On May 6, IGNITE Worldwide hosted a virtual panel featuring 6 speakers from Comcast. More than 100 girls and non-binary students from all around North America joined in to hear their stories and advice!
The event facilitator was Leslie Chapman, a Distinguished Software Engineer working at Comcast in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She welcomed everyone and introduced them to IGNITE and the need to increase the representation of women and nonbinary people in STEM careers. To demonstrate the broad reach of STEM, the students got a chance to guess how many internet users there are worldwide–which is a staggering 4.5 billion! Leslie shared that women and non-binary people are underrepresented in STEM careers, but that these careers are great opportunities because there are a lot of jobs available, they pay well, they are rewarding and high-impact, and diverse perspectives are very important!
Leslie Chapman spoke to her own journey to a STEM career. She was interested in computers and video games as a teenager, but didn’t think of them in a career context. Thankfully, her parents encouraged her to pursue software development! She has since received 2 technical Emmys, attended receptions on the Saturday Night Live stage, spoken at the UN, and she writes software that 30 million people use! Wow! Leslie emphasized that STEM careers are creative and meaningful, and allow you to pursue whatever dreams you may have.
Sumayyah Ahmed is an Android Mobile Developer, where she spends her days writing code to run mobile apps, including creating animations and designing how things move on the screen. She shared an example of the Comcast TV streaming app that she helped build! Growing up, Sumayyah didn’t know any software engineers. She liked math, arts and crafts, building and fixing things, and wasn’t sure how to put all those interests together. She ultimately studied engineering and took a programming class, which she LOVED! She shared with the students that struggling doesn’t mean you’re bad at something; challenges and making mistakes are all a part of learning.
Kayla Kasparak is a Mobile Software Engineer who also works on mobile apps. Kayla originally wanted to become a librarian and worked in public libraries for six years. She enjoyed working in libraries, but she emphasized that people’s goals and interests shift with time–which is okay! Kayla’s own goals shifted and she decided to study computer science. She shared that her job is so much more than she imagined an engineering job could be! It is social, creative, and uses a lot of her english/writing skills. She advised the students that we all have the ability to be good at anything we put our mind to!
Yvette Thornton is a Director of Patent Development. She is grateful for a guidance counselor who encouraged her to apply for a college STEM scholarship, and an experience in science class where her project caught fire, which- literally- sparked her curiosity! Yvette went on to get two degrees in chemistry and ultimately pursued a job in patent development. She said she has “the best job in the world” because she gets to work with really smart people every day, talk about fascinating ideas and projects, and stay on the cutting edge of emerging technology.
Nithya Ruff, Executive Director, Open Source Program Office, grew up in India, where her father was an engineer. Nithya originally pursued a business degree like her good friend. Then, she was presented with an opportunity to attend college in the United States, and her father encouraged her to study computer science. Studying computer science opened a whole world to her: she worked at a company that made film for cameras and movies, one that did post-production processing for movies like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, and a telephone company, and she now works with the internet, movies, and TV shows! Technology is everywhere, she said, so why not work with it instead of just using it?
Jessica Sant is the Vice President of Discovery Engineering, where she leads a large team that builds software (like the Voice Remote!) to allow customers to find the movies and TV shows they want to watch. Her takeaway for the girls was that it’s okay to be different! You will always find ways to belong and people who support you. Jessica originally studied chemical engineering, but after taking her first programming course and loving it, she switched majors. She stressed that whoever you are and wherever you are, you can always find allies and champions who support you.
After the panelists shared their stories, they took time to answer student questions. Several students asked their questions out loud, and it was great to hear their voices and excitement for STEM! The speakers all shared the enthusiasm and fulfillment they get from their jobs. They emphasized that no time is too early to begin exploring STEM. There are a lot of opportunities available at school, online and in the community, and they recommended trying as many as possible and exploring your interests NOW!
The speakers also stressed how much variety there is in STEM. They mentioned jobs working on things like voice messaging, copiers and printers, computer chips, sensors for airplanes, news broadcasting, special effects for movies, and even building experiences at theme parks (Ride Engineer is a job in STEM!). In addition to directly working with these products, companies need managers, leaders, data analysts, patent agents, and other positions that help make the technology and engineering possible.
The panelists were honest about challenges they have faced, but they all agreed that their work is worthwhile and that overcoming obstacles is part of learning and growing. You are never alone when you are struggling, and there are always people who will help and support you. It’s important to give yourself a break! It’s also important to learn to ask for help, because everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. Collaboration and teamwork are necessary, which is one reason why diverse perspectives are so critical in STEM!
In closing, each panelist shared final words of advice:
- Kayla’s recommendation was to keep your options open and know that anything is possible!
- Yvette advised to always be curious and always be confident, and don’t be afraid to fail.
- Jessica emphasized making friends and networking (don’t be afraid to be awkward!), so you have allies around to support you.
- Sumayyah encouraged everyone to come up with ideas and make stuff yourself, because it is a learning experience and very fulfilling. Be curious and create!
- Nithya told everyone to keep learning, learn how to learn and problem solve, and ask for help – there are lots of people who want to support you!
- Leslie said to not be your own worst critic. It’s easy to think other people are counting you out when it’s really just the voice in your head. Surround yourself with the things you love, and enjoy life!
Students took away lots of meaningful advice and motivation to work hard, pursue their interests, and never give up! Thank you to everyone who attended for your enthusiasm and great questions! And a huge THANK YOU to Leslie Chapman, Sumayyah Ahmed, Kayla Kasprak, Yvette Thornton, Nithya Ruff, and Jessica Sant for sharing your stories and inspiring the next generation of girls and non-binary students to explore STEM!
After attending this event:
Here’s what the students thought of the event:
“Everyone sharing their story. It is really inspiring because they prove how if you choose to stick with it you can get through, if you decide to join later you can still succeed and that if you feel like you can’t keep up, hard work can really make a difference. Honestly, it was amazing!” – 7th grade
“I loved when each woman provided their own story and original feelings towards STEM because their perseverance sparks my own. I’m very glad I attended!” – 10th grade
“I enjoyed seeing a Muslim woman on the panel, and it inspired me to continue to pursue this because if she can do it and is alright, I’ll be just fine.”
“I love sports and play ice hockey at a tier 1 level. I’m always trying to stay confident and push myself to achieve goals. I love how career choices are much the same in many ways. I also think technology is very interesting.” – 8th grade
“I love art, and I liked that you have jobs that can be an engineer and use my art skills.” – 4th grade
“The inspiring stories of the panelists about their journeys in STEM. It inspired me because the stories showed me that there are many pathways into STEM careers.” – 11th grade
“I enjoyed hearing your backstories and how you got interested in technology, and the many different careers that have STEM in it.” – 8th grade
“I enjoyed hearing everybody’s personal stories and experiences, that made me more interested in possibly trying out those things for myself.” – 10th grade
“I enjoyed hearing about the different apps that everyone created.” – 7th grade
“I loved hearing students ask the panelists questions and seeing the smile on the panelists’ faces. There was a great atmosphere in the panel and inspiring storytelling of their lives.” – IGNITE Alum
“I enjoyed everything about this event and it actually made me more interested in engineering.” – 7th grade
“I liked how every woman had their own background, and even though they were so different they all came to work at Comcast.” – 8th grade
“It inspired me to learn more about making stuff with art and designing.” – 8th grade
“I enjoyed hearing about different jobs. Hearing about women in STEM is inspiring.” – 8th grade
“I’m inspired to discover new things in STEM and look more into those types of jobs.” – 10th grade
“Listening to the stories of how people’s thoughts changed about STEM.” – 5th grade
“Hearing different perspectives.” – 3rd grade