work:
Please describe Techbridge.
Kekelis: Techbridge is a nonprofit with a mission to inspire girls to change the world through science, technology and engineering. We went to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and applied for a planning grant to find out what girls in our community wanted. I got to talk to girls in Oakland to find out what would inspire them and this was the seed for Techbridge. They wanted to do things that were fun and hands on that they weren’t getting to do at home or in school. We realized the girls in our community were close to the Silicon Valley where there was this wealth of opportunity and all these great jobs, but we knew that many of the girls in the Oakland schools would never make their way there without something extra.
When asked to name a woman innovator (Winnovator), who is the first person that comes to mind?
Kekelis: Right now, it’s Debbie Sterling who invented Goldie Blox. What’s really cool about that is it definitely connected with my story in term of having that chance to be a young girl and be able to play with building blocks. She’s helping parents think about toys when they go shopping, that it not just about going down the pink aisle and getting dolls and things that are marketed for girls.
Are you Winnovator?
Kekelis: Yes. At first I was feeling modest, but I want to be a role model for Techbridge and for our Techbridge girls. I feel like with Techbridge, I’ve always followed my dreams and my passion and never stopped working to make it happen for girls.
What innovation could you not live without?
Kekelis: I can’t live without my phone because it keeps me in touch with my mother and she’s my role model. She lives in Ohio so I try to connect with her at the end of every day. It’s a way for her and me to share what’s going on in our lives, so I couldn’t live without that.
What would you create if you had no boundaries or obstacles?
Kekelis: I loved that question. It really got me thinking. I would love to create something that could help people with kidney problems. My dad has spent a number of years on dialysis and had trouble with his kidneys and I saw how hard it was to live undergoing dialysis. I would love to create a way to make kidneys so people wouldn’t have to wait a long time on a waiting list for transplants…it’d be cool if a 3D printer could make kidneys…
What is your favorite quote?
Kekelis: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world”
What is the best professional lesson you’ve ever learned?
Kekelis: To give, to give in the sense of working from a spirit of wanting to share what you have to help others. I feel like good things come around if it’s just a good thing to do!
What’s the most difficult lesson you’ve ever learned?
Kekelis: That one, I’ve learned and am continuing to learn. It has to do with the Growth Mindset that Carol Dweck writes about. Your mind and skills are like a muscle that can be developed with time and practice. I think
for me it’s a reminder that you don’t have to be good at all things or you don’t have to be good at them from the start.
If you could write a comic book, who would the hero be?
Kekelis: My hero would be a girl in Oakland who would take on the mission of helping us think about ways to reduce and better use our resources. She’d start in Oakland and her successes would be shared with girls around our city, around the country and the word. She would be empowering girls and boys to think about how they could make a difference, to make the world a better place. It would be a story that would be great for girls and also great for Oakland which could use some good stories to be told about it.
If someone would have asked you at age 10 what you would be…would this be it?
Kekelis: No. The only things that I thought of were being a mother and being a teacher because those were the role models, the females in my life that I saw. There was nobody in my family who was a woman in a professional career.
What do you think is the single most important factor that got you to where you are today?
Kekelis: I think besides passion, I have an extreme level of perseverance and so I work really hard to keep the program growing and going and every day I come to work energized or inspired to think about “What can we do that’s new? What can we explore? How can I support my team in being innovative?”
***It should be clear that I made this up
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