Panel with The Gates Foundation

On March 2, IGNITE Worldwide welcomed girls, nonbinary students, and teachers to a virtual panel discussion with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The panel was truly liberating. 

Merran Kubalak, an employee of the Gates Foundation, welcomed everyone and gave a brief introduction to IGNITE Worldwide and to the Gates Foundation

The Gates Foundation seeks to reduce inequity and they focus on needs within the United States and globally. The Foundation works with grantees and partners to help drive equity and has 4 missions.  The 4 missions are to ensure more children and young people survive and thrive, empower the poorest, combat infectious diseases that particularly affect the poor, and help inspire others to do the same.

She introduced the volunteers from the organization and asked the teachers to provide a short introduction. Teachers shared about the different STEM clubs and activities their respected schools offer. Some of the activities included coding after-school clubs, a STEMINIST Club, and various computer science classes. Merran also explained the need for more women and nonbinary individuals in the field. STEM careers are fun, creative, and in-demand!

To get everyone’s minds on STEM, a poll question was asked, “Even if you don’t have a computer science job, there are a lot of other jobs that use these technical skills. Which of these fields do you think use computer science?” Students learned that everything has the potential to use computer science! They also learned that The Gates Foundation is on the path to making sure everyone has a chance to get into the field. They explained that they partner with IGNITE Worldwide in order to speak to young students just like you.

Panelists were then asked to introduce themselves:

Sue Taylor, Chief Information Officer, enjoys encouraging more women and nonbinary people to pursue a career in the field of STEM. She is proud that The Gates Foundation has almost 50% of women staffed. Sue came from a small town in a farming village in the middle of Canada. Her parents didn’t finish high school and she is a first generation graduate. She says it was important for her to take a variety of classes to find her passion. She kept an open mind and learned from the people around her and asked family members about their careers.

Sai Sajja, Senior Business Systems Analyst, works as a liaison for businesses and IT. Sai shared that she was excited to be speaking with the students and remembers being their age and uncertain of what she wanted to be in life. She ended up changing her mind a lot about what she wanted to do. She loved reading newspapers from a younger age and she also now enjoys solving problems and working with people from all walks of life. She shared that there is always a need for STEM skills. Sai also obtained a Masters Degree in Management of Information Systems at Texas A&M.

Cara Lynn Kleid, Principal User Experience Designer, represents people and their needs. She loves her job because it allows her to be creative and observe human behavior. She offered that if you’re creative, then a job in User Experience might be right for you! She is currently enjoying overseeing a group of UX (User Experience) Designers, while leading important change at the foundation. Cara joined clubs while in school and learned numerous skills while in those clubs, such as leadership, mediating, and much more. 

Wendy Gilbert, Deputy Director of Enterprise Business Intelligence, told students that some of the data students see today are what she and her team work on. She didn’t know much about tech growing up and wished someone would have introduced her to it earlier. In high school, Wendy enjoyed drama and did several competitions. English was her favorite subject, and she also liked reading a lot. Wendy helps people make decisions every day, it’s a very valuable job and has allowed her to travel all over the world while working. She loves being able to work in different countries!

Sachi Williamson, Senior Site Reliability Engineer, says it’s important to know how to code. Its empowering, and great relationships can be developed within this area. Sachi liked Legos and video games while growing up, and enjoyed hands-on learning. She wasn’t sure if STEM was a career for her because she loved sports over math. However, after attending a camp for video games while in high school and taking a class on programming, it changed her life to know that there are more types of tech careers than just coding. Sachi works on a team where she gets to use her tech and non-tech skills. She is authentically accepted by her team at The Gates Foundation and is extremely grateful for it. 

After getting to know the panel the students had a chance to have their voice heard. They asked some excellent questions.

Questions Asked:

  • What’s your favorite Gates Foundation project? 
  • What’s the most impactful class you’ve taken?
  • I want to be a Veterinarian, can you tell me what it takes to be one?
  • How much art do you actually do on the computer?
  • Where can I do music and technology?

The panelists were eager to give their responses and help the students learn more about the topics:

  • There are many fabulous projects that The Gates Foundation have worked or are working on. One of them used the power of data. The panelists mentioned how essential data is for getting proper insight into things. At the foundation they use data for assisting in the eradication of diseases and much more. A wonderful fact that was shared is that there is close to 99% Polio eradication. Another existing project mentioned was that a person created software that helped with the distribution of funding for COVID relief funds. This was just the tip of the iceberg. The Gates Foundation has been doing many wonderful things for humans all over the world.
  • One of the most impactful things one panelist did was create their own education course to study 3D design while in college. This was an experience that they will never forget.
  • You’ll need an undergraduate degree to become a Veterinarian and then earn a graduate degree. The steps are very similar to becoming a doctor. Keep in mind there aren’t very many veterinary schools in the United States. Some suggested that talking to a working Veterinarian might be a good starting point. 
  • Art starts with a drawing made from sharpies a lot of the time, and leads to more, then a tremendous amount of visual designing occurs on the computer. A lot of art that we come into contact with everyday is done on the computer! 
  • Ways to merge music and tech are within job titles such as Music Production. You could also work for companies that create music such as Spotify. A few other areas that came to mind were theatre, musical theatre, robotics, and sound design.

So many outstanding questions and phenomenal advice! Without further ado, the panelists shared some words of wisdom until they meet again:

  • Don’t worry about the future and try not to plan your life out, just be confident and you’ll find yourself where you belong.
  • Always be with a mindset of “Life Long Learner,” there is something to learn everyday, and make sure to be kind to everyone.
  • When you’re in a negative place, just remember that this is just a tiny moment in a bigger picture. 
  • You’re always changing, and that changes what you’ll do and what interests you.
  • Be curious. There are all sorts of people in your life. Start asking them questions. Learn from those close to you, just like you learned something from us today. 
  • Be kind and stay curious!

Well after an hour of fun, we had to say goodbye. I want to send out a big THANK YOU to everyone who showed up today for being part of the change. To The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation volunteers, Facilitator Merran Kubalak, Tech Hosts Heather Smith and Vanessa Sariego, and Panelists Sachi Williamson, Wendy Gilbert, Sai Sajja, Cara Lynn Kleid, & Sue Taylor. A big thank you to our IGNITE Blogger, LaTeefah Johnson. You all made this inspiring event possible!

After attending this event:


of students are interested in STEM

Take STEM Class


of students know more about STEM career choices and the benefits of working in a STEM field

Ask Teacher about Additional STEM Activities


of students feel more confident in pursuing STEM


of students gained perspective and feel more hopeful about the future

Here’s what the students thought of the event:

“It inspired me to think about what I want, not what makes me normal or like everyone else. Also, it makes me want to do what I enjoy.” – 6th grade

“This event inspired me because I got to see WOC and people who aren’t usually in STEM talking about their experiences.” – 8th grade

“I like how someone said they really didn’t know what they wanted to do in the future, so they participated in a lot of clubs and ended up finding something they loved. I personally don’t know what I want to do in the future too but I think I’ll also take part in many activities/clubs.” – 6th grade

“It inspired me to be more confident in learning about STEAM.” – 6th grade

“Today’s event inspired me to pursue many jobs in STEAM. The panelists told me there are many jobs in STEAM and now I’m interested in learning more about them.” – 6th grade

“There is always something more to learn in life and to take risks in this world. I am now very inspired to search and learn about STEM. I am very interested in psychology, engineering, biochemistry, and art, and the discussion with the volunteers helped me to understand how I can combine my interests with my work.” – 11th grade

“I wasn’t really considering a career in STEM, but now I’m thinking about taking some STEM classes in college. It was also good to know that you don’t have to have everything planned out.” – 12th grade

“This event inspired me because they told me that STEM is more than just coding, that it can be tied in with the entertainment industry. Coding is not my passion, but there is so much more to STEM than I had formerly thought.” – 8th grade

“This event inspired me because I learned about some STEM careers in the music industry. It was also reassuring to know that some of the successful women who spoke were uncertain about what they wanted to pursue when they were young and some of them didn’t have an interest in STEM in the beginning. It gives me hope that I’ll be successful someday too even though I’m uncertain about my future plans.” – 10th grade