In 2018, local mom Abi Olukeye launched Smart Girls HQ with the hopes of expanding opportunities for girls in STEM, as she had watched her own daughters struggle to get enthusiastic about educational activities that seemed to be geared toward boys.
Seeing statistics that bore those barriers out in the workforce later in life, Olukeye wanted to create educational opportunities that would get girls excited about these rapidly growing fields. Now, with the announcement of a third grant for Smart Girls HQ that brings her grant funding total to more than $450,000 this year alone, Olukeye is gearing up to make 2022 her year to reach more girls in the Charlotte area than ever.
On Oct. 14, VELA Education Fund announced that Smart Girls HQ was among six organizations chosen from 162 applicants to receive a bridge grant from the fund, awarding the Charlotte-based organization $150,000 to expand its girl-focused STEM career exploration products and services.
This follows announcements earlier this year that Smart Girls HQ was awarded a $256,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $50,000 from NC IDEA.
Speaking with Queen City Nerve, Olukeye described Smart Girls HQ as “a company focused on STEM career literacy for girls,” working to mold young students into “intelligent decision-makers who authentically engage” with STEM topics.
The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education provider aims to close the gender gap for females in STEM education and, by extension, in related career fields.
Olukeye launched Smart Girls HQ after watching her own daughters, now 7 and 10 years old, express gendered notions toward toys and activities around the age of 3. She noticed they would reject anything deemed to be “boy stuff,” and watched the ways they internalized strong messaging around what girls should be interested in as opposed to boys.
Olukeye wanted to expose her daughters to STEM topics and activities, but when she started researching options, she found that most of the available activities were not directed toward girls’ interests. She knew her daughters would not be excited to learn these skills, as they would reject the available educational activities, like building an electromagnetic train, as “boy stuff.”
When Olukeye dug deeper, she found a systemic problem in the lack of STEM products geared toward female students and underserved parents who want to teach their daughters about STEM but do not know where to start.
It would appear these early obstacles manifest in the workplace in a real way. Although women make up nearly half of the United States workforce, as of 2018 they occupied only 15% of the engineering positions and 26% of computer and mathematical sciences positions.
In order to change this trajectory, Olukeye said, “girls need consistent, positive experiences with STEM.”
How Smart Girls HQ works
Smart Girls HQ is an umbrella company with three arms of outreach and services: a Raising Smart Girls website with resources for parents and mentors, Dear Smart Girl products geared toward female students ages 6-12, and a weekly outreach program for fifth graders at a local elementary school.
Okuleye has plans to expand the website, which is designed to support parents, mentors and educators who want to introduce young girls to STEM education in a way that is engaging and incorporates their current interests.
The Raising Smart Girls site aims to take this often overwhelming goal and provide tangible support in the form of resources like blog posts, a weekly newsletter, gift guides and databases to find local STEM offerings around the country.
Olukeye plans to use VELA funding to expand her team, which will then focus on overhauling and better organizing the website. Acting on feedback from parents, the team will add in-depth guides to the site with the goal of supporting adults working with students interested in learning skills ranging from coding to online safety to tackling test-taking anxiety.
The Smart Girls HQ team is also working on an interactive library with video and photo guides for STEM activities that will include gender-specific framing for young girls.
Dear Smart Girl kits are one tangible way Smart Girls HQ is creating these positive experiences. The electrical engineering kit currently available on the website teaches girls about circuitry through a lesson plan that helps them design and build a light-up headband.
Olukeye stressed the importance of combining the fledgling STEM fields with the things students are already comfortable with and interested in, which is why she emphasizes the gendered aspect of Smart Girls’ products and work.
In addition to the headband kit, the company is working on a chemistry kit that will teach girls the science behind making their own cosmetic products. They are also rolling out a mechanical engineering kit where girls will build a conveyor belt and gears to open the door of a trinket box and drop items inside.
The October VELA Fund announcement came just seven months after it was announced that Smart Girls HQ had also received a $256,000 federal grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program in March.
Those grant funds have been put toward work to create an artificial intelligence-driven app that will recommend STEM activities and topics based on an individual’s specific interests, skill level and age. The group is partnering with UNC Charlotte professor Mary Lou Maher to implement this curiosity-based AI technology, and Olukeye predicts a beta version of the app will be ready to test in early 2022.
The app will allow students to access unlimited learning content outside of physical STEM-related kits. In addition, the app will utilize user feedback to tell parents which topics their children are most interested in and which career paths these could coincide with.
Olukeye told Queen City Nerve her work is all about watching students have breakthrough moments when they realize STEM careers are accessible to them. These sorts of experiences often come from the organization’s in-school outreach program.
Smart Girls HQ partners with local corporations to provide weekly programming for fifth-grade girls at Dorothy J. Vaughan Academy of Technology in northeast Charlotte’s University City neighborhood. As a magnet school focused on computer science immersion, many of the same gender discrepancies found in the workforce play out in the classroom, and there are far fewer female students enrolled compared to male students.
Now serving its second cohort of students, Olukeye’s group facilitates a year-long experience with gender-specific activities and one-on-one leadership coaching from professionals.
Through this outreach program, Olukeye is able to put her boots on the ground with underrepresented female students and “model what we want to box up and make available to every kid in America.”
“Ultimately, our goal is to be the career and technical education curriculum of choice for homeschool, virtual, and other non-traditional learning environments,” Olukeye said.
And this grant takes her and her team that much closer to realizing that goal.