In December, nearly 700 middle and high school girls from across Orlando filled the University of Central Florida campus dressed in pink t-shirts. They were there for the 11th Annual Tech Sassy Girlz Day Conference, where they would have the opportunity to hear from industry experts and put what they learned to work with hands-on experiences focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The event was hosted by Dr. Laine Powell, founder of Tech Sassy Girlz. This grassroots nonprofit organization focuses on introducing girls in Orlando’s underserved communities to STEM.
Powell didn’t always dream of a career in STEM. She studied English at the University of Florida with a dream of working for Hallmark before going on to get her master’s degree at Penn State University and her doctorate in Instructional Technology and Business education at Nova Southeastern University. There were, however, pivotal moments on her educational journey that led her to the STEM field.
A first-generation Haitian American, Powell grew up in Miami. As she prepared to go off to college, she couldn’t afford to buy a computer, so her brother built one for her. Not only was she fascinated that it actually worked, but she was also fascinated with the process of making it.
Then, during her freshman year, she met her boyfriend (now husband) who was studying computer science and electrical engineering. Powell remembers reading his books, flipping through his magazines and attending his conferences.
“One thing was consistent, there were hardly any women there, and there were hardly any women who looked like me.”
She thought, “How can I solve this problem and what can I do to diversify the STEM pipeline?”
Powell found her answer in Orlando, where she moved to be closer to her husband before they married. As the question continued to tug at her and she researched local businesses and nonprofits to see what was out there, she began to develop a clear picture of the need. In 2012, she founded Tech Sassy Girlz.
The organization began in 2012 with 40 girls at Tech Sassy Girlz’ inaugural annual conference. It was held at Orlando’s National Entrepreneur Center. That conference focused on introducing participants to web development. Now, Tech Sassy Girlz hosts a variety of programs focused on different areas of STEM, college prep and more, in addition to an annual conference.
“My whole mission is to provide access to these young ladies regardless of zip code. I started the organization to help combat the lack of diversity in STEM but also to introduce STEM to these girls so they know what STEM is the way they know what a dentist does or what a firefighter does.”
Tech Sassy Girlz training is centered on helping participants to envision themselves in the STEM industry. Mentors provide tools and tips for success – what they call Pearls of Wisdom. They teach life skills, such as how to communicate effectively and the importance of showing up and being present. Most importantly, they provide hands-on instruction in software and web development, coding and other areas of STEM that will open a world of opportunity for the girls after graduation.
The programs wrap up with a project that allows participants to apply what they’ve learned and present it to their peers and loved ones in a Pearling Ceremony. Not only does this help them flex their presentation skills muscles but it grows their confidence.
“It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of our programs because sometimes we get girls who have never written a line of code. They don’t know what it is,” Powell said. “To learn it and parlay it into a project they’ve created themeselves is remarkable.”
Powell says that the conference alone is testament to how much more work there still is to do. What started with 40 girls in 2012 grew to 200 in 2016, 500 in 2019 and now almost 700 this year.
“That is telling of the need here and how much more work we have to do to inspire and empower these girls in STEM,” Powell said.
For her, it was her intuition and passion that kept her going as she built Tech Sassy Girlz.
“I wanted to make sure that I was able to make a difference in my community,” she said.
And that’s exactly what she’s done. Looking back through the years, Powell remembers several participants who made an impact on her because they represent her purpose for starting Tech Sassy Girlz in the first place.
The first is Naia, who she met during a Tech Sassy Girlz Saturday College Prep Academy at UCF CREATE. The program had already started when Naia’s mother called to see if she could still participate. It had been her dream to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since childhood. Naia completed the program and is now pursuing her PhD at Georgia Tech.
She also remembers Trinity, a young girl who was reluctant to attend Tech Sassy Girlz Code, an after-school program at Liberty Middle School without her brother there with her. Once she settled into the program, she became a peer mentor, showing other kids how to code and helping them with their projects. Trinity is now in high school, and Powell says she can’t wait to see what she decides to do with her future.
For Powell, Orlando was the right place to create Tech Sassy Girlz. With the modeling and simulation industry in town, the theme parks, and the tech infrastructure that is being built, there is so much opportunity.
“One of the things that’s so unique about our program is we’re teaching girls the skills for these jobs that haven’t been created yet,” she said. “Local companies can get involved in mentoring our youth and also providing paid internship opportunities so they can be equipped and prepared for solving the most critical problems.”
Being able to lean on Orlando’s professional community has been key for the development of the Tech Sassy Girlz brand. And it has gone a long way in setting up the area’s underserved youth for success in STEM.
“I’ve learned that Orlando is a very resilient community. In spite of recent challenges with Covid, the support, mentorship and opportunity are here you just have to ask, then go get it!” Powell said. “From the girls, I learn that each day presents a new opportunity to learn something different. They inspire me because they show up and are engaged.”