In February 2022 Olay, the skin-care product giant, announced the latest phase of its #FaceTheSTEMGap campaign, which elevates past and present women leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in an effort to achieve gender equality in STEM fields by 2030.
For Amiya Chokhawala, a junior at the Harker School in California, this mission is more than a hashtag – it’s a lifestyle. Her nonprofit STEMher works to inspire more young women to embrace STEM learning and define themselves as scientists, coders, engineers and mathematicians.
On this episode of Future of the Business World (listen by clicking the arrow above), Amiya talks technology and her own persuasive brand of girl power that expands to six countries.
Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring innovative high school students from around the world.
I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
Today’s guest has been on my podcast invite list for a while, ever since I first read a brief description of her work a year ago. I’m happy to say we are finally connecting to talk technology and her own persuasive brand of girl power.
Amiya Chokhawala is a junior at the Harker School in California. And like so many of our guests on Future of the Business World, she is a woman on a mission.
In middle school, Amiya enrolled in challenging tech-oriented classes like JAVA programming and robotics. The skills she was learning were inspiring, but the experience itself was isolating. She looked around the class and thought: where are all my fellow female tech warriors? She was often the only woman in the room.
She has spent the past several years working to change that dynamic.
Amiya, thanks for joining us on Future of the Business World!
The issue that has captured your passion is the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, sometimes referred to as STEM. How wide and deep is that gap?
Amiya Chokhawala: Of course there’s been a gender gap throughout history. In my opinion, the best way to put it is the history we have written in text books and that we teach in schools is a man’s history. And this is just reflected in STEM fields. Women make up more than 50% of our population and yet only 27% of women are in STEM careers. If you take a look at a field like software engineering, which is up and coming, they make up only 14% of that workforce. Yes, the gap is really deep and honestly now it’s only growing and it hasn’t shrunk at all in the past five years.
Wharton Global Youth: And it’s more than a matter of encouraging more women to pursue these fields. What have you observed around young women’s tendencies toward STEM learning? How are they processing things differently than their male peers, really starting at a young age?
Amiya: I’ve done a lot of volunteering, even before I started STEMher, working with young girls and teaching them STEM subjects. What I’ve noticed is that girls tend to raise their hands less. And when something becomes difficult they don’t ask a lot of questions and they quickly become discouraged and stop coming to the classes. I don’t think this is their fault at all. I feel like these tendencies are ingrained in our culture. And this unnecessary self-doubt is internalized at a young age. On top of that, I think the exposure that girls have to STEM is not the same as boys. You could even go with simple toys we get when we’re young. Boys get Legos and girls don’t. I myself did not play with Legos when I was young. I honestly believe if I was exposed to something like this it could have had an impact on my journey through STEM.
Wharton Global Youth: You’ve set out to do your part to change this narrative and the landscape for young women. Your nonprofit organization is called STEMher. What is your business model? How are you fostering an interest in all these important areas and providing support to young women?
Amiya: STEMher’s business model is girls helping girls thrive in STEM. I truly believe that when young girls see girls just a little older than them so successful, they are automatically inspired to pursue STEM themselves. We do this through three initiatives: workshops, a tutoring program and a Q&A initiative. Starting with the workshops, we have high school girls teaching girls ages 9-15 from around the world about topics like Web design and artificial intelligence that are not included in regular school material. Each workshop contains some kind of application. For example, during our web design workshop, we also taught product marketing, which provided the girls with the skills to create a business for themselves and a website for that. I really feel like the application part of our workshop gets the girls inspired and shows them potential career options, which is looking way into the future. But I think it’s crucial that we do that so that in the back of their heads they’re always thinking about that and what they’re going to do when they grow up.
The tutoring program is run through an app I created called STEMTutor, which connects struggling elementary and high school students with high school students for free tutoring services. This targets the school aspect. As STEM subjects get harder in middle school and high school, we really do not want the girls to become discouraged and start taking easier classes or just quit STEM altogether. By providing tutoring we hope they’ll continue to take these classes.
Lastly, we have the Q&A sessions. This has just started so we haven’t actually held any sessions. Here we’ll be having Q&As with successful women in STEM, starting with our amazing board of directors.
Wharton Global Youth: When did you actually start STEMher?
Amiya: We started in July 2020.
Wharton Global Youth: You have achieved a global reach. How many countries have you worked in? Can you give us a few examples of the people you’ve worked with?
Amiya: I’ve worked with young women in over six countries, including Libya, India, Nigeria and Belgium. One of the ways we do this is by partnering with schools. We’re currently partnered with two schools in India and one school in Belgium. Recently, I was given the opportunity to be interviewed by a radio station in the Caribbean, so I’m super excited for this and hopefully we’ll gain some partnership over there too.
Wharton Global Youth: And can you give us a profile of a typical student with whom you work?
Amiya: One girl I remember was so nervous at the start, but at the end she was so excited that she presented her project for 10 minutes and it was the most amazing thing to watch. Her name was Vaidehi from Nigeria. She was 12 years old and this was the first workshop of ours that she attended. It was a Scratch programming workshop, and by the end of the workshop she had mastered all the skills we had taught her. It was truly the most inspiring thing to watch her present.
Wharton Global Youth: I noticed you have achieved a global reach. I also recall that you were planning to travel to countries like Morocco and India to teach girls how to create sustainable thermal cameras and solar lamps. I’m sure the pandemic has interfered a bit with those plans. Can you talk about that? Why those specific technologies, and what are your motivations behind that hands-on science exchange?
Amiya: Like you said, we haven’t actually been able to travel to those countries, but I’d like to do that this summer. Starting with thermal cameras, they will help detect the temperature of whatever is in the camera’s view. So, for example, a person. During COVID times it would be really helpful for someone to be able to take their temperature to see if they’re sick. And having the girls make this is again the application thing. They can see what they can build and create themselves. I think this is crucial. Rather than just teaching them concepts and then leaving it at that, I really want them to create something for themselves and see what kind of impact they can make. The solar lamps are for girls who need to study at night but don’t have access to electricity. In India, over 40% of schools did not have electricity until 2017. If the schools don’t have this much electricity, you can only imagine what the homes are like. If the girls don’t have the opportunity to do their homework or study at night, they really have no time at all because most of them are working, as well. Teaching them to build solar lamps is crucial.
Wharton Global Youth: As a woman in STEM, you no doubt love the face-to-face or tech-to-tech interactions. And yet, sustaining a nonprofit with lots of moving parts can be a big job. What have you learned, for example, about securing funding partnerships to make your global tutoring possible? What has the operational side of your nonprofit taught you about entrepreneurship.
Amiya: STEMher is run entirely by girls volunteering their time. This has worked well for us for a while, but as we start to get bigger, it’s hard for us. We’re all in school and we don’t have 40 hours a week to devote to this organization. And we do need funding to fund our tutoring program, for example. I’ve recently been looking into funding partnerships. We just got our first one. But it was definitely a struggle. I did not realize the amount of planning and patience it takes. I had to write a full-out budget for the first time in my life. It took three or four drafts and many meetings with the organization that was going to provide us funding. In the end, we got it. What I’ve learned is that you just need to have a lot of patience when you’re doing something like this.
“It’s really important that different perspectives are brought into the making of technology, because that technology at the end of the day is going to be used by all sorts of people.”
Wharton Global Youth: Bias is not just evident in the STEM gender gap. It’s pervasive in other parts of our increasingly technology-driven society. You’ve done some thinking about bias in artificial intelligence. I happened to spot a blog on your website. What have you learned about this and do you think it’s improving?
Amiya: Just to explain what bias in AI is. Artificial Intelligence works because it’s trained with data and learns from it over time. The data it’s being trained with are documents from the past, which include historical bias like discrimination against race, gender and more. The Artificial Intelligence learns from these biases, which creates inaccurate results and an overall lack of fairness for certain groups of people. So, I have talked about this topic in more detail in my article and provided potential solutions. Yes, I do think that this area is improving because there are already many tools out there. But since this bias is not well-known, until we really make people know about it, there won’t be as much improvement as we’d like.
Wharton Global Youth: Let’s adapt that same question to your work as an advocate for gender equality in STEM. Are you seeing progress there? And what will it mean to have more gender equity in all these areas: science, technology, engineering, math?
Amiya: We are making progress, but not as much as we should. The 1970s-1990s [saw] a lot of progress when women first started working. Since the 90s, the graph has basically plateaued and even declined in some areas. For example, women computer workers has declined from 32% in the 90s to 27% now. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence and all those models being created by men, I’m really concerned for women and especially women of color. In innovation, if you just have one perspective, the quality of the technology won’t be the same as when you have different perspectives. It’s really important that different perspectives are brought into the making of technology, because that technology at the end of the day is going to be used by all sorts of people. But if you just have one demographic of people making it, it has an impact on the quality of the technology.
Wharton Global Youth: You’re joining us this summer for our Leadership in the Business World Program. What will you share with your peers about the power of greater equity and equality in STEM fields and how that can transform the business world?
Amiya: Similar to what I just said, I think I would like people to know the impact of diverse management on boards [of directors]. In a study by McKinsey, companies with gender-diverse management are proven to consistently outperform companies without this diversity. Since that study, many states and countries have passed laws that require gender diversification of public companies’ boards. In California, public companies are required to have a 30% management board. I really think this is important. My personal point of view is that having a diverse group of management means that each person brings their unique perspectives. This will obviously always create and improve technology. I would really like to share that with all the other students who are attending Leadership in the Business World.
Wharton Global Youth: Early on you mentioned that you too have a board of directors. How have you put that together?
Amiya: One of the people on my board of directors was actually my computer science teacher in my sophomore year of high school. I asked her recently. The other two women on my board I have met through different networking events, which I’ve done with other organizations I’m part of. One of them is an orthopedic surgeon and one of them has her own startup that uses AI in thermal camera technology.
Wharton Global Youth: What would be a parting shot you might say to all the young women out there that you haven’t helped yet through STEMher. A lot of them might feel intimidated by this material and they might feel intimidated as the only woman in the room. You’ve been there. You know how that feels. What would you say to them?
Amiya: I’d say to find a group of supporting people. This doesn’t have to be all girls, it could be guys as well. When you’re starting your journey in something really difficult like STEM, you need a group of supporting people. You need an advisor. You need some person. You can’t do it alone. I tried doing it myself alone and it was really difficult. Once I found a teacher who could help me or a friend it was so much easier. I did my first STEM project with one of my friends and after that I gained so much confidence and I was able to do things by myself and even start my own nonprofit. So I think it’s crucial to find a group of people who will support you throughout your journey.
Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all our guests on future of the business world is if you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Amiya: This is unrelated to gender equality in STEM. But I really believe it’s what I would change. The U.S. government spends around .5% of its budget on NASA and .1% on the space program. If I could, I would triple the amount of spending. It would create a new era of scientific innovation and opportunity. I really believe with climate change and all that is happening on our own planet, looking into colonizing another planet like Mars would be very beneficial because even though it sounds scary, I think it’s something that is going to happen in our near future.
Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can.
Something about you that would surprise us?
Amiya: I’m vegan and it’s mostly for animal and environmental reasons.
Wharton Global Youth: The last time you felt really outside your comfort zone?
Amiya: Right now. I’m not a great public speaker.
Wharton Global Youth: An area of business that you would love to explore more deeply?
Amiya: Human capital management. I think for businesses, people are the most important part. I keep reading stories about large companies like Facebook and Google where people are unhappy. I’d really like to look into this.
Wharton Global Youth: What would you be caught binge-watching at midnight?
Amiya: Bates Motel.
Wharton Global Youth: A business person you would love to take to lunch and why?
Amiya: Elon Musk. I’m really fascinated by his persona and his goals for humanity.
Wharton Global Youth: What one word would you use to replace the acronym STEM?
Amiya: Socially responsible technology. Technology that is not socially responsible is not helpful at all.
Wharton Global Youth: Amiya, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World.
Amiya: Thank you for having me.
Have you ever felt the intimidation factor that Amiya Chokhawala describes? Fear to raise your hand or ask questions? Describe your experience in the comment section of this article.
Why is gender equality so critical in STEM, the corporate board room and other business settings?
Why are there biases in Artificial Intelligence and what effects do they have?