It was like any other Startup Weekend, except the participants were a bit shorter and a bit younger.
More than 50 girls set up shop at Seattle’s Lake Washington Girls Middle School this past weekend during a 54-hour Startup Weekend Girls Edition designed specifically for fifth to ninth grade girls.
The ‘girlpreneurs’ spent the weekend working together to launch six different startups. They learned how to create social media accounts, websites, and logos, and even presented a demo of their product on stage to three judges: Rebecca Lovell, Director of Entrepreneurship and Industry for City of Seattle, Zach Smith, a partner with Social Venture Partners, and Bryan Lhuillier, founder of Shiftboard.
Every chair in the UW’s Cunningham Hall Women’s Center is taken. Some of the dozens of high school seniors are sitting on the floor instead, where they are nervously editing essays and adding last minute touches to their UW undergraduate applications.
“There’s literally no room,” one high school senior said as she and a volunteer tutor tucked themselves away in a corner of the conference room, in between a stack of Domino’s pizza and another table packed with students, chair legs entangled.
The Women’s Center program, Making Connections, hosts an Application Night every year on Nov. 30, the evening before the UW’s application is due. Making Connections is geared toward getting low-income Seattle-area high school students interested in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, as well as preparing these students for college. Most of the 105 students from over 20 high schools are the first in their families to go to college. In 2014, 92 percent of those enrolled in the program were women, and 87 percent of the graduating seniors ended up going to the UW.
Making Connections is led by Assistant Director of the Women’s Center, Senait Habte, and STEM Enrichment Coordinator, Kelsey Johnson, but it began with Pat Dawson. In 1998, Dawson, a surgeon and member of the Women’s Center Advisory Board, realized how much trouble her daughter was having in the sciences despite all the resources at her disposal. That realization inspired her to lead the Women’s Center in applying for a grant, and Making Connections was born.
Habte, who took over Making Connections in 2006 after working in the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, said this all began at a time when STEM wasn’t the buzzword it is today.
“We believe in hands-on,” Habte said. “If we can’t show these students what’s possible, how can they ever start to dream?”
The program hosts other events in addition to application night, when students race to finish their essays and applications and experience the excitement of a crowd cheering for them as they click the submit button. The Parent College Information workshop educates parents — many of whom are immigrants or refugees who didn’t go to college and who aren’t familiar with the complicated and drawn-out college application process.
While the Making Connections program is able to take graduating seniors on a statewide college tour, parents are typically unable to make the same trip. Habte said events like this make up for some parents’ lack of access to information about these colleges.
It is a way to open their eyes, Johnson added.
“One of the parents came up to me afterward and she was like, ‘Oh my god, I am so glad I came, I had no idea how much work goes into this, I was telling my child that she needs to come home, cook dinner, help me take care of my six other children, and I am not letting her come to the center to do anything on college applications. Coming to this event just completely changed my outlook on this,’” Johnson said.
After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and working in civil engineering on the east coast, Johnson joined AmeriCorps and moved across the country to work at the Women’s Center.
“I was looking for a change in my life,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day I was just like, ‘What am I doing, how am I helping people? I don’t feel like I am making a difference.’ I want to help and I want to make a difference and I believe that females need that extra support and guidance when it comes to studying the sciences, and math, and engineering — I went through it.”
Johnson will be working at the Women’s Center until the end of July.
Habte, on the other hand, has been involved in pre-college work for years. She said it’s her life’s work and passion.
“I’ve always been a helper and thrived off of helping people, particularly students,” Habte said. “It is gratifying to see those students, shaping them, connecting them, and guiding them through that entire process and watching them evolve over time. Now we have students who are here at UW, we are getting students that are graduated that are serving on my advisory board. It is really an amazing process to see them come full circle.”
In 2014, 84 percent of the students in Making Connections qualified for free or reduced price lunch and many of them came from high schools and communities in the area that have been consistently ridiculed over the years, according to Habte.
“Oftentimes, they feel like they are inferior because we’ve been telling them since kindergarten how awful their schools are or how awful their communities are, and they kind of start to believe that,” Habte said. “We are trying to undo that — to make them understand that they are great.”
Habte said she is always reminding her students that they have every right to be at the UW, that it is their university; she hopes to change their attitudes.
“You have opened the door and their eyes to something and there is no turning back because as long as we keep them engaged and we show them the possibility, that is the biggest thing you can give students — a sense of self and of what’s possible,” Habte said. “They are amazing students, they teach us so much, as much as I like to say we are helping students, they feed our soul. They are amazing and dynamic students and they have gone through so much, and to see how resilient they are — they are making a difference.”